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NOTE TO TOOL OWNERS: In this blog I will occasionally make statements about products that you will take exception to. My intent is to always be factual and accurate. If I have made a statement that you consider to be incorrect or innaccurate, please bring it to my attention and, once I have verified my error, I will post the appropriate correction.

And before you get too exercised, please read the post, date 9 Feb 2006, titled "All Tools Suck".

Sunday, September 23, 2007

It Just Works: Not So Much

When I started my new job I bought an inexpensive desktop to have as a home development machine (my last desktop had long since died and I'd not had justification or need to replace it). The machine, a Gateway Dual Core Pentium, came preloaded with Vista Business, which would not have been my first choice but there didn't seem to be a lot of options. After putting in another Gig of RAM (having discovered that Vista at idle takes about 950 Meg--yow) Vista ran OK but it just seemed to be stupidly slow, especially Windows Explorer. I really don't know anything about Vista nor do I care to, but at Windows XP seemed to work reasonably well. Vista, running on twice the hardware seems to perform half as fast. Why? Microsoft is certainly capable of producing good software.

I more and more got tired of having to wait for Explorer to respond and the inexplicably show unzip times and stuff and came close to putting on Ubuntu a couple of times, even though I don't really have time to spend on it. But finally I ran into a problem where I couldn't unzip the Web Tools distributions of Eclipse because of some filenames in the package that are too long for Windows to handle. WTF?

So I found some very clear instructions for installing Ubuntu alongside an existing Vista installation, resized my Windows partition and installed Ubuntu. That went quite smoothly, which I've come to expect from Ubuntu. So far so good.

But then things went down hill. First, I couldn't get the sound to work and what I could find in some frantic Googling suggested that others had had the same problem and had not had much luck fixing it. How can that be? This machine should be a pretty standard setup--it's clearly all-Intel motherboard with built-in sound and video.

I could live without sound (although I wouldn't like it--my desktop is also my office music system) but then the video stopped working and I can't get it back. The machine is attached to a Westinghouse 22in display. On install the desktop was using the standard 1280 x 1024 resolution. Once I got things otherwise working I turned my attention to the display. I reran the X-config application, chose the appropriate resolutions and so forth, and restarted the X server.

Boom "Out of Range". So far nothing I've been able to do to my X configuration file has made a difference. I was able to track down the manual for the display to get the actual horizontal and vertical sync frequencies but specifying those didn't work. I was not able to find any particularly useful guideance online beyond "rerun the configuration utility" or "specify the right sync values in the config files". The log-in screen is clearly running at the appropriate resolution for the display but why does it stop working when I log in? It's quite maddening.

But the real problem is that this just should not happen. It should not be possible for the windowing system to not work. As long as this is the case, as long as the first and only way to approach this failure is to open a terminal window and use sudo to edit a configuration file, it's a non-starter for anyone except the geekiest of geeks. If there's anything that should always work it's the display, even if it's to fall back to a lesser resolution. But I'm not even getting that.

I would really like some distribution of Linux to be a viable alternative to Windows for non-geeks but Ubuntu has definitely failed this test. I'm a geek. I've installed Linux countless times and gotten it working on a variety of machines. I should be able to make it work. Granted I was doing this while trying to do other stuff and didn't have endless hours to solve this problem, but that's the point: I shouldn't have to have endless hours or only expect Ubuntu to work on ancient machines (which is where I've been most successful). Ubuntu advertises itself as the Linux that just works. So it should just work. Certainly it should work on a commercial machine from a major vendor using generic Intel hardware.

I'm not sure if the problem is a technical one or a cultural one or an economic one. I recognize that hardware manufacturers don't have a huge motivation to write Linux drivers and that a volunteer-based project is dependent on people actually doing what's needed and maybe they will and maybe they won't. But there also seems to be a cultural component of "well, if you can't edit a configuration file you really don't belong in our club". And of course, since there's no single enterprise with economic incentive to make Ubuntu or any Linux distribution work as smoothly as Windows or OS X there's no reason to expect it will.

But that doesn't make it any less frustrating. It doesn't help that I've recently had to use a Mac for work, which makes it clear that there's no reason a *nx-based system couldn't be as smooth as the commercial systems are, but clearly it helps to have a multi-billion dollar company driving the activity.

Anyway, it's very frustrating since I had to boot back to Vista, I still can't install the Eclipse Web tools (and don't have any more time to spend working out that problem than I do on my Ubuntu problem), and now half my hard drive is tied up with a a useless operating system.

I know I can get back to a minimally working system by re-installing Ubuntu, but I have no confidence that I'll have any better luck getting the display to work.