Two weeks on Ubuntu

Due to major problems with one of our desktops, I donated my main XP desktop to the COO and I decided to use the Ubuntu file server as my desktop for a week “just to see”. I’m no Linux newbie, having started with Slackware in 1996 and gone through every iteration of RedHat and Fedora Core since. A few diversions to Suse and Mandriva were failures.

My Linux usage has mainly been server focused but I’ve often used the desktops either remotely using XWin on Cygwin or in a VMWare virtual machine. However there have always been enough issues to prevent me using it as a primary desktop. The last attempt I made was in Summer 2006 when I ran a dual-boot laptop with XP and Ubuntu. However an inability to get the microphone working, whilst seemingly trivial, made it unusable for video-conferencing, Skype or VOIP.

We recently got a new low-end server mainly for file-serving and running some test VMs for LouderVoice. It is an el-cheapo Dell Vostro 200 and came with Vista Home. I downloaded the latest Fedora Core but I couldn’t even get the install DVD to boot. I’ve been finding Fedora less and less reliable with each new release but this was crazy, they clearly hadn’t tested on one of the most common machines out there!

So on a whim, with all the recent positive buzz around Gutsy Gibbon, I decided to install that instead. A previous attempt to install the Ubuntu Server Edition left me with a server alright, but one with almost nothing installed or enabled. This time I installed the Desktop Edition and installed server features as required.

Most reviews of Linux Distros seem to spend the entire time talking about the install rather than the day to day. This isn’t one of those. Install was a breeze. Full stop.

The whole apt-get/Synaptic system for installing apps is very easy to use but was required constantly for days as I found (once again) almost nothing installed by default. Call me lazy and clueless but on Fedora, I always clicked the “install everything” option, just in case. So I added mail, DNS, Samba, development tools etc etc. Then I realised I had almost no multimedia stuff so there was a round of that too.

Within a few days I had a set-up that suited me. In fact, many of the apps I use on XP are cross-platform anyway so it wasn’t a big change. Firefox, Pidgin, Filezilla, Azureus, Gizmo, Eclipse, XEmacs, Skype, Picasa, MySQL Query Browser, OpenSSH etc etc.

Immediate issues I ran into? Well something I installed lobbed a copy of libstdc++.so.6 into /usr/local which meant I wasted two days trying to get Skype to run before I finally spotted it and deleted it. The use of Python2.5 by default, whilst laudable, causes me issues with running the LouderVoice code. Some of our backend stuff is really only happy with 2.4. You can install both but WX apps (like WinPDB and SPE) get very confused by that.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that eWallet worked ok via Wine. I need to switch to a proper cross-platform (and Symbian supporting) password manager but I need to write a converter first so I’m stuck with eWallet for the moment.

Graphics programs are a mish-mash. GIMP is great but overkill for quick edits. Most of the others are viewers or library managers. I have never been able to successfully use the image editor in Picasa. The screenshot tool does just that. Ideally I want something like irfanview that views and allows simple obvious tasks like crop, scale, save as other format.

Audio is hit n miss. Rhythmbox is a good player but the last.fm support is flaky as hell. BBC web-site was not happy with whatever realaudio stuff was embedded in Firefox. The biggest problem there tho is that I cannot get the microphone working i.e. the exact same problem as two years ago on a different Dell. So I can’t Skype or VOIP. Deeply frustrating and no amount of fiddling is helping. So much for ALSA solving all of the Linux audio issues.

There were two huge problems which were frankly unforgivable. I did a system update as instructed during the first week. It included a kernel update. On reboot, Ubuntu got stuck trying to start. Luckily we have plenty of other machines so I was able to Google it. No-one was 100% sure but one tip was to try adding irqpoll to the boot parameters. Now this did work but come on! This is madness! A distro that is trying to target the average punter and you have to know how to edit grub.conf (after you figure out how to add the param so you can boot at all). I have no idea what that param does. It’s clearly a kernel issue and my guess is that is what prevented Fedora from installing too. If you don’t support common Dell hardware, go home and stop trying to play with the big boys. Yeah yeah, it’s a kernel issue not a distro one. Well don’t bloody offer it on updates without testing it.

Last week an almost identical issue occurred. This time X.Org was updated and BOOM, half my GUI apps stopped working. More Googling, more forums, more mea culpas. 24 hours later an update is pushed to fix it. Again, lack of testing, lack of Q&A. Say what you like about MSFT but I think they’ve had one BSOD-causing update in 7 years. And my apps _always_ work.

