Finding the right distro for my Thinkpad T61 – Part3 November 23, 2007Posted by rm42 in Computers, Linux.
This is an important update to this review:
A standard feature of mainstream multimedia PCs and laptops has been the ability of being able to record digital sound… if you think that this feature is important to you or someone you know you may want to read this before purchasing a Lenovo Thinkpad.
Installing Ubuntu 7.10:
After Frugalware, Ubuntu’s polish is very evident. I do wish it would offer the option of pressing Esc to see the boot process on the screen, but that is not a big issue. Sound worked right off the bat on the Live CD. That was a good sign! I went straight for the install icon. I chose to overwrite the Frugalware partition, since I was relatively sure that I was not going to use it. It did it without any problems. A dialog box appeared offering to “Migrate Documents and Settings”. I almost skipped this step since I didn’t really need it. However I got curious and decided to try it. I chose my user account in the PCLinuxOS entry and created a user with a similar name to import it into. After that it asked me who I was in order to create a user account for me. I entered the same account information I had just entered in the previous step, I entered a name for the machine and it accepted it OK. After that it was just a matter of authorizing it to begin the installation. While it installed I was able to browse the net with Firefox. I love Live CDs!
Only when it finished did it dawn on me that I had not been asked about where to install Grub. That was disappointing. I am sure I did not miss or skip through the question. It must be that it is set to do this by default*. Fortunately, it did import all the other entries on the existing list correctly. And, to their credit, they did it on a distro neutral fashion by not placing any Ubuntu related graphics or advertisements on the boot menu screen. The boot menu is in fact a plain curses based menu. But, that does not bother me.
*Note: Sure enough, after going through the installation process again I see that there is a small “Advanced” button on the final screen, before the installation data is transferred to the disk, where one can configure the installation of Grub. The top of the window says that you are done and “Ready to install”. So, noticing that little button is not easy. So what happens when you click it? See the “Installing Kubuntu” section for a review of that aspect of the installation.
Upon booting, sound worked correctly, again. I was informed by a notification that updates were available. So, I decided to apply all available updates. I was thrown off at first by the password prompt. I am used to entering the root password for this type of tasks. It took me a couple of tries until I realized that it was asking for my own account password. Ah, yes, now it was all coming back to me. I now remembered that Ubuntu uses a different method of security than other distros. I am not going to say anything in favor or against this point. It is sufficient to say that it is different.
After the updates were applied, I realized that Ubuntu had correctly identified the optimal resolution for my display. To verify this I decided to go and check the settings. Sure enough I was running at 1680×1050. I wondered what driver it was using. In other words, was it the Intel driver or the generic Vesa driver. The “Screen and Graphics Preferences” dialog box was a little confusing to me. On the Graphics Card tab there were two entries to choose from. I assumed the second one was a fall back. The driver listed as being used was labeled as “intel – Experimental”. It was not listed under the Intel category but under the default (generic?) driver portion instead. So, I selected the top graphics card option, and choose the 965 driver from the Intel category. After login out, I was informed that Ubuntu was now running on low resolution. In other words, the driver failed. However, I thought that the way Ubuntu handled the failure was rather elegant. I guess this must be that Unbreakable X feature that has been recently implemented. It even offered me the option to reconfigure the display and placed me back at a low-res version of the “Screen and Graphics Preferences”. It defaulted to a VESA generic driver. I chose the original “intel – Experimental” driver, and things went back to normal. Or so I thought.
After a reboot, the machine went into a 640×480 resolution display. But, fortunately I was able to reset it by configuring the monitor type and reselecting the resolution. All in all, not bad. But, did I have 3D graphics? Was Compiz-Fusion available as in Mandriva? Frankly I was a bit lost and could not find a place to check this. I did go into Synaptic and verified that compiz and compiz-fusion were installed. Now, how do I configure it? I cheated a bit and went to the web. I found out that I needed to go into System > Preferences > Appearance, and select Extra from the Visual Effects tab. Makes sense once you know. Unfortunately, it did not work. It seems that the driver Ubuntu was using did not allow for this option to be enabled. Maybe some time in the future the right driver will be available. Or maybe the steps for enabling Compiz-Fusion are just not intuitive and require one to go online? Whatever the case, it was more trouble than it was worth. Remember, the goal of my search I stated at the beginning.
