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Trying out Ubuntu [and why I won't be ditching XP any time soon]

Ditching Microsoft for the wonderful openness of [GNU/]Linux is practically a religious experience, which is why I made the subcaption suitably provocative.

I posted a line or two about this on the RISC OS forum and the first and most amusing response received was:

That sounds very much like "I did something silly that I don't understand, so this Linux thing is rubbish."

Well. Let's see.

I thought it might be interesting to take a modern Linux for a spin. Apart from the semi-broken Angstrom on the Beagle, I have not really used Linux much at all. I think the last two I used were pUnuntu co-operative within Windows (!) and before that xubuntu (version 7? version 8?) on some prehistoric hardware.
So here, today, Ubuntu 14.04.2 LTS. In keeping with the naming scheme, this one is called Trusty Tahr. A Tahr is a sort of goat. I'm not that smart, I wiki'd it. At any rate, it is the standard stable domestic release, not some bleeding knife edge build that might be cool or might make the universe collapse into its own event horizon.
Supplied as an ISO image, I burned it to a DVD-R and hibernated Windows. Then I rebooted and told the machine to boot off the CD-ROM drive (same thing).

That went okay. The screen appeared with a logo that looked like the recycle man star jumping beside a keyboard. Maybe this is a subtle "Whee! Linux!" thing? That stayed on while the DVD drive had a fit. Eventually, after much seeking, the screen cleared and the initial desktop appeared, inviting me to either try out Ubuntu or install it. I chose to try it out. The screen went black for a while, then Ubuntu proper loaded. The Unity interface, having a sort of docking bar on the left and, well, good luck if you went to find a list of installed apps. It is possible but it is convoluted.

Usefully the machine started with an on-screen list of keypresses. I looked at them and then pressed PrintScreen to capture a screenshot. Didn't work. Pressing a key made the list disappear, and I don't know what to do to make it reappear. This is part of what I mean about a nice-looking UI marred by half-assed quirks. Is a new user supposed to remember two dozen keypresses? The list ought to linger in the background until specifically dismissed. It was a good idea, it just needs to be done correctly!

My WiFi interface was detected, and getting online should have been a matter of entering the WPA2 password. It "generally" worked, but it also exhibited peculiar pauses where the machine would be functioning, but the WiFi would just do nothing for random amounts of time. I set various options (British keyboard, CET timezone, etc). Then looking at the settings control panel, which is actually quite nicely laid out, I thought it might be nice to install the Japanese IME and get rid of Chinese, German, and Portuguese as I don't need them.
That was the plan. As it happened, everything failed with an "Authentication Failed" message. I don't recall what I did next, but I clicked a few things and eventually a verbose log appeared which indicated that the file's MD5 checksum was wrong. Why didn't the installer tell the truth and say "File downloaded incorrectly"? Authentication Failed could mean all sorts of things - from "you need to be root to do this" to "the host website requires you to log in".

I gave up on that and tried the sound settings. I had noticed that the machine had been oddly quiet. Here are the two windows of the sound configuration. The first, the settings window (scaled down slightly):

The second, the test window:
I tried every combination of options available. Nothing would make a sound.
Linux identified the hardware as "82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller", so it saw something. It just... didn't work.
As I watch a lot of animé, this could be a deal breaker. But I progressed anyway.

I should point out that everything I did sent the DVD drive into apoplectic spasms. I expect the system to run slowly when running it from DVD, but there most have been some hellishly aggressive memory optimisation going on here.

The next step was to look to see what hardware the operating system could see. You know, like Windows' Device Manager. Astonishingly, there was nothing pointy-clicky installed as standard. You get LibreOffice baked in, but you don't get a basic diagnostic aid. There was a system information tool, but it didn't tell me much more than "this is a computer". Gee, thanks.

Looking online, there seemed to be a nice diagnostic tool so I wandered over to the Software Center (sic) to download it. This one actually worked, downloaded and installed. But could I find it? Could I hell. It wasn't there on the dock. That little thing you open up and type in and it matches installed programs? Nothing. After some clicking around, I found out how to get it to list everything. Still nothing. The program I just added was not there.

Of course, there was a foolproof method. Open the terminal and run the program that way. I recalled that the installer referred to the program as "hardinfo" so I typed that in. Bingo.

It was interesting leaving the terminal open as there were quite a number of GLibC Critical ** messages. But it mostly worked. I said mostly, for when I asked it to benchmark my machine, the program died with a segmentation error. Usefully, this appeared in the terminal. There wasn't a single message in the UI, so if I didn't have the terminal open, would the program have just died leaving me to wonder what the hell just happened?

I ran the program again and asked it to generate an HTML report for me. Everything except the benchmarks. It did this, and offered to open the report in Firefox. I said okay, do that then.

Big mistake. The DVD-ROM suffered around five minutes of intense seeking. I think all the mechanical parts have been well exercised. And anybody that slags off RISC OS's lack of non-blocking file access, let me inform you that the mouse pointer here was frozen for most of the time. It isn't as if the computer attempted to load Firefox "in the background". The machine was more or less unusable. As I said, even the mouse didn't respond for much of the time.

Then Firefox loaded and all was fine is what I'd like to say.

But I can't. Because this is what I saw:

Seriously? Seriously?
Something goes wrong and the machine just dies? This isn't nineteen eighty-sodding-four, there's a thing called resilience. I don't know what happened, and I don't care. I just know that the kernel threw in the towel.

I had a number of screenshots and log files and such, but since it was using a fake filing system, all of this was lost the moment the kernel died. It also lied. There was no text console. I tried the other consoles, nothing. The machine wouldn't even respond to Ctrl-Alt-Del, it was just "dead".
Marvellous. The last time I had a computer randomly die on me was Windows 95, and that was pretty much a piece of crap. Windows 98 sometimes freaked out on booting and sometimes threw "exceptions" but Windows would keep on going even if applications crash and burn. XP has, on the whole, been pretty solid for me. Linux? I got it to die horribly on my first attempt without even trying. Gotta love that, right?

