After a few weeks of ignoring the issue I decided to try and get desktop effects working. When I would try to use desktop effects my screen would go blank (solid white). In fact I could not adjust my screen resolution either – it was stuck on 1280×1024 at 61Hz refresh (61?).

I knew I had the integrated Intel 915 graphics which isn’t exactly high-end but it should be enough for basic OpenGL support. I started searching and discovered a few things …

  1. glxinfo would fail on my machine. When I would run it the following would be displayed:
    • X Error of failed request: BadAlloc (insufficient resources for operation)
  2. System -> Hardware Information did detect that the Intel 915/910 graphics controller
  3. dmesg also detected the card

So I started hitting Google and discovered a utility called 915resolution on the Absolute Beginner’s Guide – http://absolutebeginner.wordpress.com/2006/08/20/absolute-beginner-guide-915resolution/. Following those directions I was able to get into a different resolution.

Still desktop effects would not work though. I needed to tackle the glxinfo problem.

After some more Google time I came across this page on ArchWiki: http://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/Intel_915_Chipset. This page explained how to edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf to support the 915/910 driver (the key is the i810 driver).

While I was in there I noticed that the monitor settings were odd. The monitor ID was a string of gibberish and the refresh rates were all off. I have an HP M70 monitor (which is odd because I’ve never owned and HP computer and I can’t, for the life of me, remember how I came to own this) so I once again went to Google and discovered this page: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=381593

Once I made the suggested adjustments and restarted X (ctrl+alt+backspace) I was able to enable desktop effects and enjoy the fun.

I’m going to try running Beryl now.

One goal of installing Ubuntu is to help ease my wife and kids onto it – not to create a huge problem with the family. After the Ubuntu install the default boot ed OS was Ubuntu – not Windows. That’s going to be a problem.

So I went on a mission to figure out how to change the boot order to load XP by default.

I knew that Ubuntu was using the GRUB boot loader. I wasn’t familiar with GRUB so I don’t know why I knew this – it must have been stated during the install sometime. But anyway – I knew it was GRUB.

I Googled for “change GRUB boot order” and the first hit was exactly what I needed. I needed to edit /boot/grub/menu.lst.

I copied the file into my home dir and used chmod (it’s been so long since I’ve used a *nix CLI that I had to lookup chmod – I knew it was “ch” something) so I could write to it then opened it in xemacs.

I simply copied the XP settings ahead of the Ubuntu settings in the item list and left everything else the same.

The relevant parts of the original menu.lst were:

—————————- /boot/grub/menu.lst —————————————-


default 0
timeout 10

## ## End Default Options ##

title Ubuntu, kernel 2.6.20-15-generic
root (hd0,1)
kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.20-15-generic root=UUID=12de9aee-c011-429e-b2a9-0ed83b3eb727 ro quiet splash
initrd /boot/initrd.img-2.6.20-15-generic
quiet
savedefault

title Ubuntu, kernel 2.6.20-15-generic (recovery mode)
root (hd0,1)
kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.20-15-generic root=UUID=12de9aee-c011-429e-b2a9-0ed83b3eb727 ro single
initrd /boot/initrd.img-2.6.20-15-generic

title Ubuntu, memtest86+
root (hd0,1)
kernel /boot/memtest86+.bin
quiet

### END DEBIAN AUTOMAGIC KERNELS LIST

# This is a divider, added to separate the menu items below from the Debian ones.

title Other operating systems:
root

# This entry automatically added by the Debian installer for a non-linux OS
# on /dev/sda1

title Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition
root (hd0,0)
savedefault
makeactive

—————————–

I referred to the online GRUB manual (http://www.gnu.org/software/grub) and confirmed that the “0” in default was the list item to boot by default (zero-indexed) and that if it were changed to “saved” the previously loaded item with a “savedefault” entry would be used. I didn’t want that. I want it to boot to XP by default regardless of what I used most recently.

I had two choices – change the default value to 4 (the menu divider is an option as well) or leave it at 0 and reorder the items.

I decided to reorder the items for one reason – I want the top menu item to be the default because that is how my family will expect it to work.

