Inexorable Troubles

Alternate title:  How to set up a laptop running Ubuntu Linux

There is one big myth floating around about Ubuntu, one that states that it “just works”.  I’ve recently acquired a laptop, and not wanting to suffer the idiocy that is Vista Home Basic, which is bad enough, on a laptop with only 754MB of RAM (bearing in mind Vista naturally tries to hog the first GB), I decided to install everyone’s favorite open source OS.  And I’m going to talk you though how I set mine up. Now I’m not going to brag and say my way is the best way – on the contrary I probably made huge mistakes and you’ll probably all laugh at me for missing out something obvious.

Now let me get this straight: if you want to run Linux, you are in for a bumpy ride.  The basics do work, admirably so in fact – I was surprised when I plugged in an obscurely branded mouse and it worked instantly, but if you want to use any obscurely branded piece of kit that is not a computer staple, be ready for some late nights searching for drivers.

I’m not going to go into loads of detail about what flavour of ‘buntu you want, except to say…

  • KDE based Kubuntu is the graphical heavyweight and in past experience I’ve found it the easiest for desktop customization
  • Gnome based Ubuntu is the original and, in my view the best, with the widest variety of software ready at your fingertips to download
  • XFCE based Xubuntu is fantastic for the more venerable of machines, and could put to good use that one computer in the house that no-one ever used because it still runs Windows 98 and takes 3 weeks to boot up, only to suffer some sort of seizure when it looks out from behind it’s net curtains to reveal an internet that eats O.A.Pcs for dinner.

I chose Ubuntu, knowing that my motherboard based graphics card would keel over at the thought of semi-transparency and fancy spinning cubes.  Though the option is still there through compiz fusion, which looks quite fun (I can’t say I’ve ever managed to get it to work – more on this later)

Canonical, the guys behind the series, did one thing right in writing a graphical installer, which for me has always worked like a charm.  You won’t need my help to install it.  In fact in general when software doesn’t have much hardware relation beyond the bare essentials their software does have a much higher success rate.

After a nice refreshing total hard-disk format, expunging any trace of Microsoft from the system, I was faced with two major problems, and as expected they were both classic Linux hardware ones.

Firstly and most annoyingly, there was no driver for my graphics card, limiting my screen resolution to a meager 800×600.  I tried to put up with it, but having a non-resizable window with apply or submit buttons you physically cannot touch because they are off the bottom of the screen and you can’t move the window any further up very quickly looses its humour value.  Well done team Linux – that was a mistake worthy of Windows!

The second frustration was the lack of my wireless card driver.  It wasn’t quite so urgent as I had a nearby router I could connect to via ethernet, but it was irritating nonetheless.

So at this point, I suggest you go and lie down, have something to eat, and generally recoup some energy.  You are in for a long night.

Open up your web browser.  Prepare the ethernet connection if necessary.  Now go find your drivers!  And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have some fun.  It really is enjoyable trying to find the 3 people from the internet who have the same seemingly non-existent graphics card as you do.  You could try on the manufacturer’s website, but I had to do a rather fine-tooth-comb search to get them to realise they even produced my card, let alone wrote the drivers for it.  I think I eventually had to give up and go for the nearest numerical equivalent to what I was looking for from the huge range of similarly entitled driver packages.  Of course, before you do this you will need to find out exactly what you are looking for, and there is a handy program for this – open your version of the command prompt, and type ‘lshw’ (without the speechmarks of course).  This will display a convenient list of all your hardware, working or not, for you to search through and identify what you need.

After much hardship, I now have a semi working graphics card – I can’t enable any graphical effects, but I don’t think my laptop is spritely enough to manage them so I never intended to, so the only obvious problem is the rather worrying albeit nice-looking splodges of pixely colour that decorate the otherwise blank screen between log on and desktop display occasionally.  I managed to get the wireless connection working as well, for a time, but concurrently, inexplicably and irrevocably managed to kill the ethernet connection.  After a while, the ethernet came randomly back online again, only to seek a bloody revenge upon the wireless, which now longer works.  It seems that maybe Ubuntu is incapable of running two connections at once. And I think my current situation might be final as well – another laborious Google symptom-search reveled a few others across various linux forums all having my problem, and all ended rather depressingly, with none of them being solved and the threads being forgotten.  If anyone who reads this knows how to solve the communication problem between the network manager applet and the keyring manager which results in the network key never being passed on, please let me know so I can escape the uncomfortable pit I have to sit in to be able to reach the router wiredly.

And that’s roughly where I’m up to now.  Well, I’ve had plenty of time to play around and make myself at home, so I have all the apps I can see myself needing ready and installed (and working, I might add).  I have an attractive, if rarely useful, Thunderbird/Gmail set up so I can download my mail locally without loosing them from the online access.  I have all the Python modules I think I’ll need, along with SPE, my IDE of choice.  I have Atanks, which simply put is a good game.  I have a little program called Wallpapoz, which allows me to use multiple wallpapers at once, and I even managed to add a little transparency to my desktop.

And all in all I’m quite happy with it.

The thing is, with all the trials and tribulations, it’s still a fantastic system.  The sheer magnitude of software available is astounding.  And ok, a lot of it is dross that you’ll never use (I mean who needs 47 different media players when VLC plays pretty much anything, and Amarok has fantastic library functionality), but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.  And its all free.  I’ll repeat that.  It’s all free.  Considering you can pay £50-80 (I’m not sure what the current going rate is) for the most basic of Windows packages, and then you have to worry about all sorts of hackers and viruses and such, and then you still have programs that crash on a hugely regular basis and wireless connections that fail to work.  Compared with the amount of trouble you can have once you’ve used windows long enough for the registry to become a bit tied-up, Linux is a breeze.

In closing, to give you a sense of perspective, my slow aging laptop (I didn’t get it new) boots from cold in about 40 seconds.  My brother is shelling out huge ammounts of cash buying top of the range components and building what will eventually be a triple SLI behemoth, but his takes ages to get going if it works at all.  For some reason he can’t pin-point it just wont start.  Now it sounds like a hardware fault, but all the parts are new, and he’d well researched them to make sure they should work together before he bought them.  And yet it still keeps failing once it starts to boot up Vista.

I shouldn’t laugh, but it does seem to make my troubles pale into comparison.

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~ by Dominic on 18 September, 2008.

2 Responses to “Inexorable Troubles”

  1. ok, its quarter 2 1 on thursday. I have no laptop, no concentration span, and not even a basic knowledge on computers. enough to say I just read all of that, even tho i didnt understand it, nor want 2 install linux. dam ur seductive writing

  2. lol lol lol =p if u cnt find the driver then ur not looking hard enough, u know how to use synaptic packager, right ? =S

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