The one thing that has always stopped me switching away from MSFT is Office. Not that I love it but I get/send lots of Word Docs and I need 100% round-trip compatibility. I have evangelised OpenOffice many times since SUN released it into the wild but it always always always disappoints. My simplest test is to create an empty Word Doc with Heading1, Heading2, Heading3 (all numbered). Save and open in OO. The tabbing on the headings has always been broken. For what, seven years now? So I tried again and it looks like they may have fixed it. I opened our business plan and by-and-large most of the doc is fine but I utterly failed to change the number formatting on the doc variables, rending it useless. Same old same old. 95% is not good enough. 100% or FAIL.

Anything else? Logictech Fusion Webcam totally refuses to work despite a days effort, bluetooth adapter is detected and devices paired but gives errors if I try to _do_ anything with it. I got a low-end OEM graphics card to replace the built-in graphics. It’s a GeForce 7300GT which Googling told me was well supported in Linux. I finally got it setup well using the excellent Envy software (which should be offered by default). I still haven’t got the DVI output working tho.

Things I really like? The Compiz OpenGL Desktop rocks! All those 3D rotations etc are way cool (if totally pointless). The machine is very fast to do most things. VMWare works really well. FF is more stable than on XP and overall, most of the time, things just work.

I spend an enormous amount of time in the browser so the OS is becoming less and less important to me. Heck, when I’m out and about, my N95 phone does most of what I need. If this is your type of usage too and you don’t do serious MS Office doc interchange, then Ubuntu might be right for you. But it’s not right for your mother yet.

P.S. I may keep this as a rolling review, adding bits n pieces as I think of them.

About Conor O'Neill

26 Comments for this entry

January 27th, 2008 on 5:37 pm

Have you tried Mint? It’s based on Ubuntu but has all the things like multimedia stuff included off the bat.
Give Paint.Net for Mono a go for graphics and I hear good things about Pixel but I haven’t tried it myself.
You’re right, linux still isn’t ready for the mainstream, but it’s damn close.
(btw, love the live post preview feature)

Conor O'Neill
January 27th, 2008 on 6:16 pm

Haven’t even heard of Mint. Must have a look and give it a twirl in VMWare. If that’s the same Paint.Net that I use on XP then I’ll be a very happy camper, thanks for the links.

I’ve been saying “damned close” since about 2002. Whilst I’m an Apple cynic, they’ve shown how it should be done on the desktop. Linux as a server is unbeatable but I wonder will we still be saying “almost there” on the desktop in 2012?

Tom A
January 27th, 2008 on 6:43 pm

Excellent review Conor. Mirrors my experiences with Linux on the desktop very closely. Just having a look at Mint based on the comment recommendation and notice that the maintainer is based in Ireland! Time to download and run in VirtualBox for a while I think!

Conor O'Neill
January 27th, 2008 on 6:56 pm

Hadn’t spotted the Irish link. I’ll have to try it now!

January 27th, 2008 on 8:29 pm

you pretty much gave one reason(excuse???) after another for not liking it .. somebody else could give the same exact “reasons” to justify not using your system of choice(or for not using a computer at all) ..

with “If you don’t support common Dell hardware, go home and stop trying to play with the big boys” ..you came out as a troll …

..i am not saying you shouldn’t give your critism of desktop linux ..you should i am sure those who work on what you have complained about could benefit but, criticizing in a trolling way doenst help anybody(maybe to you for increasing page counts) ..but not anybody else ..

..any the “i didnt like it, it didnt like my hardware ..therefore your grandmother wont like it” is lame and frankly, its getting old ..

Conor O'Neill
January 27th, 2008 on 9:37 pm

Hmm, let me see, I gave it 4/5, I’m still using it and I recommended others try it. It’s not trolling, it’s honesty. Would you prefer I just blame myself when the OS couldn’t boot after directing the user to do an update? The only thing that’s getting old is the clueless belief that any Linux distro is an appropriate replacement for any version of Windows for non-technical users.

January 27th, 2008 on 10:35 pm

close to 90% of your writing was to stuff not working and complains with things like “So much for ALSA solving all of the Linux audio issues.” …has it occur to you that the problem could be with skype’s lack of interest in linux?

