Switching to Linux Day 1: Initial Thoughts

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It’s glorious. 😀 (Coke can for scale)

Ok — so anyone that’s been following me on Twitter or Facebook has probably seen me in a near-apopleptic frenzy waiting for my laptop. It was actually not scheduled to arrive until Monday, so I was rather excited (an understatement, if you ask Chris Hardie) when I saw that it was in Indianapolis at 5pm yesterday.

I ordered from LinuxCertified.com, hailing from Sunnyvale, California. My family gave me a substantial graduation gift and I decided to buy a laptop with it, and so I shopped around. I considered Dell’s Studio series, the Lenovo Thinkpad series, and stumbled upon LinuxCertified almost by accident. (random Googling) LC’s mission is to provide low-cost quality laptops that don’t hit their consumers with the “Microsoft Tax” — the embedded cost of using computers with Windows pre-installed. (Windows IS an option, however, you just pay for an OEM license and they install it for you.)

The specs were outstanding *NERD ALERT* non-techies should skip this part *NERD ALERT*:

CPU 2.5 GHz Core2 Duo CPU (T9300) w/ 6MB L2 Cache and native virtualization support
Video NVidia chipset, 512MB onboard RAM
Display 15.4″ diagonal, pulling 1680×1050
OS Ubuntu 8.04 64-bit
Other stuff Wifi, Webcam, USB ports, HDMI out, trackpad, full-size keyboard, weighs in at ~7lbs, 6-cell Li+ battery

It’s pretty sweet. The best part was that it clocked in for just under $1500. Dell couldn’t even come CLOSE to that with a model with lesser specs. Wow.

The Experience So far

As of right now, I am duly impressed. It has a very solid feel, runs very cool (given what’s under the hood!) and the display is BEAUTIFUL. It boots quickly, responds well, and runs very fast. I think it’s worth noting at this point that I am not a new Linux user, but I also wouldn’t consider myself a Linux veteran either. My goal with this laptop was to use Linux as the primary OS, and rely on virtualization to do any windows-exclusive tasks I need to do (work-related stuff).

The experience has been a very positive one so far. I’ve hit a couple speed bumps, but no deal-breakers (or heart-breakers, really) so far. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first:

The Bad

Wifi (B-)

When I first fired it up and got my personal account setup, I attempted to connect to my home wireless. In the past, other distributions (Ubuntu 8.10 and Fedora Core 7/8) have had no problems with this. I entered the authentication info just like always (and as I expected to) and it didn’t work. I tried it for about 15 minutes and gave up; I’ll look into it more later. Not a HUGE deal, but kind of a PITA.

Update: Wi-Fi works correctly. I changed my router settings from WEP to WPA security (a good move to do, regardless) and it kicked on perfectly. Apparently there are some issues with Linux and WEP keys.

Flash Support (B+)

The 64-bit OS has required a bit of wrangling. This isn’t so much a Linux problem though, and the only place I’ve really noticed it has been in my web browser — I’m running a 64-bit copy of Firefox and there isn’t yet native support for a 64-bit version of Adobe Flash Player (for watching Youtube,  Hulu, etc…. a necessity. :P), although I did find an official 64-bit DIY Flash plugin. I think it was developed by Adobe, but I need to install it manually. Again, something to do later, not impossible.

Third-Party Apps (B+)

I’ve had some stumbling with a couple of the third-party apps that I elected to install — but there were plenty of alternatives (that DID work), again, no biggie.

Occasionally, when doing a lot of things, the frame rate skips a little — but I think this is to be expected, and it rarely lagged. I think I can probably remedy this by decreasing the screen resolution slightly.

Size / Weight (B+)

I guess I should also mention that it’s somewhat large; I mean, it’s normal size for a laptop, but in this day and age of HP Mini’s and ASUS eeePC’s, it’s going to look like a behemoth (see the photo above for scale). I wasn’t at all surprised by the weight, but honestly it’s not THAT heavy. This laptop is more powerful than my 3-year-old desktop (and possibly even more powerful than my 1-year-old work computer), so I don’t really consider that a big deal, but some might.

That’s it.  The speakers lack bass, but shit… it’s a laptop. That’s what headphones are for.

The Good & the Awesome

Playing Music (A+)

Just to start testing things out, I popped in a CD (“Dig Your Own Hole” by the Chemical Brothers). Rhythmbox Musicplayer (iTunes slightly uglier, yet functionally homologous and faster third cousin-twice-removed) immediately popped up, giving me the option to Copy to Disc. I browsed the preferences to ensure it was going to my “Music” folder within my Home area; it was. I clicked “Copy to Disc” and it fired away, taking approximately 3-5 minutes to rip and encode the CD in .ogg format. (A format similar to mp3, but totally open and free) Rhythmbox sorted them by Artist/Album Title/Track # – Title.ogg — PERFECT. (I’m an organization nazi with my music collection). Worked as expected, no kinks.

