August 23, 2004

After a month of use, I've decided Linux is okay but not perfect

Author: JT Smith

Last month I decided to switch from Windows to Linux full-time. My reasons were many, but it really gets down to two things: Windows wasn't working for me the way I wanted it to, and after testing out Mandrake 10 on my server box, I decided that if any distro was ready for the desktop, it was Mandrake 10.

So, here I am. Almost a month after deciding to take the plunge (how many of these articles have started with the phrase 'take the plunge'?), and I can not say I'm entirely satisfied, but I can truly say I'm happier with this than I was with Windows.

First off I feel I need to elaborate on the Windows issue. I have run Windows for years, and years, and years. I started out on Win 3.11/DOS 6.22, moved quickly to Windows 95, then through every iteration after. I never had too many complaints about them, they looked enough like what I was familiar with, (the Atari ST/TT/Falcon GEM desktop), for me to use effectively. The perennial Windows problems would annoy me from time to time, but nothing serious enough for me to truly start disliking it. Then came XP. Now, this isn't a rant about Windows, so I'll keep this brief, but when I finally broke down and installed XP I found that, besides my opinion that the XP desktop looks like something PlaySkool would design, certain things were just broken for me. Windows Media Player would crash every other time I played a video, without fail, and none of my window positions would be saved when I closed them. I looked for solutions, but I found nothing.

(I should note, for completeness' sake, that I have always partitioned my HDD into a C: drive where Windows, and only Windows resides, and a D: drive for actually storing things. This was brought on when I found I needed to re-install 95/98 every 6 months to a year or it would get unstable on me. So, I did not install XP over 2000, but wiped the partition and re-installed from scratch.)

After living with Windows XP for a few months, the fact that whenever I opened Windows Explorer it would start with no info bar at the bottom -- and in the middle of my desktop instead of where I put it the last time -- started really driving me nuts. It may sound trivial, but Windows Explorer was the only way I interacted with my file system, so it was *the* 'killer app' that I ran.

So, I Took the Plunge.

Starting out

My equipment is new, most purchased within the last 6 months:

  • Pentium 4 2.8GHz Prescott CPU

  • ASUS P4C800-E Deluxe

  • Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 GFX

  • 1 gig RAM

  • 160gig SATA drive

  • On-MoBo Intel sound

  • OnBoard 10/100/1000 Ethernet

I'll save you the details of how I switched over. Backing everything up and restoring was never an option. I have roughly 60 gigs used on my drive of things I can't lose, so I had to go slow. I used Partition Magic liberally to get everything perfect, but in the end I was left with a working Linux Partition. My old 20 gig HDD which used to have my Linux partition on it is now my little Windows drive for the games I can't play in Linux.

I'm no stranger to Linux. I've run some distro or another since first downloading Slackware in '96 on my 14.4kbps modem. (It took me 3 days.) But I'd also like to point out that one can run Linux for a fairly long time and still not know much about the nuts and bolts of what it does, much less the finer points of all the Window Managers, shells, and applications out there.

I'm not a programmer, and I have no such lofty ambitions, but I am a rather experienced sysadmin. I've worked for a local ISP for three years, using exclusively Red Hat Linux the whole time. I feel fairly confident about my knowledge of Linux -- confident enough to switch my whole main computer to it, anyhow. However, certain things remain outside my realm of knowledge that probably shouldn't, I'll admit. Certain things I have looked up dozens of times, just to forget again due to rarely using the knowledge (adding something to one's PATH being one that comes to mind). So I'm probably what Linux Gurus would call "an above-average user."

After the Install

The install was painless. Mandrake 10 has a very good installer, but that is beyond the scope of this writing. I was surprised however, that it didn't even blink at all my spiffy new hardware. Graphics, networking, and sound all worked out of the box, and it handled my SATA drive without a hitch. Even Windows needed special attention in this area, but Mandrake happily saw the drive and, after a little partitioning, installed the OS flawlessly (though I'm still not convinced the SATA drive is running at full speed, but I'm at a loss how to check or fix that). When all was said and done, I was looking at my new KDE desktop! But I knew the work was far from over.

