Saturday, October 20, 2007

Life After (and Before) Ubuntu

Ubuntu, reputedly, the most popular Linux Distro out there. It's easy to use, has a huge user base (so unofficial support on Ubuntu Forums and other places is easy to come by), they have frequent, up-to-date releases, it looks beautiful and they ship free CDs to anywhere in the world if you don't have a decent internet connection. For all those reasons I Loved Ubuntu--and still do. But there was still something missing.

Lets be frank, Linux is Linux, its stigmatised as the operating system for the geek. The Geek who will stop at nothing to achieve superior performance and stability, exactly what linux is supposed to offer. Thats why I started using linux in the first place and to an extent, it did give me this, my Ubuntu 6.06 install was more stable than than WinXP and a little bit faster (though not much). But it wasn't hyperstable, it would nautilus would sometimes crash and occasionally the whole thing completely seize up (ok very occasionally) where a hard reboot would be required--essentially ripping out the power cord whist hoping nothing would break because of it. Then Ubuntu 7.04, Feisty Fawn came along, hyped as being, more stable, faster and with compiz easily "turn-on-able".

Off I went installing it, only to discover that only one of these things were true for me: I could easily turn on compiz so my desktop would look pretty. But other than that it was useless because it was slow, well slow in my books, slow because it wasn't fast and to add insult to injury to that it was a little less stable (for me anyway). So back to 6.06 I went and I was happy, for a time, everything worked fairly snappily and mostly without crashing.

Then something terrible happened, I was blessed with free downloads from a server with around 20 of the most popular linux distros just sitting there smiling sweetly at me. To cut the long and boring story short, i tired many of these distros for varying periods of time, but none of them every grabbed me as being "vastly superior to Ubuntu" and therefore worth the trouble of the change over. That is none of them, except one, Debian, one could say the father of Ubuntu.

There are a few things I value in an Operating System, and more specifically a Linux Distro. They are:
Speed, the distro must be fast to boot and use
Ease of configuration: The most important stuff should be configured for me (Xorg....)
Large, Up-to-date Repos: i really just want to type one command and be able to install almost any piece of open source software i could ever desire
Prettiness: Not a huge factor beyond Gnome/XFCE4 standard levels of prettiness, but is is nice to be able to easily install compiz if i so desire
Geekyness: Yes, I know it does not affect the function of anything, but deep down I do enjoy a 'Geeky' Distro purely for its Geekyness

Debian checked all the boxes (even geekyness, to an extent) and again I was happy for a time, essentially using a much faster, much more stable Ubuntu Feisty Fawn, with Geek stigma on the side. All that time I'd wasted learning Linux the Ubuntu way was mostly put to use with Debian and this meant a lot to me. Importantly for me, i was able to get my printer working (Canon LBP 1210, one of the couple of cannons with little support in Linux) which i wasn't able to do in non-debian based distros.

I found life after Ubuntu refreshing, stuff just worked that little bit quicker (or at least felt like it did, which means a lot) and without crashing. I was still able to benefit from the huge success of Ubuntu, as many how-to's were easily translatable into Debian, without being classified as a mindless conformist (well thats how I classifed myself when I used Ubuntu) . Whilst ocassionally stuff was a little harder to do in Debain, CPU frequency scaling was not enabled for example, nor was the screen brightness adjustment, but these were easily fixable, and soon my Laptop was road worthy, as it may be, offering all the features that I'd gotten used to in Ubuntu. Again I was happy for a time, several months in fact, but, alas several months is a long time in the Linux world. Compiz Fusion and ntfs-3g became stable and I was sitting there on my Debain box looking at at least 12 months before a new Debian release would be out which might possibly include these in the standard repos. Sure I could install them from the non standard repositorys, but as was the case with Compiz Fusion, which is only available through Shames Repository, which are all built from the development git arm of Compiz Fusion these were not really stable. Enter Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon.

Billed (again) as being Faster and Prettier than Feisty Fawn, I soon realised, with growing horror that my Life after Ubuntu might soon be becoming Life Before Ubuntu. Tentatively I read a few early reviews of Gutsy, and then almost unwillingly I began downloading the Desktop Install CD. The Install process mostly went fine, although appearing to have hung on "Configuring Apt: Scanning the mirror" it soon got on its merry way (although i still don't knoiw what on earth it was doing for the 20+ mins it was "scanning the mirror" for as it was only utilising my internet connection for about 5 min of this) and after almost an hour I had Installed Gutsy on my "Testing" desktop and prepared to boot for the first time.

I pressed the Power Button, I waited, I waited some more, I made myself a cup of Coffee, I learnt Japanese, I developed a completely new way of eating bananas using naught but a keyboard and a mouse and then finally it Booted up. 1 min 40 sec from Grub to a fully loaded desktop, on a computer that boots Debian into Gnome in (just) under a minute. Right. Game Over I said to my self. If Ubuntu cannot boot in anywhere near he time it takes debian to boot what chance has it got of ever being fast. But, not being on my main Laptop, I thought I'd leave it there a while at least have a little fun. So i installed compizconfig-settings-manager with
apt-get install compizcomfig-settings-manager
I opened up the advanced desktop effect settings manager and enabled
Shift switcher, Desktop Cube, Rotate Cube, Cube Reflection, Expo, show desktop, reflection, wobbly windows, window previews and ring switcher.
Suddenly my Ubuntu desktop was very beautiful, slightly easier to use, but most importantly fun. To cut a story or small to moderate length a little shorter, I was converted, well that is to say, I considered the possibility of installing it on the second linux partition on my Laptop to so if I could get it fast enough to consider using.

So, off I went installing and for the sake of benchmarking i timed the boot up process of Ubuntu and what do you know it was considerably slower than Debian. While Debian booted in 46 Seconds, Ubuntu lagged behind at 1 min 10 sec. Aside from the boot up, Ubuntu was considerably faster on my laptop (hardly surprising as it is a much newer machine) and was definately enering the realms of useable for everyday stuff (ie feels fast to use). More importantly though I Ubuntu has automatically configured CPU frequency scaling, lcd brightness adjustments, Wireless networking, my win modem requiring a restricted driver all stuff that would have slowed down the changeover process. But the bootup process was still painfully slow. Enter Xubuntu.

To discover what Xubuntu might be like on my system i decided to install xfce 4.4.1 with:
apt-get install xfce4
20 minutes later I was in Xfce (with no compiz fusion of course) and after disableing fsck which seemd to be adding 14 seconds to the boot process everytime (which incidentally i don't reccomend doing willy-nilly) by changing the number at the end of each line in the /etc/fstab to zero, I was able to boot the system into full xfce desktop in 38 seconds.
38 seconds!
Hang on, thats fast!
thats nearly a 50% reduction in boot time. Not only that, but Xfce was definitely in the realms of fast enough to use everyday.

Suddenly Xubuntu looked very enticing, and as I finish my post on my Ubuntu/Xubuntu Hybrid System whilt waiting for Xubuntu to download i realised that my Life After Ubuntu had rather quickly turned into Life Before Ubuntu and now, Life With Ubuntu.

Next Time: I look at Xubuntu 7.10

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