Monday, February 13, 2012

Linux Monday: Starting Over

I switched Linux distributions over the weekend. Most of you have no idea what that means.

Long-term readers may remember my "Linux Monday" series, back in early 2009, when I proselytized for my operating system preference like a Ron Paul supporter on Ibogaine. After a while I said what I had to say, political events picked up again, and I put it n the back burner. But I'm feeling the need to share again. Sorry.

First off, what's an "operating system"? It's the basic bundle of programs that make your computer work. Not your browser or your office apps: the stuff that tell it "you're a computer" and boots it up to an interface where you, the human, can actually do stuff.

Most folks know two operating systems: Windows and Mac. The third party alternative is Linus (purists will call it "GNU/Linux" but that's a holy war best ignored.) It's a bigger deal than you think. Your Android phone? That's Linux, they just don't call it that. It's hiding lots of other places, too.

Linux is free software, in two senses of the word. The underlying source code is readily available for anyone with the skills to modify (we call this "free s in freedom") and the cost is zero dollars. Some of us, like me, will argue for its technical superiority as well. In my experience it's less inclined to get nastyware.

Because anyone can modify and redistribute the software, there are many different versions of Linux out there,called "distributions." Different versions have different purposes: some are designed for ease of use and installations, others are meant for maximum flexibilty and system control if you put the work in. Some are meant for multimedia, others are tweaked to use on old, low resource machines.

Distributions are loosely associated into families which resemble either different branches of the evolutionary tree or, if you're a creationist, different branches of the church. Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant roughly equals Slackware, Red Hat, Debian. All mammals are more similar to each other than birds, all apes are more similar to each other than they are to cats, and all of them are more like each other than they are like plants. Every so often a branch will "fork" into a new distribution.

For several years, the Ubuntu distribution, part of the Debian family, has been number one in the world. They launched in 2004 with the slogan "Linux for human beings" and I was curious enough to try it on an old machine in 2005. The experience was good and eventually I got serious about it. In mid-2008 I began using it as my main system, and when I got my next new laptop in late 2010 I ordered it without Windows.

Ubuntu issues a new release every six months, with a year.month designation and an alliterative animal nickname (11.04 "Natty Narwhal" etc.) Your system kindly notifies you when the upgrade is available, and an Upgrade option lets you get the latest without wiping out your system and settings. But some folks argue -- we Linux geeks like to argue -- that a complete new installation is the better way to go.

I'd been continually upgrading, rather than re-installing, since version 8.04 ("Hardy Heron"). This included a computer transition (I backed up my /home directory, which stores your settings and your stuff).

There have been a lot of changes in Ubuntu in the past four years. The biggest came in version 11.04 when they changed "desktops." Necessary tangent: the "desktop" in this context is the program that manages the graphic user interface or "GUI." If you look in Windows Task Manager and see Explorer, that's the desktop program, Explorer (not to be confused with the Windows Explorer that you can run from the start menu, which is a file manager, or with the browser Internet Explorer). In Windows World and MacWorld, you only have one option. In Linux Land, there are bunches. Some are deigned for ease, others for efficiency.

Ubuntu had started with the GNOME desktop. It's one of the more user-friendly interfaces: uses a fair amount of resources but it's an easy migration for a Windows XP refugee. In 2011, I forget which, the GNOME folks "upgraded" their program from version 2 point something to version 3, and lots of folks were unhappy with the "improvements."

Over at Ubuntu, with the launch of 11.04 they changed the default desktop to a new interface called Unity, which seemed more... netbook-y? Mac-y? Anyway,it's kind of like a Mac dock only on the left side, rather than a start-button type interface. You could stick with Gnome 2 if you wanted, but with version 11.10, the current release, Ubuntu "upgraded" to Gnome 3.

I dodged the issue by switching to Fluxbox, a desktop designed for simplicity and low resource use. (You start with a blank screen, then right click and see a menu.) Fluxbox was OK, but lacked some functionality that I liked. For example, I couldn't set my SETI@Home software to automatically pause when I was active on the computer, and had to manually pause it. There were little things, too, like the occasional missing icon in a program.

With the 11.10 release of Ubuntu, I started noticing some issues, both in Fluxbox and in GNOME 3 (I'd continued to avoid Unity) and I suspected I had an issue with cruft.

"Cruft" describes the gradual decline of a computer's efficiency the longer you use it. Verity Stob has the best description of cruft; the Windows 2000 references are dated but the concepts are eternal.

And cross-platform, as it turns out. Linux users like to brag that your install will be running as smoothly after a couple years as it did the day you installed it.

Ubuntu update cycles, I was having some doubts. Sure, I was still doing better way than I would be on a four year old Windows install. But it wasn't perfect.

My two biggest frustrations were multimedia. My DVD drive wasn't recognizing disks. I couldn't burn, rip, or watch until I got an external DVD drive. The other problem was with Rhythmbox, the audio player that was long the default in Ubuntu. The program would lock up after about six tracks.

I thought both of these problems were Just Me. I suspected a hardware issue on the disk drive. As for music, I tried three other player programs which all had the same problem, and believed that the sheer size of my music library made it unworkable. But I had enough doubt, and enough curiosity, to test the hypothesis that my Ubuntu install was the problem.

This is where Linux Mint comes in. Mint is a fork of the Ubuntu project, which itself is a Debian fork. Mint is designed to be more multimedia friendly out of the box. (There's no actual "box," just a download.) The Mint folks also decided to stick with Gnome as the default desktop. They added added some "Mint Gnome Shell Extensions" to make Gnome 3 act more like Gnome 2, and an interface called MATE, a fork of Gnome 2 which is compatible with Gnome 3.

This was a breakthrough, and in the last few months Mint has quickly risen to become the number two distribution, behind Ubuntu, and it may well be ahead of Ubuntu among new users.

I installed Mint on a backup machine out of curiosity a while back and when my main laptop was in the shop for a hardware problem, I used that backup as my main machine for a couple weeks, which served the purpose of a Linux Mint test drive. It was a nice drive and when the main machine came back I started thinking about switching. And Friday night, when the music locked up yet again, I made the decision.

While I was at it, I decided to upgrade from a 32 bit OS to a 64 bit. There's simply not a way in the Ubuntu upgrade process to do that without a full reformat, so I'd been using less than the full capability of my machine.

Step one, of course, was a full backup of the /home folder.

And my first suspicion was confirmed when I was able to boot my system from the supposedly broken internal CD drive with my Linux Mint install disk. That was the clincher, so I went ahead and installed.

I've installed Ubuntu literally dozens of times on assorted machines, and the Mint install was almost identical. Don't know exactly how long it took, because I took a break and when I got back a half hour later it was ready to reboot.

I logged in, choosing the MATE option instead of the GNOME option, and I had usable panels on both the top and bottom of my screen. (The bottom panel is one of the features GMOME 3 killed off.) My Libre Office suite (the most popular Linux alternative to Microsoft Office, and also available for Windows) was ready to go. I needed to re-install a couple of my quirkier non-standard programs (SETI@home, of course) and restore my /home files. That was actually the slowest part -- 300 gig of music doesn't move fast -- but after a little visit with my congressman I was ready. (Congressional intervention isn't needed for a Linux install.)

Sunday I test-drove a DVD, then played three hours of music while I re-arranged the basement. I had some time budgeted for settling in, but haven't needed it.

At this point, if you're a new user I'd recommend Mint over Ubuntu, and so far it's been a good experience for my intermediate skills.

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