There are some notes about an automatically generated section that could be over-written so I did back up the file before making the change and I decided it was worth the hassle of losing the customizations I made (and possibly the Window’s item) to make it work the way we need for now. I don’t plan to change it often.

So I simply moved the XP section to the top, moved the divider below it, saved the local copy and copied it over the original.

Rebooting brought up XP after a 10 second delay – just as I had hoped.

Note – I reverted the changes and used a simplier approach that kernel updates won’t overwrite.

Step 3: Install Ubuntu

April 29, 2007

Finally it was time to install Ubuntu to the newly created partitions. I booted to the Ubuntu CD and …

wait … what’s going on? Why am I in 640×480 mode? It’s always been fine before.

Did I accidentally choose safe graphics mode? Sure – that’s what I must have done.

So I rebooted and made doubly sure I selected the proper startup option. This is looking much better … wait … the screen just flashed. I’m in 640×480 again. Perhaps it’s just a configuration problem. System -> Preferences -> Screen Resolution … yup … 640×480 – so I’ll just select the drop-down l…

There are no other options.

Why do I care so much? Because the Ubuntu installer does not run properly in 640×480 because the control buttons (forward, back, etc) are not visible – the windows are too large and they do not have the option to scroll.

I went through this dance twice before actually choosing to start in the graphics safe mode.

Well in safe graphics mode it worked as expected! 1280×1024 resolution. I have no idea what happened. I’m going to call it an anomaly and not worry about it. I don’t know enough about Ubuntu to assume it was anything other than user error.

Since I was in a decent resolution I ran the installer by using the “Install” link on the desktop.

Installing was a breeze. I had to pick my timezone, keyboard info, create an account for myself, and manually configure the partitions I created earlier. Then about 20 minutes later the installation was complete.

I rebooted and was greeted by a new boot loader that let me choose between a few Ubuntu options and Windows XP. Exactly what I hoped for.

I booted to Ubuntu, logged in using the account I created, opened a terminal window and created a symbolic link from a directory under /media/sda5 (the shared drive – it took me a little while to find the proper location) into my home directory. Now I can easily share data between the two systems.

Oh – and my NTFS drive is mounted too so I guess that was unnecessary but I’m glad to have done it since it was a good learning experience.

Now that it’s working – its time to move on to the next pet project.

My work attitude towards reformatting is that it should be done as often as necessary – and that is quite often. Every 3-4 weeks or so. IT should provide boot installation services to make this trivial. Network document storage makes this easy. Checking in your code to a private branch makes this easy. Your machine might bork out tomorrow. You shouldn’t fear losing weeks of data.

But at home it’s not quite that easy. My wife and kids rely on the machine for their personal projects and school work. I can’t reformat the system and start from scratch and I wanted to avoid buying a second drive if I could (Circuit City has new laptops for under $400 – why would I want to spend half of that just to get Linux running?).

My current configuration is a 140GB drive that is in a single NTFS partition. It is about 30% full.

The goal was to move everything to the front of the disk, boot to Ubuntu Live CD and figure out how to resize the partition.

I started by running the XP disk cleanup wizard. I’m not a huge fan of this but it consolidates several things I knew I wanted to do into a single action so I could spend my time outside grilling. I also cleaned out my non-system temp directory and uninstalled a few programs that weren’t wanted. This freed up another few gigs and increased the odds of good defragmenting.

I loaded up the XP defrag tool and let it run. Unfortunately it let a few unmovable files in bad places (last quarter of the partition). The size of the unmovable block looked to be at least a gig – it had to be the pagefile (I already have hibernation and restore disks disabled). So I disabled the pagefile and rebooted. After booting I was able to defrag everything except for one thin red line (fragmented file) – it just would not move from the last quarter of the partition. It occurred to me that the file was probably also unmovable but the UI had to pick one color to render. The only thing I could think of was the virus scanner. So I pulled the network cable and disabled the virus scanner and – not surprisingly – the next defrag pass worked like a charm.

I quickly shutdown and booted to Ubuntu.

I did some reading and found several sites that suggested I use qtparted to resize the NTFS partition. Since the live cd does not include qtparted I figured out how to install it –

> sudo apt-get install qtparted

That worked great. I was able to run it and resize the partition (I did not create the new partitions yet). I trimmed off 42 GB from the backend for Linux and shared FAT32 space.

