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Your Mileage May Vary when installing and using Linux

© April 2008 Anthony Lawrence

I was reading the long string of comments at Linux in the long run and noticed a few folks mentioning Linux installation problems. I can sympathize, though I do have to say that most of my Linux installs have been smooth and uneventful.

I can't tell you how many Linux installs I've done. It probably isn't thousands yet, but it's certainly in the hundreds. The distros run all over the map: plenty of RedHat and Suse, a few Ubuntus, some Debian, a couple of Slackwares.. and those are the ones that were on real hardware for a real purpose: there have been many others installed on Virtual Machines just to take a look-see.

As I said, most of these were easy, successful and left no scars. A few here and there were painful and difficult: unsupported hardware preventing a nic card or the gui from working can be annoying. An unsupported card just makes you run out to buy something that will work, but of course that's not always easy (notebooks) and sometimes it's a specific piece of hardware that you really need - Fedora Core 2 caused me some grief over an Iomega REV drive a few years back. There's not always a way around an incompatibility, but there usually is.

You can find plenty of Linux install horror stories on the net. Some of these are exaggerated complaints written by people with a vested interest in Windows, and a few are people so technically challenged that you have to wonder how they use any computer, but some do have more than a kernel of truth: the person ran into real problems and experienced real frustration.

But most problems are easily solved by a little Googling or a little experimentation. I do understand that some folks don't want to have to Google or experiment: that's exactly why I bought a Mac for my notebook machine. I didn't want to expend any effort (and I was also just plain curious about Macs), so I wimped out.. I've posted here that I carry some "Linux guilt" because of that, but it's definitely true that Linux on laptops can be challenging.

However: things only get better in Linux-land. What was unsupported yesterday might be supported today. I have a retired X86 laptop sitting idle right now; it resisted Linux a few years ago but I bet if I try it now it might just all fall together and work. And if not.. well, it might be the particular distro, so I could try something else..

We may get some negative comments here in the "Linux sucks" vein. If you had a bad experience and need to vent a little, that's OK, but please try to keep it intelligent and useful. A comment that warns about a bad driver for a FooBar Model 78 rev 6 Widget is potentially useful, a pointless "Linux Losers bite me!" comment will just get deleted.

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Wed Apr 30 16:03:03 2008: 4155   JonR

Since January 2003, I've used Linux and nothing but Linux, except for a few times I had no choice but to use MS Windows, such as attempting to help a friend with his Windows installation. My use of Linux is for ordinary "home" activities such as a spreadsheet or two, word processing, Internet use including browsing, email, and FTP; photo and audio editing (I'm an amateur photographer and musician), and ordinary multimedia enjoyment. I started with Mandrake (now Mandriva) Linux 8.0; after about three years with Mandriva, I moved to Ubuntu because of the Debian packaging system, which I find much easier and more flexible than RPM, and also in part because of the Ubuntu philosophy (which seems to me to be getting lost in a sea of glitz, but that's another story). Along the way I experimented with flavors such as Zenwalk, Puppy, Damn Small Linux, Feather Linux, Slackware, Simply Mepis, and others.

I've had my share of installation problems, though usually, now, a Linux installation is as easy as, or easier than, an install of MS Windows, and certainly a lot faster (nice when you have to start all over for some reason, as does happen). Hardware issues are pretty much a thing of the past now, as most distros recognize my printer, mice, keyboards, USB storage, etc. out of the box.

The thing I do not like about Linux is that every "upgrade" seems to represent a step backward -- not unlike the Vista experience now being enjoyed so much by Windows users that they are petitioning to keep XP alive indefinitely. Something always, always gets broken by every upgrade -- to the point that I now refuse to carry out routine upgrades, hoping for the best in terms of security (which has not been compromised yet). I could make a list of things I used to enjoy about my computers that I no longer am able to, because of "improved," upgraded distros. I get a feeling that a lot of the "improvements" are to satisfy the perceived needs of gamers and lovers of eye candy, not of ordinary utilitarian users, who increasingly get left out of the loop.

What I do like about Linux, though, and what keeps me using it, is that it is not MS Windows.

