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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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