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The great Ubuntu challenge

Is it finally good enough to allow me an escape from Windows?



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Anti-virus software infested XP meltdown

Some mighty big changes have been afoot at WebFLUX central lately.

Firstly, a few months past I repeatedly rolled my Windows XP further and further back via the its restore function, in an effort to get rid of some nagging glitches I was experiencing. I'd done rollbacks of this nature before, usually on average once every nine months or so, with no problem. However, this time I didn't know I had a ticking time bomb in my system, in the form of an XML file created by my free Avira anti-virus app. That XML file got erased by XP's rollback, and for some reason that caused Avira to go medieval on my PC's ass. From that moment on, my PC ran worse than it ever had before in my ownership. I tried everything I could to fix it, including much online research (which helped me figure out Avira's role). I first tried small fixes. Then when they didn't work, I tried bigger ones. Finally though, I had to just throw up my hands and nuke the hard drive: do a full format and re-install of everything.

The last resort hard disk nuke

This is a move you really, really don't want to do unless absolutely necessary, as it can literally require months for you to get your system back into full working order again afterwards. Even if your data files are fairly well backed up like mine. The trouble comes from having to re-install many apps, plus reconfigure internet access, email, FTP, etc. And it's easy for it to slip your mind about backing up your old email archives, and lose all those completely.

At this point some may ask 'how come you haven't got an exact up to the minute full mirror of your whole drive you can easily restore from in minutes'? And I'd say I'm poor and can't afford such extra hardware/software. Plus, I don't trust it. For when I did trust very expensive versions of such stuff in my corporate network administrator job decades back, it simply didn't work. The only backups which worked back then were the manual ones I'd done of my company servers for added safety. And so to this day I manually back up my personal files too every day.

I do hope like blazes that commercial backup systems are better today than they were in 1990, for all our sakes. But I have no evidence that they are.

Microsoft stops playing nice with XP updates

So I took my XP PC back to its roots. Then set about reconfiguring everything. Then discovered that for some reason Microsoft wouldn't automatically allow my XP to update itself again with the SP updates online. So I had to manually try doing that too, due to the malware danger to unpatched systems. Maybe due to that, I experienced a whole new glitch since then, where any web browser (but no other net program) on my PC randomly loses its internet connection at least once a day, forcing a reboot to regain it. Agh! This problem too seems to have no easy or practical solution, based upon my net research.

Today's bloated and malware beleaguered XP is a molasses-slow memory hog

I had other problems too, of course. Getting all the SP patches back into XP makes XP very bloated and sluggish on a 2 Mhz PC with only 640 MB RAM. My PC can go up to 1 GB, so I decided to swap out my 128 MB card with a 512 MB card, and max it out to see if that helped (I must avoid just buying a new PC to fix the problem if at all possible, due to ever present money shortages).

The trials and tribulations of mixing new memory with old PCs

Unfortunately, the new 512 MB card refused to play nice with my old 512 MB card, and so I couldn't boost my PC memory as I'd meant to.

It's a hassle returning stuff via mail order, plus I'd never had problems with Crucial.com memory before, and I figured I'd try every different configuration I could to get it to work before I gave up (because stuff like memory can be finicky).

Apparently my BIOS couldn't take the substantial difference in memory tech the new card possessed-- unless the same sort of card was present in both slots.

It took me a lot of case teardowns and rebuilds and booting to find this out. But the new card would not work with any combo whatsoever of my old 512, 256, and 128 MB cards (I have two virtually identical Compaq PCs I was trying this on).

After having not found a single instance where I could get the new card to work, I realized there was one contingency I hadn't tested for: letting the card exist by itself in the lower memory bank. I tried it alone in the upper by mistake and it hadn't worked. Because it turned out if only one bank had a card, it needed to be the lower one.

Of course, a standalone 512 MB card in my own PC wouldn't help matters, as I already had 640 MB there, and needed more, not less.

So I tried this last ditch configuration before getting a return authorization, on my second PC, usually used only by my nephews. For it only had 384 MB up to then.

It worked!

An opening for Ubuntu

Of course, this didn't solve my original problem. But it did create a new opportunity.

For you see, I've been curious about Ubuntu Linux for quite some time. The incessant problems of Macs and Windows over the years have left me yearning for an alternative. Of course, I also don't want to go back to the DOS/command line days either (I'm not insane, and haven't been a programmer for a long time now).

