21st July 2006

Blog :: Kubuntu Review

I'm writing this from my shiny new Kubuntu install (version 6.06 aka Dapper Drake)! I've been running Mepis (another desktop oriented Debian based distro) since 2004 and have gradually had more problems with maintaining it. This isn't really Mepis' fault as I had changed my apt sources to be more stock debian and had done at least two dist-upgrades. I've had my eye on the Ubuntu project for a while now, and with all the buzz decided my next re-install should be Ubuntu.

Given that I prefer KDE I went with Kubuntu (Ubuntu -gnome packages + kde packages). I'm running FC5 with Gnome at work, so I'm not rabid about this, but I prefer KDE when I've got a choice. To make my life easier I bought a new hard drive ($50 for 160GB), manually ran all my backups, and swapped drives. Following are my observations, including the problems I had and the specific configuration options I needed.

FWIW, I might note that I'm a moderately experienced Linux user. I'm a programmer, capable of doing very light sysadmin work (I routinely install configure LAMP setups) and have been using Linux as my daily desktop since around 2000. I've installed and used on my own computers Debian derivatives (DSL, Knoppix, Mepis), Red Hat derivatives (RH6? a long time ago, and Mandrake 8 & 9). I've even played with Slackware as distro on older boxes and set up a little LTSP network at one point. I don't consider myself a guru, but I'm not a newbie either.

I started out by downloading the standard x86 installer. Ubuntu's default installer actually runs from a live CD. This means you actually have Ubuntu running while installation is proceeding. This sounded interesting and I burned the install CD and rebooted with some anticipation. I was quite disappointed to find X hanging when the install CD booted. I ran the on CD verification tool (which seems like a good idea) and when that came up clean. Started testing to see what happened. I could Alt - Ctrl F1 back to a regular console, kill the kdm and X processes, edit the xorg.conf file and start X manually to see what sort of errors it was spitting out. Immediately I was suprised to see that my video card wasn't being recognised properly. I have an NVidia FX5200 card but the config file had listed a Trident TGUI card (I've had one of these: an old 8Mb PCI video card) instead.

This is a fairly common card that my previous distro didn't have any problem autodetcting so I went looking in the Ubuntu forums to investigate. Ubuntu, I have to say, has an extremely active userbase. I quickly saw that other people had various issues with certain nvidia cards working with the nv driver, so the easiest thing to do seemed to be installing from the alternate CD.

The alternate CD has a more traditional text-mode installer. This was fairly typical for anyone who has ever installed any linux distro - I answered questions for 5 minutes or so and let it format and partition my new hard drive and set up the base file structure. About 25 minutes later the install was done, and I popped the CD and rebooted.

I still didn't have graphics as I had done all my work from text mode so far. When I logged in I switched to a console and killed the X and kdm processes. I enabled the alternate repositories in my /etc/apt/sources.list, installed the official nvidia drivers and enabled them. I manually added the twinview option to the xorg.conf file to enable my second monitor, restarted X and was finally on my new KDE desktop!

Very shiny! The default theme is very clean with lots of eye candy but reasonably snappy performance. I noticed an icon down by the clock and clicked on it. The Adept package manager told me I had 70+ updates to install. I selected them all and let it run. When my system was up to date, I started customising.

One of the attractions of Ubuntu is the EasyUbuntu script which automates installing all the nonfree or infringing software that's necessary for convenient desktop life (this is not an official part of Ubuntu but is a user contributed utility). I downloaded it and and installed various media codecs, decss for viewing DVD's, the Flash and Sun Java plugins, and other various goodies. Flash has been pretty buggy in Firefox for me in Mepis, so with relief I did a quick run through Youtube and Google Video. Yeah! Everything works. Next I installed synaptic (a more advanced package manager) and got down to the business of adding all my development related packages (svn, ssh server, php, mysql, python, apache, etc). This all went smoothly as expected.

Next on my list was JEdit. I still like JEdit (though I'm thinking of investing some time in  emacs or vi) and appreciate that it's cross platform nature lets the various devs on my team use the same tool. I added the Jedit source to my apt list and installed it, but it crashed the first time I ran it. A quick check showed that my java executable was still symlinking to GCJ. Googling, I discovered that `sudo update-alternatives --config java` would let me pick which jre to use and switched it to Sun's 1.5 release that had been installed by EasyUbuntu (freedbacking: perhaps EasyUbuntu should do this for you?).

I was nearly done, but I had noticed that I kept seeing error messages about input devices. Upon investigation, xorg.conf file had three Wacom tablet sections, and once they were removed, the error messages went with them as well. About the only thing left to do was install my printer.

I have a Brother HL2070N laser that I aquired a few months ago. I love this printer due to the fact that it simply works - it sits sleeping on my network and wakes up in 10 seconds to rapidly spit out clean crisp text. My previous printer setup was a bubblejet attached to my Windows box that basically required sheets of paper be individually hand fed. Aside from the considerable improvement in the printer itself, I bought the HL2070 because I heard that Brother had good Linux support. This turns out to be not so true: like Mepis, Ubuntu didn't come with a cups driver for my printer, and downloading and installing the lpr and cupswrapper .debs from Brother yielded only error messages.

Fortunately picking the Brother 2060pxlmono driver from the list of Cups drivers resulted in a test page. Ah success!

Overall my first impression of Ubuntu is pretty positive (despite the failure to properly detect my Nvidia card). I'm familiar with debian and kde so, tweaking hasn't taken me long. The stock setup is extremely nice though, and I've been impressed by the level of polish. The system settings "Control Panel" is well laid out, and Adept nicely provides both notice of updates and a newbie friendly "Add/Remove programs" style interface. My impression is soured only slightly by the failure of the Live CD to run. I pronounce Ubuntu a solid contender for desktop dominance.

Update: Hmm. Faster Dapper!

Update: Thanks to the forums, I got the official drivers from Brother working on my printer

Posted on July 21st 2006, 08:35 PM