Linux - 3 Months On

3:09pm 30th August 2008

So I've been using Linux now for about 3 months, and it's been a fun, if somewhat wild, ride. I can safely say that I will never be going back to Windows. The shortcomings of that platform have been mounting up over the years and now that I've actually used a different operating system on a daily basis, it has become painfully apparent that I have been frog-boiled into being satisfied with the pile of rubbish that is Microsoft Windows.

I have a Lenovo ThinkPad T61p. I have been a fan of the ThinkPads for many years, however I am ever so slightly disappointed with the T61p's build quality being not quite up to standard when compared to old ThinkPads. The old T40 for instance feels like it would survive a war. Don't get me wrong, the T61p is an excellent unit, still far better than anything Dell, HP or Toshiba have to offer, outdone only by the Panasonic Toughbooks. I love it and I highly recommend it. It proved to be a great choice for Linux. The vast majority of things worked out of the box; Audio, Bluetooth, WiFi, networking and even my USB HSDPA modem. I've collated a list of packages that I add on to the default Xubuntu install. They are:

sudo aptitude install wine vim nfs-common namp \
bluetooth bluez-gnome filezilla gnome-alsamixer tor nmap wine \
epiphany-browser openssh-server kate ubuntu-restricted-extras \
xchat powertop

These packages add useful functionality as well as GUI tools for the Bluetooth and audio devices in the laptop. Note that they also contain the non-free packages for playing DVDs, MP3s, Flash and other common proprietary formats. It bears mentioning that the Debian package management system is absolutely amazing. Trying out software is easy, and you can do it confident that it will not break your system. Upgrading software versions is handled completely automatically. I can take a default install of Xubuntu, run the above command, and know that my system is running the latest vesion without any headache at all. Setting up a new machine is now a 1 minute post install job as opposed to a few hours on Windows.

The Debian repository contains just about every software tool imaginable, which means that you don't even have to search for software on the web any more; you just look for it in Synaptic, and click install. Removal is equally easy. This has made trying out many tools when looking for a good solution to a problem a snap.

One issue I had to fix up was distorted fonts after installing the binary nVidia driver on the T61p. The default driver worked, but when I installed the nVidia binary driver, desktop fonts were rendered out of proportion. To solve this I put the following in /etc/X11/xorg.conf under the "Device" section:

Option "UseEdidDpi"   "false"
Option "Dpi"          "92 x 92"

This took me a while to figure out, and the correct Dpi value was discovered by trial and error. Once set, this fixed the look of screen fonts after the installation of the nVidia binary driver, which messed up all proportionality on the desktop.

Other than that, it was smooth sailing, no other hiccups.I have to say that Xfce is not quite as polished as Gnome or KDE, but it certainly does have a lighter weight feel to it. Applications load very snappily, and the panels are customizable enough to set things up in a way that really lets you work far faster.

Xubuntu does not have much by the way of Bluetooth nice GUIs, so I used the CLI to turn Bluetooth on and off. It works fine, and can be scripted to an icon on the desktop or a hotkey if you do it often enough. The commands are:

echo enable | sudo tee /proc/acpi/ibm/bluetooth
echo disable | sudo tee /proc/acpi/ibm/bluetooth

Since moving to Linux, I've developed an affinity for the CLI, something I haven't used much since my now long past DOS days. To me, it was previously just a quick and nasty way to do basic diagnostics in Windows or basic server admin tasks on Linux. On the Linux desktop however, I find myself using it more and more as a primary means of getting things done. I have also taken to the increased use of hotkeys, even when using the GUI desktop. In short, Linux has put a vaster array of tools at my disposal, accelerating my working day. This is a very welcome surprise, as I always thought that moving to Linux would involve a long and drawn out readjustment period while I rediscovered all the little tasks that come up in the course of using a PC for more than just word processing, web and email.

On a side note, when I needed a highly portable computer, I bought a second hand IBM ThinkPad X40. These are old, but awesome machines. Small, light, tough as nails, they have my vote for the best laptop ever made. They are very well featured and specced for an ultra-portable given their age, certainly far more powerful than any of the netbooks such as the Asus eeePC. They run Xubuntu magnificently. Thus, my need for ultra portable computing is met without resorting to one of those awful netbooks (which I view as the mutant children of PDAs and laptops). A second hand X40 is half the price of an eeePC, yet it is only slightly bigger, far more powerful and has a full size screen. IBM have also managed to fit a full sized keyboard of superlative quality on it, despite the machine being a 12 inch unit. If you're thinking of getting a netbook, don't. X40s are available on eBay and are a far better choice. They also work 100% out of the box with Linux, no hassles.

Running my old Windows applications presented a slight issue. The main app for me being the UltraEdit/UEStudio programming editors. They run in Wine, however in too unstable a manner to be considered usable for work. I have temporarily moved to Kate which I am finding is quite up to the task of heavy code slinging. Microsoft Office, however, is not so easy. While I actually prefer working with OpenOffice, there are times that I need to work with MS Office documents. To solve this I have decided that dual boot is the solution. My laptop has a 1920x1200 screen, and none of the VM solutions I tried emulated a graphics card capable of doing this res with anything resembling usable performance. My use of MS Office is infrequent enough that booting into Windows won't be too much of an issue. It also allows me to play the odd Windows game as well, should such a thing take my fancy.

All of these benefits are magnified when I consider that I can provision a Linux machine in minutes, with no worries about licenses and other such rubbish. I attempted to install Windows XP on my laptop, but the key failed authentication because the media I was using did not match the key; I had a Windows XP Professional SP2 OEM key sticker on the laptop, but a retail disc. I called Microsoft to ask if there was a way around it. Their solution; buy a replacement media at an exorbitant price. No thanks. After much mucking about, I eventually found an OEM disc from another old PC to install from, but that experience highlighted to me a prime benefit of open source software. The fact that Xubuntu is lightweight enough to run on even low power machines means that I can deploy my full familiar desktop environment on just about any old computer I like without worrying about cost at all.

So, After many years and several abortive attempts, I am now well and truly a Linux user. Not just on my servers, but on my desktop and both of my laptops. For me, 2008 is the year of Linux on the desktop.