Besides the aesthetic editing of my desktop, (which I do mostly because you can't do it in Windows), I knew I would need a few essential apps:

  • A music player

  • A movie player

  • Instant Messaging support

  • FireFox & Thunderbird

  • Usenet Newsreader

  • Bit Torrent & Waste

  • The Nvidia driver for my GFX card

  • A CD burning program

Also on my mind was the fact (I'll be arrogant and call it a fact) that installing new apps on Linux has always been one of its key stumbling blocks. This had me waiting for years either for Debian to get its act together or the rest of the Linux Distros to adopt apt-get as the default standard packaging app and be done with it. Neither of these things has happened, and I'm sick of waiting, so Mandrake it was.

Using the Install

Like I said, I knew the work was far from over (in fact it I'm still perfecting my desktop as I write this). So I decided to take stock of what already worked as I wanted it to, and install what didn't.

Music -

First on my list was the ability to play MP3 files. Out of the box Mandrake had installed Totem. I had never used it before, but it reminded me of Windows Media Player 6/7, which didn't really make me too happy. I've never liked using Media Player for music. I don't care about visualizations. I play music so I have something to listen to while doing other things so I never even look at them, and I'd rather they weren't using CPU cycles. In Windows I used to use Winamp, then Foobar2000 when Winamp got bloated and slow.

The fact that Totem doesn't support Drag & Drop from Konqueror pretty much put the nail in the coffin for Totem as my MP3 player. Having used XMMS in the past I went ahead and installed it, using Mandrake's handy Software Management utility (rpmdrake for those who don't exclusively use the MDK Control Center). It worked as I wanted it to, but I had to also install some audio output plugins.

Now is probably the right time to mention that while sound *works* on my computer, it's far from stable. System Notifications don't work at all anymore. It seems they just went away after a reboot one day. I can still open Control Center > Sound System and play the test, but System Notification outputs nothing but silence. AFAIK, I'm running both OSS, and Arts, and while this seems to work alright, I'm quite worried about having two sound systems. Sometimes XMMS won't play anything. When I first installed it, it would crash constantly even when I set the output plugin correctly. I'm not sure what I did to get it to work right, but I haven't had any problems with crashing in some time. But just yesterday I had to reboot before it would actually play music. However, on the good side, at least it supports Drag & Drop, although I'm still training myself to use the '-All' button on the bottom of the playlist.

Also, XMMS team, Winamp changed its look. Maybe it's time to come up with one of your own and not just ape it right down to the right-click menus...

Movies -

No, not DVDs. I'd really rather not play them on my computer. I have a TV and DVD player for that. Just avi/mpg/wmv/mov/rm files are what I'm talking about. Again, I was presented with Totem when I double-clicked on a movie file. Not a bad thing at all. While I don't like the MS Media Player design for music, I like it just fine for movies. The app loaded, and my movie played. Yay! However, as I was to discover, it is not always so easy.

Totem seems to be able to handle most of the common media formats out there, but when I ran across ones that it didn't handle it gave me an error box telling me the codec wasn't supported and presented me with two options: Cancel, and Download. "Woot!" thought I, "it'll just download the codec and I won't have to worry about the ugly, messy thing that is codec installation on Linux." I pressed Download. The error box went away, and nothing else happened. Thinking maybe it was done, I pressed Play. Again the error box. So, undaunted, I closed Totem, and reopened the movie file. The same error box came to assail me. I shrugged my shoulders and decided Totem wasn't going to cut it as a movie player. Now, I could go into what a pain it has been to find something that works at least 80% of the time on the movies I want to play, but suffice it to say that I've settled on Kaffiene for now, and it hasn't let me down too badly yet. In fact, upon finding some movie files that it wouldn't play correctly, I copied them to the Windows drive, rebooted, and tried them in Media Player 9. None of them even played at all. I imagine they need to be reindexed, or are corrupted, but Kaffeine was able to at least play part of them.

However, the real issue here is that a method for easily handling Codecs is lacking. I nearly went blind reading MPlayer docs telling me that to get certain codec support I had to re-compile MPlayer. Unacceptable, and I really don't care about "why it has to work like that." Windows doesn't bat an eye at installing a new video codec, and in this day and age, neither should Linux. Multimedia isn't some passing fad that's going to disappear next week. It's the reason many people own computers nowdays.

Instant Messaging -

I've used IM apps in Linux before, and never found a single one that was anywhere near Trillian in Windows. I would like to state, first off, that I have used -- and loathed -- Gaim, which has been the IM client of choice for many Distros I've installed in the past. With every release I think that maybe it'll actually behave in a consistent way, similar to ICQ or Trillian in Windows. But it never has. Sometimes IMs go to the same window, sometimes it opens a new one for someone I was already talking to, these are amongst many other annoyances that I've put out of my mind due to my dislike of this program.

