Finding a decent Linux distro

I recently acquired (thanks Mum & Dad) a new Dell Inspiron 530 computer, and one of the first things I do in such circumstances (which don’t come that often, admittedly) is to install Linux on it. I started using Linux in 2002 and have used it on pretty much every PC - and a Mac - that I’ve had access to since. I also have a laptop, but apart from that, I’ve had a succession of second-hand Pentium 3 computers, most recently a Compaq Professional Workstation from around 2000, which was fast enough but was beginning to seem a bit long in the tooth, particularly when I tried running modern software on it. This machine (2Gb of memory, 500Gb hard drive, dual core processor) seemed like a snip at £329, but things haven’t worked out as easy as I’d thought.

In short, I’ve spent the last week and a bit trying one Linux distribution after another, trying to find one that “just works”. The most recent (probably latest but one by the time you read this) edition of Linux Format declares that Fedora 10 “kicks Ubuntu’s ass”, Ubuntu being the distribution bankrolled by Mark “first African in space” Shuttleworth (the name means “humanity” in a South African native language). Ubuntu is the most popular version, and comes in two currently popular versions: the long-term support (meaning three-year support) version released in April 2008, nicknamed “Hardy Heron”, and the 18-month supported version released in October, codenamed “Intrepid Ibex”. Fedora is descended from the old Red Hat Linux, and Red Hat has concentrated on building an enterprise version of Linux and selling support contracts (the red hat in their logo is a fedora). I had Intrepid already installed on my laptop, and I did not really want another system running Ubuntu.

So, after several failed attempts to use Firefox to download the DVD of Fedora 10 the weekend before last, I finally got the whole thing downloaded with a command-line download program (called wget), burned it to DVD and started on installing it. I knew there were problems pretty early on, because I had problems getting the network started; during the boot-up process, it would hang for ages trying to get a network address, and usually fail. This is really unusual; the usual rule of thumb is that if you want to make your network flawlessly with Linux, get a router and connect your computer to it with an ethernet cable. Not this time. A few enquiries revealed that Dell’s motherboards (made by Foxconn) have a history of problems operating with Linux, particularly with the power management feature (Linux has solved this in recent versions by identifying as Windows, much as some web browsers do), but I soon discovered that my computer may have been using the wrong driver, and disabling one and enabling another is a pretty simple job.

Another problem with Fedora, which was a bigger pain than the network problem once I found that workaround, was that its font rendering is not that good. Linux uses a program called Freetype to render fonts nicely by smoothing out their edges; the fonts themselves contain special codes telling the font renderers how to do this, but these codes are patented, so American distributors like Red Hat cannot distribute them without paying patent royalties, and since they cannot guarantee how many copies are being distributed as its open source and do not get paid for the copies they distribute, this makes publishing Freetype with the codes turned on is impossible. The patents are not recognised outside the USA, and you can turn them on yourself by rebuilding Freetype, which I did. The problem was that another aspect of the smoothing was broken, resulting in grey text, especially, looking like a riot of colour, and this affected some situations and not others. So, Fedora had to go. It was just a question of what to replace it with.

My first port of call was OpenSUSE, a distro I have used on and off over the years; it was in fact my first serious introduction to Linux. The problem with it was that Fedora had installed a disk partitioning scheme that the SUSE installer couldn’t deal with, and it gave up with a cryptic error message when I tried installing it. The only solution was to transfer all my files to another computer, completely erase all my partitions and install afresh, which I did. The network problems persisted, and (unlike Fedora) it could not install the drivers for my ATi graphics card. So, that had to go as well.

I had also given Ubuntu a try, but neither of the discs I had downloaded would install: the “desktop” disc - a live CD you can install from - would not install because it cannot deal with the partitions Fedora had set up (note to Ubuntu: get LVM enabled on the Desktop disc, as even if it’s too complicated for the common user, people have LVM partitions already set up which they may need to install Ubuntu on), and the “alternate” disc, which did not even load, displaying one error message about devices it couldn’t read from. I gave the pre-release for the upcoming Debian release a try, and to my delight the network “just worked” during installation (but didn’t once the system was actually installed), but I had no joy in getting the graphics card drivers installed.

So, it then occurred to me that, now that I had got rid of the LVM on my hard drive, the Ubuntu desktop disc would work, so I put it in the drive and rebooted the machine. It worked a treat, and before very long I had a working Ubuntu install, so I got to work on installing everything a programmer needs and, of course, the ATi drivers. It worked, although while downloading them, it actually look like the process had crashed, as the progress bar did not fill up and nothing I did with the mouse or keyboard had any effect. But as the process ended up with the drivers installed, with the desktop “bling” effects enabled, and my attempts to cancel the operation failed (and it didn’t just give up halfway when I clicked Cancel), this is basically a user interface bug.

So, in short, Linux Format’s front-page claim that Fedora 10 kicks Ubuntu’s ass is just rubbish - there are reasons why Ubuntu is the number one Linux distribution, which is that things are more likely to “just work” than on pretty much any other system, because it’s free, because it comes on one CD and not five and not a whole DVD, because it installs quickly, because it offers access to the Ubuntu package archives which are massive, because things like proprietary graphics card and wireless drivers install painlessly and you don’t have to recompile Freetype to get code-based rendering, because its package installer is fast, unlike Fedora’s, and for so many other reasons. It’s too late to get my reply into the upcoming edition (it’s due out tomorrow), but I may well write them a letter in time for their next edition.

Oh, and on the subject of my birthday: I and a load of my family went to an excellent Syrian restaurant in Shepherds Bush, called Abu Zaad, which is pretty much right outside Shepherds Bush Market tube station and serves really great kebabs and other regional food - you can find their menu here. Everyone loved it, including a few people who are normally not that adventurous about food. We had been going to the Moroccan Tagine in Notting Hill, but their prices have gone up and management has changed, and to be honest the change did us good. Most of the food is not hot and spicy and I’d recommend it to anyone (and it’s very popular with the local Muslim population).

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