My latest Linux experience

Discussion in 'Science and Technology' started by Robert Maxwell, Aug 27, 2009.

  1. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell memelord Premium Member

    Jun 12, 2001
    We haven't had a Linux discussion thread for a little while, so I thought I'd go ahead and start one regarding my latest experience with it.

    First, some background:

    The first Linux I ever used was Corel's version, in 1999. It was decent, but there were hardware and video issues that prevented me from really using it.

    About a year later, I gave Mandrake a shot. I really liked it. Again, there were hardware issues--in particular, wireless support was essentially nonexistent. Everything else worked, for the most part, although I had to edit some config files to make my sound card and CD drive work properly. I ran that system for a few years as a development server for my own projects. Eventually, I dismantled it and turned it into a legacy gaming box.

    In the intervening years, I paid some attention to Ubuntu, which seemed to get a lot of praise for its ease of use and general friendliness. I tried it a couple times over the years, but there were always niggling quirks that ruined it for me: some random piece of hardware wouldn't work, or wouldn't work consistently; configuration options did unexpected things; I found myself immersed in a dependency hell; I still had to do my network configuration using config files, because the GUI facilities were incomplete and inconsistent.

    So, with that history in mind, I wanted to see just how easily I could get up and running with the latest and greatest Ubuntu: 9.04, aka Jaunty Jackalope. I used Wubi, which I must say provided for the most absurdly simple installation experience of my life. I told it what disk I wanted to install on, what desktop environment, what username and password I wanted, and then it went to town and set everything up.

    On my next reboot, I was prompted by the new bootloader to pick Windows or Ubuntu. Of course, I picked Ubuntu. The real installation then began. I was impressed that it installed without any input from me whatsoever. The only thing it did "wrong" was setting my system clock to 12PM. I suspect it was trying to set it to UTC and something just didn't go right. Well, that was easy enough to deal with.

    After the installation completed, which took about 30 minutes on my Asus netbook, it had rebooted and was ready to roll. I connected quite easily to my ad hoc wireless network. As far as I could tell, pretty much everything worked right out of the box. I adjusted some appearance settings to get a more pleasing color scheme, then installed some apps I wanted via the Synaptic Package Manager.

    SPM, I've found, is both Ubuntu's greatest asset and its foulest bane. Windows doesn't offer the ability to mass-update all the software installed on your system. SPM can do that completely automatically, if you want it to. However, actually searching for packages is a real bitch. I find that, unless you know exactly what package you want, you may not find it. I activated the third-party package sources but, for the life of me, I couldn't get the package search to find ccsm, which is the Compiz Configuration Manager. For the uninitiated, Compiz is a window compositing system. The concept is quite similar to the Aero interface of Windows Vista. The general idea is to allow a wide variety of visual effects in your desktop behavior: transparent windows, 3D animations, etc. Eye candy! :)

    So, like I said, I couldn't find ccsm (or simple-ccsm) listed anywhere in SPM, even after refreshing the cache from third parties. I went down to a terminal and entered the appropriate apt-get command, which I admit would probably never occur to your typical user. It installed successfully with all dependencies. I turned on some effects I wanted (specifically, making windows burn off of the screen as they closed, and having them "beam in" when they opened) and went about my merry way.

    The music player, Rockbox, worked pretty well. It did have to install a ton of plugins thanks to the various kinds of music files I have. That process was painless albeit somewhat time-consuming. Still, it did most of the legwork, merely prompting me to install a package then doing the actual work for me once I told it to go ahead.

    Everything seemed to be going very well. I had a nice visual style, I set up my desktop with the icons I wanted for easy access, made a few scripts to automate some tedious maintenance tasks I don't like doing, and so forth. At that point, I decided to play around with Compiz some more and see what else it could do. It was here that I made my fatal mistake.

    I don't know what, exactly, I activated. I believe it was trying to activate the ring-style program switcher. Once I turned that on, the entire desktop went haywire. Instead of having dialogs and windows come up, I got black boxes which sometimes had a one-pixel-thick line of garbage running across. Basically, nothing worked. The entire desktop was visually unusable.

    I rebooted and went into recovery mode. It had an option where it attempted to auto-fix graphical glitches, which evidently consists of nothing fancier than restoring the X11 conf file to its defaults--a file which had not been altered in the first place.