Wed Apr 30 16:14:28 2008: 4156   TonyLawrence

Yeah, we've talked about that before here, and many of us feel the same way.

Wed Apr 30 16:40:20 2008: 4157   BigDumbDinosaur

In general, I can't say we've had any significant installation woes with Linux. We've pretty much stuck with the SuSE distribution and have gotten very familiar with the likely installation hiccups. Since we don't sell servers made by others, we've been able to carefully match the hardware to what works best in Linux. I did run into a problem with a Tyan AMD Opteron motherboard with built-in gigabit Ethernet ports, in which the port hardware was not recognized and the vendor-supplied drivers would not work with the 64 bit Linux kernel. The fix was easy enough: a couple of 3Com NICs in the otherwise unused 32 bit PCI slots (incidentally, the Adaptec 39320 SCSI host adapter plugs into a PCI-X slot and results in a ridiculous level of performance with the 64 bit kernel -- the client who purchased this server joked that it was too fast for his employees).

Windows sycophants may well point to such contretemps and say, "See! Linux isn't all that compatible." Well, I have a hot flash for them. The 64 bit version of Windows XP (and Vista) has its share of hardware incompatibilities, especially in the realm of sound cards and modems (yes, there still are folks who use dialup). A client had us convert an AMD64 box we built for them about 3-1/2 years ago to WinXP 64. The US Robotics FAX/modem that worked fine before the conversion was inoperative in XP 64 -- XP said it was an unknown device. I went to USR's website for a compatible driver, only to discover that none was available. A call to USR's tech support confirmed what the website said. Since FAXing capability was required, I lent the client a spare USR Courier modem I had laying about until an internal solution could be found. At least XP 64 still supports serial ports.

The one consistent problem I have had with fresh SuSE Linux installations is getting around the extremely paranoid network setup. Virtually every port is blocked and I have to tell the SuSE firewall utility to get lost so I can manually configure iptables to do what I want. Otherwise, it's usually smooth sailing, which is more than I can say for some Windows or SCO OpenServer installations I've had to do in the past.

Wed Apr 30 17:59:02 2008: 4158   anonymous

Dialup can still be useful -- it's a lifesaver if a user depends on Internet access, and ADSL or cable access fails. I've fallen back on my oldish US Robotics internal modem several times with gratitude. It has been fully recognized with no configuration necessary, by the Ubuntu versions I've used. Even under MS Windows, I had to enter an initialization string for the modem, but with Ubuntu Linux all I have to do is to invoke the wvdial utility and I'm on my way to being connected while I wait for DSL to come back to life -- hoping I don't have to phone AT&T and try to explain once again that, yes, ADSL does work with Linux.

Wed Apr 30 21:55:41 2008: 4159   drag

With modems your old robotic modem is a intelligent device. You communicate to it as a one computer to another.

With internal modems they are generally dumb devices.. they have some hardware to change the signal from analog to digital and that's about it. Most of the functions provided by your serial modem are provided by special "drivers" that emulate the now non-existent hardware.

These software modems or semi-dumb 'winmodems' are frightfully proprietary in nature made by companies who have no intention in sharing how they actually work.

Linux has a similar issue supporting printers. Back in the day it wasn't unusual to have a printer with more processing power then the computer connected to it. That's what you needed to have in order to process postscript printing language in a speedy manner. It's very complex.

However nowadays we have the exceedingly cheap USB printers. The computer hardware from the printer has been replaced by software emulation/controls in that run from the printer 'drivers'. Typically network printers are smarter so with Linux they are easy to use.. just as long as you have the right postscript description files Linux can just send postscript commands to the printers and that's that. The printer does all the work. With these consumer USB printers your main central CPU is essentially controlling the motors and ink stuff directly, more or less.

Like winmodem makers these folks tend to be pretty anal about letting their customers know how they actually work.

Luckily two manufacturers.. Epson and HP are pretty decent about it. HP even provides open source userland daemon that perform the operations necessary to control the printer and scanner hardware over USB and support for this sort of thing is included in most desktop oriented distros.

Unfortunately companies like Lexmark, Brothers, and Canon are very protective/paranoid. Sometimes they have proprietary drivers that work.. but they are pretty much uniformly difficult to use.


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