Discussion about
groovechicken

October 25th 2012 2:26 am

The last gasp of laptop Linux?

Remember the old days, when Linux was a nightmare to run on a laptop because half the hardware would not be supported and you would spend days in vain trying to make it work? While those times seemed like a thing of the past for a few years, my recent experience installing Linux on some laptops made me feel as if I had been time warped back to the Linux Dark Ages.

It all started when I had to give my trusted Lenovo T61 to a student whose laptop had been damaged in a recent fire on campus. I had purchased a batch of Lenovo G570 laptops to replace the damaged desktop machines, and took one to replace my Linux desktop after handing over the T61. I thought this was going to be easy, after all, it was a pretty stock Intel motherboard with a Core i3, Intel graphics, Atheros wifi, and Intel audio. These components are used in most of the low to mid-tier laptops, right? Surely this was all supported.

I started with PCLinuxOS, the distro I most wanted to use. It mostly worked... but every time I put the thing to sleep, Chrome would lose the ability to do DNS lookups, requiring me to quit and relaunch Chrome. For most people, that might not be a big problem, but I generally keep at least 2 windows open with a total of 40 or more tabs. Open tabs are sort of my To-Do system... go ahead and criticize, but it works. I could have lived with that problem, but the sound card didn't work at all. I poked around the forums for some solutions and didn't find anything that related to this particular machine. It is a more obscure distro, though, and that comes with the territory of venturing outside the larger communities.

So, I decided to just save some time and switch back to Mepis, which I had been using on the T61. I tested the mic and the sound and all that had been set up properly. Everything was going great... until I decided to test the webcam in Skype. As soon as I clicked the "Test Video" button, the machine locked solid. I rebooted and tried again with the same results. Thinking it might be a Skype bug, I went ahead and installed the Google Talk plugin for Chrome, and tested the webcam in a Google Hangout... which locked the machine solid. A little bit of searching to no avail and it was off to the next candidate.

So, I tried OpenSuse 12.2 and found that the mic did not work. Then I tried Kubuntu 12.04... still no mic. Then I tried Debian 6 with KDE and realized that was going to be a royal headache to get configured as well as other KDE distros. Then I tried Zorin 6, expecting the same audio problems since it is Ubuntu based and found my prophecy fulfilled. I was about to give up and go back to PCLinuxOS and just live with no audio until someone eventually figured the issue out, but decided to poke around a little more and remembered Linux Mint Debian Edition. That one finally did the trick and I had all working hardware after one little tweak to an ALSA config file. Granted, I had lost KDE, but at least it was something Debian based, which I prefer, and the packages were fairly up-to-date in the standard repos.

So, my despair seemed to be momentarily ended... until I decided to update my wife's laptop to a more modern Linux as well. She has a Gateway with Phenom, AMD Graphics, and Realtek audio. I went through the same torturous routine with her laptop, trying several of the distros mentioned above, and finding mic and audio issues on them all. This was surprising to me, as this machine is going on 2 years since it was released. Surely the Linux community had enough time to work out all the kinks on this one by now, right? Apparently not. After trying the more user friendly distros I wanted to give her, I admitted defeat and installed Linux Mint Debian Edition, which I expected to work at least as well as it did on my much newer Lenovo. Alas, after hours of fighting with audio config, I am left with a mic that sounds like it has grounding problems and is loaded with static, and an annoying glitch that causes the audio card to make a routine popping noise if the laptop is unplugged and Chrome is open (apparently, the Flash plugin keeps opening and closing access to the card when it is on battery power, and there is an audible pop every time it powers back up). After all that time and energy and frustration, I blew all my Best Buy Reward Zone points and some money to order her a Lenovo that is one step up from the one I am using... hoping that it has the same chipsets so that I can get Linux Mint Debian Edition running on it bug-free.

This whole experience has made my faith in "desktop Linux" waver a great deal. As difficult as this is, and as erratic as current hardware support seems to be, how much worse is it going to get when the new "made for Windows 8" hardware rolls out? And that is if the Linux community even manages to solve the problem with the locked EFI firmware for booting.

Granted, there is System76, but for those of us with really tight budgets, getting into the $700 range on prices is tough. I can only hope that some of the manufacturers cater to the Linux community and offer some dedicated Linux machines, but the trend certainly isn't heading that way. And now that even Chromebooks are switching to ARM, we can't even hope for those as a Linux parachute.

