Archive | November, 2007

Gutsy Gibbon: the first real desktop Linux

15 Nov

Ubuntu 7.10 (codename “Gutsy Gibbon”), released last month, is for me the first really usable Linux, which is saying a lot considering I’ve made a serious attempt to switch to Linux about once a year for the last six years. The last 3 of those attempts have been with Ubuntu, and while I could always get my system dual-booting into Ubuntu, there was always some essential functionality I couldn’t get working such that, when the GRUB menu came up, I would always choose to boot into Windows. With Gutsy, I can finally say that the only compelling reason I have for booting into Windows is to play games.

What follows is a rundown of various issues hindering Linux desktop adoption, most of which I can happily report are solved–or on their way to being solved–in Ubuntu.

For reference, my desktop specs are:

  • MB: Asus P5NSLI (nvidia nforce Intel Sli)
  • CPU: Core 2 E6400 (LGA775)
  • RAM: 2 gigs
  • HD: Western Digital 7200 rpm 250gb SATA
  • Sound: Creative Labs X-Fi Gamer and ADI AD1986A onboard audio
  • Video: geforce 8800 GTX 768mb
  • Monitors: Gateway FPD2485W (24″ 1920×1200) and Samsung 215TW (22″ 1680×1050)

My laptop is a Gateway M-6816, which has Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 and Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (up to 384MB shared).

Installation media

I start with the issue of installation disc integrity because, in my experience, it is not a rare problem. My first torrent of the Gutsy amd64 DVD was faulty, apparently, and this caused the live CD boot to hang early in its process. I’ve experienced similar problems with previous releases. I suggest always running the media check (an option in the boot CD splash menu) before installation.

386 vs amd64

The 386 DVD version installed without a hitch, but sadly, I’ve yet to get the amd64 version to work. The trouble seems to be graphics related, as the boot CD stops before it gets to the graphical login screen. I successfully installed in text mode, but booting from that install exhibits the same problem.

Partitioner

A non-destructive partitioner is essential for Linux’s success on the desktop because most users coming from Windows wish to dual-boot and don’t want to reinstall Windows or lose any Windows partitions. Also really important is a smart installer that helps users pick the right set of partitions to create for Linux. With previous releases, I’ve had to turn to external solutions, like GParted and the Ultimate Boot CD, to mixed results. With Feisty, Ubuntu started to integrate GParted into the install process, but the result was still sketchy. When installing Gutsy, I already had free space on hand for a new primary partition and so basically by-passed the issue, but I’d be very interested to hear how others fared with setting up partitions for Gutsy where they had to resize NTFS. One thing I’d like is a manual/auto mode so I can have the installer recommend a partition layout but still see what exactly it’s doing and modify its plan.

Reading and writing NTFS

Just as important as easy non-destructive partitioning, users coming from Windows want to read and write their NTFS partitions. (Reading and writing Linux partitions from Windows is less pressing, but can be done with explore2fs.) With Feisty, users had to know they needed to install a package to get NTFS support, and I myself couldn’t get writing to NTFS to work, only reading. With Gutsy, my 3 NTFS partitions are readable and writable out of the box in Nautilus just by double clicking them and entering my password (this just mounts the partition: you must click again to view the root of the partition, a behavior which should be changed or made clearer with user feedback).

Boot loader

On the laptop I bought a few months ago, the first thing I did was make room for Linux by clean re-installing Vista from the included install disc into a smaller partition. Gutsy installed with no hassle, and GRUB allowed me to boot into Vista. On my desktop with XP and Vista already installed, installing Gutsy replaced the XP loader with GRUB, but strangely this left XP bootable from GRUB but not Vista. My guess is that GRUB tried starting Vista as if it were XP because that’s how it listed the partition in the menu; this may have arose from the unusual case of a Vista partition existing on a drive with the XP loader installed (it got that way because I installed XP after Vista). Only after reinstalling Vista and then a second install of Gutsy (amd64) could I boot into any OS from GRUB (even though, as mentioned, Gutsy amd64 won’t boot). Hopefully my unusual case will be accounted for in future releases.

GRUB could stand a few basic improvements. First, the default names given to the Ubuntu boot options should be simplified, as they are currently quite scary. Second, there should be an obvious GUI way to edit the boot menu, especially for changing the default partition.

Boot time

From hitting the power button, it takes Windows XP 60 seconds before the desktop appears. From that point, it takes another 90 seconds before Firefox will open and I can interact with it.