Luckily I didn't have to use it this time. Mandrake installed Kopete, and while I was initially very hesitant to use it since I wasn't familiar with the name, I gave it a try and found it...adequate. It lacks a few things that I'd like, file transfer support being the most obvious, but I can live without it for now, and the program is fairly new, so I cut it some slack. In the future however, I would love to see it have secure messaging that is compatible with Trillian's.

FireFox & Thunderbird -

This was less of a problem, as you can probably guess, but again I have some issues. FireFox now comes with an Installer that works very well, but it only installs it for the user that runs the Installer, in their home directory. Certainly not a big issue, as I really only have one user on the box, but in theory I'd like to have it install itself to /usr/bin or something like that so each person on the machine doesn't have to install it. The same thing goes for Thunderbird. But again, this is not really a problem for me.

Usenet Newsreader -

This is probably my biggest disappointment. I use the Usenet constantly. I love it. It's what got me on the Internet in the first place. Newsreaders started on *NIX, and I think it's a shame that no newsreader yet has come close to the ease of use, and interface of Xnews on Windows. Pan comes the closest that I've found, and has at least one feature I wish had been in Xnews, (grabbing up to 4 queued DLs at the same time, massively speeding up multipart downloads), but I hate the whole idea of Panes. Even at 1600x1200, no pane is ever big enough. Moreover ,I've never needed to have my subscribed groups, current group, and what I'm reading all open at once.

Switching to Tabbed mode in Pan works alright, but I miss having multiple Newsgroups open at the same time and being able to switch between them at will.

Other issues I have with it include having to look at all the messages I've already read in a group. This means sorting articles by title (my preferred sort) means having to scroll through potentially thousands of messages looking for the new ones, or else sorting by date, which means tons of clicking to download multipart attachments. Also, for some reason Pan refers to Binaries as Attachments, and while you can queue files for download, it grabs the text, and not the files themselves. To do that, you must highlight all the files you want to download/decode and use Save Attachments. This really isn't a big deal, but I've never heard of binary posts being referred to as Attachments, so it took me a while to figure it out.

nVvidia Driver -

When I first installed Mandrake 10 before switching to it full-time I had some problems getting the nVidia driver to install properly. With a little elbow grease I got it working, but I was concerned about it, and thus put this task off for some time, not relishing having to remember what I did before to get it working. My fears were unfounded it seems. The nVidia install script worked like a champ, and after a quick change to my XFConfig and a reboot, I was treated to the nVidia splash as X loaded.

CD Burning -

What can I say about K3b? Wonderful? Is that a strong enough word? I don't know, but after using Nero, DiscJuggler, and others on Windows, I've gotten kinda spoiled. I had read how to burn discs on Linux before, but they always told me to copy the files I wanted to burn to a directory, make it a filesystem somehow, and then burn the filesystem. I guess that's not that bad, but I didn't want to have to do it. I burn a lot of CDs, and the fewer steps to make one, the better. K3b not only works similarly to Nero and the rest, I can simply double-click on an ISO or CUE file and have it automatically open up, ready to burn the image. I wasn't able to do that even in Windows. Score one for Linux!

Bit Torrent & Waste -

Knowing that many Linux users also use Bit Torrent, I knew that it was available, but I wasn't sure how many of those BT-using Linux people actually admit to using a GUI. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed. I use Azureus now, though I used to love Bit Tornado on Windows. I've even begun using Azureus on my Windows side just because I like it so much.

Waste is another matter. There is no Waste client program for Linux. There is an undocumented, unable-to-generate-keys server, but that's it.

Undaunted, I grabbed it, since something is better than nothing at all. But I'm still unable to make heads or tails of it. No clue where to put my keys, how to share directories, etc. So I've started using Wine to run the Windows client, which works, more or less. Again, I'm not very interested in the "why" there is no Linux client when there's a MacOS and Windows client. I'm simply disappointed that there isn't one.

Package Management -

I'd love to say that urpmi is the answer to this problem, but it's not. Yes, without a doubt I love it more than plain rpm, but it's not the end-all nor the be-all of installation solutions. As long as I want to install RPM files that have already been "cooked" for Mandrake, or even other random RPM files, I love it. Even so, it doesn't seem to so much "handle" dependencies like apt-get does, but lets me query its database to find the package I need, and install it. Using rpmdrake does handle dependencies automagically however, and so I use it whenever I can.