512 MB is the minimum RAM recommended for desktop Ubuntu these days. Before this, I'd never had a PC with the minimum recommended RAM available for a Linux test platform before. Plus, I'd been waiting as long as I could before testing, hoping that the geeks would squeeze all the worst bugs out of Ubuntu, plus make it easy to use in a practical fashion.

And atop all that, the ever fatter XP OS and ever more demanding web browser were badly squeezing me in XP. And Mac OS X was no better than XP in my experience. In fact, it was worse, when you compared prices, free app libraries, and various compatibility and troubleshooting issues. So I long for an exit from both Windows and Mac.

Ubuntu is also billed in some quarters as being much less demanding of hardware resources, and so better for older hardware than Windows and Mac. And all I have here is old hardware.

So I went for it. Downloaded Ubuntu and burned it to CD, via the instructions provided by Ubuntu's mothership itself, Canonical.

Ubuntu's obstacle course for newbies

Note that despite having been at it for quite a few years now, Canonical and/or Ubuntu still suffers some big problems in its web site where newbies are concerned, in regards to people downloading and burning CDs. Some of the instructions simply aren't correct or accurate, and some of the Windows software they recommend to help just doesn't work, and might even crash your PC when used.

This doesn't sound too auspicious, does it? Well, poverty, Apple, and Microsoft have made me desperate. So I continued on. Followed all Canonical's directions to the letter (at least where I could successfully navigate through all their instructional errors and crash-prone Windows utilities).

I finally got my verified Ubuntu installation CD, and tried it on the 512 MB Compaq.

The Ubuntu tour is more important than you think

The CD seems to force you to try Ubuntu first via a tour which will leave your Windows system intact. This is a good idea which you shouldn't try to bypass, as the tour basically helps you preview how well Ubuntu will adapt to your hardware on its own.

I say this is a good idea because Ubuntu will have quite severe problems adapting on some PCs, and leave you glad you can retreat back to Windows again, no harm done.

Ubuntu's great first impression

However, I was unaware of the full extent of that particular risk in my first install, and was impressed to see Ubuntu actually seem to do a better job with my PC's sound system than XP ever did.

Indeed, on my 512 MB RAM 2 Ghz Compaq Presario S4020WM Ubuntu seemed to exhibit no significant problems at all. Although during the install a non-geek user will surely become somewhat uneasy due to the gobbledygook they see flashing by onscreen. You have to be patient on old PCs like this with all installs, including even those Windows-related, and give them time to finish the job before pulling the plug prematurely.

I played with Ubuntu a bit, but not much. For I was expecting my little nephews for Thanksgiving. I figured they'd test it out for me over the long weekend. I did make sure to set up flash and video players for the web browser, as well as logins for them. And explored the main menus and surfed some myself with it in testing (for I needed to be able to give others some basic instructions on using the new OS). But that was about it.

Thanksgiving came and went, and the reborn Compaq was a much bigger hit than I expected. After the little ones left, my young adult niece and nephew got a gander at it, and my nephew liked it so much he borrowed my Ubuntu CD to take home and install it on an old Sony Vaio desktop there.

I did warn him I was still testing my setup to see if I could migrate to it personally, and that he shouldn't install it in situations where he couldn't roll back to Windows again if needed.

Ubuntu's performance in the Compaq gave me high hopes for my own migration. However, keep in mind the Compaq was pretty old and housed plain vanilla hardware. It uses built in graphics on the motherboard, and had never had anything added to it but memory.

My own Compaq on the other hand possesses a 21 inch flat screen and the cheapest possible graphics card to drive it, both bought some years back.

I still needed to plot out the best way to successfully migrate without suffering major problems or risks. But in the meantime, I had taken delivery of a considerable stash of computer junk over Thanksgiving, and set about trying to see what could be salvaged from it.

Playing Frankenstein with some old computer parts

The most important component was an old Sony Vaio RX-540 desktop PC. I'd bought it for my niece and nephew when they were like 13 and 11 respectively, in 2001. Now, in 2009, they held their own jobs and could (and were) acquiring their own computers. Outgrown the Vaio. And well trashed it, too (used it completely up, I mean). The monitor was dead, the BIOS at boot up was warning that hard drive failure was imminent, and the DVD drive wouldn't open. There were also worrisome artifacts in the video. And its factory RAM had never been expanded from 256 MB.

