A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine gave me an old Athlon CPU chip he had lying around. It's nothing exciting (800MHz K7, 200MHz FSB), by objective standards, but when you compare to what I'm using as my current Linux desktop (350MHz K6), it doesn't look half bad.
I had been putting off building a new desktop until either the current crop of AMD goodness came down to my strike price (somewhere south of $500 for a base system), which didn't seem to be happening too quickly. In fact, as AMD's prospects have improved, their prices have risen. It had been so long, in fact, since my last system upgrade, that I was pretty much resigned to using my current machine until I could get a nice Opteron system second-hand. Having an Athlon CPU, admittedly outdated, in my hot little hand, however, changed my attitude.
A little bit of research revealed that there were plenty of nice motherboards on the market still that would support my old Athlon, some at absurdly low prices. I had the remnants of a friend's computer (the left-overs after I transferred all the important stuff to his new machine), and I meant to pull some other stuff out of my currnt desktop, so I would only need to buy a few components.
Here is the laundry list that resulted:
- Athlon Motherboard (EPoX EP-8K9A7I)
- 256MB DDR DIMM
- 60GB Hard Disk Drive
- Case & Power Supply
- CPU Heat Sync & Fan
The total price, even with shipping, came to less than $200, which was pretty hard to resist. I found out, later, that I should have ordered a video card as well: all of my current video cards are AGP 1x cards, and the motherboard has an AGP 4x/8x slot. I'll worry about that later, though, since I was able to scrounge a PCI video card for the purposes of initial assembly and software installation.
Which brings me to the subject I really wanted to write about: Linux distributions. I've been using Linux for about 8 years, though I was aware of it almost since day-1 (back around 1991/1992), and for most of that time I've been a slackware user. For two short periods, however, I had been using RedHat-ish systems. My first Linux installation was RedHat, and I used a Mandrake installation for a few years around 1999/2000.
I didn't like RedHat very much, too much custom crap, too many not-quite-unixy things, and RPM just drove me bonkers. Slackware was much simpler, more 'unixy' and packages installation, while tedious, was much less frustrating. I am, however, a fair-mineded fellow, and I thought I should give RedHat another chance. Besides, I'd seen some programs that looked usefull (e.g. Evolution) that really wanted a RedHat system to install on.
I went out to LinuxISO.org and had a look at some of the options. I wanted something that was reasonably up-to-date (i.e. kernel 2.6.x, XFree86 4.3.x or 4.4.x, GCC 3.2 or 3.3, etc.) and came with full installation on CDs (no live CDs with install off the net). I settled on the following three:
I downloaded ISO images for Slackware and both Fedora versions with few problems (I really need to install a BitTorrent client: sites willing to serve ISOs are getting scarce, and, when you can find them, the available bandwidth is pretty piss-poor), though the product web-pages were not as helpfull as I would like: Slackware's page pretty good, all the major ingredients are listed on the front page in plain english. The RedHat/Fedora page, however, is an exercise in evasion. The Mandrake page is pretty cluttered and it takes some work to find the technical specs.
Incidentally, there was another problem with Mandrake Linux: they don't actaully make their product available to the general public in a timely manner. I understand that they have a business to run, and I'm actually quite sympathetic to their financial plight, but they don't have the kind of market share that would allow them to artificially restrict the market for their product without further injuring their business. I'll probably shell out some cash to become a Mandrake club member, more because I want to support the company than to get access to their software, but it sure put a damper on my entusiasm over the weekend.
Again, what I really wanted to talk about was Fedore Linux, and how I was utterly unable to complete an installation of their product:
I burned a copy of the Fedore Core 1 disks and set to work. The first disk failed to verify during the installation process, even though the downloaded image's MD5 checksum matched what LinuxISO had posted, and the CD burning software said that the burnded CD verified against the image. I decided to ignore the installation process' warning and proceed, only to have the installation crap out while trying to unpack the linux kernal package.
Next, I burned a copy of Fedore Core 2 test 3. This time the installation process' verification phase said everything was peachy, but the process crapped out during package installation on some other vital package. Again, the MD5 checksums matched and the CD burner's verification had been good. If the Fedora folk can't get their act together enough to produce working ISO images, I don't have time to screw around with them.
This leaves me with the Slackware CDs. Since the machine is a home machine, I guess I can do without Evolution (I have no need to desire to be LookOut compatible at home), and I'm more comfortable with Slackware anyhow. Maybe, if my enthusiasm returns before I put the new machine to real use, I will join the Mandrake club and try Mandrake 10.0, but it's doubtful.
I tend to discount all the talk about how we need to make Linux easy to install. I don't think most users care about ease of installation. Most users never install their operating own systems: the OS comes pre-installed on the computer when they buy it. This weekend's esperience, however, has given me new appreciation for the argument. The Slackware installation process is pretty primitive, but even the Fedore install is a chore (pretty graphics not withstanding).
The same complaints I had 8 years ago apply today: there are too many choices that need to be made at installation (without even reasonable default values) and there too little immediate help with those choices (Slackware, for example, asks you to choose a kernel package from a list, but doesn't offer any description of what each package contains, aside from the package name: bare.i, bareapci.i, jfs.s, etc.). I'm not just saying that this is too much for novices to keep track of: even seasoned Linux veterans (like myself) are daunted by the task.
Anyhow, that's enough bitching for one day. I'm sure that some of my complaints are equally valid or other OS's (Windows, *BSD or MacOS X), and that some of my vitriol is run-of-the-mill Monday morning crankiness, but I wouldn't write off the entire rant on those counts. For all the progress Linux has made in the past decade, some of the worst problems have not been addressed.