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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Ubuntu - a tale of discovery and woe

In the last few weeks I've been getting bored with Windows XP (my OS of lack of choice) and have had a bit of a roving eye, sneaking lusty glances over the shoulders of Mac users and hanging around in dodgy Windows Vista galleries ogling Aero through the glass.

Having decided that I cant really justify a MacBook when my Samsung PC has pretty much identical hardware already, I have resorted to a PC-based alternative and tried out Ubuntu.

For those that don't know, Ubuntu is a kind of Linux-for-dummies, a UNIX solution targeted at desktop users who cant be bothered to recompile their kernel every five minutes. Now don't get me wrong, I've been using flavours of Linux for over ten years, but I've never been religious about it, and I don't have the time or the energy to build, configure and tweak my laptop setup - I just want it to work.

The experience started off really well, I found a simple Ubuntu installer called Wubi that installs Ubuntu into a single file on your windows store and changes the bootloader to make Ubuntu an option on startup (this is handy as it means you don't have to repartition your drive - and essentially means you can try out Ubuntu risk free). Wubi worked really well, and (after waiting an hour or two for the 600MB download) I booted for the first time into Ubuntu.

Out of the box it seemed to work pretty well; the basic apps are all solid and critically it managed to autodetect and install the right driver for my wireless card and gave me a preinstalled Firefox, pretty much all you need to get started with anything.

But then I got greedy. I was after the whizzy 3d effects and fancy transparencies (check out the video above) and chose to ignore the bones of the dead that littered the way ahead. It all seemed simple enough, I had to install a specific ATI driver for my X1600, install an OpenGL driver, add a few installation repositories and then point the auto-installer at Beryl (a GUI extension that more properly would be called Candy). I even found some helpful tutorials using my complete and fully operational firefox to show me the way.

Mmmm... within five minutes I had resorted to the command line to try and install the ATI drivers. Within ten minutes I was busily editing my X config file - although in Ubuntu's defence I didn't have to use vi. Within fifteen minutes I'd broken X and had been chucked into fullscreen console mode, not very useful when your tutorial is on a web page in your broken X session :-( Luckily I had my trusty Glofiish with me (damnable thing) and so I found the tutorial on that, rediscovered the location of the config file and managed to fix it (with pico, I'm not using vi for anyone).

After an hour or so of hard work I just about had Ubuntu back into the same state it had been when I first installed it, not quite the experience I had been hoping for, but at least I hadn't killed anyone or resorted to sticking pins in a little Linus Torvalds doll like the last time I dated RedHat back in 99 or so.

Anyway, these things take time, and I still haven't forgiven XP for rebooting without asking every time I turn my back, or for popping up modal dialog boxes in the middle of typing a sentence, so I'm willing to give Ubuntu a second chance. But the second I see that bloody text editor coming it's out of here, and I'll be grabbing a Vista CD from the Uni's distribution site. Ubuntu - you have been warned!

Update 8th August 07: Ok - so I finally managed to get Beryl working. I have an ATI x1600 graphics card and I have to use the proprietary ATI driver (i.e. use fglrx) + XGL; a few places say to use the open source driver but I just couldn't get that to work. These guides were of great help:

One thing not mentioned very much is that XGL support is accidentally missing from Beryl 0.2.1, so I had to revert to version 0.2.0 using Synaptic and locking it to prevent it updating(which meant learning how Synaptic works). So now I have a very pretty looking Ubuntu setup - but it wasn't exactly effortless to set up, I think it took me around 5 hours to get it going in the end.

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