Sunday 5 July 2009

The lure of Linux (repost from other blog)

I've had my MacBook for just over three years. Its AppleCare has now expired, though in the last six months I've been glad I shelled out the extra £200 for the cover. I ordered the MacBook a mere two weeks after Apple announced it (you can read about that elsewhere on this blog), and once it arrived I used it heavily ever since - it has become my main machine.

The MacBook has not been without problems. The WiFi sensitivity was phenomenal when I first used it, but over the months it deteriorated to the point where it became a serious pain, and I resorted to using powerline adaptors at home, while at work I had to shift the laptop around my office in order to connect to the wireless router downstairs.

Early on the MacBook suffered from the well-documented random shutdown problem, though this was relatively shortlived, being cured by a firmware update. The battery became unreliable, shutting off at about 20% without warning. This sounds in retrospect like a catalogue of serious defects, but unlike other technologies I'm used to, the MacBook didn't fail catastrophically. Rather, it exhibited that preferable mode of failure known as "graceful degradation" - most of what happened to it could be got around (such as by using powerline adapters instead of WiFi as mentioned above, or use of the mains power supply instead of the battery).

The last straw, however, was a defective touch-pad, which admittedly could have been got around by using a mouse. But by that time the cumulative problems, and the fact that less than six months of my AppleCare cover remained, prompted me to take the laptop in to be fixed. This was relatively painless, although it required two trips to the local (20 miles away) Apple Store. Repairs took about three days, and included a new battery and new top plate (keyboard and touch-pad). Although when I took the laptop in I was unable to demonstrate the poor WiFi performance (which typically reduced when it had been in use for 30 minutes or more) the WiFi seemed much improved after I got it back.

On the whole I was pleased with my AppleCare experience, even when the MacBook's WiFi did fail catastrophically a few months later, leaving me only days to get it fixed under warranty. In fact the laptop was out of warranty by the time I picked it up after it was fitted with a new Airport card.

Now, more than a month later, I'm typing this on a fully functioning first-generation MacBook that I've enjoyed using for over three years. When I bought it I expected it to be trashed by now; I knew it would get heavy use, and a three-year life-span for a laptop computer in constant use is pretty good.

What, however, has any of this to do with the title of this post, "The lure of Linux"?

Even though three years ago I switched from being a PC user who occasionally used a Mac, to a Mac user who occasionally used a PC, I've never nailed my colours wholeheartedly to any single platform. I have a cheap desktop PC that I intended to use as a dedicated Linux box but truth be told, it's not had much use. The problems with my MacBook, however, prompted me to consider what I would do when I eventually had to get it fixed. How would I connect away from home? I've also been conscious that the MacBook is not a cheap item - I'm wary of taking it anywhere where its security might be in doubt. And that's how I came to investigate netbooks - cheap and small notebook computers that allow computing and connecting on the move. I thought one of these would be the ideal portable backup solution.

I read reviews, and settled on the Acer Aspire One, which came in several configurations: Windows XP, or Linux, both with either a 120 Gb hard disk or 8 Gb solid state disk. Fortunately the cheapest option was also my preferred option: Linux, with a 120 Gb hard disk. I resolved to try out the supplied operating system, Linpus Lite (a version of Fedora Linux), on the understanding that I could replace it with the latest version of Ubuntu if I didn't like the supplied OS, in the knowledge that other people had successfully installed Ubuntu on the Aspire One.

Linpus Lite was indeed not to my liking, not least because I couldn't get it to see any of my network shares, and was reduced to shuffling files using a USB thumb drive (or by emailing them to myself!) - the Aspire One has no removable drive. So I downloaded and installed the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which worked well and allowed me to use the applications I'm used to: OpenOffice (I use NeoOffice on the MacBook), Firefox 3 with the indispensable Google Toolbar and the other Firefox plugins I'm used to, Thunderbird to access my Gmail using IMAP, Skype, VLC. I was even able to use iPlayer Downloader once I'd figured out how to install Ruby. This setup didn't work right away - there were some tweaks I had to perform in order to get the WiFi working in the first place, but these were documented in detail in the Ubuntu Wiki.

But the one thing I could not make work was YouTube. I tried all sorts of fixes, different plugins, but nothing worked, and I resigned myself to not having Flash Video working on my netbook.

So, it (mostly) worked - sufficiently for use as a mobile backup, though there are a couple of things that irk me about the Aspire One. A minor point is that the keyboard is small, so I tend to mistype frequently (though this may improve with extended use). The other is more critical, in that the battery life is poor - two hours if you're lucky. I understand that there is a higher capacity battery module available for the Aspire One, though I haven't seen it.

I read recently that there was a new version of Ubuntu available, and knowing that I would shortly be once again without my MacBook I decided to upgrade the OS on the Aspire One. The Netbook Remix version was available only from the Ubuntu site, rather than via BitTorrent, which I'd used in the past, so I had to wait a while for it to download (it was nearly a gigabyte), and the image was only available for booting from a USB memory drive, so I had to find out how to make a bootable USB drive, which, after several false starts, I did on the Mac mini using a Terminal window. A clean installation of Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope went smoothly on the Aspire One (I'd already backed up the little data I kept on it) and I then set up the various apps. And this time I decided to use the Ubuntu Package Manager to install the Adobe Flash Plugin. This (version 10) went without a hitch, and I was not a little surprised to find that I was now able to view Flash Video. A quick check over at YouTube confirmed that all was in perfect working order.

Linux becomes more capable with each version, incorporating ideas from both Mac and PC. Ubuntu Linux will make PDFs of anything that can be printed, in much the same way as you can on any Mac. The previous version of Ubuntu on the Aspire One would not mount a USB drive partition if it was in Mac format, though unlike my Windows PC it could actually see it. The latest version of Ubuntu will not only mount the Mac partition but read it as well.

It may be true that Ubuntu is not suited to the computer novice - Linux seems to require a certain willingness to customise, to get down and dirty with the OS, that novices may be rightly reluctant to do. But it's no longer true (if it ever was) that Linux is a second class operating system. In principle it can do anything that Windows or OS X can do; the limitations are in the apps written for it, and many of the independent, open source and freeware software houses are increasingly including Linux versions. Linux is what most of the internet runs on, and it's the operating system running many digital video recorders and other consumer electronics devices.

Linux is a version of Unix - and what's underneath that silky smooth Macintosh OS X? Unix. All we need now is a Linux version of iTunes.