Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mint 5 / Ubuntu 8.10 / IBM X30 dump and stir

Mint 5 and 6 have failed me on two different system installs. Very un-Linux-like these days. The first time is my office Dell 745: Neither Mint 5 or Mint 6 will install there. The second time was just Mint 6 and my former IBM X30 laptop: Again, will not install. In both cases it appears that the default graphics mode, as well as the safe mode, just will not work on the computers graphics hardware. Mint is fully spun down to the hard drive, but X just won't work.

In the case of the Dell 745, Ubuntu 8.04 (The basis of Mint 5) and Ubuntu 8.10 (Mint 6's underpinnings) both installed just fine on the 745. That Ubuntu would install and Mint would not is proof that even though Mint is based on Ubuntu, it is *not* Ubuntu. Normally this is not a problem: I have generally preferred Mints defaults for theme and default application selection, and use of whichever driver is needed to make the hardware work. Since Mint 5, I have been running Ubuntu on the office Dell 745. Oddly, Mint 6 works just fine... and in fact, spectacularly well on my Dell D620 laptop.

Ubuntu 8.10 would not install on my IBM X30. Same symptoms. Looks like it is installed, just X will not work.

Backing up a second: I was running Mint 5 on the IBM X30. I decided to give the X30 to my brother for Xmas, and that meant a complete rebuild. Mint 6 would not install: Same behavior as Mint 6 on the Dell 745. It boots, I pick to run the Live CD and then it spins for a bit, and never displays another thing. Same thing in safe graphics mode. Ubuntu 8.10 does the same thing on the X30 though. Ubuntu has a mode Mint deletes where I can just install rather than running the LiveCD. I did this, but the same blank screen appears after the install. The graphics mode is shot. I boot to single user and look, and the xorg.conf file is essentially blank. Just a few empty stanzas.

If this were going to stay my computer, I would have hacked the file and seen if I could get it to work, My brother is not a computer guy: I need to give him a computer that just works. He has a Mint 5 desktop system I built for him a while back, and that has just worked. The laptop needs to be the same.

I decided to try something, and jumping ahead, it worked. I re-installed Mint 5 (more or less Ubuntu 8.04) and got that running easily on the X30. Then, using Synaptic I installed the Ubuntu software updater. Mint has a nifty software updater, designed to create stable systems by only recommending for install software packages that the Mint community has tested. I was going way off that farm. The Ubuntu software updater has a distro update mode.

My working theory was that if I updated to Ubuntu 8.10 on an already configured system that it would use the previous settings and all would be well. Firing up the Ubuntu software update, it did in fact offer to take the system from what it thought was 8.04 to 8.10. I accepted, and it downloaded and installed 1800 software packages. I now had the look and feel and apps of Mint 5, laid over the top of Ubuntu 8.10, not its "native" 8.04.

The system booted and went into X without issue. I updated and installed various software packages like HFS and Macutils so that his laptop would be compatible with his wife's iBook. Used to be a joint laptop, but with the X30, she gets full ownership of the iBook I think. That was part of the idea of the gift: have then be able to both use a laptop at the same time.

I rebooted the X30 a few more times, just to be sure everything stayed put. The boot sequence is unlike Mint or Ubuntu: Looks like part of the bootsplashes are mixed up. I actually like the it better this way, as it gives some details about what it is doing without being too verbose.

There is some very very slight weirdness in the way that the screen is drawn. Maybe a compositing thing with Compiz. Sometimes it appears the X server forgets to turn on or off certain pixels in text. It is not horrible. Just slightly annoying. I am actiually kind of amazed that the Compiz stuff works, and rather quickly, on hardware this old. Vista would be frozen solid trying to use such an "ancient" (in computer years) video system. I thought about just taking it back to Mint 5 and being done with it, but I really wanted everything as updated as I can get it. It will be a long time before this computer gets another update. I decided to leave it as it was.

We had an early Xmas with that corner of the clan. He seemed thrilled with the new toy: It met the definition of a good gift I think: Unlike me, who buys computers all the time, computers are just not something he would buy, even though he uses every one I ever built for him. I included in the X30 package not just the X30 but an extended battery, an Atheros 802.11G PCMCIA card, a dual USB 2.0 port PCMCIA card, since the default USB ports are 1.1, and the 'blade' so that he can have a CDROM should he need it.

The USB 2.0 card came in especially handy, and Linux immediately knew what to do with the card. No driver muss or fuss.

Turns out my brother got a digital camera for Xmas too. An electronic Xmas! First challenge of the Mintish X30 was transferring pictures from the camera to the laptop via the USB 2.0 card. I had not anticipated that camera (but I guess I should have: Who uses film anymore?) but it was easy to have Synaptic grab F-Spot, and then pictures were then transferred easily. It appeared there was a bug in F-Spot: It was set to put the photos in a directory called "Pictures" but it kept putting then in the home directory. I did not have a chance to look into this one yet. I did verify it does the same thing on my Acer Aspire One running Mint 6 though.

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