Sunday 25 March 2007

Getting it for nothing.

Wouldn't it be nice never to have to pay Mr. Gates again?

My real gripe at the moment is having bought a fresh clean install of XP on a new machine from Dell last year I can't use it because the hardware was crisped by lightning (see entries for last summer). The hard drive survived but of course the Dell image needs identical hardware and I'm not paying Dell prices for new motherboards. On the other hand buying a new XP or, worse, Vista seems equally uneconomic even if it was possible to accept the increasing intrusion and compromise needed to run MS products. Something has to give.

There is an alternative. I don't consider myself computer illiterate but I've no real desire to struggle with an operating system. Luckily it seems Linux is starting to come within my comfort zone.

Current hardware is a rather old Athlon PC 1.05 GHz, 768MB ram, with two drives so ideal for a dual boot if it could be done without too much difficulty, and my core requirements are to play media, use Firefox, Thunderbird, Ameol (a proprietary off-line reader that is only available under Windows), a word processor / office type tools, and an HTML editor. And countless other things of course but those are the essentials. However it was achieved I needed to be able to back out of it gracefully, this is my only working computer at this time.

Last time I looked Ubuntu seemed a very attractive bet but this was a while ago (four years in fact!) so I asked around and was advised that it was still considered a good option for a beginner. Ubuntu's installation will run from the DVD drive as a live system allowing you to play with the environment without installing anything. I downloaded an iso, burnt it and gave it a go and immediately hit a problem to do with video drivers - my poor old hardware has ATI Radeon 9550 graphics and doesn't appear to be supported from this image. The most serious problem with this was that the install program produced a window too large for the resolution I was getting and the buttons weren't visible, so I couldn't even make the installation in the hope of sorting it all out later.

Anyway researching fixes for that led me to this article which covers a number of linux distros from the point of view of a naive newbie and is quite positive about a unbuntu based version called Mint. And that to cut straight to the chase is what I went for next.

It was the same procedure with downloading an iso (in this case Bianca), burning a CD and running it live but luckily the graphics managed an 800x600 screen this time and it was possible to see enough of the install screens to make progress. Installing was dead easy once I took the courage to agree to format an entire hard drive which is never trivial and the dual boot part was handled without further intervention and absolutely painless. Mint mounts the windows drive so all the data there is accessible and has no problem with external USB drive I bought for backups. Windows, of course, totally ignores the linux drive but I can live with that. Networking sprang into life and internet connection was achieved during the install as far as I could tell. Excellent so far, but I was never going to get used to an 800x600 screen so that was a continuing issue.

Does anyone really want to read how I sorted out my applications? Suffice to say then that Mint installs Firefox and OpenOffice by default and some codecs that will play MP3s (something of a contentious issue in licence free open source space). For other things they provide a couple of utilities to sort stuff out including the extremely useful synaptic package manager that lists, fetches and installs software for you. I used this to collect Thunderbird, my preferred email client and Wine, a windows emulator that allows me to run Ameol. There is a HTML editor, bluefish, available which looks the business and installs itself from the website rather conveniently. These word processing and editing apps seem familiar in layout and function but are sufficiently from a different universe to make me uneasy. I'm sure that will pass.

Far more difficult was getting the screen resolution right but eventually I found a very comprehensive reply to someone else on a forum and by cutting and pasting their commands into a root terminal that's now sorted. Of course, that was after I learned how to log on as root because the Mint/ubuntu installation doesn't seem to create an accessible root user and I had to find out how to set the root password so I could use it. I'm going to need to make a note of these discoveries because I find linux command lines opaque in the extreme. The process of fettling is still not complete. My current problem is finding a way to get linux to talk to my printer. It recognises make and model, it suggests drivers but although each time I ask it to print the printer goes into its warm up nothing actually gets printed and eventually everything seizes up and has to be restarted from scratch. I've found some drivers which I believe are correct and have not the slightest clue how to get them into position. These skills will come I'm sure, it's not really linux at fault here but I'd much rather it just worked.

Of course, what most linux tyros do is try every distro available until one sticks. It is often recommended that the investigator builds up a test bed out of scrap parts because linux will run on almost anything and it's safer than using the mission critical hardware but as I've discovered making it behave in a sophisticated manner on old hardware is not for the faint hearted. I would not recommend this as a route for someone who just wants to get away from Microsoft, it will frustrate and dishearten you. After backing up essential data try a modern distro that will organise a dual boot and install it on your year old hardware. It's really the only way you're going to find out if linux is for you.

For me, having decided to move away from MS as a ground rule I may rebuild the lightning struck machine with a new motherboard and try again with a different distro there because Mint has crashed on me a few times and I'm not convinced it's all my fault. I've received more recommendations for distros to try since I've started and if I can keep the old hardware up and running for a while I can play with the newer machine and different builds until I'm comfortable to make the complete break. Linux is nearly there and I'm incredibly thankful to the many people who've put in so much effort and time to provide this open source and free software particularly since I lack the skills to contribute myself and money is in short supply. It really is magnificent work and should be supported wherever possible.


Catofstripes said...

Have now sorted the printer problem, although the supplied script from Samsung stank and we ended up installing the new drivers in a very manual and inelegant way.

Anonymous said...

Thank for the kiwi berry link - much appreciated!