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Saturday, March 14, 2009

ThinkPad X41 with Ubuntu 8.10

I been having this X41 tablet for some years now, although mine is beefed up with RAM and big disk, etc.

At the day one I had scratched it off Windows crap and put SuSe 9.3 on it. Later on it has been updated to SuSe 10.1. And I loved it that way: everything was working like a chime: WiFi; touch screen capabilities (coming very handy for Gimp jobs); screen rotation to read books or something, on-disk hibernation, and all other stuff. It didn't all worked out of the box and I had to tune it here and there a little bit, but it was a way better than anything coming from Redmond, WA.

What had annoyed me for a long time is the absence of in-memory suspend. It's not like it wasn't available at all, but wasn't very useful for the laptop had to be rebooted every time it was awaken :-( Alas, it wasn't SuSe problem but rather an effect of fairly old Linux kernel (version 2.6.15 or something). SuSe 10.1 quickly became unsupported and an upgrade looked like pain to me. Once I was laid-off from Sun Microsystems and got some quiality time to do whatever I'm pleased to. Despite other things I've decided to reinstall my laptop.

This time I decided to give Ubuntu a spin. I do like Debian and I really think this is the best distro on the market today. But I never was fond of Ubuntu, though. I was arguing with Mark Shuttleworth on a couple of occations about the merit of having and pushing it. Nonetheless, considering from a number of reviews and posts it seemed like worth a try.

The process is rather simple:

  • download and burn LiveCD from their website
  • boot from it and make sure your hardware works (most of it worked in my case, although no touch-screen stuff is in place, so I'll need to tune it up myself later)
  • install new OS right from the Live session (make sure you have your data backed up properly or even better keep /home on a separate partition)
  • reboot and have fun
Well, not so fast. First of all, during the installation I've been warned that the installation of GRUB to to my XFS / partition might not work properly. Two choices were offered then: "Ok" and "Cancel". Hmm... I chose "Cancel" then. The installation went on for a little longer and then has finished without any other messages nor warnings. "Sounds like the end of it" I thought and rebooted my laptop. And it failed to boot :-(

Then all the usual drill has been executed: boot from a CD, an attempts to reanimate GRUB installation, etc. None of those worked for a now clear reason: GRUB package installation has never happened or was badly broken so all stage files were incorrect.

I had to reinstall the system from scratch and this time it was Ok. A day later I've realized that I could simply boot from a LiveCD, switch to the chroot environment and reinstall grub/kernel packages to straight everything out. Well, hind-sight is a very powerful mind technique indeed...

Then I've played with Gnome and in fact I think I like it: it's relatively light weight (alas it looks like a monster compare to my all time favorite WindowMaker, but still it is lighter than KDE). It has nice and easy configuration interface for one's desktop. And it supports fonts anti-aliasing which make HUGE difference when it comes to the desktop experience. Liked it a lot!

And then it was the time to go back to my good friend WindowMaker. And there were a coupla surprises I didn't expect:
  • Perhaps for the sake of n00bs all networking is managed by NetworkManager. And NetworkManager is suppose to be represented by an applet of some kind. Otherwise you have to know how to run it manually at the startup. E.g. for WindowMaker you need to put something like this
    service NetworkManager start
    to ~/GNUstep/Library/WindowMaker/autostart
    or you'd have to go through some cumbersome procedure of disabling NetworkManager and configuring your WiFi/Ethernet interface in the old fashioned way with /etc scripts and vim, which I actually prefer.
    It isn't Ubuntu's fault per se. Many other distros do quite similar thing. Suse 10.3 under KDE utilizes the same tactic from scratch. However, SuSe has a simple way of turning NetworkManager completely off and manage your network traditionally. Ubuntu is much trickier in this case.
  • Ubuntu has very interesting ideas about how your computer's hardware suppose to work. For example, if you don't want to use GDM - kinda useless and resourse hungry crap for a single user laptop - then you will have to configure many things manually. E.g. laptop hot buttons events are - surprise - handled by a GDM's subsystem rather than being passed to HAL and processed there accordinly. And so on...
Besides of these kinda minor inconveniences I really like what I see: even generic build of new 2.6.27 kernel is very fast; pretty much everything works out of the box (I can simply close my laptop's lid and not to worry about its getting into sleep, etc.); multimedia experience is pretty slick except that some of the codecs could be found only under *-ugly set it causes troubles once in a while.

Conclusion: if you are noob and need to have a stable and convenient alternative to crappy Windows stuff Ubuntu is the way to go. And you know that Linux is green too, right? It can run on pretty old hardware where contemporary Windows unlikely even to start.

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