A coworker has been going on about Ubuntu Linux nearly every day I work with him and my curiosity finally got the best of me this weekend. Although I am more familiar with FreeBSD and RPM-based distributions, I had no doubt I would be up to the challenge of installing what everyone is saying is one of the easiest distributions to configure. Besides being a little unfamiliar should allow me to give it a fair evaluation from a layman's standpoint.
The victim...I mean willing volunteer...is a Dell Inspiron 2650 running a 1.8 GHz P4, 512 MB RAM, 20 GB HDD, Nvidia Geforce 2 Go 32MB graphics and a DVD/CD-RW combo drive. In addition there are in use a WPC54Gv2 PCMICA wireless adapter, 128 MB flash drive and Microsoft USB mouse (5 button with scroll). This system is no stranger to Linux but due to past problems finding a distribution that works to my satisfaction it usually ends back with Windows XP within a short period of time. Can this be the distribution that finally breaks the shackles of my system?
When I first decided to do this project I could not decide if I wanted to use the standard install of Ubuntu or use Kbuntu since I am partial to KDE. I decided to let random chance decide and started burning the LiveCD discs on two separate computers. Ubuntu won by about 1 ½ minutes so I dropped the disc into the system and restarted.
After the LiveCD booted on the laptop I spent a few minutes playing with the system to make sure I had the basics in place. I was not surprised the wireless card was not detected but I did verify my on-board network card was operational and the system could lease an address. The maximum resolution was only 1024 x 768 but the system did inform me there was an "unsupported" driver available that enabled hardware acceleration. No need to download that now but it was nice to know the system could find it when I needed it.
The desktop had an icon for install and I started the program. The questions are self-explanatory and a novice could safely choose the default choices if unsure. My first real difficultly was when it came time to partition the hard drive.
My intention was to wipe the system clean and make Ubuntu the sole OS on the computer. I told the installer to use the whole drive and for some reason it could not create the partitions. After a few minutes of trying variations I simply cleared the old NTFS partitions and restarted the computer. The second time it was able to format and copy the installer files to the computer without issue. Installation took about 30 minutes to format, copy files and restart the system.
The system came up with no visible error messages and prompted me for my user name and password, then displayed the basic desktop. My screen resolution was still only 1024 x 768 but I hoped the driver the system mentioned would fix that. The wireless card was powered and detected as a Broadcom-based device but was not working. Other than that, the basics functions of the laptop were operational. Now for the tweaking.
The system flashed a message that updates were available. I clicked on the message and was notified there was 119 updated for a total of 189 MB. This made me glad once again I had broadband as this would have been a huge drawback for a dial up user. I could have pared it down somewhat I am certain but I was trying to get a "click and go" feeling from this distribution.
Twenty minutes later the update was complete and I went ahead and installed the Nvidia drivers as suggested by the system, which also warned me it was "restricted" and could not be automatically updated. Small price to pay to use my whole screen and not be forced to "stretch" it using Fn+F7. Another reboot and a quick resolution change and my laptop was now at the native of 1400 x 1050.
With the core functions accounted for, it was time to attempt to get my wireless adapter working. This has always been a major stumbling block as the Linksys WPC54G is famous for being a decidedly unfriendly device to Linux. After a moment searching through Google I found step-by-step instructions for setting up the driver with ndiswrapper. It seemed too easy to be true but I a few minutes later the system was detecting my wireless network. There had been a brief moment of panic when my output results were different than the examples given but everything seemed to be working. Once my network key was in place the system now had access to the network.
Installation to this point had taken less than 90 minutes and with the software provided it was nearly a complete unit. Only a little command line work required for the ndiswrapper, otherwise completely painless and intuitive to any user with basic computer skills.
Of course I am a "real world" user and not a purist that avoids any proprietary software (besides the system was already "tainted" by my video drivers), so now it was time to download a few more applications.
I decided to delve into the Synaptic Package Manager to search for plug-ins for Firefox and found Java 6, Flash, Mplayer, gxine and Helix. This gave me support for most formats with the exception of midi files. A few minutes again on Google suggested installation of mozplugger and playmidi, again both found in the package manager.
My first crash/lockup! They system hung when trying to install mozplugger, completely non-responsive for over 15 minutes when I finally killed the system power and rebooted. Once the system was up and running I went back into the package manager and installed mozplugger and playmidi without problems. I started up Firefox to test and discovered I had no internet access. A moment later I realized my wireless card was no longer detected.
This was my first major frustration of the install and for a while it seemed it was going to be a show stopper as ndiswrapper kept insisting the driver was installed one moment and then claiming it was missing the next. After about 2 hours of troubleshooting and searching for solutions online I finally got the card working again and configured ndiswrapper to automatically start. After three reboots I considered the card stable and ready for use. On a positive note I did discover my midi functionality now worked flawlessly in Firefox.
My last primary objective was to get DVD video to play on the laptop. I had hoped someone in the industry would have finally released a commercial Linux DVD player but it became painfully obvious this was still a dream despite all the fuss DeCSS had caused. A search revealed a solution in libdvdcss2 and provided instructions on how to access it from the Medibuntu package repository. A few minutes later I was able to watch a commercial DVD on the laptop. Not the best solution for the "morale high ground" but my only option at this time.
At this time I could consider my laptop "feature complete" and a more than adequate replacement for Windows since most of the games I take "mobile" have either Linux versions or work in Wine. For the first time I can honestly say this laptop is very likely to stay Windows free.
The Good: Simple straight forward installer, easy to understand controls and utilities and a wide selection of packages available with an automatic update feature. Nice selection of default applications to get a user started. USB flash drive automatically detected and an icon placed on desktop. System performance is around 20% faster than with Windows XP.
The Bad: System had two freezes during this process and one failure to format drive. This may be a problem with the hardware but both freezes occurred when attempting to install packages using the Synaptic Package Manager (once during reinstall of ndiswrapper after card stopped working). No apparent support for side buttons on mouse. No legal support for DVD movies and the typical user would expect this to work "out of the box".
The Ugly: Although the wireless card I use on this laptop is notorious for being difficult to install, the chances of a novice Linux user to fix the problem I encountered with ndiswrapper would be slim. Most Windows users are completely unfamiliar with the command line and would quickly get lost in technical troubleshooting of this nature. There is a graphical driver installation tool for ndiswrapper in the package manager and I may try it out at some point in the future and see if the process is any easier.
Credit Where Credit is Due: The following pages were of great assistance to me in getting the system up and running:
http://antonym.org/node/89 and http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=5645 (Linksys WPC54g)
http://www.yolinux.com/TUTORIALS/LinuxTutorialMozi llaConfiguration.html (Firefox plugins)
http://www.linuxquestions.org/linux/answers/Applic ations_GUI_Multimedia/Three_Steps_to_MIDI_on_Linux (Enabling midi support)
Medibuntu (DVD support, link not provided for legal reasons)