My Mac and Ubuntu

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On Sunday evening I finally got round to ordering the new hard drive for my Mac (a 120Gb Seagate). It arrived on Tuesday morning by standard first-class post, which was unexpectedly early, though they do say on the website that “low-value” items may be sent that way. I put it in the wardrobe, still surrounded by most of its packaging (minus the cardboard boxes) while I read up on how to disassemble my Mac so that I could replace the existing one. The procedure turned out to be staggeringly complicated.

Replacing the hard drive in the eMac - the successor of the original multicoloured iMac, albeit with a faster processor and a white case - is not just a case of opening it up, loosening a couple of screws, sliding the old drive out and putting the new one in and tightening the screws up again. No, you have to get inside the machine, move the fan out of the way, take off the “Faraday shield” (a metal shield) and the “digital assembly”, which appears to contain a whole lot of the Mac’s circuitry as well as the hard drive and DVD drive. The instructions as to how to do this are on a website from which things download very slowly indeed - at about 8K per second, which for a PDF document this size results in a fifteen-minute wait. There are stern warnings telling you not to touch anything to do with the screen, because CRTs contain high voltages which don’t go away when you unplug the machine from the mains. One of the websites I read advised leaving the machine unplugged for twelve hours before going inside the case.

Once you actually get to the hard drive, taking the old one out and replacing it is easy, however. Then comes the whole ordeal of putting the whole thing back together again, which involves remembering which screws go in which holes (not that easy, although I think I got it right in the end). The only hiccup was when I turned it on, and of course the machine could not find anything to load an operating system from, given that the new hard drive was completely blank, and the CD eject button had no effect. I had to manually open up the CD flap and try and press the black button under the case myself.

I loaded up the Mac OS X installation DVD and partitioned the disk, with 35Gb as free space at the low end and the other 75Gb as a Mac partition. You might notice that this leaves 10Gb, which is the 10Gb which simply is not there. Hard drive manufacturers and merchants both collude in the “decimal gigabyte” scam - selling disks denominated in an inflated gigabyte which is 1,000,000,000 bytes as opposed to 1,024 megabytes, a megabyte being 1,024 kilobytes, a kilobyte being 1,024 bytes. Gigabytes, megabytes and kilobytes were always denominated this way due to computers operating in binary, not decimal, and 1,024 is 2 to the power of 10 and the nearest power-of-two number to 1,000. The phony “decimal” storage measurement benefits only merchants, and was probably invented in order to dishonestly inflate capacities in adverts. (The actual capacity of my drive is actually just over 111Gb.)

I then got on and installed OS X, rebooting when it had finished and loading up the Ubuntu CD which I had downloaded. I chose Ubuntu largely because it is based on Debian and thus easily upgraded, and the OS and the core applications are continually supplied with security updates and the like, and because it installs off one CD and not five. My laptop runs OpenSUSE version 10.1, and any time you load up the software management program on there it takes ages to scan the package database. Ubuntu will actually ship CDs out to you for free, and I ordered one of each of the three versions at the end of May, but I still haven’t received them and was not willing to wait any more by the time my hard disk arrived, so I downloaded both the “desktop” and the “alternate” CDs. Previous versions of Ubuntu had a “live CD” and an install CD, but that was before they added the ability to install the software from the live CD, so they renamed it the Desktop CD and left the old install CD for installing on troublesome systems. So today, the Desktop CD is the recommended one, because you can try it out on your computer and then install it, but when I booted from the CD it failed to start the window system as it did not like my graphics card or monitor. So I had to use the alternate CD.

I actually have no problems with Ubuntu having no “graphical installer”, which some take as a sign of an operating system moving with the times. (I find the text-only version of the SUSE admin tool faster than the graphical one.) Ubuntu’s installation is very basic anyway; there is no selecting packages or groups of packages; it installs the operating system, GNOME, GIMP and OpenOffice, and you can install anything else later. The biggest problem I had was making Linux’s file systems; the Ubuntu partitioner simply didn’t see the free space I’d set aside in the OS X Disk Utility, seeing the whole drive as free space. (Strangely enough, it saw 120Gb rather than the 111Gb or so that the drive actually contains; whether it’s a bug or whether the authors of this partitioner have adopted the “salesman’s gigabyte” I don’t know.) I had to use a Unix shell and construct a partition in the free space using the “parted” tool.

Once that was done, I set aside some space for swapping, established what I thought was a big enough boot partition, and used the rest as a standard Linux file system. The system told me that the boot partition had to be 800Kb big, and I let that go because I thought it was 800Kb big, as that’s what it said on the partitioning screen. As it turned out, it was too small, and having installed everything and found that the booting program couldn’t be installed, I had to install it all over again. This time, I let the partitioner do its job automatically.

