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Monday, April 12, 2004

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To SuSE or not to SuSE? Is there even a question?

Category: Operating System

If you haven't read my first entry, I would be much obliged if you did. It gives the setup for this series of articles. While you're at it, you might even go back and read the Mandrake review as well as the comments.

So here I am. A SuSE 9.0 boot CD in my hand, and a desire to find a Linux distro that works. I'll be damned if SuSE isn't off to a great start. They *only* allow Internet installs via a small boot ISO. And unlike the Fedora boot.iso, this thing has everything. Installation, Rescue CD, boot manager, etc. I might just have to keep this thing around for the next time an OS goes haywire.

The installation proceeded smoothly, right after I got over the initial confusion caused when the CD asked for the IP Address of the FTP server. It turns out that you can enter a hostname just fine. (A hint: Make sure you write down the name of your mirror server, as well as the directory SuSE is in before you start the installation. There's no predefined list of mirrors to choose from.)

The installation GUI was slick, with it autodetecting just about everything. I had to change a few setting (such as installing GRUB on
/dev/hdb instead of /dev/hda), but I can't say that I've ever seen an easier install process. It even chose ReiserFS as the default. If I had one complaint, it's that every operation takes it forever. But it's an install. You're supposed to do it once and be done with it.

Once installed, I rebooted only to see "GRUB" on the screen and nothing else. Thankfully this great install disk of SuSE's allows me to boot into an existing OS directly from the CD. Once I was in, I played with GRUB until I got it to work. It turns out that the BIOS informs GRUB that the drives are backwards when booting from the second drive. Thus (hd1,5) (where it was looking) was actually (hd0,5), and Windows was (hd1,0). I changed the menu.lst file and everything worked fine.

I suppose I should probably be annoyed by this problem, but I'm not. Given that I'm installing these OSes onto the second partition of a secondary slave drive, I'm willing to cut them some slack.

When the system came up, everything pretty much worked. All my NTFS drives were mounted, the sound worked, I could play MP3s, my TV card worked flawlessly, etc. Things that didn't work were the mouse wheel, and the video player. The mouse wheel was easily fixed by adding in the "ZAxisMapping" setting to the XF86Config file. The video player played sound, but there was no picture. This really didn't bother me too much as I was planning to install VLC.

Which brings me to my next point. Why does every Linux install have to involve RPM hell? I had to pull 15-20 RPMs from various sources in order to get VLC installed. Most home users won't know what "libtheora" is, where to get it, or how to install it. Not to mention scary names like "libart_gpl.0". Linux systems work fine for the software that's in their catalog, but anything even slightly "different" becomes a real pain in the ass for users. It's time to decide whether Linux wants to be a "hacker's system" where everything is compiled from source, or a "desktop system" where binary compatibility and simple installation is a must. So far, Linux has been targeting the "Workstation" market which just isn't good enough. FreeBSD, Windows, and Mac OS X will eat Linux for lunch in that market.

Anyway, after mucking around with half a billion RPMs, VLC installed and even put itself into the SuSE start menu. (A nice touch.) I then loaded one of the kids' cartoons off of the NTFS drive, and it played flawlessly.

I still have to set up the NVidia drivers, but otherwise the system is working beautifully. My only complaint is (wait for it) my mouse still locks up!!! Ok, it doesn't happen as much on SuSE. In fact, I thought that the problem didn't exist until I was mucking around in the hardware GUI trying to make the GUI install my mouse wheel. That was the first time it locked up, and I figured that as long as I didn't mess with any hardware, I'd be okay. Well, it eventually locks up anyway. This seems to be an epidemic with the Linux kernel.

Please! If anyone knows how to fix the mouse problem, tell me! This is the only major issue I'm having with SuSE!

Final Verdict: I think we have a winner. There's still a few areas that would be difficult for the average user (e.g. Setting up the mouse wheel, installing the NVidia drivers, and dealing with the installation of non-catalog software like VLC), but overall it was easy to set up, and the YaST2 software library made software installation a breeze. I'm very pleased with SuSE, and would recommend it to anyone looking to find an easy to use Linux system.

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Sunday, April 11, 2004

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The Mandrake 10.0 Experience (TM)

Category: Operating Systems

Perhaps I was simply expecting too much out of a RedHat derivative, but my review of Mandrake did not go well at all. I've long heard how easy to use Mandrake is, and how easy it is to set up. Supposedly, you install it and boot. It's that easy. I just wish it were that easy for me.

I downloaded all three ISO images and burned them to CDRW. (I'm just glad I didn't waste CDRs on this.) I then rebooted and began the installation. A very nice looking GUI installer came up and I began to follow the steps. Unfortunately, the installer locked up on the first button I clicked. I had to reboot a few times and keep trying before I finally figured out that this is the same mouse bug as in RedHat and Fedora. I was then able to get through the installer by careful use of the keyboard and mouse. (Hint: Click the button and let go of the mouse until the operation is completed. If you move the mouse, you're dead.)

The upside of the install was that it was very easy to choose the packages I wanted, and the new 2.6 kernel was installed without fuss. The installer even warned me that it would have to downgrade to 2.4 if I wanted to install the Linux Standards Base (LSB) software. This was definitely a nice touch, as I wanted to use the system as Mandrake had intended. (I was also hoping the 2.6 kernel would get rid of that $%Q# mouse problem.) I was also able to easily select ReiserFS as my default filesystem.

