Linux on the Desktop

Dell said that they'll soon start offering Linux on desktop and notebook systems. My recent experience with Linux on Dell notebooks has been interesting.

I had an older Dell laptop laying around for more than year. It had a failed power charging board in it (the board that handles both AC and DC power), which failed in one of those classic "I shouldn't have done that" moments... don't ask how that happened, just understand that I've been prying open electronics since I was a very young boy and as an adult I'm much more adept at not getting electrocuted.

My childhood-habits-turned-adult-exploits aside, recently I hopped onto eBay and found a replacement power board for $15 after shipping, even though an apparently under-educated Dell support tech (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here) implied that I would have to replace the entire motherboard, which costs more than the entire notebook computer is worth on eBay!

So when the new power board arrived I unscrewed the laptop while carefully trying to remember where more than a dozen different-sized screws came from, removed a gazillion pieces of plastic and metal to get to the old power board, replaced the failed power board, put the whole laptop back together, and hoped that it'd power up OK. It did - and I didn't have any screws left over either!

And let me add here that if you've never taken apart a laptop then know that it's a real adventure. I'm a relative expert at it these days. Necessity does that to a person. If you feel like venturing into that domain then be sure to have some very small screw drivers and maybe even a cheap dental toolkit from your local pharmacy - those curved tooth hooks come in very handy for removing keyboard and video connectors. Another bit of advice here: Unless you want to spend time hunting for screws the size of gnats, drop them on a piece of tape so that they don't escape.

Anyway... The old Dell system had Windows 2000 on it and I decided that I'd also load Linux and thereby have a portable platform to use all those handy Linux-based security tools that I need every once in a while.

My first choice was Debian. So I downloaded the Net Installer version, which is basically a small CD-based OS that let's you download the rest of the OS once you get a machine up and running on a network.

The initial install went OK. I was surprised to see that Debian found my wireless card, configured it, and connected me to the Internet with minimal intervention on my part. That surprise was based on my previous experience in testing Linspire back in its pre-4.0 days. At that time Linspire didn't detect Orinoco wireless cards automagically and when I asked for assistance from the Linspire community people told me that it simply wasn't possible and that I should buy another card.

Say what?!?

Yogi Bera said "It ain't over 'til it's over" and I feel that way about computer problems sometimes. I wound up figuring out how to make Orinoco cards work properly with Linspire and subsequently wrote a step-by-step tutorial on exactly how to accomplish that task. Seeing Debian automagically detect that very same card was a relief as I had really been expecting to spend some time coaxing the PCMCIA subsystem into submission.

I then went through about an hour of downloading a bunch of Debian-based packages and installing them to get an entire OS set up to my liking. Overall it was mostly an automatic process after I selected which packages to install. After that, it was time to reboot into the full-blown OS.

To my further surprise, while Debian initially detected my WiFi card and configured it, the install process DID NOT save that configuration. So when the system rebooted I had to go back and reconfigure the networking manually. Sheesh.

Then came my tangling with video drivers. Debian didn't have a built-in driver for my nVidia video card. So I wound up with a desktop that didn't use the full capabilities of my LCD display. I then had to download the nVidia kernel module source code, the Module Assistant kernel module installation tools, compile the video driver, install it, and reconfigure the X11 subsystem to use the driver so that I could read the screen without a magnifying glass.

After that fun (and it really is fun if you like to goof around with an OS) while playing with the Gnome and KDE desktop subsystems (I had to tweak everything - you know how that goes, right?) I managed to crash the X11 core subsystem while trying to add code that makes KDE work like OS X. So I was back to square one needing to reinstall the OS since I couldn't figure out which libraries I had trashed. Sometimes reinstalling is faster than troubleshooting. I didn't have anything important on the machine so reinstalling made pretty good sense.

Well, I also had a copy of Kubuntu on CD laying around, which is basically Ubuntu with the KDE desktop. I wanted to see what that was like so I popped the CD into the system, booted from it, and installed the entire operating system with the greatest of ease. My Orinoco network card, nVidia video card, sound card, and DVD drive all worked without any configuration on my part other than entering the SSID and security key for the wireless networking. I was impressed.

The desktop runs pretty fast. As an aside here, consider taking some more of my advice: If you want KDE to work like OS X then just add the Kooldock application, configure KDE to use a Menu Bar at the top of the display, and be done with it right there. Loading Baghira (the OS X theme for KDE) into Debian is more painful than having a tooth pulled. Loading Baghira into Kubuntu is much, much easier, but probably not worth the time in my opinion.

Anyway, with Wine (the Windows emulator) installed on Linux I found that I can run my favorite Windows-based email client and RSS application, so I don't have to switch to some other Linux-based varieties. Not that I'd use them very much anyway - my primary desktop system is Windows-based, but it's nice to have them available if the need arises.

If you're looking to load up Linux on that spare laptop over in the corner collecting dust both Debian and Kubuntu make pretty good choices, although it's clear to me that the Ubuntu project is far ahead of Debian in terms of hardware support. On the other hand, Debian does give you the built-in choice of desktops (Gnome or KDE) without having to figure out how to install one or the other since both are installed by default. Then again, if you want an Ubuntu platform with a Gnome desktop then load Ubuntu, and if you want KDE then load Kubuntu.

As for servers, the SuSE Linux variety is excellent, but Debian running as a server does have its own advantages that I really like, and that's another blog entry to come.

\[ Update added April 2: For those of you who might wonder why I don't use some other Linux distro, or why I don't use one of the great bootable Linux CDs instead then here are the answers: You don't learn how to repair a car by only driving it and the same applies to operating systems; and, bootable CDs run slow, plus you can't install anything onto the CD on-the-fly. Who wants to run a slow OS on a reasonable fast computer?

Besides that, I need a Debian-based system for testing. If that weren't the case then maybe I'd use OpenSuSE or EnGarde Secure Linux. By the same token, when I finally get a Mac (anybody want to permanently 'loan' me one?) then I'll probably load OpenBSD or FreeBSD around here somewhere too. \]

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