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27 May 2011 @ 12:40 pm
[Note: If you're not a Linux user or considering becoming a Linux user, ignore this post; you will find it dull and probably incomprehensible.]

With the recent developments in desktop environments, the Linux world has been in a bit of a kerfuffle. I thought I'd enjoy the productive chaos that is open source by trying out a few different Linux distributions. Well, that wasn't my original intention, but that's how it turned out.

Until a few months ago, I'd been happily using Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), which I have to say was an excellent distro. It's one of those distros that stick in your head, like Redhat 6.0 or Mandrake 10.2, if, of course, you have the weird kind of head that stores Linux releases in the same place that normal people use for their eighteenth birthday or their graduation ceremony. If I were the kind of sensible person who uses a computer to get things done, I'd probably have stuck with it for another year or two, but I am not, as the following exchange in our Educational Technology unit illustrates:

REYYAN (unit co-ordinator): Surely we use new technology to help us teach better.
ME: No, we use new technology because it's bright and shiny, then we try to think of ways to use it in our jobs.

So of course I upgrade my system every time there's an opportunity. Besides, if I'd wanted a nice, stable operating system that didn't change every nine months, I'd be using Debian. However, this time there was a difference because of Mark Shuttleworth's earth-shattering decision to go with Unity rather than GNOME for Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal). Before plunging in, I decided to gain some perspective by trying the beta of Kubuntu 11.04 and revisiting KDE. I used KDE for a while in my Mandrake days and I have to say it's pretty much the same. KDE 1 was fun, with some really wacky themes (anyone remember the Alien theme?) but from KDE 2 onwards, it was sensible, sensible, sensible. KDE 4 is no different. It's the KDE we all know and love kind of get along with, plus a load of Windows-style widgets that some people love and I find totally useless. I don't even like to have icons on my desktop, let alone giant analogue clocks or barometers. On the positive side, KDE is very slick and works well; it's kind of what Windows 7 thinks it is. I could have stayed with it, but I just got bored.
Ubuntu used to be like this.

It was time to try the much-anticipated (or dreaded) Ubuntu 11.04 with the Unity interface. I was curious, since I'd heard so many bad things about it. Some of these bad things turned out to be the prejudices of conservative users who don't like anything that looks different; the other 90% are true. Unity is really, really bad. It might be a good interface for a tablet or a netbook (which is what it was designed for) but I don't want to spend more money than I can afford on a 22" monitor and then have it look like a tablet. It doesn't even look like a slick kind of tablet; it looks like the kind of tablet you might give six-year-old kids so they can learn about computers. The only arguments I've seen in favour of Unity are (a) it can be quite nice if you spend a couple of weeks learning how to hack it and (b) Mark Shuttleworth likes it, and he's a very clever person, so we should be patient and wait for it to evolve into something that doesn't hurt to look at.
Now it's like this.

Not having enough patience for that, I eschewed the sensible option of falling back to the "classic" interface (i.e. Gnome 2) and decided to try a different distro. As the most popular of the Ubuntu spinoffs, Linux Mint seemed the obvious choice; unfortunately whatever I tried, the installation disk would not do anything at all when I booted it up. I then tried Pinguy 10.10. This was actually a downgrade, but it was an interesting experience. Pinguy is like having a friend install Ubuntu for you so that everything just works the way it should. Almost everything I wanted was there already. OK, LaTeX wasn't there, but then this is supposed to be Ubuntu for beginners. More importantly, all the unorthodox repositories are there: dirty closed source software, codices of questionable legality … all the stuff you normally have to poke around to find.

I was naturally waiting for Pinguy 11.04 to come out and hoping that it would feature Gnome 3. It didn't, which was probably a wise move, given the aforementioned "beginners Linux" idea. What wasn't so good was that my mouse wouldn't work. After several hours of tweaking things in a virtual console (which reminded me of my first attempts with Linux back in 1998) I gave up and decided to check out some other distros.

Fedora 15 was still a release candidate when I tried it, so I shouldn't complain that I couldn't get nvidia drivers to install. One of the reasons I stopped using RPM-based distros was the so-called "dependency hell" where application A couldn't be installed because it depended on backend B, which couldn't be installed because it depended on library C, which couldn't be installed because it was an older version than the existing one and would thus break application D. To be fair, it's nowhere near as bad these days, and as I said, it was just a release candidate, but for me, not having nvidia is a show stopper. With the normal drivers, my graphics card goes into overdrive and makes an irritating noise as it tries to keep cool.

My next port of call was openSUSE, a distro I'd tried in the past, somewhere between my Mandrake and Ubuntu days. SUSE is a good, solid distro, very slick, with excellent configuration tools (YAST). Unfortunately, while the nvidia drivers installed OK, they broke the system. As in Black Screen of Death with Cryptic White Characters. I tried installing them every which way with the same result.

Finally, I went back to Pinguy 11.04 because I had had a Cunning Plan. I'd already tried deleting various configuration files to see if that would solve the mouse problem. This time I moved everything important from my home directory, deleted everything left there, then installed. It worked a treat. Emboldened by my success, I upgraded from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3. No problems. Emboldened by that success, I installed some extensions. No worries, even though it was rather ironic that I'd started with a distro designed to make everything easy for beginners and still managed to end up typing "./autoconf; make; make install". That's not a problem with Pinguy; that's a problem with me.

I'll probably talk more about Gnome 3 in a later post. In the meantime, I should add an honorable mention for three distros that I didn't get around to trying this time. Bodhi Linux is a minimal Ubuntu-based distro using Enlightenment as its desktop (hence the pun). I've always had a soft spot for Enlightenment, partly because it was the first window manager I used, partly because it's different from all the others, and partly because it looks beautiful. The downside to Enlightenment is that development occurs at snail's pace because so few people work on it (and, I guess, because those who do are perfectionists) and the downside to Bodhi is that there's no 64-bit version. Both of these may be rectified in the future; in the meantime I tried installing Enlightenment over (vanilla) Ubuntu and found it pretty but a little glitchy. PCLinuxOS also has an Enlightened version, plus all the usual desktops (except for Unity). Again, no 64-bit version, though apparently there should be one soon. (PCLinuxOS is pretty much a one-man distro, so it's ready when TexStar says it is.) Finally, Mageia, like PCLinuxOS, is a fork from Mandriva. It's a community-based distro that has formed at least in part due to uncertainty about Mandriva's future, and the first official release may well be out by the time you read this. I'm curious, but (to reverse Dave Barry's saying) I think it's time to use my computer for something other than diddling with my computer.