It’s Linuxgiving season: My recent experiences with some Linux distros

Fall season is one of the busiest times for Linux distributions, and this year is also a very busy time for me.  Ever since two years now I gradually migrated family and friends to Linux. This year these new Linux users gave me quite some work, especially on week-ends, and my own upgrade gave me quite some work. You might think that the people I installed Linux systems on their laptops would be autonomous and relying on forums when help were needed. Think again: Usability of every day applications may have never been easy, but installing new applications is something that still has not gotten through them, at least on a regular basis, and this means they rely on their favourite system administrator (me) to fix whatever issues they have. But it’s somewhat of a vicious circle, because I guess I enjoy helping them myself, and to add to the pleasure I installed different distributions for each of them. Below is the list of the computers I am watching over:

  • Melissa’s laptop: running the latest Mandriva
  • My father’s laptop: used to run Ubuntu until Karmic Koala that messed up everything, now it runs the latest OpenSuse
  • Jeremie and Alexandra’s laptop: running Ubuntu (before it was running Vista, or rather, was coughing up Vista until Ubuntu made it possible to actually do something with the laptop).
  • My workstation (my laptop is a Mac): running Fedora by default, now running Ubuntu Karmic Koala.

Let’s start with the easiest: the upgrade of Jeremie and Alexandra’s laptop to Ubuntu. The upgrade was a breeze, contrary to reports in the press and what happened with the upgrade on my father’s laptop. Usually Jeremie uprades its system himself but this time, I insisted on attending in case of a problem. There was none.

Next was Melissa’s laptop. Melissa has a Dell with Ubuntu preinstalled, but she never really liked it. She tried Mandriva at the beginning of 2009 and was immediately sold on it. The upgrade to the Mandriva 2010 was not overly problematic but somehow did not go all the way till the end. I quickly relaunched the upgrade procedure and everything went fine. Mandriva is graphically one of the most beautiful distributions out there, fares better than Ubuntu in many ways but sometimes fails in the availability of packages. I shall come back to this later.

Next my father upgraded its system as he is used to ever since two years, but this time when he rebooted he found himself with Xubuntu, and Xfce desktop he never wanted and a laptop showing what I call the “Windows symptom”: bloated, noisy, humming, doing everything slow and having an hyperactive hard disk. As I had heard about the problematic upgrade of the newest Ubuntu I was prepared for a total system reinstallation, but having seen the ease of use of Mandriva before I thought that changing distributions would be a good idea. More specifically, Mandriva and OpenSuse have something no other distribution (aside a few others such as Sabayon, Parsix …) has: an all in one, integrated configuration center that does everything from switching wallpaper to configuring the wireless connection and managing packages. Ubuntu desperately needs one, because newbies have only one place to remember in order to manage their system, whether it’s Drake Center or YAST. I burned a couple of live CDs, one with Mandriva and the other one with OpenSuse (both on Gnome, my father does not seem to enjoy KDE 4). Mandriva was ruled out probably because my father did not seem to like the graphical style of Mandriva, and thus we settled for OpenSuse. The installation process was uneventful, although it seems that the ability to upgrade from one version to a more recent one is really experimental. YAST was well accepted, but there is a funny anecdote about the OpenSuse interface: OpenSuse has put the Gnome main task bar at the bottom of the screen, which really annoyed my father as he wanted to have it on top of the screen. I do notice that he completely got out of the “it’s not like Windows” theme only to adopt the “it’s not like the regular version of Gnome”! I can’t wait for Gnome 3.0…

Next, I had to work on my own system, which was a finely tuned Fedora Core 11. Helas, the upgrade was one of the worst experiences I had with Linux distributions. Shortly put, I think it was a bad mistake for Fedora to have claimed its 12 version was ready. It frankly was not ten days ago and I doubt it’s ready even now. First, the special software used to upgrade distributions, “preupgrade” had a bug and was only discovered 24 hours before the release, which forced thousands of users including me to look for the newest version that wasn’t on the official mirrors. The upgrade itself took a long time  but of course it also depends on the system that was installed before. When the upgrade process was finished I found myself with a half baked Fedora 12. Cleaning the installation packages I was not cautious enough in realising that the drivers (both free and proprietary) were still working with the existing kernel although they were marked as “fc 11”. Cleaning the packages, as advised by every manual, erased them and I discovered afterwards that there was no available drivers for nvidia cards on Fedora 12, either free or proprietary (or rather that the packages were not ready yet). So I found myself losing the X server for good, and given my experience with the new Fedora 12, I decided, although I had lost a good day, to make a clean install on the next morning.

On the next morning indeed, I installed a fresh live CD from Fedora 12. But the live system would not recognize my wireless network nor would it even link to any driver for 3D. At that point I got really frustrated but was still willing to go with Fedora if no other distribution were to offer any significant advantage in its configuration. I gave a try to OpenSuse, which automatically recognized my wireless network, and explained me that 3D was not available but that I could enable it by following some simple steps. I was not going to go with OpenSuse, as it always strikes me as a good distribution but one that for some reason is not very appealing to me and has too much of mono everywhere (and no, I don’t consider OpenSuse as being some kind of traitor to Free Software, let alone because it’s clearly out of the deal between Novell and Microsoft!). I hesitated about Mandriva. What hold me back was the lack of certain libs for some special -and a bit obscure- 3D graphic software that I use and also because Second Life does not seem to run well on it. Otherwise I would not have hesitated. Anyway, I ended up testing out the latest Ubuntu. Guess what? Everything was easy, fast, wireless network recognized, 3D drivers enabled in a minute. It was a real relief for me, and so far I must say Karmic is a really good release.

Last but not least, here’s some “post mortem” analysis of the situation: This fall season saw a lot of problematic upgrades. I seem to give a hard time to Fedora, but in retrospect Fedora Core 11 was a good distribution; I am just disappointed at the lack of readiness of the Fedora infrastructure for such a major release. I’ll probably go back to Fedora some time, because it’s targeted at people just like me: power users who like it easy but still a bit rough (hey, it’s like barbecue folks). Fedora has also some unique features for advanced users: Assistants to configure services and security profiles are a must and simply do not exist on Ubuntu (they do on OpenSuse and Mandriva in a different way though). But not shunning away from the command line does not mean having to deal with issues related with poor work, and that’s what made me switch.

As for Ubuntu I felt at first almost bored that I to go for the choice everyone was making. But here’s what I think Ubuntu has become. In some ways Ubuntu, or more exactly the ubiquitous availability of deb packages through the system of PPAs (extra, adhoc software repositories hosted by Ubuntu itself) and the third parties repositories, is turning Ubuntu into an universal distribution, or perhaps a meta-distribution of sorts. The question of the availability of packages had already been solved by Debian and to the same extent by Red Hat. What we’re witnessing now is more and more applications being ported or packaged for Ubuntu, not so much because it’s the more popular distribution du jour but because Canonical made it really easy to have its software available online for millions (yes, millions) of users.

Thus, in a strange display of irony, Ubuntu is becoming what Debian always wanted to be in some way: the universal system for all. Linux distributions will not stop surprising me, after all.

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