Various Thoughts and Experiences with Linux

I've been going in circles for a while now, trying to get far enough along on something that I could write it up. Since I still haven't managed that, I think it is time to pass along a few notes and experiences from those circles...
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I've been going in circles for a while now, trying to get far enough along on something that I could write it up. Since I still haven't managed that, I think it is time to pass along a few notes and experiences from those circles...

First, in a nutshell, the hardware (I know, you've probably seen it before):

- Fujitsu Lifebook S6510, Intel Core2 Duo, 965 GM display adapter, Marvell wired ethernet adapter, 4965AGN wireless network adapter. This system is almost a year old now, but I still consider it "new".

- Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook S2110, AMD Turion 64, ATI Radeon 200M display adapter, Broadcom wired ethernet adapter, Atheros 5000 wireless network adapter. This system is several years old now, and I think that age, and specific types of hardware, are working against it.

Since the new release of Mandriva (2009.0) and Ubuntu (8.10), and the upcoming releases of Debian (lenny), Fedora (10) and MEPIS (8.0), I've been loading (or trying to load) each of these on each of the laptops, with varying degrees of success.

- Ubuntu loads on both laptops just fine, no muss, no fuss, both work fine, displays are good, wired and wireless networks are good. Honestly, the ONLY two (minor) complaints that I have are that the Broadband Network (Sierra Wireless cellular modem) doesn't connect using the "default" network manager configuration, although I can work around that, and they didn't include OpenOffice 3.0.0 in the 8.10 release, so I had to upgrade that myself. Realistically, if those are the only complaints I can come up with, then they have done a really good job.

- Mandriva - KDE. This seems to be their "standard" or "default" distribution. It won't even load on the S2110, I suspect because of the ATI display adapter. It just hangs when booting the Live CD. I did manage to install it on the S6510, but either it didn't install properly, or I am just too dense to use a KDE desktop, because when it was done there were no icons on the desktop - not a single one - and I couldn't find anything.

- Mandriva - Gnome. On the S6510 it installs easily, and seems to work just fine. Everything is familiar, and it seems quite fast. It will sort of install on the S2110; it is still not happy when booting the Live CD, because of the ATI display adapter. It lets me go through a manual (confusing, intimidating) configuration procedure, which will eventually let me get the installation done, but it still misbehaves after the installation is complete.

- Debian Installs ok on the S6510, but it appears to be using a version of Grub that is incompatible with Ubuntu and Mandriva; after I installed Debian, I was no longer able to boot either of those partitions. Once I reinstalled Mandriva, I could boot them again, and I could boot Debian as well. I didn't even try Debian on the S2110.

- Fedora 10 looks like it is going to be a huge improvement. It installed quickly and easily on both systems, and seems to work just fine. The display is rather sluggish on the S2110, but is still usable. The more I used it, the more I liked it - but it does take quite a bit more setup and configuration effort than Ubuntu or Mandriva. It's still two more weeks until the final release of Fedora 10, so I assume it will be even better by then.

- MEPIS was a new adventure for me, I had never tried it before. They are at Beta5 of the 8.0 release, and at least on the S6510 it seems to be just as good as Ubuntu or Mandriva. It installs quickly and easily - and it has a very nice GUI on the installation procedure, in my opinion. It has a KDE desktop, and it is the first of those that I have actually been able to use reasonably well (I have tried Kubuntu, Mandriva KDE and OpenSuSE). It leaves quite a bit more for the user to set up and/or configure than either Ubuntu or Mandriva, but I like the look and feel of it, and it seems quite fast and stable. On the S2110 it was a different story - I could never get it to install properly. Once it hung when booting the Live CD. Once it booted, but there was a blank desktop. Finally I got it to boot properly and ran the installation, but when I booted the installed system I couldn't log in. One last try, and I was able to log in but an awful lot of things didn't work properly, or just didn't run at all.

The first really important thing I think all of this shows is that if you are running reasonably new and reasonably common hardware, you are going to have a lot of good options for Linux distributions which will work well for you. But if you have an "older" system, with less common hardware, you are more likely to run into problems with installation, configuration or operation, so be careful and test thoroughly.

Second, don't judge a book (or a Linux distribution) by its cover. Nearly all of the major distributions now are either KDE or Gnome based, but there are various versions of each being used now, with the largest divergence being the KDE 3.x/4.0/4.1 series. Even using the same desktop on different versions, you will find it to be configured very differently, so look around before you decide on one. In this situation, the Live CDs can be a big help, because the desktop they show you is likely to be very similar to what you would get after installation, so you can look them over and compare them that way.

Third, it's not difficult to set up a multi-boot system any more, including Windows XP and/or Vista with one or more Linux versions. Every one of the distributions I have mentioned here will do that for you automatically, and it's a great way to keep a couple of different versions installed for a while so that you can evaluate and compare them in more depth. My S6510 has anywhere from three to six bootable partitions, including Windows (either XP or Vista), Ubuntu, Mandriva and whatever other distributions I happen to be looking at, on a 180 GB disk. The S2110 "only" has a 100GB disk, so I keep XP and Ubuntu on it at all times, plus one more partition that usually has Mandriva, but I sometimes overwrite with others for testing.

Conclusion: There are a lot of choices, and they're getting better all the time. Look around, give them a try, and you're likely to find one that you like and which works well for you. I'll be writing more about Debian, Fedora and MEPIS in the next few weeks, when their final releases come out.

jw 13/11/2008

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