Rebooted. Re-entered the painfully obscure WiFi password. Did a few things that I did earlier to capture screenshots. Still no sound. This time the language support downloaded, but I couldn't find it anywhere. After some digging around on-line, I found out that I needed to log out and log back in again to get it to show up. So I logged out. And was presented with a log in prompt. Uhh...? More Google-Fu on the iPad told me that the login credential was "ubuntu" with no password. Makes sense, but it could have been mentioned somewhere, like on the login prompt?

Back into the machine, I must say that Anthy is quite nice. Here's GEdit, and Japanese (and the IME) work without grief, and I can type either by direct kana input or by typing in roman letters and letting the IME convert that accordingly.

Of course, loading that file into MetaPad shows me this:

待っているよ
月が綺麗な夜に会おう
ここにいるよ
Switching to Unicode displays the same messed up text, only now it would save it as Unicode. Not quite right!
Thankfully I have Notepad++ installed which is slightly smarter and loads and displays it correctly.

There does not appear to be any cohesive sort of "device manager" in that I can see what is listed and try alternative drivers. Maybe this is buried under layers of sudo apt-get install whatever commands, I don't know. I just know Ubuntu probed my hardware, loaded drivers, and didn't get it quite right.

I plugged in my mobile phone. It connected as an MTP device almost instantly, and placing files on it was a simple drag-n-drop operation. Windows needed to take the time to find a driver, which it did, but... I'd really like to know how an English language version of Windows being used in France contacted Microsoft and got offered this:

I've listened to enough Laura Pausini to take a guess that this is the annoying "whinge whinge whinge device thinks it can't play this whinge whinge whinge" message that pops up from time to time. For what it is worth, not only does MXPlayer play the file, so does the standard built-in player.
Spooky coincidence, my phone has just selected "Musica Sarà" to play as I write this...

I couldn't be bothered with trying to install and find hardinfo again, so I just dropped into terminal and did lshw -html > lshwreport.html. That'll have to do.

Time now to shut down. It's a normal looking shutdown, I poise my finger over the F9 key to restart the computer in boot option menu so I can get the DVD out of the drive when Ubuntu nicely offers this:

It's a nice touch.

I press Enter. Nothing happens. Shouldn't the computer have switched itself off? I actually had a video of me comically hammering the Enter key with this display mocking me, but I erased it (needed the space) and, anyway, I've given up on expecting Ubuntu to do sane sensible correct expected things.

 

To wrap up - I am quite pleased with the look and feel of Ubuntu. It has been dumbed down made something that an ordinary person can use. Unfortunately, I think the Ubuntu core devs want to maybe walk a bunch of laptops over to their nearest nursing home and let the grannies loose on the system. But more than that, to pay attention to the feedback. From my numerous attempts at Googling for information, it seems that pretty much everything is either oddly convoluted and/or requires dropping to the terminal to provide obscure incantations. Yes, I probably could fix my WiFi issues by playing with the MTU size. I could probably apt-get just the right package for my audio hardware. I could maybe get the app finder to recognise hardinfo by deleting one of the numerous dot-prefixed files to get it to rebuild its cache.
But why should I? I'm the end-user. Ubuntu is painting itself as a general purpose OS, not one that you need a CS degree and a dozen years of kernel hacking in order to use.

So I think I will write "Ubuntu 14.04.2 install CD" on the CD, then place it in a paper disc envelope, then file it at the back of my drawer. I see no specific reason to leave Windows XP and install Ubuntu on this box.
I note some have suggested that Debian (?) Mint is a better distro.

 

To answer the question posed at the beginning. Yes. I did do something silly. I wasted an evening with Ubuntu. I should have just rewatched Ergo Proxy and been done with it...

 

 

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Rick, 24th February 2015, 22:39
I upload this to my website with the soundtrack being Susumu Hirasawa's "Mediational Field" from Paprika. A perfect choice, being in the world of Ubuntu was very like one of Paprika's DC Mini alternate realities.
Glen Walker, 25th February 2015, 00:14
Hey Rick, Came here from the RISC OS Open forum... 
 
Quite an amusing...if unfortunate...review! 
 
I would urge you to try a different Linux because I haven't experienced anything like that in years...mind you I also haven't used optical media in years (last two computers didn't even have optical drives). 
 
I would urge you to try an alternative version and try a bootable USB stick. 
 
If you are coming from Windows XP then Mint is worth a try (either/all of the Mate, Cinnamon or KDE variants). 
 
First time I tried Linux (Red Hat...late 1990s) I destroyed a CRT monitor so at least you haven't done that! 
 
Good luck and please don't give up...there's plenty more Linuxes to try... 
 
Alex, 17th March 2015, 20:39
Ubuntu isn't demonstrative of the Linux kernels much deserved reputation for stability. Try Debian - CrunchBang Linux is a good distro based directly on Debian.
Ron, 24th July 2015, 01:54
In recent years, a lot of distros only cater for 64bit systems, I doubt if you would have got as far as you did with the wrong one though. I reckon the modern Ubuntu would be a bit slow on a Pentium 4 especially when there are alternatives. Yu could try some of the smaller downloads like Puppy tahr (though that is 14.04 lts also, as is the Peppermint 6 that I am using. 
I spent a while getting video hw acceleration for VLC going, and that might have been avoided by using Crunchbang++ which is a rolling release. 
My particular dvb card takes extra effort at installation also, but the end result is a TV player that uses 3% cpu time. 

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