It’s been awhile since I last commented on my experiences with Linux. Mostly, that’s a good (very good) things, because my experiences, especially of late, have been great.
I took a new job in June, and much to my surprise I was offered the choice of Windows or Linux on my desktop. That’s the first time I’ve even been given a choice of OSs! I took Linux, and got a P4 2.4 with Fedora Core 5 (that’s a fairly recent Linux mint) installed.
So now, I have Mandriva 2006 at home, FC5 at work, and a little expertise around me. In three days I had a VPN (Virtual Private Network) set up so that I could connect seamlessly to my test environment at work through their firewall, from home. Very cool.
Well, I had noticed that my system partition at home was pretty full, and in fact, I was going to be out of space for new software installs pretty soon. Since I did have my share of problems with the original install, I started looking into partitioning schemes on Linux to find out how to do better, and hoped to rectify one annoying problem that I had had for a few months. (It happens that Mandriva has had problems with its menu system for a few builds. Menu items in it’s equivalent of the start button seem to get lost when some software is removed, and none of the fixes I’ve ever seen seem to rectify the situation. It’s not serious – the software is not lost and can be run, but it is an annoyance.) This week was the perfect opportunity to fiddle with my system at home.
So I (carefully) backed up things of importance and bit the bullet last weekend. Immediately I noticed two things; several minor bugs reappeared, just as they had the first time I installed Mandriva 2006. The cursor was transparent yellow (bad) and moving windows on the desktop left persistent traces on the screen. I had forgotten about that one! This time I knew not to panic – both of these problems would go away with the first round of updates, which was going to happen right after I got the wireless driver going.
You may have heard that wireless connections have been a bear for Linux users, relative to Windows users. That was certainly true in the past when the manufacturers of the cards were loathed to publish their specs. for fear of competition. Without the specs., Linux users would have to wait and/or ‘roll their own’ drivers, which were of obviously lower quality and reliability for a while.
That situation no longer exists. In the years since 801.11g specs. came out (the specs. for the most popular kind of wireless router), several manufacturers have provided Linux drivers, and even better, several independent groups (like at SourceForge) have come out with great drivers for specific chip sets (like MadWiFi, for the Athereos chip set used in my PCI adapter card).
Compared to January, when I had a set-up with an invisible cursor and a balky wireless network card, this was great. I had the wireless drivers built minutes after the install, and I was connected to the internet less than five minutes later.
But I’m not going to tell you that this was problem free. I took my time and installed my usual set of software and got the VPN going, but some pesky details were annoying. In particular I couldn’t get the mPlayer plug-in software working quite right. That’s the Linux version of MicroSofts Media Player, and I couldn’t get it to go. A little research seemed to indicate that I had done things out of order – mPlayer wants codecs installed before the player is installed (and I gotta tell ya, I saw that little detail nowhere in any installation instructions).
Worse, I had misjudged the amount of space I would need for one of my partitions, so I pretty nearly had the same problem I had when I decided to build. So for the second time in a week, it’s back to the installation disks.
I bit the bullet a second time. Did you know that one reason people have so much trouble installing their own operating system is because they don’t do it enough? It’s easy to forget the details. Install a system twice in one week and it becomes…
Easy! The partitioning is now correct, the wireless installation and set up seems almost trivial to me now, VPN is easy, and I have a bunch of software upgrades that I hadn’t gotten around to installing before.
Here are the lessons. I was not happy in January with Mandriva 2006. It seemed a step backwards from a very stable 2005. But early version of Linux software can be pretty rough, and I got obviously buggy early version of both Mandriva 2006 Free and the MadWiFi driver. Both were fixed in fairly short order, and now I really, really like Mandriva 2006. Well, maybe those first updates could have come quicker, but it’s been stable, it recognizes far more hardware by default than previous versions, and has a good feel.
I’m not sure what’s going on with the people working on mPlayer. Going through the users groups showed me pretty quickly that I was not the only one experiencing problems installing that media player. I saw indications that it not only depends on having the codecs installed first, it also needs a completely independent package, RealPlayer, installed prior. In itself, that’s pretty bogus. What’s not acceptable is that this is not indicated anywhere in their installation instructions. What’s infuriating is that they have NO obvious installation instructions on their site. I know mPlayer is a bit OS specific – the install is different in Mandriva from Debian and Fedora, but that has nothing to do with the lack of help on the codecs.
And that problem, severe lack of instructions appears to be endemic to SourceForge too. Love their software, hate their documentation. Almost without fail – no, I’ll amend that to Without Fail – their installation instructions, if they exist at all, are difficult to impossible to find, and never, ever, applicable to the first time installer (I’m not talking about Linux experience here. Every user must install a given package for the first time, ya know.)
With Linux you may have to be willing to break and rebuild your system every so often, or put up with older, tried and true software. But if you’re willing to do that, why are you using Linux to begin with?