..you only have one paragraph composed of 3 sentences of things you liked ..if this is how you “sell” your recommendations on your consultation work then i dont think most companies will appreciate talking about their products ..

from your writing, where did the 4/5 come from? the only thing you mentioned you like where the 3D effect and that was diluted by placing “useless” next to them ..

linux will always have hardware issues ..if you want to have an effortless experience with linux, by hardware that works with it ..if you are to give your grandmother a computer with linux, only give her hardware that are known to work with it ..apple is doing this ..

how it linux fault for not having a driver for your webcam? again, if you were to give it to your grandmother, you would have given her a webcam that worked …i confess, i am a linux user and your post to the most part came to me a very long list of complain without any acknowledgment of how hard it is for linux to have hardware support from companies who sometimes go an extra mile to make sure nobody knows how their hardware works and at the same time refusing to provide any linux support

…from your post, linux deserve 1 or 2 out of 5 ..where does the 4 come from …your paper isnt complete ..

even windows is not appropriate for non technical users …if it was, there wouldn’t be such a large industry that takes care of people’s windows machines …

Conor O'Neill
January 27th, 2008 on 10:49 pm

Linux does have a driver for my webcam – it doesn’t work. The mic issue is not a Skype one, the mic doesn’t work at all in Linux. I fully understand the driver issue and access to specs etc but we’re talking about a microphone here, not accelerated 3D graphics.

Ubuntu gets 4/5 because it makes a fine server, makes good use of resources and is stable. All of which I covered and has been covered a million times in other articles.

All of the annoyances I listed do not detract from that. But people need to know what they are getting into and I’m sick of finding out about hardware problems on Linux _after_ I buy the hardware. If someone else tries Ubuntu on a Dell Vostro 200, I hope this article warns them of the issues they will face. Given that Dell ships Ubuntu on some of their machines, the simplistic hardware issues are particularly galling.

Mr. Bogus
January 28th, 2008 on 5:13 am


In your quest to point out how much of a “troll” Conor is, you yourself are becoming one.

Save your comments for someone who is deliberately bashing Linux for the wrong reasons, instead of someone who is accurately pointing out flaws that need to be addressed.

I agree with him. Hardware support is not where it should be. I find this particularly aggravating when things like this happen with hardware that has been available for years.

I am currently on a 5 year old HP running Linux which has no sound. ALSA says it supports my audio chip, but for some reason, I’ve yet to find a distro that will detect it.

Too many Linux advocates gloss over the real problems, pretending they don’t exist, or that it’s someone’s own ignorance at fault. This is a mistake. Linux still has a long way to go, and we won’t get anywhere unless we accept this and make an effort to change it.

Thank you, Conor, for your honest review.

January 28th, 2008 on 10:49 am

I’m not even going to bother reading this rubbish.

Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 10:52 am

Thanks for the feedback.

I was also genuinely interested in using Ubuntu on an old laptop (7 year old Dell Inspiron) for kids to use the browser and nothing else on sites like Webkinz. But there has been some regression since Ubuntu 5 which means it won’t install properly there either. This is a big pity as it’s ideal in a scenario like this and older revs definitely worked. Same machine has run everything from Win95 to XP. Maybe I should look for ultra lightweight distro in that case which comes with just Firefox, Flash and audio. Does such a beast exist?

Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 10:55 am

Amazing. You know it’s rubbish without reading it. I get the sense we have some Slashdot teens over here.

Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 10:55 am

Or even worse, pre-pubescent Digg fanboys.

January 28th, 2008 on 2:58 pm

Just a thought on the 7 year old lappy… Have you tried the alternate iso that is recommended for install on low memory rigs? It has saved me a couple of times trying to get (x)ubuntu to install properly.


Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 3:02 pm

Ooh, hadn’t spotted that ISO. Great tip, thanks. Laptop only has 192MB. Should support 512MB but none of the SODIMMs I have tried will work.

January 28th, 2008 on 3:54 pm

Speaking only of the audio capture problem, which I presume you were referring to when you said that your microphone wasn’t working, that’s easily solved.

Open up volume control, go to switches, and tick the box next to enable microphone capture. If the option isn’t there, go to preferences and look for it, then add it. I admit it took me a bit of fiddling to find that out, but now skype mostly works.

Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 5:29 pm

Unfortunately not easily solved. Tried all suggested solutions on forums (most of which along the lines you suggest) and it just looks like ALSA has problems with Intel Audio. Will keep fiddling with tick-boxes and levels and front panel vs rear panel etc but so far no joy.

January 28th, 2008 on 6:40 pm

Give gOS a go for your old laptop. It’s also Ubuntu based.

Conor O'Neill
January 28th, 2008 on 6:46 pm

Ah, I saw mention of that recently. Makes total sense as it’s all about online apps. I’ll check it too.

January 28th, 2008 on 9:08 pm

@ Mr. bogus ..
you have said(taking important pieces):
“….Hardware support is not where it should be. …Too many Linux advocates gloss over the real problems, pretending they don’t exist, or that it’s someone’s own ignorance at fault. This is a mistake. Linux still has a long way to go, and we won’t get anywhere unless we accept this and make an effort to change it.”

what is the real problem? ..hardware support is not where it should be, i agree, and i have said that in my previous post ..who is at fault for this? i know the end user will not care about this ..but since this post in about educating and interest the general public what linux is ..also mentioning why hardware support is as lacking as its currently is i think will do more that just listing one failed hardware after another.