The downsides to the install was that there was no small boot CD to install over the internet (all 3 CDs were required), it wrote the Linux partition as a non-bootable extended partition (which the Mandrake version of the bootloader somehow got around), and the sound card couldn't be configured (it told me to run 'sndconfig' after the first boot). Considering that sound was exactly the reason I was performing this experiment, this did not make me happy.

After install, the machine booted up to KDE 4.2. I'd love to give you a guided tour of all the great new features, but to be perfectly honest I never got to find out what they are. The same mouse locking problem that was present in Fedora was also present here. That was annoying in of itself. Then I spent time trying to find this 'sndconfig' utility that I was supposed to run.

I eventually found it under '/usr/sbin' and ran it. It was unable to detect my PnP sound card, and asked me to manually enter the values. I did so, and the sound card tested fine. Upon exit, the utility froze up and I was forced to hit CTRL+C. The '/etc/modules.conf' file appeared to have been properly modified, so I attempted playing a sound. Nothing but an error about sound not being configured. So I restarted the system. When it came back up, I still didn't have sound. I reran the 'sndconfig' utility with the exact same results. I then checked and verified that the audio streams existed under the '/dev' directory. There were there. I then played with the KDE sound config to get it to recognize the sound device. Even manually setting the path to the device didn't work. So, I restarted the system again, hoping this time it would work.

I then made a startling discovery. After I reboot the machine, the sound devices disappear from the '/dev' directory! They only come back after I rerun the 'sndconfig' utility. I then figured that I had better check Mandrake's website to see if they had any help on the problem. Unfortunately, I found I was unable to reach their website. In fact, I then realized that I couldn't reach any website. It seems that after one of the reboots, the network card somehow disabled itself. That's about where I gave up.

Final verdict: I don't have time for this.

I sincerely hope that the rest of you have a much better experience with Mandrake 10.0 than I did. I really wanted Mandrake to work, but it simply ended up being too painful to continue.

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Thursday, April 08, 2004

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Finding the best Linux Distro

Category: Operating Systems

Well, Windows 2000 has done it again. My volume control disappeared a while back, so I uninstalled and reinstalled the drivers. Now the audio drivers are so screwed up that I get NO sound, despite the drivers being installed just fine. The problem appears to relate to the Preferred Devices settings, which are now grayed out.

Since my kids really like watching cartoons on the computer, I immediately started looking for an alternative way to play them. My first attempt was to use the Java Desktop System demo and Knoppix CDs that I have. Both have media players, but neither one can handle the encoding format. Since I know that VideoLAN can handle it (that's what I use on Windows), I tried to install that. Unfortunately, you can't take one of those CDS through an entire build cycle. There's simply too many packages to install to be doing it every reboot. So, I decided to try out different Linux distributions.

I've decided that I want a Linux distro that works correctly out of the box, and needs minimal configuration. If I have to start recompiling stuff, or run into major technical hurdles, it's gone. In the past, technical issues have always driven me back to FreeBSD. It may take slightly longer, but at least everything works when my BSD system is set up. But for this experiment, I'm valuing expediency and ease of use above all else. Supposedly, Linux can provide this.

My configuration:

PIII 733 w/Asus MB
GeForce 2 GTS
2 identical 40 gig drives (~12 GB is set aside on the second drive for alternate OSes)
Intel Etherexpress 100 NIC
ISA Awe32 Sound Card
Pinnacle PCTV Tuner
Microsoft USB Optical Mouse w/Wheel (Intellimouse)
PS/2 Keyboard
15 inch Dell Monitor
Creative 8x CDRW drive
No floppy drive
512 MB of RAM

This machine is over 3 years old at this point, and has been holding up pretty well. I custom built it for capacity and compatibility (except for the AWE32 that I yanked from an old computer), so it's probably got another 2 or 3 years of life left in it.

On to my first victim! Err... distro!

Fedora Core 2

In the past, my impression of RedHat has always been that it is a very pretty OS on the surface, but with a lot of hidden terrors under the hood. I won't go into my long list of complaints concerning RedHat as it really doesn't make a difference here. I was hoping that Fedora Core would meet my requirements, and I won't have to worry about it's idiosyncrasies.

The install was very easy and smooth. The GUI was responsive, and gave me no trouble what so ever. I told it where to install, and it did it. I used the boot.iso disk to install over the internet, but it didn't seem to impact anything over using all 3(!) CDs.

Once the install was complete, the system came up and allowed me to log in. I typed in my username and password, excitedly started trying to use it, and then...

my mouse locked up. *sigh*

Last time I tried RedHat 8, the same thing happened. You could use the system for awhile, and then the mouse would simply stop responding. If you tried not to move it during IO operations, it could be made to live on for quite awhile. Unfortunately, it always locks up in the end. Then I have to use the keyboard to reboot and pick up where I left off. The fact that this problem is *still* happening after 4 versions, is not encouraging.

So, I rebooted and started over. Next task was to access the videos on my NTFS drive. Oddly enough, the drives weren't already mounted. How odd. So I checked around the GUI, and found that the drive didn't show up in the configuration tools. Alright, down to the terminal shell. I type 'mount -t ntfs
/dev/hdb1 /mnt/multimedia' and I get 'type NTFS is unknown'. What in the world?

A quick check of the net shows that NTFS is not supported by Fedora Core 2. Something about being "freer than free", or some other diatribe. The Linux NTFS project says that they do not support Fedora Core either. Add to that the fact that NVidia drivers, MP3 playing, and other core niceties are missing (oops, mouse locked up again, reboot), this one's dead on arrival.

On to Mandrake!

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