Monday, 27 August 2007

Linux desktop going backwards?

Disappointed to find out that the upcoming version of Ubuntu will not be featuring the Completely Fair Scheduler improvements that accompany Linux 2.6.23, I decided to roll my own kernel on my Gutsy-installed laptop so I could enjoy the benefits anyway. I'm not unfamiliar with this - I used to use Gentoo and tried a variety of custom-build kernels "back in the day" when 2.6 was raw and significant improvements were fast and furious. These days the differences between kernels and new features tends to be small so I haven't had to delve into kernel compilation since switching to Ubuntu but I have been lured back into it by the poor quality of Linux 2.6.22 (various IO issues) by Linux standards and the massive performance gain of CFS in terms of desktop responsiveness and predictability under load.

If you know your way around Linux, compiling a kernel isn't that difficult. There's plenty of good guides around for the popular distributions - I used this one for reference - and was pretty quickly done with that part. The only tricky bit is if you care about 3D acceleration and have ATI or nVidia graphics chipsets to cater for. My laptop comes with an nVidia graphics chipset. The various Ubuntu-specific kernel compilation guides recommend using the driver installation package from the nVidia website, so I grabbed that and ran it.

What the hell is this? I have to QUIT X to install these drivers? I'm relatively long in the tooth with Linux and I have never had to quit X to actually accomplish something like that. Hell, I have upgraded my entire OS (think Ubuntu Breezey -> Dapper -> Feisty -> Gutsy) without* quitting X. And this bloodey driver has the balls to demand I quit X so it can compile itself, place itself in a few directories, and modify my xorg.conf file if I let it?

* Of course at some point you have to restart various things... but whilst installing / upgrading software, being able to continue using the software in memory is a UNIX norm.

Almost as galling as this backwards step in Linux desktop configuration is the reaction I got when I posted this in the Ubuntu forums. People seem to think it's completely OK to have to crap out to a terminal-only environment to do this. The Windows mentality of "please reboot" as soon as a gentle breeze picks up seems to be creeping into the much more robust Linux arena.

I hope this is an isolated package and not a trend. Please, nVidia, sort this out. We should not have to quit X just to install your drivers. Even better, be useful and donate some funds to the Nouveau project so we don't have to rely on your binary blobs any more.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Ubuntu frustrates but Vista angers

My new Acer laptop came with Windows Vista Home Premium preinstalled. I quickly installed Ubuntu on a separate partition - keeping the Vista install for the time being. I use Ubuntu Linux as my primary OS. However for a moment, I was pleased to have kept Vista around. Despite having over 6 years of experience with various flavours of Linux, I could not get it to play a DVD in the 30 minutes it took for my girlfriend's patience to run out, so for that single moment Vista had a use. Also, how can I meaningfully discuss the merits or pitfalls of Ubuntu without experiencing Ubuntu's primary contemporary competitor, Vista, firsthand?
This morning I was attending a meeting of predominantly Windows users, a good opportunity to get some Vista-time under my belt. I booted into Vista to set up Eclipse (a Java development environment although I'd not yet installed Java - I was going to after downloading Eclipse) so I could run through a few development issues with them. I downloaded Eclipse; the version I needed is distributed as a 125MB zipfile.
It is important note that I had only run Vista on 2 occasions prior to this - once when the laptop arrived and the aforementioned DVD incident. So, this was a "clean" Vista install with only the freeware version of AVG and Opera installed by me. Anything else is either a preinstalled application by Acer or part of Windows.
Once Eclipse was fully downloaded it should have been simple. Vista supports "compressed folders" out of the box, as did its predecessor Windows XP. Nothing new here - open, copy, browse to chosen location, paste. The result? Barely 7k/s unzip speed. Shocked, I think to myself, "Something must be wrong!" Well, AVG was scanning files - so I stop the scan, and try again. Problem solved? Nope - it steadily improves to a paltry 20k/s unzip speed. That is disgusting. Some will probably shout, "What do you expect, you only have Vista Home Premium!?" I'm sorry, but that just does not excuse this. I am truly appalled.
Naturally, I took screenshots. Thankfully MS Paint still works.

Unzipping Vista's impotence
Just to make matters worse, after losing patience with 15 minutes of waiting for the unzip operation to speed up, I attempted to cancel the unzip operation. Explorer hung. My Vista experience is only a few boots old and I'm already experiencing crashes. And they want this OS installed around the world in people's homes?
Maybe I have to mess around in Ubuntu to get around DRM centric formats like DVDs, but at least it's moving forwards as an OS and not backwards - Vista really made me cringe and I'll probably install XP to get on with any Windows-oriented work tasks in the future.

Friday, 17 August 2007

What happened to Firefox?

Firefox... what happened to you? Consuming gross amounts of memory, slower and slower as releases go by. You were supposed to be a slim browser usurping Mozilla by virtue of simplicity, shedding the feature creep and lack of engineering that had convoluted the Mozilla suite. Now you have become the very thing you were created to kill: a bloated browser.

I installed Opera today. It may be closed source, but it's a breath of fresh air - fast, snappy, simple. Innovative features (speed dial, notes) and a clean, minimal UI. In general it just works and is a lovely UI experience.

Another option in Ubuntu/Gnome is Epiphany but it just doesn't have the polish that Opera has.

I originally posted these thoughts in the Ubuntu forums here.