Ubuntu 8.04: My Thoughts

Every so often I get the urge to check out desktop Linux - just to see how things have progressed and whether or not it is in a usable state yet. For the last few times, the distro of choice I have tried has been Ubuntu, as that seems to be the new de facto starting point for a desktop distro.

Before beginning this review, let me first say that desktop distros have come a long way over the last few years, and Ubuntu is by far the most usable of the ones I’ve seen. Ubuntu itself has come a long way and, for someone who is willing to compromise on some points, is quite usable for someone who’s willing to spend some time tweaking things.

Having said that, it still has a ways to go before reaching Windows. And it’s not even in the same league as Mac OS X.

First, a little about my test rig: An AMD Athlon64 3700+ with 2 gigabytes of memory, two 250gb SATA hard drives (one for Windows, one for whatever OS I’m testing at the time), and dual GeForce 7600 GS’s running three 19” Samsung LCDs. Not your standard setup, mind you, but not ultra advanced and bleeding edge, either.

The installation: The installation is much the same as previous releases of Ubuntu: load up the live CD and, from within the live environment, launch the installer. The installer itself asks fewer questions that the Windows XP installer, yet seems to be able to do more. And doesn’t require endless reboots to get everything working.

My installation proceeded mostly okay (being that Windows resides on sda, I installed Ubuntu in sdb), except that after I installed and rebooted … nothing. It kept booting into Windows. I reinstalled again just to be sure I didn’t blitz through the boot record screen, but sure enough, writing to the MBR on sda doesn’t work when you have two SATA drives and you’re installing Ubuntu on sdb. This has been a bug for at least the last two times I’ve tried to install Ubuntu. I can fix it with grub commands and properly write a boot record to sda, but for the purposes of testing (and because I’m lazy and wanted to play with it) I just plugged sdb directly in and removed sda. So I’m up and running. This is something that would befuddle a lot of folks, but to be fair I’ve had problems with Windows in the past, but it seems like it would be an easy fix.

So I have Ubuntu installed now. Yay. Next step is to get my three LCDs working. This is where we run into what I think is the biggest hinderance to desktop Linux: X.

If I plug three monitors into two video cards on a Mac, it’s going to turn on all three monitors and allow me to drag things between them all effortlessly (one big desktop). If I plug it into Windows, I’ll need to download the drivers, but after that, no problems. Not so in X, though in fairness it is likely more due to the intrangisence of Nvidia when it comes to providing open source support.

First, if you want to do anthing, you have to download a “Restricted” driver. This is Ubuntu-speak for “we didn’t want to compromise our oh-so-precious ‘freeprinciples in the name of usability” (in case you can’t tell, I have very little patience for zealotry). In Ubuntu 8.04, the Restricted Drivers Manager has been poorly renamed to Hardware Drivers. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, since a driver for hardware may or may not be restricted. So, I download and install the Nvidia drivers.

Next, fire up the nvidia-settings utility to fix the X config. I was running this from the shell, but I later discovered that it puts a nice menu item in the Administration for you. It sees all my cards and, using this, I am able to configure everything up.

You have multiple options for ways to do three monitors, but only one works: Xinerama. You could do three separate X screens, but you can’t move windows between them. You could do Twinview on one screen and a separate X screen but, again, you couldn’t move windows between a dual screen and the third monitor, the windows on the Twinview screen don’t maximize and minimize properly, and the login screen is right in the middle of the two monitors so that it’s very difficult to see what you’re tying when you login. Only Xinerama lets you move windows between the three monitors, allows them to maximize properly, and has the login on a single screen. This was about an hour of changing settings and restarting X before I got it right.

The downside? It still isn’t supported in Compiz, which is a real bummer becauase compositing window managers was one of the things I was really looking forward to using. Anybody know if Compiz accepts bounties, because I really want this feature?