I'd told them I wanted the carcass, and they brought it.

I did research online regarding the specs of the Vaio, plus a lot of other old junked computers I have lying around, and found some parts I could possibly use.

I replaced the Vaio's failing 60 GB hard drive with a 30 GB from an old HP PC. Replaced its dead DVD-ROM drive with a DVD-RW from an old Mac. Blew out a ton of awful dust and lint and hair it'd sucked up from the environment and collected inside the case. Locked down an AGP graphics card my nephew had installed years before for gaming (the latch was open). Replaced the dead 17 inch CRT with another 17 inch CRT I had handy. Then re-installed the original XP on it to see what further info I could get on its hardware status.

All aspects seem to be functional again. And all it lacks now is another 256 MB RAM to get it up to its system max, and the recommended minimum for Ubuntu.

So I've ordered the RAM. I've also ordered another 512 MB for the Ubuntu Compaq, to boost it to its maximum, and see how that improves its performance.

Oh, and by the way, I did manage to boost my own PC RAM a little during all this, with the 256 MB card from the Ubuntu Compaq that was replaced with the first 512 MB card. Leaving my personal machine with 768 MB now. Unfortunately, that small boost hasn't seemed to help overall performance much.

Dashed hopes about a quick and easy install for my own machine

And I got more bad news. I made a new Ubuntu CD since I wasn't sure my nephew would return the original in time, and used it to take the first step tour with my own PC-- the first time I'd done that. There, I discovered some very bad glitch between Ubuntu and my cheap graphics card, which causes my whole display to go black for a full second almost every other time I move the screen cursor with my mouse. Ouch!

Yes: there might be a way to fix this. But no: I don't know nearly enough about Ubuntu to do it myself. I did some research about it, and it seems to be a non-trivial problem, to put it lightly.

Contingency plans

So I may be stuck here. Unable to migrate my own PC to Ubuntu. But hopefully I'll soon be able to add the old Vaio to my Ubuntu PC camp. And the Vaio could even give me a test bed to try tweaking Ubuntu drivers to work better with graphics cards-- since the Vaio has one too (a much better one than mine).

Failing that though, I may be forced to buy another PC for my personal use. Maybe even a new one, as I can't afford to get bogged down for much longer with system problems.

For a while I was thinking I could simply get a good deal on a refurbed XP or Vista machine and put Ubuntu on it but now I know there's no guarantee Ubuntu would work on such a beast. I definitely need to escape XP. And am wary of Vista, from reports I've heard. So I guess I'd have to go with Windows 7, if I can't find some way to move to Ubuntu.

Besides learning some video card tricks from the Vaio to apply to my own PC for an Ubuntu move, I might also consider simply leaving my PC as a legacy XP station for compatibility reasons, and moving myself to the second (already Ubuntu) Compaq, after it gets upgraded to a full GB of memory. But I'd need to take my flat screen with me, even if I can't take the graphics card. And it would have to perform adequately off the onboard VGA port. That will require some testing.

I think I'd also have to replace the CD drive in that Compaq, as it seems it can read but not write CDs. I think I have another CD-RW in a junked PC I can use for this.

My intentions would be to have both my XP PC and my Ubuntu PC on my desk for a while, on a trial basis, to see if I can truly move without major problems. Then move my XP to another room if things work out.

I also have an old 256 MB XP laptop I can boost to 512 MB, then convert to Ubuntu. I really have little choice on that one, as XP itself never ran well on the machine. Using it for nothing more than a file backup repository still saw me having to completely overhaul XP on it at least once. Talk about being unable even to do light duty tasks! Hopefully it'll do better under Ubuntu.

I don't look forward to making these changes, even if they all prove successful-- for it's a considerable hassle, even if everything works as expected. And I only get to enjoy that scenario about once out of every seven to ten times I try something new. Ouch!

The laptop display is much too small for me, and the performance much too slow to use for anything but a backup net terminal or kid's web station. So that's what I'll make it, if I can.

If worst comes to worst though, I guess I'll buy a new or refurbed Windows 7 machine. Hopefully something under $300 to $400. That I can use my existing LCD with. I'm hoping to find some way to avoid that expense though, via Ubuntu.

a - j m o o n e y h a m . c o m - o r i g i n a l

Copyright © 2009 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.