    This did not fix the problem. Indeed, the issue persisted and the system was essentially unusable, unless I just wanted to live in a terminal. I searched high and low for any articles that might explain how I could fix my Compiz glitch, but had no luck. One suggestion was to disable XGL, which you did by typing:

    gnome-xgl-switch --disable-xgl

    I blindly worked my way to a terminal on my corrupted desktop, and sudo'ed the command. Entered my password, then the entire screen went black and unresponsive. I rebooted, and trying to load the Ubuntu partition got me nothing more than a blinking cursor. The OS wouldn't even start up anymore! Color me very disappointed. Obviously, I had no way to recover it at this point, at least not without a lot of really tedious work that could just as easily be supplanted by a fresh installation.

    So, I'm gonna try it one more time, and this time be a lot more careful about what settings I change.

    Overall, I was very impressed with it, but it did expose one of the lingering issues with Linux in general: everything works fine, as long as you don't touch anything. A seemingly innocent option can bring down the whole system. In short, it's just not nearly idiot-proof enough. I could have dealt with the graphics glitch had there been a semi-obvious way to restore Compiz to its original configuration, but I didn't know where it was (I now know it's in Gconf) or how I could backup/restore it.

    Windows, at least, has a "Safe Mode" for when you've royally screwed things up and need to fix it. The closest thing Ubuntu has is the root shell, which admittedly will let you fix anything you want, but you must know exactly what you're doing or you'll only make things worse.

    And I never would have thought disabling XGL would somehow destroy the system. How it did that, I'm still not sure. Something else might have happened in the midst of that. There's no way to tell at this point.

    If anyone has any pointers for me on the things I described above, I'd love to hear 'em. Also, sharing your own Linux experiences would be nice, too!
  2. USS KG5

    USS KG5 Vice Admiral Admiral

    Aug 1, 2004
    England's green and pleasant land.
    I had this problem with the nVidia drivers - the graphical restore function did jack - in fact the "nv" to "nvidia" switch I could not find in the chuffing file - fortunately the nvidia installer has an uninstall script you can run from the command line.

    Ubuntu badly needs a graphical "safe mode" - in fact the config options from the UI are far too basic.

    That said Ubuntu is a great basis for a web-browsing system with VLC as my preference for multimedia. It is not "easy" in the sense that windows is though, it needs to be to snare the ordinary Joe.
  3. Marc

    Marc Fleet Admiral Admiral

    Nov 14, 2003
    An Aussie in Canukistan
    A safe mode for Lnux would probably work much better than the what it does under Windows now (can't uninstall a rogue piece of software for example) and though I think you can still adjust you video settings and possibly change the driver but I haven't actiall looked at that in quite some time.
  4. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell memelord Premium Member

    Jun 12, 2001
    Well, I got it back up and running last night. A word to the wise: either use ccsm or simple-ccsm, but don't use both. I think my mistake was in using ccsm first, then changing other stuff with simple-ccsm. That sent me straight into graphics hell.

    I was able to test out all the various bits and pieces of my system, too.

    * 3D graphics: worked fine! Compiz is running like a breeze. I even turned on the "desktop cube" function which is really slick.
    * Audio: worked fine, except that one program (Pidgin) causes intermittent buzzing through the sound card. This is a known issue and is being worked on, as far as I know.
    * Other drives: Ubuntu was able to mount my other NTFS partition, as well as an external hard drive and an SD card. No problems.
    * Wireless networking: works fine.
    * Webcam: works fine, surprisingly! I figured it would require some weird driver, but no, I just installed a webcam program (Cheesebooth or something) and it worked "out of the box."

    I have not attempted to use my netbook's Bluetooth functionality, or its Ethernet jack. I would assume the latter would work fine. I have no use for the former, but it might be tricky to get working anyway. I really don't know.

    I found the Add/Remove Program system pretty slick, too. I don't mean Synaptic, I mean the very simple program manager that shows you programs supported by Canonical. It was a pretty good list and just about anything you'd want to do is covered.

    I tried various video players and found most of them unimpressive. All I want is a video player with the following features:

    1. Videos remain docked to the player interface (so they don't just float all over the screen.)
    2. Playlists can be generated recursively from a chosen directory.
    3. It's smart enough not to assume every file in a directory is a media file (like stupid VLC does.)
    4. Allows random playback (playlist shuffle.)

    Thus far, I have yet to find anything that does all of those. The interface-docking in VLC is currently broken. Most others don't have recursive directory searching. And I think only MPlayer actually bothered docking the video to its interface.

    I have nothing but nice things to say about Rhythmbox, though. Nice little music player.