One of the preferences was to “Watch my library for changes” — this feature is awesome. When I got my network share working (see below), I was able to copy in music from my work computer (rather than bringing it in from my CDs, which would be very time-consuming), meaning I could copy my Trip-Hop, New Wave, Drum & Bass, Swedish Death Metal, Video Game Power Metal, Alt-Country, Swing, and Classical in a matter of minutes, and it IMMEDIATELY populated into the Rhythmbox list! (this took less than 30 seconds to populate over 500 songs). It’s LIGHTNING FAST. The visualizer looks great too — no ugly frame-skipping or refresh lines. The interface is similar enough to iTunes that it was an intuitive switch.

Network Sharing (A-)

This was almost an A+. Ok, so I needed to transfer those music files from my work computer to my laptop. The easiest way, since my work network uses ADS authentication (that would be a real PITA), was to share a folder on my laptop and dump onto it from my work computer. In the past, this required setting up Samba, a long afternoon, and pizza.

But now? Go to “Home”, right click on “Public”, click “Share this folder”. Ubuntu tells me “hey, you need this software installed to be able to do this, ok?” — Click “OK” and provide administrative credentials. Ubuntu downloads, sets up, and installs the necessary packages for this to work. It took MAYBE one minute. That’s it. Seriously easy.

So repeat again, Home -> Public -> Right-click, “Share”, and click “ok”. And that’s it— oh wait. Error. I don’t have permissions. Oops!

So I had to logout, log in as Root, manage my user privileges to allow me to create network shares, logout as root, log back in as me, then logout and log back in (to set my new security settings). Repeating the steps from above, it worked instantly. (It may sound complicated, reading it, but really it wasn’t a big deal at all. Altogether it took 5 minutes, and in the future, it will take less than 30 sec.) The OS was VERY helpful with informing me what my next step was.

Adding New Programs (A)

This too was almost an A+. I didn’t realize it at first, but I had to grant myself permissions to “administer” the computer (but my account remains a “Desktop User” rather than an “Administrator” for security reasons.)

With that out of the way, I click on the Ubuntu icon, click on “Add/Remove…” and I’m presented with this AWESOME list, broken up by category.  (Note: you have to be on the Internet for this feature to work)

For non-Linux users, there’s no way to describe how cool this feature is. I’d have to just show you. Basically, everything in these lists, hundreds on hundreds of programs, are all totally FREE. To install them, you simply check the box next to the name to tag it for installation. When you’re done checking all the boxes you want to install, you click “Apply” and it downloads, configures, and installs the programs. That’s IT.

To uninstall / remove programs, you find it in the list (there’s a special filter to just show you what you’ve got already installed, to make this easier), and you uncheck the box and click “Apply”. Simple.

Every package has a “popularity” rating next to it, using a 4-star system. The rating reflects how many people have installed that package. A low-rating software isn’t necessary BAD (it might just be new or esoteric), but if it has high-popularity, you can almost always guarantee it’s a good application.

I grabbed a bunch of programs I wanted, including a Twitter App. The Twitter App (gTwitter) didn’t work for me — wouldn’t login correctly. So I removed it and installed another instead. It was that easy.

Virtualization (A+, pending) (A-, pending)

I had to get my IT guy to help me this; I’m still new to virtualization. For those of you that might also be thinking “What???” — Virtualization is a way to have a computer inside of your computer. My laptop runs Linux, but I want to be able to run a few Windows applications too (work stuff). In the past, this required WINe (Windows Emulator), which is pretty solid but not 100%. (I did install WINe though, via the Add/Remove feature. 🙂 ). Fortunately, there’s an awesome tool called VirtualBox OSE. I installed it via the System Tools category of Add/Remove.

When you run it the first time, you create a “disk image”, a large file (50 GB in my case)  that acts as the “virtual machien” (a Windows XP machine in this case). It’s like a little world for Windows to live in. When I run it, I can access any of those resources without having to reboot or ANYTHING. It’s AWESOME. (and my processor natively supports it. :D).

I probably wouldn’t *NEED* Ben to help me to do it, but I’m glad I had someone to answer my questions. The program walks you through most of the details.

UPDATE: Started Vbox, intending to load WinXP in the virtual image; ran into problems because no vbox drivers were present. Had to do sudo apt-get install virtualbox-ose-modules-generic in order to get in working. Once that was done, it worked like a charm though. Currently installing now, and nearly done.

That’s it for now, more tomorrow!