Wireless worked just fine. So, at this point, as far as out of the box hardware support, once all current updates are applied, Ubuntu was tied with PCLinuxOS and behind Mandriva. However, I must admit that I was favorably impressed with the polish in Ubuntu. There has obviously been a lot of work done since the last time I tried it. In fact it made me want to check out Kubuntu, even when it probably uses the same drivers. But, I was definitely left with a good taste on my mouth overall from Ubuntu. Now, if someone in GNOME could see the wisdom of allowing file and folders to be renamed inside the File Save/Open dialog boxes I may even decide to keep using it. 😉
Installing Kubuntu 7.10:
Kubuntu’s LiveCD has a pleasant blue gray color theme. The taskbar’s theme is very nice looking, definitely inviting. So, I went for the installation icon right away. I chose the manual partition option. The “Create Partition” dialog box could use a little refinement. For example, the scroll buttons for the new partition size move one megabyte at a time (this applies to Ubuntu as well). That is rather useless if one is going from a default of 30 GB to a 10 GB size since it would take way too long to get to the desired size. Maybe a slider control would be more useful. The “Mount point” field has a drop down control, but it offers no choices, it is empty. Sure, if one is using the manual partition option one probably knows what one is doing. But, at the very least, an empty control like that one takes away from the polished feel of the distro. Especially since the same control in Ubuntu does offer some options.
Nevertheless, the partition was created fine and the “/” mount point was assigned correctly, once I specified it. Then, after asking for my user account name password and host name, it was ready to begin installing itself to disk. On the Ready to install screen, I noticed there was an “Advanced” button. Could there be an option to configure where Grub gets installed? Sure enough! I must have missed that one when I installed Ubuntu. Sadly, the dialog box was not very user friendly as the location for installing Grub was a plain text field where one could presumably enter anything at all. The default text on the field was simply “(hd0)”. I know that means the first, and in this case the only, hard drive. In other words, if left alone it will simply wipe out the existing boot loader. But, I want to install it on the root partition that was just created for it, which happens to be sda9. So, how do I specify that? Do I use the common partition notation (sda9) or do I use the notation that Grub’s menu.lst file uses? The latter is what the default value seems to indicate. So, let me see, sda9 would translate to … (hd0,8), I think. I hope, since it did not complain about it. A little scary, even for me, a long time Linux user. This step could definitely use some polishing.
Fortunately, it all went well, no errors were given. I went into Ubuntu to modify the menu.lst file since that is the one that was being used by the system. I wanted to copy and paste the entries from the one Kubuntu created into the existing Ubuntu one. However, (don’t laugh) I was having a real hard time finding the newly created partition. I am used to KDE’s file manager which can show you all the partitions on the computer. I finally had to manually mount the partition using a terminal. I also couldn’t find an option for running a file manager with root permissions as there is in KDE. So, again, I had to resort to the command line to open the boot menu list file using the following command that I gleaned from the Internet:
sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst
I guess that goes to show that GNOME is not as mindlessly user friendly as some suggest. On any desktop environment one needs to become familiar with the tools and this takes time. So, if you are used to GNOME and feel lost using KDE, know that the same happens when the reverse is the case.
Logged back in to Kubuntu, I saw that there were 24 updates available. They were fetched and applied just fine, at an acceptable download speed, with no repository configuration required on my part. That was good. Interestingly, when finished, Adept (what happened to Synaptic?) informed me that there was a new distribution version available. When I clicked “Next” a release announcement for Ubuntu 7.10 ‘Gutsy Gibbon’ appeared. Wait a minute! Wasn’t that what I had just finished installing? Could it be that it wanted me to install the GNOME version as well? Confusing. I decided to cancel, but was left wondering if some important updates to Kubuntu are going to be missing in the future by not installing Ubuntu as well. Oh well.
Now, the question was, how functional was the system? I double clicked on an .ogg music file and Amarok opened up and played it just fine. I then tried an MP3 file. A message informed that Amarok could not play MP3 files, but it offered to install “MP3 Suport” for me. I accept the offer, and after restarting Amarok, it could now play MP3 files. Nice touch! As far as the display goes, Kubuntu also detected the proper resolution for my display with no configuration needed on my part. Under “System Settings”, under “Monitor & Display”, it said that the driver it was using for the graphics card was “intel”. Was that a generic VESA driver for Intel or the actual Intel provided driver with hardware acceleration and 3D capabilities?
Again, I could not find where to configure Compiz-Fusion. I searched for compiz under the Adept Installer and it found ccsm (Configure Compiz with CompizConfig). That sounded like what I was looking for. Once installed, a new Settings menu was created, and under it there was to be found the much sought after “Advanced Desktop Effects Settings”. Unfortunately, it was completely empty. I decided to install Synaptic since I am familiar with it from PCLinuxOS. Synaptic showed me that indeed, Compiz was not installed at all. I went ahead and selected compiz and Synaptic selected all its dependencies for me. However, I noticed that it wanted to install compiz-gnome by default, rather than compiz-kde. That was strange since I was using Kubuntu (things like this is why people feel that Kubuntu is the step child of the buntus family). Selecting compiz-kde was accepted without problem. But, compiz-gnome had to be installed also! Any way, once installed, “Advanced Desktop Effects Settings” was populated with the familiar Compiz effects and settings. Unfortunately, I could not get them to take effect. I did go to the web and found some instructions for enabling Compiz Fusion under KDE. But, again, the procedure involved several extra steps not required for Ubuntu. That was “the drop that spilled the bucket”. I decided that whatever OS I end up choosing, I want it to be treated as top priority by its maintainers, not as an afterthought, or a second class alternative. So that was it for Kubuntu.
