Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mint 5.0 at Home

I recently posted over at TalkBMC about the latest revision of Mint Linux, 5.0 Beta. As usual, when I post things to TalkBMC about Linux I am focused on Enterprise desktop or Enterprise server applications. I said there, in essence that it was hard to believe that this even was a Beta, since it was so stable. At the time I had used it about 24 hours, but as of this writing that has stretched into several days and nothing I wrote there has really changed. Still fast. Still solid. Still beautiful.

Saturday night we decided to stay in. I have been on the road in Boston and Austin for the last two weeks and sitting at home seemed a special treat. It also was a chance to do something I had not been able to for a while: Play with Linux at home. I have had my Apple Macbook with me as my primary computer for weeks now, other than the time I had been able to squeeze in on Mint on my office Dell D620.

I looked over the candidate computers at the house, looking for new place to test out Mint at home. My Acer 5610, of which I have written quite a bit here, is dead now. It stopped having a working trackpad, I took it apart, decided it was not going to be worth messing with, and piled it all in a bag for now. What I do not need is another desktop computer, and a laptop with a broken trackpad is a desktop as far as I can see.

The XO-1 will be getting a new, Fedora based Linux install on it shortly, whenever a small group of XO-1 owners near here next get together. Anne Gentle has the latest and greatest and is ready to get us all in sync. Besides, I am pretty sure the XO-1 would take some serious tweaking to get Ubuntu / Mint going on, and none of what Mint brings to the party is really what the XO-1 is about. Its not about MS WIndows either, but that is another story...

My IBM X30 was running Ubuntu 8.04, and my Dell C400 had Fedora 7. Fedora 9 just released, but I'll not be looking at it for use as a home version of Linux, due to the fact the Redhat has decided that Linux desktops are probably better left to Ubuntu. If you have no idea what I am talking about there, it is a long story, but the ending is that RedHat has decided that consumer desktop computing is not where they want to be right now.

Fedora is not exactly equal to RedHat by any means, but their distro is much harder to get going on home hardware like laptops due to not including any closed source anything, and so many of the wireless cards in laptops still require closed source drivers / firmware.

I needed a laptop for Mint, Fedora 7's old home base was elected. But this led to another problem. The Dell C400 I have I built out of parts, and I never have had a CD for it. It is too old to be able to boot off its USB 1.0 ports with my USB CD drive attached: The BIOS just does not support it. This required pressing into service my IBM X30, and doing something you just can not do with MS Windows.

I took the 80 GB Samsung PATA harddrive out of the C400, and installed it into the IBM X30. I then booted the Mint 5.0 LiveCD, and watched Mint come to life.

The IBM gets its wireless from a D-link DWL-G630 PCMCIA card, since IBM only allows their own 802.11 cards into the mini-PCI slot (#&^$^$*). ALL these stupid 802.11G cards I have laying around here from old laptops and I can't use any of then in the IBM without having to either hack the cards internal ID, or the IBM modified BIOS. And for what? the cards are perfectly good cards. grumble grumble. I digress.

Here is where something weird happened. The wireless card was dead while the LiveCD was running. I have never seen that before. It works under Ubuntu 8.04, and Mint 5 is based off that. What in the world is up there? Maybe this really is a beta....

Whatever: I don't need it to work here. The IBM is just the hard drive host mother. Clicking the install, I go through the standard seven dialog panels, and as usual, answer panel 4 with the pull down rather than the time zone map, which I find useless. I manually set up the disks as well, since I want '/' and '/home' in different partitions.

It takes about twenty minutes for the CD to load up the code to the hard drive, and prompt me to say that it is ready for a reboot. This was about twice what it took on the Dell D620 at the office, and it is purely a sign of how much I/O wait there is in an older CD unit, such as what I have in the IBM. 24x CD rather than 4X DVD. Makes a huge difference.

Now, instead of a reboot, I turned off the X30, and I pulled out the Samsung hard drive, replacing the Hitachi 40GB unit with Ubuntu installed on it, and place the host mother aside. The Samsung goes back into the Dell C400, and boots.

Here is the trick no MS Windows computer can do without all sorts of special stuff, like running Sysprep to get it back to a blank state. Linux does not care that the IBM and the Dell are different computers, with different chipsets, and different wireless cards. The Dell TruMobile 1150 MiniPCI card is correctly configured and finds the WAP in the house without issue.

Even though the '/home' I am using came from Fedora 7 and this is now Mint 5.0 Beta, the desktop is just like it used to look. It migrated to Ubuntu with only a minor issue. I had the gnome hardware sensors applet installed in Fedora, and Ubuntu did not put it in by default. No problem. Synaptic can re-install that.

First I fired up MintUpdate and had it bring down 45 updates. This took less than 3 minutes. Then it found another small set it wanted: Maybe 15 or 20 more: I didn't look. This went in taking less than a minute. I set MintUpdates preferences to show me unsafe updates, but not to automatically select them. A few more updates show up, but nothing that looks like anything I need bad enough right now: an Xorg update to the Intel video driver being the main one of interest.

