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Make or break with Ubuntu

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I've reformatted my main home laptop (Thinkpad R31) from Windows XP to Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). The XP install is borked to the point I can no longer use it. I thought I'd try out a recent version of Ubuntu and see if I can make the transition, and if that proves too much, I can always reformat the laptop with a brand new installation of Windows XP.

Why Ubuntu? The main reason is that Sam Ruby is using it on his company Thinkpad, and still keeps getting great stuff done. The fact that its funded by South African billionaire and all-round good-guy, Mark Shuttleworth is notable, but it's the general usability and what seems like brilliant community support from Ubuntu forums that are far better reasons.

Dieing breath of XP

My main home laptop running XP became too much of a hassle to use any more. Weekly reboots became daily reboots became thrice daily reboots. Then Firefox stopped loading and URLs with query strings. Quickly opening Internet Explorer, noticing how infested that browser was, and noticing it too couldn't load and URLs with query strings, I realised the XP install was too sick to continue.

Copied all my data off the laptop onto a USB enclosure took hours, so that ran overnight.

Trying out Ubuntu Live

On Monday, I took a look at the cover DVD from the latest issue of Linux Format (May 2008). I noticed one of the distributions was Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04, so I burnt that to a CD, and started up the laptop with the live disk.

It's one of the really clever things about Ubuntu, the install disk is actually a live distribution, so you can try it out, see if the Gnome Desktop, networking and USB works okay before committing to an install.

Playing around Tuesday evening, the basics seemed to be working. The sites that I permanently have open in tabs worked. The web interface to Twitter worked, but the text-field and character counter were quite unresponsive. I was a little surprised that Ubuntu came bundled with Firefox 3 beta 5 as the default browser, instead of the production stable Firefox 2.

Installing Ubuntu and applications

With nothing really to lose I went ahead and installed Ubuntu, which took no time at all. Its ironic that installing Ubuntu today felt as smooth as installing Windows 98 back in the last century, and installing Windows 2000 afresh a few weeks ago felt like installing a 0.5 version of Slackware back from 1995. How times have changed. Well less than an hour later I was logged into Ubuntu running natively on my laptop.

Since the base system installed so quickly, that left most of Wednesday evening going through all of the additional packages picking out bits of software I wanted. This is the biggest collection of software I have ever seen - so it took a few hours. Unlike my previous non-serious installs of Linux installations, I thought I would just get the software items that I felt I genuinely needed right now, (except for a few urges, like Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based wargame that I remember Tom blogging about a while back, and LinCity).

The main reason I've felt locked into Windows was Chessbase and its engines. I normally run Shredder 7 on this particular laptop, using it to work through and summarise SuperGM chess tournaments on my blog Chess Vault. This might be the main sticking point if I couldn't find a decent replacement on Ubuntu. I'd prefer not to have a third laptop just for that.

I let the application and package install run overnight. When I woke up the next morning the install popped up a dialog box for dokuwiki, asking for the URL path I wanted it running on. I accepted the default, but the installer seemed to just hang a few minutes later. After waiting about ten minutes for a sign of further progress I Alt-Ctrl-Backspaced out, and rebooted the laptop. (Turns out the dokuwiki installer was just expecting me to press Enter a few times.)

Everything seemed to start okay. I reopened the package manager which immediately spotted that the last install run had failed and it provided me with a terminal command to attempt to repair this. I opened the terminal window, and sudo'ed the command, only to find that sudo was broken. (Which seemed odd, since the GUI version accepted my password when I opened the package manager). A Google search revealed that sudo was indeed broken on the default install, and it had to do with the network settings, which didn't contain a mapping of my laptop hostname to That took a few goes fixing through the Networking Dialogue, which is not very intuitive when adding/changing host lookups. But I eventually got the configuration added (I couldn't do it on the command line because it needed sudo).

With sudo fixed, running the repair command ran through cleanly, and I had Ubuntu running with Apache, web development tools, subversion, LinCity, Oolite, plus XBoard and Crafty (for chess), and the Pidgin IM client which had no problems connecting using my Yahoo IM profile.