Installing Fedora 8:
From my experience with trying Ubuntu, I could see that I had better stick with KDE for now until I become more familiar with GNOME. So, I decided to give Fedora KDE a try. The Live CD booted just fine and automatically configured my screen correctly. The theme is very good looking. I think they were aiming for the GNOME look, which is fine by me. It also correctly setup my DSL connection without any intervention on my part. I double clicked on one of my .ogg files and Amarok played it with no problems! But of course, as was to be expected, MP3 files could not play. This is not a big issue for me since I always rip my CDs to ogg format any way. 😉 But, I wish flash movies could play by default. Isn’t there an open source flash player? Oh well.
I clicked on the “Install to Hard Drive” button and a nice looking installer popped up. For the “partitioning layout” I selected “Create custom layout” from the drop down list of options. I then clicked on the “Advanced storage configuration”. It gave the option of adding a drive. However, it seems that that option is for the benefit of zSeries machines accessing SCSI devices through Fiber Channel. (?) Alright, I canceled out of that. Instead, I clicked Next. That took me to a screen that displayed the existing partitions of the drives connected to my computer. I selected sda9, the partition I had used for Kubuntu, clicked the Edit button, selected / as the mount point from the very functional Mount Point drop down box, and told it to format it as ext3. I left everything else the same. The next screen was about the Boot loader (Hint for Ubuntu: this is a good thing). The screen shows the operating systems detected to be added to the Grub menu list. In this case it evidently only found: “Other – /dev/sda1” (in other words, Windows), and Fedora. However, a button is provided to add other operating systems not automatically detected. Very nice idea. Adding PCLinuxOS just for kicks was a snap. Thank you.
On the other hand the options for where to install Grub were either on /dev/sda (the boot sector) or not at all. However, a little check box was available to “Configure advanced boot loader options”. Maybe that would allow me to specify the root of sda9 as the location for Grub. Sure enough, after clicking Next I was able to specify “/dev/sda9 First sector of boot partition” as the location for installing the boot loader. Woohooo! At this point other “general kernel parameters” could be given. I decided to leave it alone and see how it went.
The next few screens were your basic stuff, networking, time zone, root password, and that was it. After a few minutes the installation was all done. Interestingly, the shutdown button would not work. It would just not do anything at all when clicked. So, I opened a terminal and entered the reboot command. (Strange! Hopefully this is just a problem in the Live CD.) After replacing Kubuntu’s entries in the boot menu list Fedora booted just fine (and I like that they give you a “Details” button to see what is happening. (Fedora does many things right!)
Upon booting for the first time, the license, GPL2, is mentioned. Good! Then, a series of screens allow one to configure the Firewall (excellent!), SELinux (I don’t know, but I’ll try it.), the date and time, whether to send your hardware profile to the Fedora Project or not, and your User account. After that you are ready to go. On the login screen there was a message welcoming to “local.host”, and that message was overlapping with the clock. That looked a little messy. So, I decided that my first task would be to change the name of my machine. However, a message indicating that there were 32 updates available took precedence. The updates were very slow. So, I got them going and took a look around.
The host name was easily changed under Settings > Network > DNS. I had already noticed that the Fedora team had chosen to use Konqueror as the default Web browser instead of Firefox, but I was even more surprised to see that OpenOffice.org had been left out in favor of KOffice. I like KOffice, but I want to wait until they offer full compatibility with ODF before trusting it to save my data. Oh well, I hope their repositories are not always as slow as they were for those updates.
What about display settings? Well, as I said, the proper resolution was automatically detected. The graphics card was correctly identified and it was automatically configured to use the “intel – Experimental modesetting driver for Intel integrated graphics chipsets”. So it uses the right driver! I looked through all the menus, and could not find any mention of Compiz-Fusion or anything related. So, I cheated a bit and went to the web. I found this page:
(Sorry, the link is now dead. The blog entry must have been deleted.)
