A View From The Handbasket

Sunday, June 04, 2006
I like Linux but it doesn't like me
Posted by neros_fiddle at 5:32 PM

The idea of Linux appeals greatly to me. Instead of the "all things to all people" compromises of Windows, Linux offers the promise of an capable OS with a strong focus on customizability, reliability and security. Certainly, many, many users are productive and happy on Linux. (It's also an especially good server OS.) My last experience with it was five years ago, when I put Red Hat on a Thinkpad. After an epic struggle, I was never able to get the sound to work, and it was painfully slow (the Thinkpad was about three years old at the time). Regretfully, Windows 98 went back on.

So when I found myself with a four-year-old Sony Vaio looking for a purpose in life, it seemed time for another round. I did some research, and it seemed like SUSE 10.1 was the latest standard-bearer in the often confusing universe of Linux distributions. I downloaded and burned a DVD ISO, wiped the Sony's HD, and dove in.

After an attractive (graphical) splash screen, I was greeted with a text mode error message complaining that X11 couldn't start, probably due to a lack of RAM (which seems unlikely, since the Vaio has 512MB). The installation program continued in text mode, which was rather confusing since the text was flown from the graphical version and often talked about "clicking" options that didn't exist with a MIA mouse pointer. After some trial and error, I figured out how to navigate in "drop back and punt" mode, and continued with the installation.

After copying over a bunch of packages, Linux was booted from the HD to continue the install. Again, I got an error message that the utterly ordinary integrated Intel graphics processor was causing problems, so I remained in text mode. The graphics setup eventually came around, correctly identifying my card but unable to figure out the correct resolution for the built-in LCD (1024x768). It started with 800x600, then when I tried to set it, the install insisted on trying to make it 1024x600 for some reason. It worked correctly on the second attempt.

To add to the fun, though my Linksys PCMCIA wireless card lit up on bootup, the system couldn't see it. The Ethernet connection was fine, however, so I tethered myself to the switch. (Except for the occasional instance when it would apparently retrieve a DHCP IP address from Mars that had nothing to do with my network. A reboot -- or two -- would fix it.)

With the graphics sorted, the first "real" boot was no problem. Unfortunately, I quickly ran into a minor but debilitating issue -- the "tapping" behavior of the Vaio's trackpad had returned (where "tapping" the trackpad causes the equivalent of a right mouse click) from whatever purgatory I'd banished it to under XP. I am fundamentally incompatible with this "feature." I constantly issue phantom mouse clicks and inevitably find myself deep into something like "NDIS Transport Configuration and Binding" without a clue on how I got there.

I hunted around and fairly quickly found the mouse configuration (between trips to random programs I managed to accidentally invoke), but it seemed completely unaware of the infernal tapping setting. No problem, I'm flexible -- I plugged in a spare Microsoft mouse. Nothing. Reboot. The mouse sprang to life, but the pointer moved in an uncontrollable, spastic fashion. Grrrrr.

So, off to Google. A few searches later, I found this page. A kindred soul, and a solution! Huzzah! I downloaded the program and installed it via the RPM package system (which was very slick). Still tapping. Reboot. Still tapping. Grrrrr, again. A couple hours and much bewilderment later (Why wasn't the program writing to /var/log/boot.msg? What was the difference between /etc/init.d and /etc/rc.d? Oh, crap, I just launched the CRON Manager again.), I gave up.

I still wanted to see about that wireless card, though, so I monkeyed around with that for a while. At first I thought the problem might be the WPA2 encyption my wireless network uses, but I quickly figured out that many (if not most) wireless cards simply don't work under Linux. I found a couple of possible solutions, one free (and involving such terrifying suggestions as "there are some kernel patches you may wish to apply") and one that cost $20. By that point, though, it wasn't much fun anymore.

In all fairness, most of these issues are due to the notebook factor. I'll bet that if I threw that install DVD (be nice) at a desktop machine, things would go much more smoothly. But a notebook is what I had (and what more people buy these days). I had genuinely thought that the days of Linux being only for those who like to endlessly tinker with esoteric settings were over, but it seems that generalizaton still applies. I'm sure all the smart and passionate people working on Linux will produce a superior product eventually. Until then, I'll go with the other major alternative to Windows, OS X.

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