So no Compiz. Oh well. Next, get my other hardware working. I have a Logitech MX1000 Laser (greatest mouse ever, by the way), and I like to map the buttons to do various things (most notably, I use the “cruise” buttons to go back and fourth on web pages). In order to get this to work:

  1. sudo apt-get install xserver-xorg-input-evdev
  2. cat /proc/bus/input/devices (find Logitech USB Receiver)
  3. sudo cp /etc/X11/xorg.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.bak
  4. sudo gedit /etc/X11/xorg.conf
  5. Changes:
Section "InputDevice"
Identifier "Configured Mouse"
Driver "evdev"
Option "CorePointer"
Option "Name" "Logitech USB Receiver" #this should be the name of the device which I made bold here.
EndSection
  1. sudo apt-get install xvkbd xbindkeys
  2. gedit ~/.xbindkeysrc
  3. Changes:
/usr/bin/xvkbd -xsendevent -text "\[Alt_L]\[Left]" m:0x0 + b:12
/usr/bin/xvkbd -xsendevent -text "\[Alt_L]\[Right]" m:0x0 + b:11

After restarting (yes, again) I have working buttons. Yay.

The volume control on my Microsoft Natural Egro 4000 works now. It seems like this required some hacking last time around. Yay.

Now to install some developer tools so I can get to work. I love Synaptic; I wish Mac OS X had real package management the way Linux does - it’s one of the things Linux really has going for it, though I generally prefer Gentoo’s portage manager. So I install Eclipse. Huge package, and I was getting really crappy download speeds, so I let it run all night and went to bed. The next day found Eclipse installed and ready to go. Installed PHP, SVN, Apache. So I now have the tools to work.

My conclusions: I like Linux. I really do. I want to see Linux succeed on the desktop. And Ubuntu has gone further, faster than any other Linux distro. It is now by far the most fit and ready to use of any desktop Linux distro. I have a usable system now, and, theoretically, there is nothing stopping me from using my machine for most of my daily work.

Having said that, there is a lot to be said for style. First of all, it’s ugly as sin. The Gnome UI, while it is much improved, is still terrible when compared to Windows and OS X. Also, who thought that brown was a good color for a UI? Second, the names of some of the tools are un-intuitive: “Hardware Drivers,” “SCIM Input Method Detection,” “Authorizations,” and others need to have more intuitive names, and once you use any of them, the layout is not really intuitive either. The initial screen layout with a menu at the top and a taskbar at the bottom is also not really all that usable, though it can be corrected by removing the top panel.

I’m using it now (typing this in Drivel) so it is usable, but it still can’t displace my Mac for ease of use.