All this has been a tough pill to swallow as I sit here wondering if this is my last Linux laptop. The thought of having to finally give up the fight and switch to Windows (no, I can't afford Apples for the foreseeable future) is a pretty depressing one. I know enough to lock down Windows as much as possible, but I really don't trust it from a security standpoint and the thought of having to reinstall Windows yearly on my wife's machine and have her change all our passwords for all our accounts every time is enough to make me start looking for property in Amish country.

The once bright future of Linux as an end-user OS is starting to feel more like the bright light of a late afternoon sunset. And while the continued strength of Linux as a server platform is some small consolation, it certainly doesn't give me a lot of hope for the future of the industry from an end user perspective. If there are any companies out there willing to step in and save us from this bleak future, and at the lower end of the price spectrum, they will win my undying devotion. In the meanwhile, I guess I better get comfortable with compromises and workarounds.

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27 replies
stevenswall

So.... how does actual Ubuntu 12.04 work on the laptop? Just the audio problem and a small tweak to fix it?
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MichaelClarkson

I haven't had any audio issues. Of course I'm also not an audiophile so most of what I do wouldn't draw attention to any quality issues. If you do have audio issues, Ubuntu forum has a nice write up on it here:
ubuntuforums.org­/showthread.php­?t­=1885240

For the record, I am now also running Scientific Linux 6.3 for RHEL compatibility in my job and have no issues getting it to work on my laptop either.
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quicktaker

I started using Linux back in 2001 kicking and screaming. Being a newbie it was difficult to install, the online forums were not good, Linux enthusiasts were often snarky, and good drivers were hard to find. Free office software was ugly and buggy.

Desktop Linux in 2013 is really good. The UI is great, the install process has been greatly improved, and online forums are outstanding. The latest free versions of LibreOffice is terrific for 95% of us. I still don't get the best flash performance but we can pray for the death of Flash will come sooner than later. I also prefer using Google Docs for most of my personal documents. I also love all the standard programming tools baked in.

What is missing:
  • I use Apple products and need iTunes.
  • Optimized video drivers.
  • For enterprises, there still isn't a good replacement for Outlook's calendar functionality. I create multiple calendar invites each day and the Linux email clients just are not good enough. I do prefer web mail for my personal mail.
I continue to use Windows at home because my clients use Windows.

If I ran a company, I would have most of my users on Linux since it does an excellent job for the functionality most need. Getting away from licensing would be a breath of fresh air. Somebody needs to complete the final piece of creating a match for Outlook.
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groovechicken

I think everyone who does mail clients for Linux has just been hoping that Microsoft's web version would eventually cover all their needs. The only way that is ever going to get done is when a large company that depends on Outlook-only features decides to switch over and dedicate a few employees to the Evolution project to add those features in. The average linux programmer is not likely to care about Outlook features.
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MichaelClarkson

Let me preface my remarks with my profession. I am a Red Hat Linux and Cloudera Hadoop instructor. My laptop, a 2 year old Toshiba Satellite I picked up for $500 at Best Buy has never had Windows on it since the first boot in which I removed the virus called Windows 7. After running Red Hat 5.8 and every release of 6, Slack 13, and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, I have yet to find something I couldn't get Linux to do on my laptop. Sure, you need to check hardware to make sure you aren't buying Windows only junk but with a bit of research and the occasional driver or two laptop Linux works just fine. BTW, best experience so far has to be Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. The only thing that doesn't work is Netflix, and I have a tablet for that.
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TenLeftFingers

Absolutely. Linux is a laptop friendly as win or mac. But they can't know about and write drivers for every piece of hardware out there and Microsoft don't do that job either. It's hard when buying a laptop to know if linux is *definitely* going to work out of the box on it. But I would simply say if google doesn't take you to a positive review of someone running linux on the laptop you're thinking of buying - don't buy it. There are *loads* of machines that linux runs on better than the operating system it replaces in some cases. Go with one of those and you'll be fine.
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DuhhUhh

I know you said no to Mac due to price, but there's a reason why I've moved there. Everything just works. Sure, Apple would like you to upgrade every couple years since they decide to obsolete your hardware so you can buy something new and shiny, but I'm usually able to get a good 5-7 years per laptop before I upgrade. Guess I'm just sticking to the old adage, you get what you pay for.

Linux has always felt like it's almost there, but it never seems to get there. I use it almost everyday, but for work only. I have never had a smooth experience getting little features like webcams and such to work properly. I would hate to come home and troubleshoot a mic issue for my wife, when I spend all day troubleshooting issues for other people at work.

