Friday, 2010-January-15 at 09:02 1 comment

Over the past few years, I installed Linux Mint on my Dell laptop, then “upstreamed” it to become a Ubuntu hybrid, then, a year and a half ago, when it started showing signs that it was dying, I bought what was originally supposed to be a replacement, this one made by HP, with 3GB of RAM and a dual-core AMD processor. After converting it from Vista to Ubuntu, I found that the too-small screen resolution made it too difficult to use, so I gave that lappy and the Vista restore CD to MJ, who almost immediately started complaining about the things that he had to do to make it do anything.

I then purchased another Dell, this one at a Best Buy in the St. Louis area. This Inspiron model has the dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM. I immediately converted it from Windows Vista 64-bit to Xubuntu 9.04 64-bit. The Ubuntu family’s 9.04 release was kind of rough. I upgraded the old lappy the same night I installed Xubuntu on the new one. The primary result was that neither one had working audio, and even after I installed and tweaked, audio started muted every time, then I’d have to unmute and turn it up.

Shortly after I returned home to California, the old XPS model finally corpsified itself. No problem, I had a recent back-up, so I could finally transition to the newer machine. Except that I had decided to go back to using Linux Mint. I installed Linux Mint 7 x86_64, the then-current version for this architecture. Even though it is based on the Ubuntu family version 9.04, I could never get it to recognize my wireless card. I have to say here that I could have manually installed and configured the Broadcom 4312 driver, but I would have to redo it every time there was a kernel update. That’s the reason people rely solely upon the package manager for software installations and updates.

My nephew’s Dell Inspiron was running Linux Mint version 6, and he was waiting for version 8, so we could upgrade. Meanwhile, I had gone back to Xubuntu 9.10, which is solid. Xubuntu is easily the best distro of the Ubuntu family.

By the way, Linux Mint system requirements are very similar to whatever the underlying Ubuntu version requires. So if you want to know what Linux Mint 8 “Helena” requires, take a look at the corresponding Ubuntu 9.10 version needs.

Linux Mint 8 x86_64 (with Mint’s improved GNOME desktop) recently came out. So my nephew and I got together for an installation fest. I didn’t have much data on this computer, because I had already been planning for this ever since the other one died in October. We did our backups, then I stuck the LiveCD into his Inspiron and tested out the desktop. It recognized that there was a proprietary driver available for his WiFi card. We didn’t try the driver out, but everything seemed good in LiveCD mode, except one thing. His one year-old laptop’s hard drive is bad. Not having any funds to replace it, we went ahead and installed on it, but everything we did was a struggle.

Installing the “STA” WiFi driver took approximately 8 attempts before it succeeded. I finally had to install the “B43” driver, reboot, uninstall it, reboot, and then install the STA driver and reboot.

I then went to work on my own lappy. As expected, everything was quick and easy, except for a few things:

  • I greatly prefer the KDM display manager to the GDM display manager. However, KDM doesn’t work right on Mint 8 x86_64. Neither computer could go straight into an X session. Instead, we had to log in under console mode, then use startx to launch X. In this version, at least, GDM seems to find XFCE and KDE. In some earlier versions, GDM could only find GNOME and Enlightenment.
  • The STA WiFi driver for the Broadcom card refused to install. Over and over and over. Finally, I decided to do some research. It seems that sometimes, the driver gets placed into the “blacklist” and will not be loaded into the kernel. Checking /etc/modprobe.d/ showed me that this was indeed the problem. It still took several attempts to resolve it. I eventually had to reinstall, and this time, the b43 driver works. I don’t often have access to an Ethernet connection, so I have to have WiFi that works well.
  • After years of avoiding it, suddenly, there are quite a number of packages that attempt to overwrite the same file. This is not specific to Mint. I see it on Debian and Ubuntu as well.

Advantages include a faster, more responsive desktop, quick to go from power-on to usable, and quick to change workspaces, even when I have four browsers, an e-mail client, and a twitter client (and either OpenOffice Writer, KWord, or AbiWord) open. Of course, I have learned to keep a terminal open (set to sticky) running top, so I can see CPU and memory use.

I have installed VirtualBox 3.1, but haven’t used it yet, so I don’t know whether that will slow things down a bit. Recent versions of Vbox have avoided the whole VM-causes-dragginess thing. VMWare hadn’t found a way to fix that, last time I used it.

All in all, Linux Mint 8 is great to have, but I’d advise waiting to install until Spring, when the LTS (long-term support) version comes out. Being based upon Ubuntu, I feel, Mint is losing a little of the stability and reliability that made it such a good desktop system. An LTS version, on the other hand, is supported for around three years, so it has to be stable.

I’ve also recently tried out (on a much older machine that is slated for disposal soon) PCLinuxOS, Debian 5.0 “Lenny”, and Mepis.

PCLOS appears to have diverged from Mandriva, so even though it uses APT & Synaptic for package management, its applications are not divided up the same as their Debian/Ubuntu cousins. The KDE version is very smooth and reliable. Until one day, it just wouldn’t boot.

“Phoenix”, an XFCE-based version of PCLOS wasn’t quite as reliable. It continually had problems with its package management. And since a dark theme on an older monitor is too hard to see, I wiped it. So far, I have only seen 32-bit versions of PCLOS, which could be a problem on a RAM/4GB machine.

Mepis was smoothest and most reliable on that older hardware, but the newest version wouldn’t install. It wasn’t just Mepis, though. I tried to put Debian testing “Squeeze” on it, as well as Xubuntu 9.10. No go with anything newer than about a year ago. Mepis’ package selection is rather old (now I know why–I replaced Mepis with Phoenix again, then quickly moved on to Debian “Lenny”, which has the same antiquated selection).

The reason I have had some time is because I am home for a while, serving as on-site tech support for the family, as well as gardener and dog groomer. It is a little too interruption-filled, so I can’t really do anything important. By the time I get back on track after an interruption, another interruption has come along. I am trying to get everything taken care of before I get sent back out for another few months.

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1 Comment

  • 1. robinzrants  |  Monday, 2010-January-18 at 11:34

    I agree that Xubuntu is far and away the best of the ‘buntu family. I expect that the next Long Term Support release of Xubuntu (coming up in April) will become a staple on many former Ubuntu machines with lower hardware specs. Some of my “Minty” friends swear by Linux Mint 7 (“Gloria”) Xfce edition. Perhaps the best Xfce distro available to date. They like it better than even Xubuntu Karmic. Sounds like it’s worth a shot while you’re waiting for the LTS release.


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