Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Escape From Microsoft

This hasn't been easy. Nothing is. But it has been worth it.

No, wait.

It has been easy. Easier than I had imagined. But a lot of work. Maybe the way to say it is "simple but hard". Not easy but simple.

But not so simple either. Life is hard. Words fall short. These will do for now.

So, back at the ranch we were juggling two Windows XP Professional installations that had both gotten wobbly. I call my computers Bob and Ray. Bob is one I built myself, using a case and power supply already on hand (cannibalized from its predecessor, along with a CD drive and a DVD drive). Bob has been quite good. I was surprised when it fired up the first time and actually ran without exploding into a fireball of death. Even though I originally bought the wrong processor for it and had to reorder. Got the right parts, put them together, and everything was peachy.

Until Windows XP Service Pack 3.

Let me count the ways.

I downloaded this and burned it to a CD, then applied it to both Bob and Ray. Bob got upset right away. Bob has an AMD processor, and that seems to have been a problem for Microsoft. The story is that computers which had gotten the wrong installation of XP reacted badly to the service pack. But I installed from an official Microsoft CD, not from a ghosted disk image, so it should have worked. But.

Maybe that's it. "It should have worked." I believe that every Microsoft building and product now displays this disclaimer in huge letters. "Not our fault." "Don't bother us." "We don't care. Go away already."

Yeah, anyway that didn't help me a whole lot. Bob started soiling himself.

Then Ray, the HP/Compaq computer I bought in a rush when the original Bob crashed, well Ray started having problems too. Worse. Began rebooting occasionally. Suddenly. With no warning. And I couldn't start OpenOffice anymore, or use Opera for downloads. Everything else about Opera continued to function flawlessly but not the down loads. Oh, and opening stored web pages by clicking on the file names.

And the command window wouldn't open any more. And a couple of other things.

Part of this seemed to be due to ZoneAlarm, which I had installed on both Bob and Ray. ZoneAlarm included in an upgrade a subsystem that kept crashing. That's what the Web said. Duh. So switching to Comodo Firewall got rid of ZoneAlarm but the system was already mucked up. Using a registry cleaner actually made things worse. And then there was all this sudden rebooting, sometimes several times a day, sometimes not at all. That started after the previous problems.

Come the long July 4 weekend and I decided to reinstall. Which I did. Over and over.

For some reason Windows now wanted to be network-aware, and if it became network aware immediately dropped my internet connection. Permanently. Reinstall needed. OK.

Some of this may have been due to the Comodo Firewall. Don't know for sure, but I had to install three or four times on each computer before getting things right. The operating system and basic applications. Ow.

This takes about half a day at best, but things seemed to be pretty well settled. I had my new, separate Kubuntu PC working fine as it had from the beginning, and Bob set up with a dual boot into Linux Mint, and Ray with Windows alone.

Then Ray started getting squirrely again, needed one more reinstall, and would hang partway through it all. Several tries all ended the same way.

So, dang.

I decided to try straight Linux, but one version after another did not install. Finally Linux Mint worked. By default it loads itself as a live CD version and then offers the choice of an install from there, and that worked. And then it didn't work no more after I thought it was all set up.

As a last resort I pulled the 1 GB of new memory (about four months old) and reinstalled the three-year-old 512 MB that the box had come with, and had no more problems. Hmmm. So I could have done that at the beginning and gotten Windows working, then? Is that what I'm saying?

Yeah. Probably. But.

But I had Linux Mint installed and updated by then. The update alone takes hours -- another thing I found out is that though my DSL connection is rated at 256 kb/sec, I actually get 28 kb/sec, with an occasional blip a bit higher. Anyway, after several days of this I realized that I didn't have continuous interruptions from the ever-vigilant firewall, and no daily updates from the anti-virus software, and no constant harassment from Windows warning me that automatic updates were off, or that the anti-virus software might be out of date, or the firewall, and it was nice.

The silence. So nice.

Finally. Some peace.

So I decided to stop there. And I tuned my new Linux box, which meant a reinstall there too, because I finally realized that they (ZaReason) sent it to me with Ubuntu installed and not Kubuntu (I'm a slow learner, OK?). But now that's all right too. Bob has a dual Windows XP/Linux Mint setup, and Ray is pure Kubuntu, and so is Kubi, my new box. All systems are fully patched and loaded, except that Bob is not going to get any Windows updates. Bob is at Service Pack 2, which is as far as my OEM installation CD goes. Microsoft will get no more chances to screw me up. I'll switch Bob over when I'm ready, by reinstalling Linux and then I'll be off Microsoft forever.

