Ubuntu, Fedora or Mint?

About a month ago after I finished my last module, I upgraded to the latest Ubuntu release, 11.04 or ‘Natty Narwhal’. My first impressions¬† over the course of a week or two were sufficient to have me go looking elsewhere.

There were some big problems.

Ubuntu 11.04

The new Unity interface, whilst it’s very pretty, is totally unfamiliar and feels rather like a toy. The menus I used to start applications from are gone, the taskbar I used to see what was running and place shortcuts on is gone. Now to start a program there’s a glossy, full screen… thing… it’s a bit like a menu… but takes up the whole screen with big Fisher-Price icons. To see what’s running at a glance… I can’t. The idea where the title bar of a window with the window buttons and menus isn’t attached to the window and appears at the top of the screen… seriously? I hear that this idea is nicked from Apple – but it really doesn’t work for me.

I guess the idea is that you type the name of the application instead of finding it in the menus. Nicked from Windows 7, I think. If I want to find and launch applications by typing their names, I use the command line – I’m not sure I get how search instead of menus is a step forward.

Then there was the speed, or rather, the total lack thereof. Using my computer went from effortless to wading through treacle. In snowshoes. I notice performance tips and tweaks guides for 11.04 starting to appear out there, so it’s not just me. The poor performance was the dealbreaker.

Fedora 15

I downloaded Fedora 15, having previously been a user of that distro. I know that 15 ships with Gnome 3, but I didn’t realise it would be so similar to Unity, with all the same bizarre UI quirks. On the bright side, it was a lot snappier… but all in, still not really usable.


So yesterday, I pulled Linux Mint 11 off the shelf and I’m happy to say that it is a joy to use. Menus, task bars, windows that work properly, fast, easy to set up. Back to business as usual. If you’re not loving the Gnome 3/Unity thing, I can recommend Mint (so far, based on 24h usage… mileage may vary!)

Serious or Casual?

With my immediate problems addressed, the direction that Gnome and Unity are taking for Linux is interesting. Are we seeing the Linux windowing systems fragment into serious and casual usecases? I can see how the new UI might be familiar and easy for someone who is used to their tablet or their smartphone. Maybe it’s also good angle for relatively small screen devices like netbooks and tablets – certainly the apparent ‘every pixel is precious’ mindset doesn’t make much sense on a big widescreen monitor.

I expect that broadening the appeal of an operating system is a good thing, and perhaps Ubuntu and Fedora are setting their stalls out as ‘for the casual user’. If that’s so, then thank goodness for distros like Mint that give folks who use their computers to do work the power of old(er) school Linux without the pain.

First Impressions of Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx)

I got round to trying an installation of Ubuntu 10.04 today from my trusty USB stick. The install went smoothly and quickly (except for a problem with having two HDDs in this machine, with the OS on the second drive – remember to customise the boot options to boot from the right hard disk in this case, d’oh!).

On first boot, the most noticeable thing was the updated loading screens and reduced boot time. It wasn’t a slouch before, maybe taking 45ish seconds, but now taking 25 seconds between finishing the POST and giving me a login screen (I’ll time the laptop before and after when I upgrade that and produce a better comparison). It feels nice and fast.

Next, the wireless – works a treat, as usual. Then the proprietary graphics drivers, and the only essential reboot (having only today had a VPN client upgrade on a Windows system I have the misfortune of using with a total of five reboots necessary in the process).

Next, upgrade everything when prompted – only took a couple or minutes. Then, added in most of the packages I use that I can get out of the standard repo – that took a while, but it is 180 packages (incl. dependencies).

Finally, the other standout feature is the social network integration. The usual user identity graphic in the menu bar is replaced with a widget that looks identical but connects to my Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Yahoo Messenger accounts. So far, I’ve posted up a couple of updates from there, but I’m not sure what else it can do just yet. The other option under this widget, ‘Ubuntu One’, provides the ability to synchronise some of your user settings to the cloud. Nice idea – but as an Android user, I wonder whether I can sync my phone info with my desktops?