On the same machine, booting Gutsy cold also takes 60 second before I see the desktop. However, at that point, it only takes 5-7 seconds to fully load Firefox.

(I’m sure a few programs I have installed on XP hinder it compared to a clean XP install’s baseline performance, but I don’t have anything that major loading with XP; the only significant startup daemons I have are nvidia’s ntune panel, dtools daemon, and Valve’s Steam.)

Ethernet and Internet connectivity

In previous Ubuntu’s, I had issues getting wired and wireless internet connectivity, and I don’t think I have to tell you how useless a system without an internet connection is. Thankfully with Gutsy, I haven’t had one problem whether wired or wireless. I’ve yet to try networking to other Ubuntu installs or to Windows, so I can’t speak to those issues.

Pointer feel

If your mouse doesn’t feel right, your whole user experience is severely degraded. For instance, I probably wouldn’t dislike Macs so much if it weren’t for the fact that every time I’ve ever used one, the mouse motion was way off (and lets not even mention Apple’s “innovations” in mouse body shape and clicking mechanisms). Even when configuring my MacMini (the first and last Mac I’ll ever own) with mice of my own choosing, I’ve never gotten close at all to the quick, accurate control I’m used to in Windows, where I have a high DPI mouse (the Logitech G3) set to high sensitivity and low acceleration with “enhanced mouse precision” enabled. (Jeff Atwood ellaborates on mouse acceleration in Windows vs. Mac.)

The mousing in previous Ubuntu releases was similarly unsatisfying (though Kubuntu was considerably better). Compounding the problem in Ubuntu, the sliders for acceleration and sensitivity in the Gnome mouse control panel never seemed to do anything, as if they were just included for placebo effect. Well, in Gutsy, I still can’t tell if the sliders are doing anything, but happily the mousing feel out of the box is nearly up to par with Windows. My laptop’s touchpad is similarly satisfactory. While still not perfect, the mousing in Ubuntu is sufficiently good I rarely notice it (unlike in OS X). Still, the fact that the motion adjustments don’t seem to work worries me: I could have just gotten lucky this time with my choice of hardware while other people might not be so lucky.

[To be fair, after a few minutes spent playing with a new model iMac, I must confess the mousing was quite good, even with the gimicky mouse (the fact that I was using a fast, responsive system rather than the under-powered MacMini probably made the difference here). Also, Apple's new ultra-thin keyboards work surprisingly well considering they appear horridly anti-functional.]

Graphics driver, 3D acceleration, and multi-monitor

Unlike in previous Ubuntu’s, installing working 3D drivers in Gutsy for my latest and greatest nvidia card was effortless. On the downside, the “new” nvidia driver is proprietary, but I’m OK with this, as I don’t think the strategy of boycotting proprietary hardware will pressure the graphics chip makers to release open specs or drivers. Features like Compiz need to get in front of users for proper attention to be paid to 3D among the develeper community, let alone the chip makers, and as long as no one is actually using 3D hardware on Linux, nvidia, ati, and intel will feel little pressure to advance the platform. Hopefully, ati will fulfill their promises of open source drivers and specs for R500 and later hardware, and hopefully success there will prompt nvidia to do the same. (Like with Samba and proprietary multimedia codecs, the basic strategy here needs to be the FOSS version of “embrace and extend”: supporting proprietary technologies gets Linux out of the gutter while interoperability increases use of free technologies. FOSS needs market power first before it can make demands. But that’s a whole post unto itself.)

Getting my second display configured was frustrating at first, but running ‘nvidia-settings’ got everything in order (run it as root so that it can overwrite xorg.conf). The Linux multi-monitor situation is a bit confused at the moment because of limitations in the underlying X window system that have yet to be corrected or worked around. This results in some unsatisfactory behavior: currently, my desktop is a 3600×1200 virtual desktop such that it extends off the top and bottom of my 1680×1050 display; while maximization on that display thankfully works correctly, some oddities occur, such as desktop icons hiding off screen.

Sound

My Audigy X-Fi is not supported in Linux except by proprietary beta drivers from Creative Labs for 64-bit Linux only. As I have yet to get 64-bit Gutsy working, I can’t report on that support. Rather than swap back in my Audigy 2 ZS, I turned on the onboard audio in my bios. This got sound working, though I did have to fiddle a bit in the sound panel. Also, I can’t get anything beyond 2-channel sound to work, likely because the onboard audio’s jack sensing is not supported by the drivers, so the 3 jacks from my motherboard are stuck as line-in, line-out, and microphone (hmm, except then you would think I could get sound to record, though I can’t).