It appeared to say that as long as my hardware was already configured to be able to run Compiz-Fusion (which it was, apparently) it wouldn’t be hard to enable it. I would have to install the compiz-fusion components and then do some manual configurations. Was it worth it? Well, I would have to think about it. In the mean time, the updates finished and I had to reboot. After rebooting I decided to give it a go since I had the instructions handy and they didn’t look too hard. And frankly, I had already liked so many things about Fedora at this point that giving up so easy did not seem right. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Probably because of the black listing of the Intel card.
After going through those instructions and seen how yum worked from the command line, I decided to try installing Firefox that way. So, as root, I entered:
yum install firefox
And, bingo (well actually after several minutes) Firefox was installed and ready to go. I decided I’d like to get to know Fedora a little bit more in depth. However, after visiting their forums, I saw a very different picture. See this post for example:
It seems that in Fedora, “removing the gnome themes takes down kde, kills my graphic driver and removes some programs, including config ones. Oh, and it also prevents me from booting up.”
I was shocked. I guess I had forgotten what dependency hell was all about. PCLinuxOS may not be perfect, but I have never seen any dependency problems at all, much less something like this. Other threads made it obvious to me that Fedora is much more a tinkerer distro than what I’m used to. Frankly, it saddens me a little. Not because I don’t enjoy tinkering, but because I don’t have the time to do so. As I said, there are many things I like about Fedora, but being realistic, I think I am going to have to go with one of the more “automatic” distros.
Installing Linux Mint:
The release of Linux Mint 4.0 came just in time for me. The live CD is certainly elegant. I have to say that the theme and overall look is even more beautiful than PCLinuxOS, and that is hard for me to say as a loyal PCLinuxOS user. Installation is very much like Ubuntu’s, including the very easy to miss, little “Advanced” button on the last screen before the install is written to disk where one can tell it where to install Grub. But, this time I was ready for it. The first boot is where things start to get a little different. Well of course, you say. But, what I mean is that as soon as you log in for first time, you are given the option of enabling the root account, although they do their best to discourage you from doing so. Well, I did it since I like it so much better that way. Thank you very much for making that option so easy to enable. On the other hand, the next screen offers to enable “fortunes” in terminal. That is, with this option the system will print random humorous quotes every time you open a terminal. And guess what, this time they recommend that option! Those guys must have a good sense of humor. 😉
Again, the system looks beautiful, sound, network, all work out of the box. Wireless networking worked right away after configuring it. The applications menu is different, actually nice. It is similar to the one I have been using in PCLinuxOS for a while (all you have to do to switch the menu style in PCLinuxOS is to right click on the applications menu button and select the style you want). The little search field comes in handy many times for quickly pulling up a certain application that normally resides deep in the menu structure.
To see what graphics driver it was using I went into Administration > Screens and Graphics. Obviously it asked for the administrative password. Unfortunately, when entering the password for root, it would not take it. I had to use my user account password. I was confused. Didn’t it ask me if I wanted to enable the root account? I guess enabling that account is not all it takes to make the distro behave like a regular Linux distro. Any way, the driver in use was the same one that Ubuntu listed, “intel – Experimental …”. I checked in Synaptic to see if Compiz was installed, and it seemed to be. So, to test it, I went into Preferences > Appearance > Visual Effects. Unfortunately, after trying to enable the effects, a message popped up saying that “Desktop effects could not be enabled”.
All in all, I really liked Linux Mint. I have to say that its beauty is very enticing, it makes me want to use it. I had been wanting to give GNOME another try, so I think Mint is going to be a good distro to do that with.
All the distros I tried are great. Even lowly Frugalware shows promise and would probably work much better on different hardware. The obvious winner as far as out-of-the-box hardware support for the Thinkpad T61 is Mandriva without a doubt. However, in my eyes, Mandriva has some blemishes that discourage me from using it, especially its themes, and the repository situation (slow and messy). PCLinuxOS and Mint basically tied on hardware support, although PCLinuxOS required the installation of a substantial number of updates before being up to par. Nevertheless, I love the look and functionality of PCLinuxOS and I still find KDE to be ahead of GNOME in many areas (File Save/Open dialog box for example). So, in the end, I could not settle on any one distro. I decided to keep PCLinuxOS, Mint 4.0 and Mandriva 2008 on my laptop. And, I think I am rather happy with that. I will probably keep Mandriva until one of the other distros gives me full hardware acceleration and the ability to run Compiz-Fusion without trouble. I will then be able to use that partition to keep testing other distros and stay abreast of the improvements being made. As for the ThnikPad T61, I have to say that I am very pleased with it. It performs very well, it feels very sturdy, and seems to have very good Linux compatibility. So, if you are looking for a Laptop to run Linux on, this one may be a good one for you.
Part 1 is here.
Part2 is here.
PS: A follow-up entry is now available here.