Once the whole system was installed, I let it restart and found that the Linux booting program (Yaboot) was working OK, at least as far as loading Linux was concerned. Ubuntu have really put their stamp on their version of GNOME, with a redesigned “human” styling and colour scheme. You can see some screenshots of the new look here; in the old version, “human” meant brown - Ubuntu made a big thing of its African origins. (The look was a mixture of Ubuntu’s old colours, Clearlooks widget styles and the Industrial window decorations of the old Ximian desktop.) The first things I did were installing the software development tools, the Qt 4 libraries and, of course, KDE. The KDE version of Kubuntu is called Kubuntu, and eschews the brown human theme for a blue colour scheme; installing KDE turns Ubuntu into Kubuntu, although you can install Kubuntu from the outset. I didn’t do this because the version of KDE shipped with Kubuntu is not the most recent update (version 3.5.3), which was released the very day the present version of Ubuntu (and by extension, Kubuntu) was released. The Ubuntu website tells you of three ways you can install the Kubuntu desktop from Ubuntu, of which I tried the second of the three mentioned, which installs KDE itself without a lot of the extraneous applications, but it did not work, apparently for the lack of the “kdeutils” package. So I had to take the first option of installing the whole “kubuntu-desktop” package, which took less time than expected. (One thing that caught me out was that even after you install the Kubuntu desktop, and the system displays the blue Kubuntu logo rather than the brown Ubuntu one while shutting down, when you log in again, it loads the last session type, which is a GNOME session. It is not set up to load KDE by default; you have to choose this from the menu yourself.)

One of the biggest difficulties I had was finding out how to get back into Mac OS X, because when I tried picking it from the boot menu, it just returned me to the menu again. Obviously it wasn’t configured properly (although it was configured automatically), and I eventually accomplished this by booting again from the Mac OS install DVD and having a look at the partitions. The partitions shown in Disk Utility bore no resemblance to those actually on the hard disk; the number shown, with their capacities added up, comes to more than the total size of the disk, with large amounts of “free space” shown either side of the Mac partition and my Linux partition not there. The DVD can give you a menu on which you can choose to boot from either the Mac partition, the DVD or a network, and I chose the Mac partition, and it loaded up without incident, allaying my fear that installing Linux had trashed Mac OS X. But how should I get back to Linux? One article I read told me I should have done the opposite of what I had done at partitioning stage - put Mac OS X first on the disk, and Linux after it. But I soon discovered that the way to get a choice of operating systems was to hold down the “option key” (the Alt key, with a sort of railway points diagram on it) when the computer was starting up until well after you hear the chime. This gives you a graphical menu with two disks, one with a Mac symbol and one with a penguin (the Linux symbol) next to it. Click the latter and it will take you to the Linux boot menu.

The biggest disappointment was in finding how difficult it is to set up Ubuntu to use my Mac’s graphics card. My Mac has an ATI card, and to use its full capabilities you need a proprietary driver you can get for free from ATI, but they don’t supply it for Linux on the PowerPC Mac. (This is the case with a lot of the proprietary software available for Linux on the ordinary PC, including the Flash player: they don’t bother releasing a version for Linux on the Mac.) Essentially, I’m left with standard 1024x768 non-accelerated graphics, on the eMac’s built-in screen, which in my case has a nasty blotchy background, the reason for which I never found out, which is why I acquired a second monitor a few months ago. Of course, I’m not planning to use Linux for any heavy graphics work; if I had any interest in that, I have Mac OS anyway, but not being able to use your hardware properly because someone is sitting on the software that makes it work is irritating.

On the up-side, the system is a whole lot nippier than any of the PCs on which I have Linux installed. Whether that’s down to better hardware or to Ubuntu I’m not sure, but for example, while typing this using my own blogging application, the editor has not slowed down enough to bother me, which it does pretty quickly on all my other hardware. The whole system feels very responsive in both GNOME and KDE. And my usual bugbear on a Linux system - that of ugly fonts - is not much of an issue here; the standard font, DejaVu Sans, apparently derived from Bitstream Vera, is attractive although less so in boldface (that was an even bigger problem with the original Vera). It’s easy enough to load the Microsoft TrueType Core fonts, which a lot of websites use (my own included).

On the whole, I expect that Ubuntu will prove adequate for what I intend to use it for: software development. Installing it on an older Pentium III was much less of a headache, although that system has a separate hard disk for Linux so partitioning was less of an issue (and most ordinary computer users never install their own operating system anyway; it comes with the computer). As for Ubuntu’s ability to “catch on”, its serious flaws, even in the present version, include an over-simple installation with more advanced configuration (as with configuring the display) made more complicated than it is in other distributions. Then again, configuration may get easier over the next couple of months, as there is one book on the system scheduled for release each month for the next four months (the first being O’Reilly’s Ubuntu Hacks, due out next week; see it reviewed here). Right now, however, most Mac users have no need of Linux anyway; they already have a strong Unix-based OS with a fair set of commercial applications; in future, anyone who wants to use both Mac OS X and Linux should be grateful for being free of the restrictions of the existing Mac architecture.

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