These driver issues are understandable considering I’m using a relatively new proprietary sound card and a not-so-common generic onboard solution. Really though, the biggest failing of Linux sound-wise at this point is not any lack of hardware or lack of auto-configuration but simply that the sound situation is so damn confusing. In trying (and failing) to get 6-channel sound working and in (successfully) fixing the lack of sound in Flash on my father’s system, I was confronted with a mess of OSS, ALSA, ESD, OpenAL, PulseAudio, and a whole array of opaque options I didn’t understand. Hopefully these projects will coalesce or at least learn to better exist side-by-side so they can be configured to work simultaneously on the same system. The situation feels like GNOME vs. KDE of several years ago when getting KDE apps to work in GNOME and vice versa was tricky.

Font rendering

In previous releases, smoothed font-rendering was tricky to get working, but now it is turned on in GNOME by default. You can even select between “best shape rendering” (OS X -like rendering) and “subpixel rendering” (Windows-like rendering). (Here’s the difference between the two.)

On the downside, the selection of fonts out of the box is a bit lacking: too many almost identical sans fonts, not enough quality serifs, not enough monospaced fonts. On the upside, most of the included fonts are quite good, especially the great Monospace, which is very similar to Microsoft’s new Consolas font but with a few changes that make code even more readable.

Multimedia codecs

On all Windows installs, I install mplayer, vlc, and the K-lite mega pack because doing all that seems to cover all bases, codecs-wise. In previous Ubuntu releases, I’ve been lucky to get MP3 support working, but in Gutsy, I finally don’t have to worry about codecs. I simply open any media file in mplayer or vlc, and GStreamer detects which codec I need and downloads it, and then the file plays (though sometimes only after restarting the player). Dubious legality aside (OK, not so dubious illegality—I’m in the US, and it definitely ain’t legal), the only way for codecs to work better is to simply have the whole lot installed by default.

Portable music players

My Creative Labs Zen Microphoto (8gb) used to work fine on Windows XP before Creative discontinued its original drivers (which they pig-headedly don’t offer for download) and upgraded its firmware to use Media Transfer Protocol. Now, Zen users on XP must use Media Player 10 to interface with their device, but it’s never worked for me. Since then, I have had to use my laptop to charge and interface with the device.

In Linux, applications can use libmtp to interface with MTP devices. Ubuntu installs by default Rythmbox, a stripped-down but slick iTunes-like player, which supports libmtp via a plug-in. I just wish it were clearer that you must enable the MTP plug-in (in the plug-in preferences) before your device will be recognized, as it was days before I noticed the option.

So here’s a case where something works for me in Linux but not Windows (XP).

(I should also remark how much I like Rythmbox, which is surprising considering I dislike iTunes. The key thing that makes Rythmbox acceptable to me is that it keeps your music files in place rather than presumptuously duplicating and re-encoding your entire media collection the way iTunes is wont to do.)

Package management and application installation

In the previous Ubuntu, I had trouble with Apt (the package manager) getting buggered right out of the box such that its database got locked, causing Apt and Synaptic (the GUI front-end) not to work at all because they couldn’t access the database. This happened consistently immediately after a clean install, rendering Ubuntu basically unusable.

It’s annoying that many packages in the repository are for old versions, even for major programs, like Eclipse and Azureus. Azureus, for instance, wouldn’t work for the version I got from Apt; only the latest version, gotten manually from the Azureus site worked. So there are many cases where you must go fetch a lot of apps by means other than Apt.

Java

Now that Java is free, I assumed it would be included by default, but that didn’t seem to be the case (or at least, I had to manually install Sun’s Java 6 to get Eclipse and Azureus working). It’ll be nice when this situation gets resolved so users can simply have Java apps working out of the box.

Web browsing

Firefox in Ubuntu is much slower at rendering than in Windows. In Windows, my habit is to ctrl-mousewheel to change font size, and Firefox resizes in real-time as I scroll the wheel with all but the most complex pages. In Ubuntu, even simple pages can take a moment to resize the text, so I had to train myself not to reflexively resize pages. You can also see Firefox’s slow rendering in pages like Google Maps, where dragging the map is far from smooth. It’s likely this slow rendering is tied to inefficiencies in GNOME, X, or maybe the new font rendering, as I can’t imagine that Firefox’s rendering path changes much between Linux and Windows. It’s possible the new font rendering is causing this slow down, ormaybe something similar is the culprit, but I see the problem on all machines I’ve installed Gutsy. Hopefully Firefox 3′s new rendering engine (with a Cairo backend) will bring this back up to par.

