Ubuntu – so near yet so far

I have never willed something to work well so strongly as I have Ubuntu Linux. Lots of my most respected colleagues use it, I like the philosophy and resent being compelled to use XP which is now 8 or so years old.

What’s more, I’ve recently taken the step of working on customer engagements out of VMWare images to avoid my base OS becoming increasingly polluted with software installations for every passing project (anyone in a services role will know that pain). So in this sense, all my meaningful work that is not foilware is done in an image that I can not only backup and restore on demand (often I dip in and out of projects) but that means my base OS is only really needed for email and productivity tools. I am currently using XP as the base and as an approach it works okay but it never feels the most efficient platform to build on. It also takes an age to boot into a usable state (can be a good 10 minutes on a bad day) and XP installs always have a limited shelf life — you install it with a view to rebuilding it in 6-9 months if you’re lucky. My use of VMWare images to help keep it clean might help its longevity but even so. I do use iTunes (Windows and Mac only) but can live without it most of the time if needed.

To this end, I decided to experiment with using Linux as my base OS  on my Thinkpad T60 to see how it compared. I am surrounded with happy Ubuntu users so Ubuntu seemed a natural thing to try out. So, down came the ISO, onto a CD and into the CD drive. I’ve recorded my conclusions here for posterity so I can look back on the experience.

Now my first attempt to dual-boot was a disaster since hitherto-reliable partitioning software trashed my NTFS partition when trying to create me a new partition, requiring a Lazarus-style resurrection involving taking lots of deep breaths, removing the disk, putting it in a dock and running CHKDSK on it. Not off to a good start. I decided to do what I should have done in the first place and use the Wubi installer that puts Ubuntu onto your NTFS partition, a bit like a virtual disk. That worked perfectly and Ubuntu now appeared on my boot selection list alongside XP. We’re off and running I thought, it had correctly identified my widescreen, touchpad and wired Ethernet was working fine. Happy days.

One thing became clear however, that whilst the installation process was impressive (and the boot up light years faster than XP, less than a minute), the reality soon showed me that in switching from XP I’d actually swapped one type of pain for another. The thing I felt most uncomfortable about in the Linux world was that all of a sudden I had to care about which chipsets were installed on the laptop — it “just works” up to a point but to do many of the things I care about started to get pretty complex pretty quickly. Having to digress to the command line to do some basic things (my screen drivers apparently need me to digress to the command line to set up dual monitor) seemed a retrograde step given the rich Gnome UI available and the fact that even an antique OS like XP doesn’t need you to do that. The real deal-breaker for me was the wireless support — it works but only when I am sat within 2 metres of my home router. Searching for help on the web told me only that wifi is recognised as a weakness and there is no easy approach to fix it. Most Ubuntu people I talk to just seem to avoid using it. Wifi I rely on at home and when I travel with work, wired isn’t really a viable option for me. I haven’t got as far as trying to connect to a projector which is similarly recognised as a weakness. I present pretty often and I need that to work reliably.

So all in all, I am afraid to say I have stuck with XP since too many of the things I do most are either not possible or simply too difficult in Ubuntu. I am really disappointed about it as I do believe that Linux on the desktop is A Good Thing just the reality for me personally is rather too much like hard work at the moment. I’ve got colleagues with different hardware who have found it a revelation. I desperately want to believe, so I am undeterred and will try again on the next laptop.

Unless the next laptop is a MacBook Pro of course 🙂

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One response to “Ubuntu – so near yet so far

  1. This summarizes most of the problem I had also… I have ubuntu on T60p thinkpad … Even I have issues with Suspending the laptop and also some problem with graphics. Also I have issues with configuring the projector. It looks to work well on T61 thinkpads.

    Regards,
    Neeraj Krishna
    Pervasive & Advanced Messaging Technologies
    IBM Software Labs

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