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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.

Hmph.

8 Comments:

Blogger juice said...

Interesting comments. Unfortunately driver development for linux seems to lag quite a ways behind mainstream Windows. I run Ubuntu on an older machine and it works beautifully.

However the video mode problem is a bit of an issue. You'll be pleased to hear that in the next release (7.10, Gutsy Gibbon) there will be a "safe video mode" which is meant to detect a bad X session and restart with "must work" defaults. Stay tuned for that I guess ;)

5:29 PM  
Blogger juice said...

Interesting comments. Driver development for Linux always seems to lag behind mainstream Windows. Mind you some devices STILL don't have functional drivers for Vista...

The video problem is a bit of an issue for sure. You'll be pleased to learn that the next release (7.10, Gutsy Gibbon) will have a video "safe mode" where a bad X session will be restarted with sensible defaults. Stay tuned for that I guess ;)

5:31 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

As it happens I did find the time to re-install Ubuntu this evening and I did find the info I needed to get my display configured properly.

And I'm not sure, but my sound problem could have been user error: I have a KVM that switches the sound as well as the keyboard and mouse and it's gotten confused so that the sound is opposite the mouse and keyboard.

Anyway, I plugged my speakers directly into the machine and it worked, but I did that only after going through a very nice guide for debugging sound problems, reinstalling the alsa drivers and whatnot.

Still, the display problem is worrisome. I'm glad to hear that it might be addressed in the next version.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone else mentioned, the immanent release of Gutsy should solve one part of this problem.

https://wiki.ubuntu.com/BulletProofX

BulletProofX should mean that messing up your system dumps you to a low res but working screen.

I'm not sure what screen you have but not recognizing widescreen displays appears to be a standard problem for the intel 815 display driver and requires the installation of a hacky workaround called 915resolution. Luckily the official -intel open source driver is claimed to fix this problem and again should be replacing the other driver for the next Ubuntu.

There's a few things related to the display system that were bottlenecked for a few years and made Linux seem archaic in many regards. I'm glad to say they seem to have been really trucking in the last couple of years and the intel and AMD announcements of support may well mean overtaking Windows support levels in between Vista and the next version of Windows.

2:12 PM  
Blogger FARfetched said...

Good to hear you got it working, even the sound. I wouldn't be surprised if the KVM was the root of all your problems… it has to stand in between your video card & monitor and pretend everything's hooked up properly, after all.

I'm not sure I'd have the guts to try installing Linux on a new machine — if it came pre-installed, that's another thing entirely, but the "community" often needs some time to work through the hardware issues.

Quick question about this comment: I've recently had to use a Mac for work — what software are you using with your work Mac?

1:39 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

Mac for work: Adobe Creative Suite. Had to test some scripts under Mac and I thought I was going to need to set up an installer on the Mac but ended up not.

Otherwise it's mostly being used to entertain my daughter while she hangs out in my office taking videos of herself. Which while useful is not really a justification for having a 3000 dollar machine.

On my continuing Ubuntu experience: I now have a pretty decent development machine and media player but there's still some odd stuff, such as Firefox not remembering my settings, my wireless card not reactivating following restore from hibernation, and an external USB drive not remounting after I ejected it.

But it's otherwise definitely an improvement over Vista. I was able to get all my core tools installed and running without too much trouble: Eclipse, Oxygen, Syntext Serna, the DITA Open Toolkit. Was even able to hack a shell script to run my Toolkit processing.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Michael Friedman said...

I've had this problem, and I have Vista Ultimate on one of my machines. There's several things that can cause this that I know of. Besides the fact it should be an issue in the first place, here's some fixes.

1) Turn off the search indexer, or set it specifically to English. Sometimes it searches on all language packs installed.

2) The biggest one for me was a failure in the com surrogate system (whatever that is). It has to do with video previews being created by Explorer. It would take eons to load these folders. The fix at this site (http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/windows-vista/fix-for-com-surrogate-has-stopped-working-error-in-vista/) cured most of my ills.

Hope that helps.

10:36 AM  
Blogger ScrappyLaptop said...

BulletProofX certainly sounds like something that Linux has sorely needed since, well, 1995. However, having installed on many a machine that only supports a resolution lower than that which developers use, I can state one thing with absolute certainty: Low res fallback is absolutely useless unless all windows resize, with scrollbars or a virtual desktop if needed, to the lower hardware resolution. Can't tell you how many times I've had to TAB to the topmost/first button, then Shift-TAB and hope I was hitting [Accept] instead of [Cancel] at the bottom of the window -and this was on X-configuration utility screens. Now, granted it is easy enough (and more efficient) to just drop to CLI or skip X altogether and fix the .conf, but that is definately NOT "just working" and won't work for 95% of the assumed target market.

-Scrappy

12:30 PM  

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