But most Linux programs aren't cooked, or even in RPM format. In fact, I have had to *not* install more programs than I have due to the fact that I stalwartly refuse to learn configure. Why you say? It wouldn't take you very long to learn, you say? I don't feel I need to learn it at all. I've compiled many packages in the past, it's true. But always doing:

./configure

make

make install

And usually getting programs installed to /usr/local/... After a few years of using Linux prior to this, I learned to hate the /usr/local directory. Don't ask why, but I've had many apps in the past install there and then not work because they expected you to have explicitly put them in a different place. Right now that filestructure contains only packages that have installed themselves there because the RPM told them to.

Again, to emphasize my point, I will not learn configure. If the app isn't packaged, it is useless to me, and also to anyone just getting into Linux from Windows, a point app writers would do well to keep in mind.

Misc Other Stuff -

Time to gripe a bit about other things I've had to deal with that I've either had to work around or live with.

KDE is not without its faults, but I prefer it to Gnome. However, I have seen some things that just make me shake my head. Whole groups in the K menu simply disappearing, never to return. KWrite thinking it's an IDE and not a replacement for Notepad has driven me nuts as I write this. I hit tab, and the whole paragraph gets tabbed? How do you turn it off? I wasn't able to figure it out. The lack of anything resembling good documentation really gets to me after a while. Where do Icons go when the ones you just downloaded can't be installed from the Control Center?

Why can't automounting just work already? I've turned all the automounters on my computer off, and just (un)mount them manually. I gave up on them after trying to install Neverwinter Nights and having it get to the last disc before erroring out, unable to mount it. Not to mention the times I've just taken a disc out and been completely unable to remount the drive without a reboot.

Once in a while I'll install a program using rpmdrake, and while it will say it installed successfully, and I find the icon in the K Menu, clicking on the icon results in a bouncing icon following my cursor for 30 seconds -- and nothing else. It simply fails silently. Now, I'm savvy enough to know that it's having problems and that I should run it from a command line to actually find out what the problem is, but to anyone new to Linux, this would be utterly perplexing.

Fonts are another issue. When I first installed, the fonts were huge. I run my desktop at 1600x1200, and I have good eyes, so fonts don't have to be big, just readable. It's kinda bad to run at that resolution and still feel like I'm in 800x600.

I've managed, with the help of Cedega, to get a few of the Windows fonts I'm used to installed, and I've manually changed fonts in apps where I have to, but every once in a while I encounter an app that uses the large fonts, or I have to tell Firefox not to use fonts smaller than 12pts. Even my Atari ST handled fonts better than this by the end of its life, and it didn't even support different fonts for most of that life.

One last thing: As I said before, I recently installed Cedega, and while I *love* it, I usually have to log out of KDE and go to IceWM to play games. For some reason I haven't been able to figure out, every 10-15 seconds of play in KDE the game will slow down for about 3 seconds, and if I'm holding a key or button it will act as if I'm holding it down that whole time, making games quite difficult to play. I've noticed the same behavior under IceWM if I have a Konqueror window open while playing, but I've never been able to eliminate the problem in KDE even with no windows open at all. And the crux of the whole thing is, it doesn't happen all the time, just most of the time. Sometimes I'm able to play hours of a game under KDE without a hitch. I even tried running games right after a reboot with no luck. It just seems that sometimes, randomly, it works. Most of the time though, I just have to switch to Ice.

What are the good points to my switch? Pretty much everything else. I love all the neat ways I can make my desktop look, I love KNewsTicker as I said before. I miss Windows Explorer, but I make due with Konqueror, it's not too different. Blender bends my mind. I've never seen an app start so fast. Hit the enter key, and you're staring at it. Cedega, and Wine in general, are just great for filling the gaps in my installation.

Of course, there are also the more intangible things that make me love Linux. The ability to program script files, and the command line in general I still love, no matter how much GUI you give me. The fact that with a little digging I can usually fix or figure out any of the problems I've had. Everyone who's ever posted a problem to a forum, and everyone who's ever answered someone's forum question. And, of course, the dedicated and ultra-knowledgeable users and coders of Linux and Linux applications. All of you deserve thanks.

And with that, the thank-yous are over. Back to work, all of you! ;)

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