(Sadly, my favorite Compiz plugin, Enhanced Zoom, causes animated cursors to disappear after the first time you zoom in, and this is most aggravating in Firefox, where the cursor animates as pages load; the only fix is to restart X (by ctrl-alt-backspace), but this closes all your programs, so the only real solution for now is to just disable Enhanced Zoom.)

User switching

A panel widget included by default is “fast user switching”. I’ve experienced debilitating bugs with this widget, so I suggest you not use it.

Gnome desktop

Finally, I have some assorted thoughts on GNOME:

Thankfully, the application menu has been cleaned up since Ubuntu’s last release: rather than listing apps by their project names—names which are meaningless to most people—most apps now are just given simple descriptive names that reflect their functionality. The menu editor, however, could stand some more work, as it’s a bit hard to discover and awkward to use.

In previous GNOME’s, the icons ranged from acceptable to ugly turd. Now, the default set of icons in the menus and file browser not only do not look like crap, they are actually very attractive and exemplary models of clean design, better even than many icons seen in OS X. And speaking of bling, I do wish there were more color themes and bundled wallpapers with the stock system in the vain of Windows. It would be neat if they included some of the great photos from Wikipedia’s photo of the day, which includes some very neat panorama shots.

The default panel config of Gnome is a silly attempt to split the difference between the Windows / Mac desktop, and too many unnecessary panel widgets are included by default. At the very least, a quick panel config wizard should allow me to choose the standard Windows taskbar layout.

Unfortunately, my biggest irritations with GNOME can’t be fixed with a lick of paint. First, windows with scroll panes inside open too small to see the content of the scroll pane, forcing me to resize or maximize these windows to properly see this scrolled content. This problem is exasperated by my other grievance: grabbing window corners is too tricky, and I often accidentally click with the horizontal or vertical resize cursor when I wanted the 2-axis resize cursor.

Idiots at the Gates

4 Nov

In discussions of programming education, the argument is often made that learning to program shouldn’t be made easier. This is the Let’s Filter Out the Idiots argument, common also to the fields of law and medicine (or so I’m told). The idea, basically, is that the discipline must retain a face of esotericism to the outside world as a barrier, the passage through which marks a rite of passage for initiates, thus preserving standards within the profession. I’ll concede that there are actually a couple good justifications for a general attitude of anti-idiotarianism:

  • First, law, medicine, and computing are genuinely complex fields, so a large degree of esotericism is unavoidable.
  • Second, in these fields, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In fact, in the case of doctors and lawyers, the purpose of the face of esotericism is likely not at all to avoid creating bad doctors and lawyers—their certification processes are sufficiently rigorous to avoid that—but rather to discourage laymen from thinking that they can practice amateur medicine and law. There may be an element of protectionism to this, but it’s mostly a good idea. Even programmers have legitimate cause to fear amateurs, for amateur programmers tend to create Frankenstein systems, messes which create problems for everyone involved (see this example of a near miss).

However, the anti-idiotarian arguments for maintaining educational barriers to entry are bogus:

  • First, keeping the first phase of education difficult is supposedly necessary to weed out the incompetents, but this is backwards: if people are getting certified who shouldn’t, the problem lies with the certification standards, not the number or quality of the people pursuing certification. (Of course, programmer certification remains problematic, but that’s a whole other issue. See here and here.)
  • The second bogus argument goes like this: in any field, to be much good at what you do, you need a solid grasp of the next two or three layers of abstraction beneath where you primarily work, e.g. decent web developers understand the basics of HTTP, DNS, caching, database performance issues (if not the implementation details), etc, and beyond that they have a working conception of operating systems and general programming tools; essentially, you can’t be a good programmer if you treat your tools and development platform like magic. But, if the technoratti consensus is correct, this, sadly, sums up what’s wrong with a very large percent of people out there who call themselves programmers. So far this is all very true, but then some go on to claim that enabling easier entry to the field necessarily means enabling the next wave of push-button “programmers”. This is wrong. What makes such people bad or “fake” programmers is that they don’t understand essential aspects of programming and computer science, not how they acquired what knowledge they do (or don’t) have.

The zealous anti-idiotarians are missing the point. Making the basics of the field easier to learn benefits everyone, sparing pain for the incapable and hyper-competent alike: those who lack the disposition can get out earlier while those who stay can cover more material in less time, and just maybe a few capable students won’t get discouraged as they otherwise might by the overwhelming minutia of the practice of programming.