Ubuntu 8.04 field notes

As I mentioned in one of the comments I posted in last Friday's FNT, I was planning on taking a laptop running Ubuntu 8.04 on a business trip this week. Well, here I am in Tuscon AZ... and this is Day 3 on the road with Linux!

Ubuntu pre-installs a reasonable set of desktop applications. Firefox, OpenOffice, Evolution (an Outlook-like e-mail client), Rhythmbox (music player), etc. are all there by default. Before leaving, I installed and/or configured the following additional applications:

  • Thunderbird. I prefer Thunderbird to the default Evolution e-mail client, so I installed it from the Ubuntu repository. Installation and setup were uneventful, and Thunderbird worked just like I am accustomed to on Windows.
  • Amarok. IMO much nicer than the default Rhythmbox music player. This installed without incident from the Ubuntu repository. (I should point out that Ubuntu also detected the sound hardware on the laptop and installed the correct drivers without any input from me.)
  • VMware Server 1.0.5. I needed this application for the trip. VMware Server was not available from the Ubuntu repository (since although it is free, it is proprietary commercial software), so I downloaded and attempted to install the Linux version from VMware's web site. This one was very nearly a train wreck. I did get it working eventually, but it involved a lot of Googling, and the installation of a third-party hack to make it compatible with Ubuntu 8.04. And the system clock in the virtual machine goes nuts whenever SpeedStep kicks in; this doesn't just affect the time-of-day clock, it causes the whole guest OS to behave oddly (so I have to disable SpeedStep whenever VMware is in use). To be fair, these are probably as much VMware's problem as Ubuntu's...
  • Remote Desktop (actually called Terminal Server Client on Ubuntu). I needed this to be able to remotely access my Windows XP desktop at the office in case I needed any files that were not on the laptop. This is installed by default, so I just needed to test it. I had one minor glitch—full-screen mode does not play nice with the compositing window manager (compiz) now used by Ubuntu. After some Googling, I came up with a fix (disable "Legacy Full-Screen Mode Support" in compiz).
  • VNC viewer, to view remote Linux desktops. Installed from the Ubuntu repository without incident.

During my initial setup and checkout of the laptop, I noticed something really annoying. It seems that in its default configuration, Ubuntu 8.04 has serious problems dealing with the lid of the Compaq nc6220 laptop being closed and reopened. CPU usage zooms up, the system becomes very sluggish, and stays that way until the next reboot. A bit of Google-fu eventually revealed that some other laptop models are affected as well, and that there is a workaround (a tweak of the video driver that tells Ubuntu to allow the BIOS to manage the LCD backlight instead of trying to do it itself). Although I was able to work around the issue, glaring problems like this can give people a negative first impression; I hope Ubuntu fixes this soon with a patch.

Once here in Tucson, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ubuntu detected and connected to the hotel Wi-Fi access point seamlessly. The wireless chip in the laptop had been detected automatically and the proper drivers installed during system setup, with absolutely no intervention on my part. Installation and setup of Skype was also uneventful (though the download of the package from Skype's site was painfully slow over the hotel Wi-Fi connection).

Although I had forgotten to install Skype before leaving, I did have the foresight to drag along a snapshot of the entire official Ubuntu 8.04 repository (all 50+ Gb of it on an external 2.5" hard drive), to make installation of any additional software from the repository faster. I figured the less I had to depend on the hotel Wi-Fi connection for downloading packages the better. After arriving, I also installed the following, all without incident:

  • Bluefish. I'm still trying to decide what text editor I prefer to use on Linux, and figured I'd give this one a spin. Looks pretty reasonable so far.
  • Mediawiki (and MySQL). I need to do some work for the office Intranet site, and decided I'd be better off doing it offline and uploading the content to the server when I arrive back at the office than trying to do it all remotely. (This decision was partially due to the lack of connectivity while on-site, more on this in a moment.)

We initially had no Internet access while on-site; so Monday afternoon we picked up a Verizon 3G wireless modem. With the Verizon modem connected to a Windows XP laptop running ICS, and my Ubuntu laptop wired to the XP system via their Ethernet ports, both systems were able to access the 'net. (I have not yet attempted to get the wireless modem working on Ubuntu directly; that's an experiment for another day.)

So overall, I'd say Ubuntu 8.04 has worked reasonably well. The issue with the laptop lid switch was troublesome until I figured out how to work around it, and the VMware installation issues were annoying (but are likely at least partly VMware's fault). Everything else I've tried to do has pretty much just worked.

So is Linux finally ready for the desktop? Based on the past few days, I would have to answer with a qualified "yes." Depending on your needs, Linux can definitely be a viable alternative to Windows. I also plan to install Ubuntu 8.04 on a desktop at home within the next week or two. For years, Linux desktop proponents have been like long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans who have been waiting 100 years (and counting...) for a championship. The mantra of a true Chicago Cubs fan is "Just wait until next year!". For desktop Linux, I think "next year" may have finally arrived.


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