Success with Linux on the Home Desktop

Here is – at times frustrating, and at times exhilarating – the journey I made trying to get Linux working on my desktop. This is the experience of someone who tried using Linux for the first time (most Linux veterans will probably find nothing surprising here). The whole experience reminded me of all the fun I used to have playing with Windows 3.1. Although it was not easy, it does show that a novice can make Linux work with a little persistence.“Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.” –Voltaire

Small Pleasures

These are my requirements for the home PC:

  • Web browsing

  • Digital camera pictures download (Canon G1)

  • Digital pictures editing and photo printing (Epson Photo 750)

  • Word processing

    Live Free or Die!

    I have been hearing and reading for a long time that Linux is great, that Linux is cool, and that Linux is free (as in live free or die). I do not have the option to choose OS at work – I primarily do database work for large corporations using expensive commercial databases. I have been thinking of trying Linux at home for some time, and got the final impetus when:

  • I realized that I have really come to like the open source applications that I have been using for a couple of years now – Mozilla: I love all the functionality that was provided by Netscape 4 (no popping weasels, and no dancing monkeys or zipping cars) with added stability; Gimp: No more need for expensive photoshop; and OpenOffice: My wife uses it for her school work.

  • Larry Elison proclaimed that Linux with decimate MS (and my admiration for Larry Ellison is second only to Bill Gates). So, all the hype about Linux must be true after all!

    Dead Snakes

    I downloaded Red Hat 8: the installer started off by asking a couple of simple questions, and then went into ‘starting anaconda…’ mode. A few monitor clicks… and, nothing! Waited a few a few minutes and reboot, and reboot, and reboot – the same thing happened again and again. The whole experience left me with an unhealthy desire for green snakes.

    Slithering Snakes

    A few days later I found the Red Hat CDs again lying on my desk. I decided to give it another try (this time carefully reading all the options). Tried different installer resolutions, and finally got the installer to proceed in text mode. When it reached X configuration, I decided to test it and the whole thing froze again. Did a fresh re-install again and this time did not try to test X. Installation completed successfully. At startup the system froze again when trying to bring up X. By this time it was clear to me that it had something to do with my video card (integrated GeForce2 on nForce chipset). Google is your friend and I found host of problems people were having with nForce. nVidia provided the drivers, but installation instructions ran into several pages. At this point my patience had run out and I decided to forget about the whole thing.


    Luckily a few days later slashdot published an article about the new installer relased by nVidia, based on the Loki installer designed to make driver installation painless. With X up and running, the first thing to strike me was that the fonts used by Mozilla were super ugly.

    Freedom tainted

    Googling around, I found excellent instructions on how to install MS (that is right: MS) fonts. Mozilla was still ugly as butt, and after some fiddling I realized that ‘edit’ing your ‘preferences’ fixes that for you.

    (Mod)Probing in the dark

    Neither the integrated ethernet nor the sound worked. Google to the rescue again and finally (after several days and several reinstalls) I found that the nVidia binary driver (rpm) along with some arcane entries (modprobe) to equally arcane file /etc/rc.d/rc.local (that was easy to guess!), not mentioned anywhere in nVidia documentation makes audio and ethernet to work properly. The digital camera tool can detect the G1 but cannot download any pictures – gives some useless error message.

    Flowery Drug

    The whole process of making nVidia hardware to work with Red Hat seemed too cumbersome. With camera still not cooperating I decided to give Mandrake a try. Downloaded 9.1, the graphical installer worked fine and everything including the printer were correctly detected (and allegedly configured) without any intervention whatsoever.

    If it is too good to be true, it probably is

    With installation completed, I started Linux for first time, and… no mouse pointer! The buttons get highlighted when the imaginary pointer goes over them and the mouse works just fine but is quite frustrating to use if you cannot see the pointer. An install of nVidia X drivers made the mouse pointer appear. The great thing about Mandrake is the gorgeous fonts right out of the box. But audio, ethernet or camera (2 different tools: GTKam & FLPhoto) – though all detected properly – do not work. The internet configuration tool does not work properly. The boot-loader configuration tool does not work as intended (the settings are not changed even though no errors were reported). I could have probably changed the boot-loader settings by modifying some config files like I did on Red Hat. Red Hat does not have a GUI for boot-loader settings, but then the way I look at it that it does not promise to do something that it cannot do. Overall it appears as if Mandrake has a lot of flash b!
    ut not properly implemented under the hood (based on my very limited trial). I also found that Red Hat’s automatic disk partitioning much better in utilizing all the three disk drives in my PC (Mandrake’s installer would use only one disk).

    First Love

    It may be high maintenance, but Red Hat is dependable. Although not ideal I find Red Hat’s organization of start menu better than Mandrake. And lack of choice on Red Hat, in my opinion, is better than Mandrake’s, as lot of choice only tends to create more confusion. Also, I found that all the camera tools (Red Hat as well as Mandrake) are based on GPhoto and finally got it working by removing the ac adpater from camera while downloading the pictures (go figure)! I have not tested CD burning yet, but feel confident that I should be able to get it working now. I even got udma working on all the drives. After putting in all this effort to make it work, I actually feel worthy of my newfound freedom.


    1. 2003-04-17 1:42 pm
    2. 2003-04-20 9:58 pm