Tweaking the install

I spent the next couple of days using Ubuntu like that, just getting used to its look and feel (including the 'fade-out' of various applications that were slow in responding). Just building confidence and trust with the system.

Saturday I tried out XBoard, and that responded fine. I decided to install scid - an open source chess database, and that again, just worked, even Crafty was configured by default as one of the analysis engines. That allowed me to finish off a chess blog post I was halfway through writing before XP failed on me.

Sunday I was quickly frustrated by Twitter's web client's sluggish response. So I dived into the package manager and found Twitux, which looked like a decent Twitter client, and came with the option of running from the system toolbar. Also installed a simple Bittorrent client - one which does just one torrent at a time. That takes me a step backward from the comfort of the official BitTorrent client which can handle multiple torrents. I just need to dig out the official client from the package manager.

The main customisation of the desktop is to switch off the animation, which felt sluggish, and not necessary for me. And adding a third workspace to the workspace switcher. That gives me one workspace for Firefox and general surfing, one workspace for Scid, and one workspace with Bluefish. Bluefish is for writing my blogposts, and I'm thinking I'm comfortable enough to start using for my main web development tool. It feels like an adequate replacement of Textpad.

What I'm liking

I've plugged in two random USB Flash drives, as well as my USB hard drive enclosure, and they just seamlessly worked. Grabbed an mp3 and double clicked it, Totem realised it didn't have the necessary codecs to play so it fired up a search in package manager to find the Gstreamer codecs which installed quickly and the mp3 just worked.

Scid, and the Crafty analysis worked by default. Bluefish just worked. Pidgin Instant Messaging client just worked. Twitux just worked.

And I'm liking the Workspace switcher. That helps me multitask so much better. The CPU is churning away analysing a position, and I'm doing something else in the meantime, knowing the results are just a workspace away. My external LCD monitor feels a little redundant right now, its been off for several days now.

What I didn't like

The del.icio.us toolbar doesn't offer the option to install because Firefox 3 beta is too new. I guess I need to wait until Yahoo! update it. I suppose I can live with the del.icio.us bookmarklets for a while.

Sudo being broken by default (because of a hosts setting on networking), that was a little irritating. The fix took a while to apply because the networking dialogue wasn't intuitive. I was adding the host entry, saving, closing and reopening, and the entry was gone. The solution was to edit an existing entry with the address, then save, and then disable and re-enable networking.

In Firefox I normally right-click on links and open them in a new tab. In Firefox 3 on Ubuntu, sometimes the context menu appears, but sometimes the "Save bookmark" dialogue, or Firebug opens, or Evolution (the email client) opens instead of the context menu. I haven't tracked down why this happens, my current gut feeling (untested) is that links without attached JavaScript events are okay, but those with attached events pull up Firebug. Maybe I should look into downgrading to Firefox 2 instead.

My online banking system doesn't support Firefox 3, or anything outside of a PC or Mac (according to their website). But that's because I have a crap bank than issues with Ubuntu or Firefox.


After a few very minor hiccups, Ubuntu is starting to grow on me. I haven't got dual monitors running yet - that's something I thought I would need to do at first, but I'm starting to feel fairly comfortable with the convenience of the workspace switcher. At the moment, Scid is chugging away analysing a position from Kramnik's game against Gelfand from Corus Wijk aan Zee earlier this year. I'm just blogging away with Bluefish, sometimes forgetting that the chess engine is still chugging away.

At the moment, it's satisfactory. Scid isn't completely up to the levels of Chessbase, I certainly haven't set it up properly yet. My next step is to get a stronger analysis engine, so to figure out how to get Fruit working with it (Fruit, a very strong chess engine, is yet another package that's already in the massive list of Ubuntu software list). Time will tell whether Ubuntu offers enough chessic software for me to forget about needing Shredder 7 installed. There's always the potential option of Chessbase and Wine.

Just after I'd installed the base system, the very next day Canonical announced that the 8.04 version - Hardy Heron, was now release-ready, and that it is the version that benefits from Long Term Support - guaranteed support for 3 years. Looks like I timed the leap to Ubuntu very well!

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