A Vista to Ubuntu

I have a secret. It’s one I don’t let many people know. Like most secrets, I keep it to protect myself. So here I go, just like at the meetings – deep breath… “Hi, I’m Gregg and I’m a NERD.”

Yep, that’s right a certified nerd (thrice certified if anyone is counting – by Cisco, Network Solutions and Sun/Java). Prior to my current career as a pastor I was a software product engineer in the digital printing industry. I was led into that field through a business I started in the early 90s called subZero Data Solutions – an Internet consulting firm. We mainly helped companies connect and secure their internal networks to the Internet. We also did a lot of development and sold software relating to network maintenance.

In those days a turf war was brewing – you were a “Microsoft Shop” or you were a “UNIX Shop.” We were the latter variety, installing and maintaining a number of UNIX type systems including the burgeoning Linux environment. We built custom firewall systems and network monitoring consoles using the free and effective Linux operating system, thereby reducing costs and introducing our clients to the wonderful world of Open Source software. Free software is good but as subZero and our clients found out, there is a cost to maintaining unsupported software. My nerd status was firmly established and a career in IT followed.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2007. Linux has advanced beyond anyone’s wildest imagination and is really giving Microsoft a run for their money on the desktop and especially in server systems. A few companies (Red Hat, Debian and Ubuntu) have risen to the top of the heap as companies who provide maintenance for their Linux distributions, or vendor specific installations of Linux. Linux is still free, but companies like those mentioned package them into free installers and provide paid support for their distribution. It seems like the best of both worlds – a free operating system with lots of free software and a bail-out of fee-based support if you get stuck.

Back to the 90s again and the platform war – Microsoft vs. UNIX. In the UNIX community a strong loathing developed for Microsoft. They were monopolistic, their software was bug-ridden and vulnerable to hackers, they were slow to adopt standards, they didn’t support their software well, they were predatory toward innovative technology companies. Microsoft became a pariah within serious Internet circles and only those who were forced to use their systems (Fortune 500 companies) would actually do so. Any self-respecting technologist chose anything but Microsoft when able.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. Microsoft dominates both the desktop and server markets in the US. Apple has come through with very strong desktop systems and wonderful operating systems although their market share is still fairly small. More recently Linux has moved out of the server room and on to the desktop with new distributions from Debian and Ubuntu.

Now a dilemma is upon those with a general disdain for Microsoft. One the one hand we can pay a 75-100% premium for Apple hardware. While I’m glad to “Think Different” – paying twice as much for a desktop or laptop system with the same specifications that a major PC manufacturer offers is just too different. Another option is to buy a PC and install one of the new and slick Linux distributions – thereby thumbing our noses at Microsoft and all the ills that Redmond represents.

So that is just what I did when it came time to buy a new laptop. I found a decently equipped HP Pavilion DV2415NR system and installed the desktop version Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) for AMD64 bit processors.

That isn’t entirely true. I first tried out the install on my old laptop – the boat anchor 17” widescreen HP Pavilion ZX5180US. This Pentium 4 based system required that I use the x86 version of the Ubuntu system but in all other regards was the same. I searched the Wiki documentation regarding running Ubuntu on this hardware and found only one issue with the wireless networking card. No big deal (I thought). Just find and install the updated driver and away we go. How quickly we forget. In the UNIX world drivers are often embedded in the kernel – the core of the operating system.

After four hours that I didn’t have to spare, multiple attempts at installing the Windows XP driver with the ndiswrapper utility, and a whole lot more online searching I found the answer on page 53 of 57 of the Ubuntu Pavilion ZX5000 support forum. I needed to obtain the fw-cutter application which would then be able to install the correct wireless Broadcom driver. (If all of that seems like it was written in Sanskrit to you, you are not alone. The documentation and support forums pretty much assume you are a UNIX programmer. Having a little experience in that field I wasn’t so intimidated, but it is still really confusing.)

Success. My old system was working with few problems. It wouldn’t play DVD movies but I assumed that was due to a codex problem, something that is common to Windows and Apple systems as well. Firefox, OpenOffice, Skype, Picasa – all working as expected.

Now to my new system. First of all, the HP DV2415NR is a sleek machine. To a nerd, one might even say sexy. Smooth lines, shiny case, aluminum trim – sweet! It too is reported to have similar issues with the wireless card so I prepare for some modifications. Run the Ubuntu installer disk and set it to completely destroy the Windows Visa installation that came with the computer. It formats the disk, installs the software and then reboots. Yep, no blue light on the wireless switch.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. This time the issue with the wireless card is a little different. It turns out my HP computer thinks it has Dell wireless networking hardware. I’m directed to the Dell support site to download the correct drivers, compile from scratch the ndiswrapper utility, and then install the driver. This time ndiswrapper works as expected and the computer finds all the wireless routers in my neighborhood. I put in my WEP key and then am prompted to secure it with a secondary password for its “keyring.” Seems redundant since all user accounts have passwords but I enter it anyway.