“I am currently on a 5 year old HP running Linux which has no sound. ALSA says it supports my audio chip, but for some reason, I’ve yet to find a distro that will detect it.”

how many distros have you tried? try PCLinuxOS or mepis ..like i said linux hardware support isnt perfect, its a miss and hit, if one distro doesnt like your hardware, try another one ..whose fault is it? linux should bear some of it but most of it should go the the manufacturers and i think the author should have acknowledge the effort linux kernel devs put in reverse engineering this devices to work properly ..

..there are devices that are known not to work and no development is planned for them because they arent in circulation anymore and they are on their way out, blotting the kernel for them isnt worth it ..maybe your device is in that list(my PCMCIA wireless card was, that how i know this) ..have you checked the status of your card? …you could be waiting for something that will never ship ..

another problem with linux is lack of consistency as a result of having two popular toolkits, gtk(gnome) and qt(kde) ..

ubuntu is not the only linux distro, ubuntu has never liked my hardware, i use pclinuxos because i didnt have do anything to configure what i have ..i am sure somebody else could say the same thing but in reverse …if one distro doesnt work for you, try another one …

checkout distrowatch.com/ ..you could try the ones at the top

solution? stick with apps from your DE/toolkit of your choice ..

Andy Goss
January 29th, 2008 on 2:12 am

Conor. I have had difficulties with getting the mic to work on every distro I have ever used. I have always won in the end, but I can never remember how the next time! I have always used plain box PCs from my local computer shop.

I have recently moved from Kubuntu 6.06 to Debian Etch with KDE, and it is excellent, apart from not talking to my camera, I have to go back to Kubuntu for that. I don’t ask as much of my distro as you do, but if you are looking for a workhorse then you would be better off with Debian or CentOS than the “wobbly edge” distros like Ubuntu and Fedora.

Conor O'Neill
January 29th, 2008 on 2:50 am

Thanks for the info Andy. We run our webapp on CentOS for that very reason.

I just tried gOS on the old laptop. CD wouldn’t even boot. Ubuntu alt-ISO next I guess.

I may have to eat crow for one of my comments tho. I’ve just spent the past two days trying to get Office 2007 to install on Vista. I’m currently stuck and thinking about reverting my travel laptop to XP!

Donncha O Caoimh
January 29th, 2008 on 1:41 pm

Unfortunately “common Dell hardware” isn’t always supported very well. I’m not sure who is to blame, but it might be because some of the h/ware needs an NDA and/or licensing fees for developers to work on drivers for it.

I had an awful time getting my Dell D630 working properly, but eventually the problems worked themselves out. It was worth it. Ubuntu works perfectly now. I never had the problems you did with Skype.

I vaguely remember trying to get an early version of XP running on a brand new box with stinking new SATA drives. That was sheer hell.

Hope you come back to using Linux, once it’s familiar territory you won’t go back! (probably:)

Conor O'Neill
January 29th, 2008 on 1:48 pm

I’ll still keep fiddling to get the mic working. It’s also still my primary desktop and most of the time things are fine. But I’m doing a lot of screenshots at the minute and finding the workflow very clunky compared to SnagIt.

Aijalyn Kohler
April 18th, 2008 on 9:27 pm

Nice opinion on a “typical” Ubuntu install, but I think the “it’s not right for your mother” thing has been overdone. Honestly, any version of MS Windows is not right for your (non-technical) mother, unless it came with tech support or you’re providing it. My mother has been using Ubuntu for two years now and it works better for her than XP did, as she can install whatever programs she needs via the installer. OS X might be better for most people’s mothers than either GNU/Linux or MS Windows, but the price outlay makes it a bit of an overkill for mom’s email and photo-sharing when compared to a Dell Ubuntu box.

Conor O'Neill
April 19th, 2008 on 11:26 am

I don’t want to bang on about this but I did a simple update as requested by Ubuntu and the machine refused to boot. I’ve been using Windows since 286 days and that has never happened once. How would your mother have dealt with that? I’ve never been convinced by the Mac argument, my tech-clueless Da has run XP for several years and the only hassle he ever had was with McAfee anti-virus which I solved over the phone.

On the other side, my experiences with Vista on a laptop are actually far worse than those on Ubuntu. Constant constant problems particularly with video drivers and file permissions. I really wanted to love Vista but for the first time since I’ve started using Windows I’ll be reverting to an older version and putting XP back on it.

I tried a the recent Beta of Ubuntu 8 on three different machines in the past few weeks. It got stuck booting at different points on all of them. I really hope they have sorted out those issues before the full launch this week.