So this only took me four or five days. Most of that time I was either installing an operating system, updating a new installation, or getting Windows to work. Or reinstalling. Or reformatting a drive. Or banging my head against a wall.

I have a few impressions.

Linux is much easier to install than Windows, and faster to install too, except on Bob. Bob has an NVIDIA graphics card, and that is hard for Linux to swallow, but I eventually got it working. The other two boxes both have basic Intel graphics chips, and they play nice. Not fast, not flashy, but pliable.

I started with Linux in 1995, stayed with it for about 15 months, and gave up after I had no more hair left to pull out. Things are different today. Many people at many companies have been working, and now installing Linux is much easier than installing Windows. Luckily I know nothing about Windows Vista except what I've read, and that sounds like a true horror.

With Linux you pop the CD in and fire it up. You can get it running off the CD, play with it, and then click an icon to do a permanent install. Once you choose that Linux will ask you how you want to partition your hard drive. If you have something else installed already Linux's default choice will be to take half the disk (and install a dual boot menu for you). So nice. So polite. So easy.

A lot of credit has to go to Mark Shuttleworth and the people at Ubuntu. And the people of the Debian Linux project which Ubuntu is based on. Debian is significant because from its beginnings it has had a way of managing software installations which is intelligent about what is already installed. So once you choose to install a piece of software the system checks to see what other pieces are needed, and will go out and grab all of them. By itself.

When I dropped Linux in 1997 the decider for me was having spent a month or so trying to upgrade the Gnome desktop. I got the main packages OK, but they needed another software package (a "dependency") to work. I found that, but it in turn needed something else, and I never did find that third piece. I knew what it was called but could never figure out where to get it. That was it. End of the friggin' road, Joe.

I'm glad to say that those days are gone.

But I still have a lot to learn. All three of my computers are working, and working well, but there are a lot of differences with my old Windows setup. I had a nice backup system I'd written as batch files, using WinZip and WinZip's command-line add on package, and that's gone. External USB drives work, and I can read from and write to NTFS partitions and files, but not just by switching the drives on and off anymore. That's trickier. And some other things like that. But basically things are working. I'll learn.

Some observations.

Kubuntu is nice. Really nice. There are lots of options, lots of little utilities (editors and an office suite, and even a web browser, and so on). Gnome is OK but for me not so nice. Ubuntu is Gnome, Kubuntu is KDE (the K Desktop Environment). Linux Mint is a nicer variety of Gnome, well thought out and consistent, but still Gnome. The Gnome world seems to want to hide more things, and to offer fewer options and utilities by default. I still have Linux Mint running in a second partition on Bob but will eventually replace both it and Windows with Kubuntu. Gnome feels too stuffy for me. It boxes me in. Kubuntu has more options.

Meanwhile, I'm pretty well set up in Kubuntu. The one real shortcoming is Opera, my hands-down favorite web browser. It doesn't run well on Linux in general. I had it installed but it took several minutes to open a web page. It seemed to work well under Linux Mint, and some people report that a newer version than I was able to get for Kubuntu does work well. I'm sure that eventually it will come along, and I'll go back to it.

I haven't yet tried Wine to get a couple handy Windows applications running under Linux. That's pretty much the whole story. Con: Opera and some video cards are tricky. Pro: Everything else works. And I no longer have a firewall or anti-virus software running in the background, constantly bugging me, all day. And the operating system doesn't bug me either. When there are updates I see a little icon on the control panel bar thingie and click on it when I have time to let the system update itself.

Cool.

Oh. Yeah. One more thing. To get my Samsung ML2510 laser printer to work, I plugged in a USB cable and turned it on. No drivers, no CDs, no configuration. Just plug in the cable.


References:

How To Forge.
Kubuntu home.
Kubuntu documentation.
Kubuntu wiki.
Linux Mint.
The Perfect Desktop - Kubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron).
The Perfect Desktop - Linux Mint 5 Elyssa R1.
The Perfect Desktop - Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron).
The Perfect Desktop - Ubuntu Studio 8.04.
Ubuntu Studio.
Ubuntu.


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