    Overall, I am pretty impressed. The actual OS feels very solid, and I think the GUI has finally reached a point where it's visually competitive with Windows and Mac. I just lament the lack of a graphical safe mode, and some of the apps are fussy. But then, I'm a very picky user and I have very specific things I want to be able to do. I think a typical user would get by fine with it as long as someone else set it up for them and they were careful about what they installed and what settings they touched.

    Oh, I also installed WINE and tried to run my Diablo II installation. Worked flawlessly, except it ran at the wrong resolution (800x600 instead of my desktop res of 1024x600). Homeworld froze the WINE process but I was able to get out and terminate it without rebooting or suffering any other ill effects. System Shock 2 complained about a CD. I don't know, I might need to crack it or something. I remember the last time I tried WINE, several years ago, I couldn't get it to run anything. :lol: So, color me impressed!

    If I can find a stable video player that does what I want, I may ditch Windows for the most part. I really like the wider variety of applications, it's just figuring out which ones actually work that's kind of a hassle.
  5. CorporalClegg

    CorporalClegg Admiral Admiral

    Aug 23, 2001
    Full of hot air.
    What media players have you tried?

    Some of the MPlayer front ends (like SMPlayer) might be more to your needs.

    Also, I'd almost bet that a lot of the problems you're having with VLC are dependency related. VLC has a LOT of dependencies to really work and they should be installed in a specific order. As far as I know, Synaptic only installs the basic necessary packages needed and not in the right order.

    It's a fairly common problem with a lot of robust packages and one of the reasons I don't like Debian (and Ubuntu in particular). Synaptic/apt-get just don't always work as logically as say Yum, YaST, or Pacman.

    Though, I've never particularity cared for Package managers to begin with which is why I use Slackware.

    Another thing you could try is installing KDE--or just Kubuntu (or something else, even). I think between Kaffeine and Amarok you could fill all your multimedia needs. You said you liked Rythombox, and it's just a watered down, more cumbersome take on Amarok. And, I think Kaffeine fits all your criteria for playing vids.

    Unfortunately, both are KDE native. They do work under GNOME but not without their share of problems.

    The great thing about Kaffeine is you can use Xine, GStreamer, and MPLayer codecs so it'll play pretty much anything. It's lightweight and has a lot of functionality without being a hog. It actually reminds me a lot of Media Player Classic which is all I use in Windows.

    Actually, I'd almost recommend switching to KDE anyway. 4.3 is just so good. I've pretty much always preferred GNOME and totally hated KDE 4 when it first came out. But with each release it has gotten better and 4.3, despite being the "biggest" yet is one of the fastest, most stable Desktops I've ever used. It's really amazing.

    As far as a Safe Mode, Linux really doesn't need one. For one thing, no matter the situation, you can always escape out to a console, terminate the X session and then restart it.

    Or, for better or worse, (and something I always recommend) setting the system to boot strait into the console.

    You may not get a pretty login manager, but typing your name, password, and "startx" isn't exactly difficult.

    It makes for an excellent fail-safe, plus you get into the habit of reading the boot record, which, once you do, will come to realize how nice it is to have.
  6. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell memelord Premium Member

    Jun 12, 2001
    Very good advice, thank you! :techman:

    I "solved" my video player problem by sticking with the Totem player. I wrote a Python script to build an XSPF playlist of all my videos rather than do it all myself. :lol: Works fine, although I had to install the Win32 codecs, which could not be done via a package manager for some reason. Now, it fills my needs since the video stays integrated in the player, I have all of them present, and everything plays--and of course, shuffling works. I will keep the others in mind, though, as I might try them in the future.

    I actually did try Kubuntu at one point during all this and I just didn't care for it. It wasn't just the look, which was reasonable enough, but the menu layouts just drove me crazy. I didn't like the logical arrangement of anything.

    I like Rhythmbox because it's simple and straightforward. I could do with a better visualization system, but I couldn't seem to get projectM to work. The current version in SVN seems to be screwed up as cmake couldn't build it--missing the CMakeLists.txt file. Huh. And I don't know anything about cmake so I wouldn't know how to fix that.

    Other than some false starts here and there, I've got it working how I want. I know my way around the console which definitely makes some things easier. Anything more complicated than a few shell commands, I'll write a perl or Python script for. :)

    At some point I might set up an actual development environment, but that can probably wait.

    I am pretty happy with it at this point, though. I have not had any OS-level crashes, so the drivers seem to be pretty solid. I'll just have to see what games I can get to work under WINE to minimize booting back into Windows!