Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kubuntu desktop

FreeBSD fails me

Hose my computer while trying to update my OS once, shame on me.

Hose my computer while trying to update my OS twice, shame on my OS.

Last night I tried to update my "ports" (basically all the non-core software) on my FreeBSD system. There are three different programs to do this: portupgrade, portmanager, and portmaster. AFAICT they all do the same thing, so I chose the one that was installed: portupgrade.

Unfortunately, the process isn't completely automatic. There is this file called UPDATING in the ports tree which contains a list of things that have changed which require manual intervention. It appears that several things get added to the list every week. Ugh. But after whittling it down, I concluded that the only thing I really needed to do was follow some instructions to remove KDE, because the KDE port had been updated to a new release and some things changed in incompatible ways.

Fine, whatever. I did as instructed. But then when I tried to run portupgrade, it started complaining about ports being in an inconsistent state because the KDE libs had been removed. It directed me to run some pkgdb, which started asking me obscure questions for which there didn't appear to be any right answer. After struggling with that for a bit, I canceled it and went back to portupgrade, this time passing a flag which it had suggested I use if I wanted to skip verification of port states. It started installing, so I let it stew for awhile, and when I came back, my FreeBSD install was thoroughly broken.

I don't have time for this crap. It was fun while it lasted, FreeBSD, but it's time to find something a little lower-maintenance.

Let's try Kubuntu

I hear Ubuntu is popular, and it even has a specialized KDE-based version called Kubuntu. I decided to give it a try instead. Let's catalog the problems I run into and see how they compare to installing FreeBSD.

Can only prepare USB installer from Windows or Linux

My spare machine is a MacBook. When installing FreeBSD, I was able to download an installer image explicitly designed for a USB stick. Kubuntu can be installed from USB, but the images provided on the web site are strictly CD images. You can convert these into USB images, but it seems the only tools available to do this run on Windows and Linux, not OSX or FreeBSD. After struggling a bit I rebooted my MacBook into Windows.

syslinux hangs

Once I had the USB stick prepared, I tried to boot from it. Failure. All it did was print the version of syslinux it was using and then hang. "syslinux" is apparently a utility for producing bootable USB sticks based on Linux.

I really had no idea what to do about this, and a Google search didn't produce any hints. On a lark I tried downloading syslinux on my Windows machine and then running it to re-initialize the USB stick. I noticed that the version the Kubuntu installer had chosen to use was 3.86, whereas 4.03 is now available. The package contained an executable called "syslinux.exe". Not knowing what else to do, I ran it on the command line. It informed me of a bunch of options, none of which made any particular sense to me.

I tried "syslinux g:" to initialize the G drive. Nothing appeared to happen. But just in case, I then tried booting from it and, miraculously, it worked! Wow. Did not expect.

Installer fails

Unfortunately, immediately after choosing what to do from the bootloader menu, I was dumped to a shell with the error message: Can not mount /dev/loop1 on cow

Some Googling revealed that this happens if, when running the Ubuntu tool to prepare the USB stick, you choose the option to allocate some space to save temporary files on the stick. This is the only option the tool gives you, and it is enabled by default. Apparently it doesn't work. You have to disable this option. WTF?

OK fine. Re-did the USB stick and tried again. Hung at syslinux. Re-fixed syslinux and tried again. Finally, it works!




Holy polished OS, Batman. I mean, really. Wow.

Let's go through the problems I had on FreeBSD, and compare.


Once I got the USB stick correctly initialized, I have to say that the Kubuntu installer was the best OS installer I have ever used. The thing ran at native 2560x1600 resolution. It gave me the option to choose my keyboard layout (Dvorak) at the very first menu. The partition manager was simple and intuitive, and even gave me the option of using btrfs (though I held off for now since it seems it is not yet ready for prime-time). And the installer let me configure the system while it copied the files -- although there was very little configuration to do. The whole process took about ten minutes. It was better than the OSX installer. This was completely the opposite of FreeBSD.

Installing Packages

There's a beautiful GUI for this, and it's of course backed by apt. All packages are available in binary form and are updated regularly.

Graphics Driver

The included Nouveau driver immediately had me running at 2560x1600. Of course, it was a bit sluggish, so I set out to install the nVidia driver.

Kubuntu includes a GUI app for this. It fetches the driver for you, builds, and installs it, all with a nice progress bar.

Holy. Crap.

Graphical login

This was already working on first boot.


Here I have a minor problem. Audio works, but goes to both my headphones and speakers. Plugging in the headphones does not mute the speakers. This is not a big deal for me since I can separately turn off my speakers, but I was a little bit surprised to find that Linux did not seem to provide me any way to fix this. I actually found a GUI app for twiddling all kinds of things related to the HD Audio driver, but couldn't find any knob that would make it mute the speakers when the headphones were plugged in. AFAICT from the internets, this is a common problem, and the solution is usually to wait for the driver to be updated for your hardware.

Oh well. At least it does actually play to both the speakers and headphones by default, unlike FreeBSD which did not do anything with the headphones until I started poking at the boot configs.


Well, obviously, I just installed the Google-provided package, which will now happily auto-update Chrome for me. No mucking around with source code here.


This worked out-of-the-box. Contrary to my experience on my work Linux machine, I have not seen any performance problems.


A few fonts looked a little weird at first, until I installed the msttcorefonts package. Now everything looks good.


The "sleep" option in the Kubuntu menu seems to work fine. The only odd part is that I have to press power to wake it -- keyboard keys are ignored. But I guess that's not a big deal.

iTunes replacement

Amarok is available, obviously. But after using it for awhile on FreeBSD, I have decided it is pretty much crap. The UI is weird and just does not do the things I want. I'll be on the lookout for something new, but this isn't really an OS issue.


Linux does not have ZFS due to stupid licensing squabbles. ZFS is open source. Linux is open source. But the technicalities of the licenses do not allow them to be used together. Lame.

But I guess Linux now has BTRFS, which is similar. The Kubuntu installer actually gave me the option to use it, unlike the FreeBSD installer where I had to set up ZFS manually on the console. However, from what I've read, BTRFS is not quite ready yet, because it lacks an fsck-like tool. This apparently means that a BTRFS partition can be left unrecoverable after a power failure. It looks like this will be resolved Real Soon Now, but I decided to play it safe until then.


Eclipse officially supports Linux, of course. But the packages available from apt were for version 3.5, whereas 3.6 has been out for a few months now. So, I decided to install the official release instead of the apt package.

Boot-up Splash Screen

Kubuntu provides a very nice, minimalist splash screen by default, and it even runs at native resolution (which the FreeBSD one certainly didn't).


The default apt repositories did not include Wine 1.3, but there's apparently an alternate repository listed on the Wine site that does. Installed from there. Piece of cake.

Starcraft 2 installed and patched with no problems, following basically the same procedure as I did on FreeBSD, except without the part where I had to upgrade the kernel, or the part where the patcher kept crashing. The latter is probably due to the newer Wine version.


Well, I'm pretty much blown away. What took me two or more weekends to set up on FreeBSD took only two weeknights on Kubuntu. Of course, it's no real surprise that Kubuntu would be more usable than FreeBSD, but I honestly didn't expect this much polish. I could actually see non-technical users using this. Canonical has done an amazing job.

1 comment:

  1. If you wanted ease of use, perhaps you should have installed PC-BSD.