A bum note though – the default theme is a little dark, and moves the window maximise/minimise/close buttons to the left hand side of the window, also known as the wrong side! Quick fix – System > Preferences > Appearance: Choose the New Wave theme to brighten things up slightly and put the controls back where they belong.

Anyway, all done in no time at all – it’s hard to see how they could make it any easier!

Installing Ubuntu 9.10 from a USB Stick

Linux distributions tend to come as ISO images – files which are images of CDs/DVDs. I’ve always burned the images to a disk to install, but I’ve been meaning to try setting up a bootable USB stick instead.

Better for the environment, right? More importantly, I never seem to have a blank CD knocking about when I decide to do an install.

I expected some hassle, but it turns out to be trivial if you’re already on a Ubuntu machine, so long as your BIOS supports booting from USB devices. So…

  • Check the computer you want to install into supports booting from USB; if it doesn’t I guess you’re stuck with the CD option
  • Slap a USB stick with 2GB space or more in a slot on another Ubuntu machine (make sure there’s nothing on the stick you’ll miss if it gets lost!)
  • Start up usb-creator from the command line (just type usb-creator, or sudo apt-get it if it’s not installed)
  • Choose the .iso in the usb-creator utility
  • Choose the target USB device
  • Wait while files are copied and stuff
  • Pull out the USB stick when it’s ready, plug it into your target machine and reboot.

The familiar installer screens should start up.

More details here.

Matlab from the Ubuntu Menu

Getting stuff to work from the Ubuntu Menu is pretty straightforward, but I ran into some little problems that confused me with Matlab. This post goes through the steps and difficulties I had, which might be useful in general, not just in relation to Matlab.

First up, I installed the Student Edition of Matlab (currently R2009a and a steal at the student price), taking into account the fact that I’m running a 64-bit OS and the student edition doesn’t come with the 64-bit architecture libraries. Pretty confusing on first install as the installer detects the architecture but then can’t find the libs, but corrected using this guidance on the Mathworks website.

Once you’ve done that, you need to pass the argument ‘-glnx86’ to Matlab every time you start it up.

That’s a pain, plus the other boilerplate to run it in the background – so I tried to set up a menu option using ‘Main Menu’, which is the relevant administrative tool that comes with Ubuntu. It’s in System – Preferences – Main Menu if you’ve not used it before. Here’s a screenshot of it, set up with a Matlab launcher.

Main Menu with Matlab

The obvious thing is to give Main Menu the command that works from the command prompt, but no. Doing this results is strange behaviour where the splash screen fires up, disappears, and nothing. Checking the .xsession-errors log file in my home directory shows what’s happening. The application is launching in command line mode, writing its prompt to stdout, and then being shut down.

Kinda weird, maybe, as launching the app from the command line launches the Matlab GUI. Anyway, you also need to also add a ‘-desktop’ argument to the launcher command. My Matlab is installed in /opt/matlab, remember to change the path as appropriate for you.

The Matlab Launcher

You can also add the icon if you want by clicking where the Matlab icon is shown above, browsing to wherever you installed Matlab then into the ‘X11/icons’ directory, where you’ll find a number of icons.

Now you can launch the program from Main Menu, or drag-dropping it onto a panel, onto your desktop – wherever you like.

Using Dropbox for Syncing Computers

I tried Dropbox when I was doing my first MSc module.

As the course involved writing code and documents, I would work during the day when I was onsite on my laptop, then switch to my desktop to continue working for the week.

Naturally, I would forget to copy something to my laptop ready for the following week, so I tried Google Docs and blogged about it here. Pretty good – just a little clunky and not quite up to the job with the maths symbolic stuff I needed to use.

In a comment to that post, Luke Maciak suggested Dropbox. (Incidentally, I can recommend his blog for entertaining reading too)

Using it, I get an online repository where I can put files, and I can download client software for my (Windows when I was running Windows) and Linux machines.

The client software gives me a ‘Dropbox’ folder. Placing any files in there synchronizes them with the online repository. Any files I’ve added or updated on other machines are synchronized down from the repository, and I can get to and share my files via the Dropbox website as well.

