I've recently liberated an old Inspiron 4000 laptop and turned it into a PC for the wife and others. It's a 700MHz Pentium 3 with 310Mb of memory. Just about everything in it is now outdated from USB 1.0 to ATI Mobility M3 graphics. The good bit is an 80Gb disk from when I upgraded it a year or so ago. However apart from programs being a bit slow to load it runs Windows XP fine and actually using it, it's pretty responsive. At least good enough for general web surfing and email along with background downloads using BitTorrent et al. It even runs Skype well and can handle voice calls. It's got a PCMIA ethernet card and a Buffalo Wifi card.

So after cleaning the disk it's got 15Gb or so used and plenty of free space. So it seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out Ubuntu and experiment to see how close Linux is to me being able to make the switch.

Loading Ubuntu
Downloading the latest Edgy Eft 6.10 was easy (and surprisingly quick). The Dell has a DVD player but can't write CDs but my other laptop made short work of burning the CD using Infra Recorder. So now the fun begins. Inevitably I wanted a bit of control over the partitioning so I didn't want to just accept the default settings. Lots of web searching led me to the following layout
1) Windows NTFS 20Gb
2) Shared EXT3 34Gb
3) Ubuntu Root EXT3 20Gb
4) Swap 1Gb
So we fire up the live CD, which takes a surprising amount of time. Everything including the wifi appears to work so hit the install button. Using GParted to set the partitions up was nerve racking. There's a point were the partitions are all defined but it's about to start. HDA1 (the Windows partition) is at the top with a checkbox unchecked for Reformat. I wasn't paying attention but Ubuntu stopped me from trying to reformat it. It wouldn't have done anyway which means the checkbox really should be disabled. I then got a failure message saying it had resized the windows partition but something had gone wrong. It was actually lying and telling it to redo the rest of the job worked.

30 minutes later and I have a dual boot XP-Ubuntu machine. Restart, check windows still works, then boot into Ubuntu. Everything appears fine but startup is pretty slow and some operations, like just starting a terminal session are also slow. The mouse is really jerky and scrolling around Firefox is jerky and slow with keystrokes getting missed. Much web surfing later, I discover that there is a small tweak possible. This involves editing /etc/X11/xorg.conf and changing the default color depth from 24 to 16. It seems the jerky mouse is a known bug. And the ATI proprietary drivers don't support the Mobility M3. Apparently I'm stuck with slow screen performance. The default drivers just don't seem that good with this hardware. There's a message in here which is *SAVE A COPY OF xorg.conf* When it all goes titsup and X won't start, you can boot into recovery mode and use the cp command to get back to where you were.

At one point I booted up a Knoppix 4 CD and confiormed it's using more or less the same driver and was similarly unreponsive. I didn't notice the jerky mouse but window refreshes and scrolls were similarly nasty.

Meanwhile the fonts are really ugly. So I installed msttcorefonts and changed everything I could to Arial, Courier New and Times Roman TTF. Things are a bit better. The next step was switching the aliasing around. Under XP I have cleartype turned off everywhere because it looks fuzzy to me. But under Ubuntu, the Truetype Arial is getting badly sized. Some sizes look like badly sized bitmap fonts and Bold really doesn't work. With aliasing set to LCD it's useable but not as clear as under XP.

I've also modifed Grub so that Windows is the top option and it defaults to the last used OS.

So after about 10 hours of work I've got a working dual boot system but frankly video performance under Ubuntu sucks. And the lost mouse movement and lost key strokes makes it impossible to work with and especially impossible to give to someone else.

There was still way too much need to get your hands dirty and use the command line. I'm used to command line Linux so it's not alien but it's too much for a newbie. Having X fail to start is worrying. Perhaps it should fire up a basic VGA driver if the full driver fails.

Firefox doesn't support backspace to go back a page only alt-left. Huh?

Partitioning didn't quite work as it should have done. In the end eveything was ok, but I can do without the racked nerves of spurious error messages.

The automatic updates work well. App install works well. The Synaptics package manager is a good solution. Perhaps universe and multiverse should enabled by default.

The documentation on the Ubuntu site is pretty good though it suffers from the usual wiki problem of being a bit unorganised. It sometimes hard to find your way back to a page you knew you'd seen before.

As I used Ubuntu, I could feel myself getting dismayed by just how much work I'd have to put in to get it "just right" for me. But then my XP setup has taken several years to get right, so expecting to get to the same point in a few hours is unreasonable.

So all in all I can imagine using this day to day. It's not quite ready for prime time as a direct replacement for XP but it's damn close. However trying to run it on 5 year old hardware is not really on. This is disappointing as I expected it to be at least as responsive as XP and hopefully better since the underlying OS is better architected. Something not exactly surprising was the font problem as I've heard of similar stories before and screen driver problem. It's a testament to how much work Microsoft have done, both themselves and with their partners that Windows screen and font control is excellent. It's only when you see another system fail that you appreciate it. This is perhaps the biggest issue that Linux has to solve before it can become truly mainstream. And I get the impression that this is down to the X code and not any one distro as they mostly seem to use the same underlying system. It's just possible that Kubuntu and Xubuntu (and hence KDE and Xfc) work better but I think the problem is actually below these in X.

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[ 28-Jan-07 6:56pm ] [ , ]