PC Hardware

Chapter 8.After selecting the 4 candidates and their testing order, it’s time to move to the real deal: an actual computer. The remaining distributions will be judged by their ability to simply install and recognize the hardware. But also how well they use the hardware.

The computer I will use to conduct these tests, is in fact my brand new PC. So no old hardware here, components include a Solid State Disk, several hard disks, dual monitors, a new ATI graphics card,  a Z68 chipset motherboard and 2 network interfaces (one onboard, 1 plugin card). This was one of the reasons I wanted an up-to-date operating system: it has to recognize the hardware.

So there are some real challenges here. Will the Solid State Disk work on full speed, will the distributions be able to use the graphics card to power the two screens, will all feature of the chipset be available and will Linux be able to handle itself when spread over several hard disks?

Using Linux on new hardware can be tricky (I learned that from experience) but in the end it comes down to the same thing as it would in Windows: find the right driver and things will (or should) work.

The hardware specifications will be the subject of another article, but I will mention some specifics in this article if needed.

First up: Arch Linux

ArchHaving performed way better in the Virtualbox test than I expected, this was my prime candidate for primary OS on the new computer. I had a lot of hope for this distribution.

The installation went like a dream. By now I knew what to expect and was used to the configuration. Arch recognized all hard disks and both NICs. Without a graphical installer, I could not tell if the graphics card had been recognized, nor if my dual screen setup was working. But all in all things looked good.

That was until I rebooted after the installation. I logged in, typed in the command to do a system update and was greeted by an error. Seems the update server could not be reached. Maybe a typo in the configuration? I checked the config files, but there where no error. Further checks revealed the true cause: I had only one active network card and no IP address a all, so no network.

I removed the second NIC from the config file, thinking it was a simple error on my part and rebooted. And indeed: internet, but only for a moment. Another reboot, no connection but this time my other NIC was active, this was strange since I hadn’t changed any configuration. A quick check on the internet revealed that Arch has a problem with some Realtek chips.

Not really the thing I wanted to see, but apparently there were several solutions. To cut a long (hours) story short: none of them worked and I even ended up doing the one thing I did not want to do: manual adding of kernel modules. I felt a flashback to my Gentoo days coming on. I disabled the onboard NIC and continued with the installation.

Next up: a window manager. I had decided on Xfce so I installed that, one command and really simple. OK, but it refused to start, claiming no configuration was present…

Time for a quick roundup: by now I was several hours of troubleshooting in and I still did not have a working graphical environment. The fan on my graphics card was going crazy. Also my second monitor had yet to show any sign of life.

No problem, I thought, I’ll install the ATI driver. The documentation offered several possibilities, so it would be a matter of minutes… Wrong! I followed instructions, typed in the commands and ended up in dependency hell… Apparently the ATI driver needed a newer version of a package, but the older version was needed by the window manager. I tried everything I could think of, but the ATI driver simply would not install. In the end I ended up with a system that could not even find it’s own window manager, let alone run the ATI driver or a graphical environment.

Maybe Argh Linux was a better name in my case.

Mint Linux

MintSurely a distribution with a graphical installer would do better? The installation went smooth, just like it did on my virtual test machine. And hey, there was life in my second monitor. Reboot after installation and I still had a working network connection. I was unable to get the desired partitioning done, but was convinced I could sort that post-installation.

My two monitor where showing the same picture, but that’s normal and standard behaviour for all operating systems. I changed the settings and…nothing. A reboot..nothing. Changed the settings again, no more second monitor. And there goes the fan on my graphics card again. Time for the ATI driver. This time it installed fine.

Another reboot and the settings menu opened, but the options where all grayed out and I was greeted by a warning: “You need superuser rights”. No problem, there was a second icon in the menu that said superuser. Only thing: it refused to do anything, no settings dialog, no error either. So I looked up the command online and launched it from a root terminal.

And indeed, it launched. Minor error I thought. So I changed the configuration and pressed apply. The dialog simply disappeared but nothing happened. I opened it through the terminal again, changed the settings and pressed OK this time. Same thing. No settings where altered, even after a reboot.

I had gotten one step further, but was still  nowhere near a working system. I decided to make a run for a safe haven and verify that I had no hardware defects after all this strangeness.

No, not windows!?…

WindowsYes Windows, since it is the only thing I know would work at this point. So I decided to install Windows 7. Not to keep it but to verify if all hardware was working correctly. I located, downloaded and installed the correct drivers (in comparison to Linux, Windows did not recognized anything but the basic hardware). A short visit from Murphy’s law in the form of a corrupt download for the video driver later, I had a working system. My graphics card was fine, the fan speed was normal, I had 2 working network interfaces and dual screen functionality.

So no hardware defects. I was briefly tempted to give up but decided to push on.

Third time lucky with Xubuntu?

XubuntuI decided to push on to the third choice, Xubuntu. This also has Xfce so I was eager to see if the ATI drivers would work. Installation went fine, I was able to do some of the partitioning I wanted. Dual monitor was detected and configurable after first reboot. The proprietary driver was detected and suggested by the operating system itself and installed fine.

The dual screen options could be accessed and saved. The fan was fine. So finally I had a working system with 2 monitors, 2 network connections and a graphical environment. So I started configuring the system to the way I wanted.

I installed some of the software on my list and worked with Xubuntu for a couple of hours. But the more I worked with it, the more I got the feeling that this was not quite “it”. Xfce is lightweight and very fast, but I find its options rather lacking for my taste.

I simply could not develop a working rhythm with Xubuntu.

Back to Mint, with Gnome this time

MintSince Xfce was the obvious shortcoming here, I decided to switch to Gnome. Since Ubuntu has no native Gnome, I went back to Mint, but this time the Gnome edition.

This was a mistake, Gnome 2 felt really old and could not convince. My attempts to upgrade to Gnome 3 ended in a crash and burn situation. After playing around with Gnome 3 in my Virtualbox environment, I decided that too was not quite me.

Last Chance: Ubuntu

UbuntuBy now I was all but convinced this series would be another episode in my “Linux is not quite there yet” series. But determined to stick with it, I installed my least favorite test candidate. If I hadn’t read this review, I probably would have returned to Windows. My experiences with Ubuntu 11.04 where less then stellar, to put it mildly. However I decided to give Ubuntu a quick spin and then install Windows if I did not like Ubuntu.

So I installed Ubuntu without much hope and frankly without paying much attention. I was able to partition my first disk, but not the other disks. However this was quickly fixed after the installation. The graphics card and ATI drivers where no problem at all. Automatic detection and 1-click installation. The same was true for all my other hardware: network cards, monitors, printer, webcam, sound, microphone. Everything just worked.

As for Unity: it takes some getting used to, some serious getting used to even. But in 11.10 it works, I would even say it works great. I started installing some software (just like I did in Xubuntu), I altered some configuration options. Changed some looks and started clicking around a bit.

And before I knew it something strange had happened: I started to do some actual work in Ubuntu. And I started liking it. I even kicked some Windows habits and found better ways of doing them.

So I decided to stick with Ubuntu and Unity and see if it would keep working for me. No Windows needed for the time being…

Switching to Linux series:

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