Reboot. The computer connects to the wireless router flawlessly (after entering in my keyring password) and starts doing what I want it to. I saw someone mention the “automatix” installer as a way to easily add software to your Ubuntu system. After downloading it I see that most of the software I would like is listed – Skype, Picasa, etc. But they are not native 64 bit (AMD64) applications so will have to run in 32 bit (x86) mode. No problem, right? I also see that automatix has a heap of multimedia codex files to install. I grab them all along with the applications.

Assuming everything is ready to go I pop in a DVD – Simpson’s Season Five, Disk 2 – and prepare to give it a watch. What’s that you hear? Nothing! There is no sound. None from the external speakers or from the headphones.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. I have to obtain and compile a set of drivers and libraries from “alsa” to have the Nvidia controlled sound on this system perform correctly. No problem, do as the FAQ says and sound works after a quirky negotiation of shutting down the system and restarting it with the power cord unplugged. Plug the headphones in to give a private listen and the external speakers don’t mute. Sound is coming out of both interfaces.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. Nothing. To the Wiki articles. There is one obscure reference to the need to use the latest “alsa” drivers but in their BETA state – RC4, or Release Candidate 4. OK, using the same FAQ instructions as before I download, configure, compile and install the RC4 drivers. Reboot. Sound is still coming out of the built-in speakers when I plug in the headphones.

A minor inconvenience I know, but in addition to that there are a number of other issues. Picasa crashes and burns when directed to pull images from a SD card. Skype won’t even log me in. The DVD playback is sluggish. Banshee, the supposedly iPod compatible iTunes replacement, doesn’t really work. If the built-in camera is activated the system hangs and necessitates a reboot – a cardinal sin in the UNIX world where systems are said to be stable enough to resist crashing applications.

I have another secret. I reinstalled Windows Vista on my laptop and completely wiped Ubuntu 7.04 from my system. I’m really glad I didn’t destroy the “HP_RECOVERY” partition to make way for Ubuntu.

Everything works perfectly. OK, I did need to obtain an updated wireless network driver from HP. It installed seamlessly with utilities already included in Vista and I didn’t even need to follow a three page FAQ. No crashes, the sound works correctly, the camera performs as intended, the track pad isn’t hyper-sensitive, and movies play smoothly.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a fan of open source. My office suite is OpenOffice. My browser, Firefox. Picasa will continue to manage my digital images. iTunes stores and organizes my music collection. I’ll keep in touch with friends around the world with Skype while fearlessly using the built-in video camera on this system.

Did I sell out to He Who Must Not Be Named in Redmond? Maybe. I hope not. It’s so confusing.

My estimation is that computer manufacturers essentially give away the operating system with their machines anyway. I made a point to uninstall every piece of included software that HP bundled with their system that wouldn’t cause a system failure. At this point Vista is merely a shell for running the mostly free and Open Source applications that allow me to work better.

Another estimation. If time is money, the time I spent trying to get Ubuntu to work on these two systems (yes, I reinstalled XP on my old laptop after it failed to play DVDs) was probably worth the price difference that would have allowed me to buy a Core 2 Duo Macbook. Next time. I know there will be a next time because “My name is Gregg (‘hi Gregg’) and I’m a NERD.”



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4 responses to “A Vista to Ubuntu

  1. Huh? Didn’t you tell me just yesterday about your successful Linux installation? Did all of this take place in the last 24 hours?Dude, I remember years ago when the UNIX geeks I worked with tried to get me to try RedHat. I didn’t have that kind of time. I thought maybe down the road. Looks like we’re not far enough down that road yet. At least MS Windows (sort of) works.[commercial]Yep, Macs have a hardware premium and now you know a little of why it’s worth it. I don’t think it’s double the cost though. When you look at what you get with the Mac- iLife, OS X, .Mac (paid service but about to be very cool), built-in iSight camera, wireless networking, BlueTooth, etc. and add all these things up the delta shrinks (maybe not to zero). I bit the bullet and made the switch 4-1/2 years ago and just ordered my third Mac (2 iMacs and a MacBook) yesterday. Plug a SD card with pictures into a Mac and iPhoto launches and asks if you want to upload the pictures. The pain of the added cost only lasts for a little while. But, the years of satisfaction are worth it. It took me about 6 weeks to get used to OS X. Since then I would not turn back.[/commercial] Sorry to hear your Linux expedition didn’t work out. I really hoped by now someone would have packaged it up better. The Average Joe doesn’t have a prayer of getting it going (still).Next time, Think Different. 😉

  2. What can I say – I’m a weak UNIX geek. It takes a lot more dedication that I was willing to give to make it work.Yesterday afternoon was when I ran into the crash/freeze issues, the iPod incompatibility and the sound problem. Those are sort of deal breakers for me.

  3. Deb

    I understood nerd, sexy, time and money. Everything else…not so much.

  4. Now I’m sure you’re the smartest person I know. An evolved being, to be sure. I used to be nerdy in this way, even built my own computers for a while, but now I’m more of an internet/web nerd than a hardware nerd (my brother would totally get into this post, I think).Dude, I had no idea there was a platform called Ubuntu! It can’t be itself until you are fully you?

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