The main difference for me is that Dropbox is completely transparent. It’s just files in that folder. No messing.

So far*, it just works – in fact, I’ve started using to to share some of my Ubuntu desktop configuration. Everything behaves exactly as I expect it to, and there’s been no nasty surprises, so I’d tentatively recommend it if you have multiple computers that you want to keep files in sync across.

You get the first 2GB of space free. If you’re interested in giving it a go, you can get Dropbox here.

*of course, tomorrow it will probably break. That’s computers for you. I’d suggest taking your own, separate backups of that ol’ Dropbox folder now and again, just in case.

Ubuntu 9.04 Teething Troubles


This seems to be a fairly Dell-specific problem, but there just might be a fix, as detailed in this ubuntuforums thread.

Long story short: you need to update your menu.lst file (mine’s in /boot/grub/menu.lst), and append the entries

i8042.reset i8042.nomux i8042.nopnp i8042.noloop

to the line beginning with the word kernel for your current kernel version. So far, it seems to be working… but that’s only a couple of boots later.

There’s more detail in the thread I mentioned, and if anyone wants any more detailed instructions feel free leave me a comment with your question and I’ll try and help.

Original Post:

I made the classic mistake of changing more than one variable at a time – installed Ubuntu 9.04 over my 8.10 installation, and went 64-bit – and now my laptop doesn’t recognise its keyboard and trackpad on some boots.

On top of that, I had that thing happen when you quickly log off, shut the laptop lid, and put it away… but some darned dialog popped up as it shut down, keeping my laptop powered up all night. Unfortunately I left it with the exhaust kinda blocked, so it was toasty by the time I picked it up the following morning. Probably didn’t help.

Maybe there’s a setting or something I can use to override this behaviour, but as an aside…

Dear Mr. Ubuntu (/Windows/whatever), if I’ve hit shutdown and then shut the laptop lid or done nothing else for an hour, it’d be great if the thing would just shut down by default, regardless of how many things want to pop up and clamour for my attention.

As opposed to toasting my laptop and potentially burning my house down. Thanks.

Anyway now on boot, my keyboard works just fine through the POST and the GRUB menu. By the time I’ve got to a login prompt though, I can’t type or do pointery things anymore.


I’ve seen a couple of other folks referring to the same problem with 9.04 on forums, so for now it looks like it’s a bug. My money’s on a timing issue during boot.

If anyone else is having the same problem, I have a couple of things to try that have made my system just about usable for now.

  • Stick a CD in your drive – I put the 9.04 32-bit CD in and switched from 90% bad boots to maybe 70% good boots. Maybe it changes the timing of events during boot or something.
  • Hit ESC just after the POST – this gives you the option of selecting recovery mode from the GRUB menu. If your input devices work in the recovery menu, select normal boot. This shortened the boot time to find out if it was going to boot OK.

Roll on a fix!

Flickering graphics under Linux with ATI hardware

It’s been driving me mad. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to watch youtube videos (Educational stuff – not the skateboarding dog – although that is pretty neat…) and been plagued with flickering video playback.

I was also getting flickering when using Compiz desktop effects.

Finally, after a couple of headaches, I researched the problem. Turns out it looks like an incompatibility between my ATI X1900GT card’s drivers and the way Compiz tries to use it. Something to do with an unsupported call making the application use unaccelerated rendering (and all your CPU resources), but at least I now have a fix – turn off desktop effects.

System > Preferences > Appearance > Visual Effects Tab

Select ‘None’, then ‘Close’.

Et voila – no more flickering.

It’s a shame you can’t have the simply beautiful effects AND flicker-free video playback. If anyone’s got a better answer, please leave me a comment, but for now, my advice? If you have the choice and you want an easy Linux life, buy nvidia. My nvidia mobile-based laptop works a treat.

(I did try an alternative solution, adding Option “TexturedVideo” “off” to my /etc/X11/xorg.conf, but it didn’t really work for me – less flickering, but still there.)

Now, back to that skateboarding dog. I mean educational material…