Experienced readers and now laughing and saying “poor newbie didn’t know that a better version of qtparted, called GNOME Partition Editor (gparted) is already installed on the live CD”. Yeah – I found it later. I used it to create the partitions (qtparted was not able to create the extended partition – I have 5 partitions so they couldn’t all be primary).

I rebooted to XP to ensure that everything was still good there – it went through a CHKDSK cycle which went fine and then it needed to reboot once right after starting (I suspect it recognized the drive as a new drive and had to update the hardware configuration). No problems.

Oh – I did backup all of our critical data to DVD before doing any of this.

Finally I was ready to create the new partitions in the newly allocated space. I had 42GB and used this allocation:

/dev/sda2 30GB (ext3)

/dev/sda3 2GB (linux-swap)

/dev/sda5 9+ GB (FAT32)

/dev/sda4 is the root of the extended partition so it does not show up in the list – it is the parent of sda5.

I hope that these were good sizes – they seemed reasonable to me. Only time will tell.

Next step … install Ubuntu.

 

The hardware detection was just about spot-on. The network (hard-wired to cable modem) worked without issues (obviously – I’m on Ubuntu right now). When booting I was greeted to the Ubuntu sound (kind of a tribal/jungle thing). I’m in a pretty decent resolution right now – higher than what I leave XP at. Disks and SD card slots were detected.

But when I went to print a test page I hit a snag.

The printer was not automatically detected at startup.

I used the online help (System -> Help and Support) and clicked on Printing to be led through the process of adding the printer. The Add Printer wizard did detect my printer (HP Deskjet D2330).

Once this was done I tried printing in OpenOffice but was getting an error that the device was not found. I went back to the printer admin window and right-clicked on the printer and made it the default. I would have expected the Add Printer wizard to have done this for me since this is the only installed printer.

Also the scanner is not working. When I try to run XSane Image Scanner I am greeted to the following error dialog box:

XSane Image Scanner error message

Failed to open device `gt68xx:libusb:001:006′: invalid argument.

Scanner is not detected. It is a Mustek ScanMagic 1200 UB Plus (USB) scanner – even getting the Windows drivers took several hours (it was designed to work on 98, not XP). I will try my luck with the SANE repository.

One other odd thing I’m noticing is that at time the flashing cursor in edit controls in Firefox are not displaying even though they are active in the edit control (i.e. editing works as expected).  It eventually comes back but it would be annoying long-term.

For the record my machine is a Gateway 420GR purchased from Best Buy (open item price was to good to pass by).  The only upgrade I’ve made is adding another 512MB of RAM (total 1GB) so this is what I would expect from a stock machine.

Also – the performance of  the overall Ubuntu experience is a little slower than I expected but I wonder what the effect of running in this “boot from CD” configuration is.  Especially if there is a RAM drive.  I need to research this a bit more and will blog about it when I know.

Since the decision was made I decided to get right into it. I downloaded the Ubuntu “Feisty” ISO image and burned it to a CD. I rebooted to the CD.

The time from the POST test finishing until the boot menu displayed was perhaps a second – not much longer. Good stuff.

I first ran the CD media test. I did not want a bad image to cause problems and have me attribute them to Ubuntu. The test ran without issues (took about 8 minutes).

Next I choose the “Start or Install” option. I was very happy to see that booting to a test environment was an option. I’m not exactly sure what this means (is it just a ram disk or is anything being saved to my hard drive) but I’m happy that I can test drive the hardware computability and let me wife and kids have a crack at this without having to go all-in right off the bat.

This blog post is being drafted in OpenOffice Writer. I find it humorous that OpenOffice does not have the word “OpenOffice” in its spell check dictionary.

Next I will check the hardware configuration to see if everything detected properly.

I will admit I am basically ignorant about Linux.

I attended a unix-centric school. We focused on BSD, Solaris and even a few NeXT boxes in the “ACM lab” (i.e. where the compsci majors hung out). I was an admin on several servers and helped keep the place running. I’m familiar with vi and xemacs, gnu development tools (make, gcc, gdb, etc) and the like. But I don’t think that this is like riding a bike. I’ve forgotten most of it.

