Linux Woes from a Windows User
Until this past year, I’d always been a Windows user. Unlike a lot of die hard geeks, I don’t think Microsoft is evil incarnate nor do I feel there is anything wrong with a company wanting to make a profit from their products. However, because I have a curious mind and enjoy putzing around on my systems, I started exploring a few different Ubuntu-based Linux distros several months back. Initially it started with Xubuntu on a system I was building for my 3 year old. All of the hardware was pretty old, so I wanted OS that was lightweight and had minimal system requirements.
Installation went smoothly and I was surprised by how intuitive and functional the UI was. Until that point, I think I had been harboring a prejudice that Linux would be clunky and ugly in that ‘developed-by-a-smart-person-with-no-design-sense’ way. You know….the gaudy, beveled buttons with Comic Sans font. However, despite Xubuntu having a stripped down GUI, it was still attractive and professional looking.
I think it was good that I started with Xubuntu, as it was pretty enough to prevent me from dismissing it yet challenging enough that I was forced to learn how to use the Linux terminal and command line way of doing things (which I had absolutely no experience with). I couldn’t just drag/drop files to other directories or right click to perform other actions, like renaming a file. Instead, I had to open the terminal and type out the command for performing these simple tasks.
At first this was daunting and even annoying. It seemed such a waste of time to spend 5 minutes renaming a file when I could do it in 5 seconds through Windows (granted, someone more familiar with Linux could do things a lot faster). However, there was still a sense of accomplishment each time I learned something new and even sort of a god-like feeling performing actions through the command line that I had blindly done through a GUI previously. I think it gives you a greater appreciation of the logic involved for basic system tasks you take for granted in Windows.
Anyways, so I kept Xubuntu installed and eventually figured out how to install packages (ie: programs), which consisted mostly of toddler-friendly games for Kade. Extreme Tux Racer became his favorite, though there were quite a few others that even I would have enjoyed.
I also installed Kubuntu on my laptop around that time, but couldn’t figure out how to make it communicate with the rest of my Windows-based network. I wanted the laptop set up as a dedicated box for torrent downloads, so it was essential that I could access it from any of the other systems in the house or vice versa. I’m sure I could have figured it out eventually – but with work, kids and daily obligations, I was short on extra time and eventually just gave up and reinstalled XP.
So Xubuntu worked fine for Kade’s system until I upgraded the hardware and it started also being used by my husband. He doesn’t share my passion for computers and had a harder time adjusting to the Linux environment. Because it was frustrating always having to stop what I was doing to assist with something … or worse, find him on my computers because he didn’t want to use Kade’s … I eventually removed Xubuntu and reinstalled XP.
That was the end of my Linux exploration until a week ago, when I was motivated to install Ubuntu so I could try out the Boxee media center. It is a long, drawn out story that I will probably complain about in a future post – but essentially I was able to dual boot Ubunto on my XP-based laptop. Setting up the dual boot and installing Boxee was a simple process. However, the nightmare began when it came time to enable the s-video out on my laptop so I could watch movies through Boxee on my bedroom TV. The laptop has an ATI Radeon Mobility 9600 card, which Ubuntu had open source drivers for. However, the s-video didn’t work with the open source drivers…so after finding no restricted driver available within their hardware driver tool, I downloaded and installed ATI’s proprietary linux driver from their website. It took some fiddling, but I eventually got the s-video port working (the display was initially black and white until I set it to NTCS within the Catalyst Control Center instead of using the ‘United States’ local option).
Had I been smart, I would have left well enough alone. Instead, I decided that I would be clever and install Lirc so I could use one of my remotes to control Boxee while it was hooked up to the TV (I had an old ATI Wonder receiver and remote I was going to try). At some point through the process of installing and configuring Lirc (I’m not sure at what point, as I wasn’t paying attention to the s-video display I had hooked up across the room) – the s-video display reverted to black and white again. Changing settings in Catalyst Control Center did nothing for me, at which point I noticed there were now restricted drivers being listed in the hardware drivers tool of Ubuntu. I tried installing those, but the process failed. When I rebooted, my display disappeared entirely once it got past the Ubuntu loading screen and just looked like a garbled mess. By the way, I never did get Lirc working – but that was a whole fiasco in itself, so I won’t get into it now.
Since there is no GUI method of rolling back a driver (and I couldn’t get into the GUI anyways) – I spent another two hours researching the command lines for purging ATI graphics drivers through the recovery mode shell prompt so I could revert back to the original, open source ones. I think the problem was that I had tried downloading the Ubuntu restricted drivers when the ATI proprietary ones from their website were already installed. I’m not well versed enough in Linux or understanding the config file to know for sure, but I believe there was a conflict between the Ubuntu restricted drivers I tried installing and the proprietary ATI ones I had installed earlier.
Anyways, I tried every command I could find to strip out all of the ATI drivers, hoping this would force Ubuntu to load the original open source ones….but nothing I tried worked. My frustration was so high after several hours that, under normal circumstances, I would have said to hell with Ubuntu and just reverted entirely back to Windows. However, for the short time during which everything was working perfectly – I had the chance to explore and fall in love with Boxee. The Boxee UI is fantastic and it can flawlessly access and play media stored on my home server. It would be perfect for streaming media to our bedroom.
So this morning I completely reinstalled Ubuntu. I took me awhile to figure out how to do this on my dual-boot system (it required using the manual partition option during the install process) – but I now have a fully functional Ubuntu OS again. My problem now is that I cannot decide whether or I should try to reinstall ATI’s proprietary driver so I can get s-video working…or if I should spend another handful of hours researching to see if there is a way this can be done using the open source drivers.
Ultimately, this is my biggest complaint with Linux (or rather, those distros I have experience with thus far). I don’t mind things breaking, so long as I can easily undo whatever damage I did. I realize my inexperience with Linux and the command line is the biggest issue here, but I can’t see that average people will ever be motivated to use Linux when it is so complicated to fix issues like a broken video driver. I want to love Ubuntu. The GUI is awesome and the OS more snappy than Windows. If I had more time on my hands, I would very much enjoy the steeper learning curve. In the 6+ hours I spent trying to fix the video driver last night, I gained a slew of new information on how to use the command line. But the reality is that I have work, kids and daily responsibilities that only leave a few hours each day (if even) to indulge personal hobbies.
Anyways, I’m stubborn and won’t give up on Linux yet – but if there is anyone thinking of switching to Linux from Windows, I’d highly recommend doing it on a secondary machine that you aren’t completely dependent on so you can learn how to use it without feeling pressured to have a fully-functional and reliable system. If you have absolutely no Linux background (like myself), then be prepared to spend a significant amount of time learning how to perform system tasks via command prompt.