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Xcode 4

So today, out of nowhere, Xcode 4 finally landed as an official release. After seemingly forever in beta, and me quipping more than once about it’s similarity to Duke Nukem Forever, Apple finally pulled the trigger and released it. But something changed. Xcode now has a price. And that has left me, as both a Mac user and a Mac developer, with a lot of questions. It’s either $4.99 if you’re not a registered, paid Apple developer, or free if you are a registered, paid Apple developer (with all its $99 per year price tag glory). Supposedly there’s some crazy accounting reason that they have to charge for it. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that Xcode will soon be free again once OS X 10.7 arrives. But, it also leaves open the possibility that Xcode will no longer be distributed with OS X and will always have a price tag. It may not even stay $4.99. It may be $49.99 or $499.99. There are additional questions, too. Does this mean that Apple is still distributing Xcode as a bundle with GNU GCC? Because there are things (such as MacPorts) that rely on the underlying foundation provided by the developer bundle that don’t actually use Xcode. Before, those were completely free. Now, they cost $4.99 unless they have split the underlying compiler from the IDE. And if they are still distributing it with GCC, that leads to all kinds of crazy interesting licensing questions. But I think the worst part is that there is now a barrier to entry, however low, to being a developer on a platform that is already a minority in market share. I can’t understand how Apple potentially believes that it is good and right to trade short term profits for long term growth in the number of potential developers. For the future of the Mac platform, I sure hope this isn’t their line of reasoning. So, let me tell you a little story. My first dabbling in programming came courtesy of QuickBASIC back in the MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 days. This was the late 80s or early 90s, so I would have been 10 or 11 at the time. I stumbled across the Qbasic environment included with MS-DOS by accident and found Nibbles. And, after playing it, I discovered that I could change things by making changes to the strange text presented on the screen. I could change colors and speeds. But it would be a couple of years before I really understood what I was doing. When Windows 95 came out (and along with it, Visual Basic 4), I talked my parents into getting me a copy. I don’t remember how much it cost but it was probably a lot because it was one of the few Christmas presents I got that year. But boy did I run with it. I’ve periodically felt guilty over that expense because I didn’t actually make anything really useful with it, but it was instrumental in furthering my education. Now I could do things on my computer far beyond what poor ol’ Qbasic was capable of. So I wrote lots of silly little programs. I put together a “family newsletter” one year that was installed and ran as a piece of software. I was pretty proud of that. I even wrote some software for my high school as part of a software development and AP Computer Science courses. Eventually, I would move on to other things. Other versions of Visual Basic, Java, C, a brief foray into LISP and Forth-based languages for programming MUDs, and eventually web programming. First in Perl, then in PHP. I even landed my first paying programming job while still in high school, writing applications for a local transit contractor. At first, these were Visual Basic applications. But by the time I left (August of 2000) everything was going to the web and so were we. But I can trace everything - my entire career, and my consuming passion for software engineering - back to Qbasic and Nibbles. A silly little game about a block snake, and a free development environment included with the operating system. Had I not stumbled on Qbasic and Nibbles, there’s a chance I would never have been a developer. This is not about $4.99. I spend more on coffee in a week than that. My worry is about that 11 year old kid out there somewhere who may never get the opportunity to stumble across Xcode or the sample applications in /Developer and realize the raw power they possess. This is an area where Apple, a company with billions in cash on hand, should be happy to show a loss. It would be to the benefit of their platform, both now and in the future. One of the great benefits of the Mac platform has been it’s low barriers of entry to developers. Sure, one could argue that the hardware is more expensive (and I could counter-argue that, for the quality of the equipment you are getting a bargain), but the development tools have always been freely available online and included with the machine. You could dabble in programming to your heart’s content. Sure, if you want to put something in the app store(s), you had to pay for admission, but there was nothing stopping you from getting all the way to that point, or even distributing your creations on your own. But this new trend of charging for the development tools - even if it is a paltry sum - sends, to me, a worrying signal about the course Apple intends to tread. They’ve now moved the gate from the last step to the first step. It’s a course that Microsoft, as above, once tread. Microsoft? They now give away a version of Visual Studio for free.

Benchmarking Vista and XP: Apples and Oranges?

This article posted to C Net got me to thinking. In the article, they talk about vaguely defined “benchmarks” showing that Windows XP with the beta of Service Pack 3 outperformed Windows Vista with Service Pack 1. I can only say one thing: duh. Quite frankly, I would have been more surprised if Vista had outperformed XP. This really is an apples and oranges comparison because Vista is a newer and more complex operating system. And I’m not exactly a Microsoft fanboy, either - I’m typing this on a Mac, using a Java journal client. Of course it is going to run slower on the same equipment than an operating system that was released six years ago. I’m sure Windows 98SE will beat the pants off of XP on the same equipment, too. Leopard, released a few months ago, won’t even run on hardware circa when OS X first came out and will almost certainly run slower on machines that were top of the line when Tiger was released. Hey, while we’re at it, we could compare Doom to UT3 to see which runs faster! If they wanted to do a more fair comparison, they would have compared them on different machines - top of the line machines when their respective operating systems were released, using adjusted benchmarks. Being that machines are much faster now than they were in 2001, I wager that the difference between them would be a lot less.