For all intents and purposes I’m starting over.

But I know enough to know that there are lots of flavors of Linux some of which are appropriate for my needs and many of which are not.

So here’s what I need:

  • It has to look pretty. My wife and kids are going to use this and they aren’t going to accept something that looks worse than XP.
  • It needs to be from a large and stable development group that has a development timeline with concrete future milestones. I don’t want Vlad’s K-Rad Linux Distro. If I walk into B&N and don’t find at least 5 unique titles focusing on that specific flavor then it probably doesn’t not meet this bar. When I make the decision I will buy the books I need. Usenet and forums are a last resort.
  • It has to support my hardware. I’m not buying new hardware for this (ok – I might be convinced to buy a secondary hard drive).
  • It has to play friendly when dual-booted with XP. I can’t abandon Windows entirely. Smartcard authentication to the work VPN will require Windows.
  • Their official website has to give me a good vibe.

Those demands don’t seem unreasonable – in fact they seem pretty lightweight. I suspect I will have too many choices.This is my process using the filters I defined above.

Filter: Book Store Shelves.

I loaded the kids into the car and we went to a local B&N. They went into the kids section and I went into the computers section. There was roughly 40 linear feet of Linux titles so this feels like a good sampling (by comparison there was only about 20 linear feet of Windows-specific non-development titles).

There were distro-specific titles on Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, SUSE, Knoppix, and Debian. The number of titles was in the order shown.

Filter: Big and Stable team

They all meet this bar. The commercially supported distros probably have a slight edge here but not enough to make a meaningful difference to me.

Filter: Dual boots well with XP

They all meet this bar.

Filter: Looks Pretty

This one is all about gut feel. I’m basing it mostly on screen-shots from the primary website and on the website itself.

RedHat.com – A link at the top of the page links to Fedora. Apparently Fedora is the RH sponsored free Linux distro. Since Fedora is already on the list I’m removing Red Hat from contention.

FedoraProject.org – Clean and simple – and a wiki (bonus points). They have a release timeline linked from their front page and the screen looks very XP-ish. Still in the running.

Debian.org – clearly geared towards developers. It’s a no-nonsense textual brain-dump of all-things-Debian. It has a complete lack of flair and is missing screenshots. I searched for “screenshot” using their Google-based search and found only some poor looking Chinese translation shots. Perhaps Debian is so good it stands on it’s own without screenshots but I need them. Sorry Debian, but you’re off the list.

OpenSuSe.org – Looking better than Debian and I see it’s a Novell project. Not sure what I think of that. What turned me off though was this – the Tasks page references Google Summer of Code 2006 and indicates that after 2006 selection is done they will update with more info. Well. It’s done. If they can’t keep their top-level pages current that is a red flag to me. It’s not off the list but it just fell to the bottom of the stack.

Knoppix.com – perhaps the most annoying all the pages. Moving the mouse brings up intrusive JavaScript tooltips and the header menu bar shows an alarming lack of English. Sorry – but if your website can’t speak in my language then you’re falling off the list.

Ubuntu.com – Front page looks fine. Look – a link to “Desktop Edition” right on the front page! And one that is a screen shot. These folks get it. They talk about their release schedule. Have close-up shots to show UI behaviors and the page is in English. This one just floated way up in the stack. In fact – openSuSe just got dropped because of it.

So now it’s down to Fedora or Ubuntu.

The pluses for Fedora include corporate sponsorship, I have a good friend who I first met while he was wearing a fedora so that makes me feel warm and fuzzy, I know how to pronounce it and it is a name I was familiar with prior to today.

The pluses for Ubuntu are a slick looking website that showed me what I wanted to know, great looking screen shots and UI closeups, a unique name I don’t understand (and am not sure I am pronouncing right) and I remember thinking that the Ubuntu books looked interesting – even pulling a few off the shelf to browse. I did not touch a single Fedora book.

So after about 6 hours of total process (including drive time, lunch, typing this blog post and trying to figure out where my cell phone was when it started beeping) – the winner is Ubuntu.

If for no other reason then it seems cooler than Fedora. More hip. But still well supported.

Step 1: complete.