Exiting Mintupdate, I fired up Synaptic from 'System/Administration' and loaded up the things I usually do. GkrellM, HFSPlus, Avahi, Macutils, hardware sensors and hddtemp: Stuff that tells me how the computer is doing, or lets me work with data exchange via HFS formatted USB disks. Not having MS Windows to deal with, all my data exchange is done on HFS right now. When the Mac and Linux support ZFS, I'll go there next. I know that HFS is not the worlds best File System. It is better than VFAT though.

Nothing of a kernel nature came down, so no reboot required. I exited my userid to restart X and then started to play around with the fully configured Mint 5.0 Beta.

My first point of curiosity had to do with video compositing. MS Windows Vista is a total pig here, needing all sorts of special video hardware to work. My Ubuntu and Mint experience had been that Linux with Compiz requires substantially less hardware: the D620 laptop at the office ran composited video extremely quickly with an Intel video chipset not known for its speed. The C400 is much older, and much much slower. It has the Intel 82830M Graphics controller, a 1.2 Ghz processor rather than two 2.0 Ghz processors, and 1Gb RAM rather than the d620'S 2gb. Its harddrive is PATA rather than SATA, and the C400 is a laptop optimized for power savings and portability, not speed.

I turned on Compiz (System / Preferences / Appearance / Visual Effects), and set it to the custom settings that were pre-existing on the computer: I assume they came with Mint. The computer is slightly slower on screen paints, but not so slow as to be unusable. Not even close. I could use 'System / Preferences / Advanced Desktop Effects Settings' (installed by default now! I used to have to go get that off the CD!) to tweak out a few more effects and go even faster if I wanted. For now my major curiosity has been satisfied: Even on old, minimal hardware, the new video compositing engine of Linux, Compiz, runs rings around MS Windows. I could not even install Vista on this C400 if I wanted to.

Firefox RC1 shipped today, so I imagine it will hit the Mint repositories pretty quickly. Clement Lefebvre, Mint 5.0 guiding light, wrote in his blog the he was keeping on eye of FireFox RC1, and had hoped it would be in the Beta. I had hoped it would too: FireFox 3.0 is a huge improvement over 2.x when it comes to things like memory footprint, memory leakage, etc. Very important on a smallish system like this C400.

One important test of the laptop is how well it web surfs, and so I went to watch Keith Olbermann's special comment a few dozen more times:

I turned on and off Compiz, and tweaked the settings, but the little laptop just can't quite hit the full framerate of the MSNBC video player. Still, it was pretty impressive that no matter whether Compiz was on or off, or at minimal effects or the slightly more I tend to use, the frame rate stayed the same. Compiz was not in the way of the video framerate. The minimal hardware overall was.

When Mint 5.0 GA's, I think I'll be making a trip back to Austin to do an ungrade on my brothers computer. He has not called me even once about Mint 4.0, so it is not giving him any problems. But 5.0 is even better, although I had beeter be sure Google Earth works first: That is his "Killer App"

Update: Suspend / Resume: I forgot to mention here that I had tested the Suspend and Resume functionality. My benchmark for Suspend / Resume is the Apple MacBook Pro.

The default for "Cover Closed' at 'System / Preferences / Power Management" is to blank the screen. I changed that to "suspend" on both the D620 and the C400. Both suspend in about 5 or 6 seconds and the D620 takes about that to resume. The C400 take a little longer, maybe 8-10 seconds. Not as fast as the Apple, but still amazingly good, and a huge improvement over what came before it.

have also tested the hibernate function on Ubuntu 8.04 and the IBM X30. That works as well, but takes more like 30 or so seconds, since it is writing its state to the disk and powering completely down. Power up looks like a normal boot except that at one point it freezes for a bit while it realizes that there is hibernation data, restores than, and then suddenly you are back to where you were. Hibernation appears to have no advantages in terms of boot time over a complete normal power up, other than it saves where you were, which can be handy from time to time.


BackAmp said...

Good article. I recently acquired a C400 from Craigslist. Loaded both Ubuntu Jaunty and Karmic, but they are both slow on HDD access, everything works OK. I believe Mint 5 is based on Hardy and may include the older IDE drivers (so /dev/hda not /dev/sda) which could improve the disk I/O. How has disk access been with Mint?


Steve Carl said...

I have Mint 7 on the Acer Aspire One, and can not say I have noticed any issues around disk access. I tend to keep the RAM sizes as large as possible so that disk cache can offset for the slow speeds of laptop hard drives in general. In the case of the Acer I have it maxed out at 1.5 GB, and the Dell D620 I had it on has 2GB. Linux only uses a tiny fraction of that so most is disk cache.

I say used to on the Dell because I am testing Ubuntu 9.10 Alpha 4 there now. Performance is generally crisper already there, so I'll be taking the Acer to 9.10 when it is closer to GA, and then to Mint 8 when it is ready.