Of course it's up to you how you want to spend your time. With enough time and determination anyone should be able to get everything working in any OS.

That said, I am constantly reminded we're fighting a losing battle with regards to UI. With Windows 8 metro/tile crap, Ubuntu's Unity, and LaunchPad/Mission Control junk in OSX nobody is making interfaces for me/us anymore.

For the most part I can push all the crap I don't like in OSX to the side, feel much more secure than in windoze, and not have to deal with the hoops to jump through in Linux. It's never gonna be perfect, but it's close.
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groovechicken

Once upon a time, I was a Mac user, routinely telling people you get what you pay for, and I used my machines to make real money, which I used to buy the Macs. Then Intel happened, and everything has gone downhill from there. Hardware quality control has decreased, the odds of getting a full 5 to 7 years out of a Mac have decreased, and OS X has gone off the rails in terms of design and user friendliness. At this point, I actually like Windows 7 better than OS X from a UI perspective, but don't want to deal with the malware threat any more than I have to. And yes, I use a last gen Mac mini as my main at work.

It really does feel like there is no longer a place for power users in the marketplace anymore... except for those with lots of free time to make the alternatives work. My motto about the tech industry lately is, "Everything sucks and nothing works." Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
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DuhhUhh

I don't think Intel caused a downhill. If anything it was the popularity of the iPhone that made Apple push everything towards the "one button" do everything for me concept. Which is fine for the gen pop, but leaves experienced users itching for more. Intel for me meant being able to dual/triple boot or run VM's near full speed.

As far as hardware quality, every vendor has decreased. HP, Dell, Toshiba, and the rest are scrapping by using the least expensive parts they can find. The only major vendors left focusing on quality parts is Apple and Lenovo. So, what's the alternative ?
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groovechicken

Not that Intel caused the downward spiral, but holy crap, have you rebuilt the original white MacBook before? I have worked on a number of them and they are one of the most poorly designed and engineered pieces of tech I have ever dealt with. One of the few pieces of hardware in the industry that honestly earns the "designed to fail" distinction.

As for alternatives... there really are no good ones for those of us who aren't bachelors with a steady stream of disposable income.
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DuhhUhh

Ha Ha I know what you mean about those plastic macbooks. Repaired a ton of those. The later unibody ones were better but there's probably a reason Apple killed the line. Gotta remember too those were the low end laptop models, things are much better now.

So if disposable income was available, what would be your choice?
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groovechicken

Yeah, well, for a laptop that cost $999, you would expect a LOT more.

If money was no concern, I would buy a high end System76 for myself and probably a 15" MacBook Pro for my wife.
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DuhhUhh

Well there you go. A maxed out System76 pro is about $2000. And a mid-range MBP is about $2500. If you don't want all the bells and whistles, it's even less. By no means do I have that kind of money to spend, but it's not unattainable. If it's something I want, and it meant ending a lot of frustration, I would scrape and save to get it.

I purchased my current MBP for about $4000 a year ago, and I know eventually (5-7 years) it will need to be replaced. I know the prices are steep but as I said before, I spend all day fixing computer issues for people, when I come home I just want it to work. When I started buying the machines I wanted, and not the machines I could get by with, I've had much less issues. Not zero issues, but much less. Since I know the upgrade gonna be steep, I always put some money aside for that when I can. Even if it's $5, it will help in the end.
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daleam

A laptop installation of Linux was my first experience with Linux. I installed Redhat on my old Toshiba laptop back in '99. I actually had to learn how to rebuild the kernel to get it to boot! So many headaches, and so much learned. If it hadn't been for the horror of Windows 98, I might never have come to know of Linux. Those were wonderful days of discovery which I do miss dearly.
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groovechicken

Yes, 98 and XP were what drove me to start experimenting as well. Those days were fun, but I had a lot more free time then. When you reach a stage in life where you are getting 3 to 4 hours of sleep a day and still can't get everything done, spending time recompiling from source loses its appeal. :)
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Mitchellmckenna

I find it interesting that you mentioned a couple times about a good end-user experience for Linux, however it sounds like you didn't try installing the one distro that probably focuses on it the most, Ubuntu. I assume you were a part of the community who was not a fan of Unity, but I would still be interested to see if Ubuntu works better than other other distros on your boxes.

I'll be honest, as far as laptops go, I've only really installed Linux on Dell laptops. Since there are so many out there, the community seems to have better support for drivers on Dell laptops.
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groovechicken

I hate Unity. I first experienced it on Netbook edition and rolled back to 10.04 to avoid it. Then when it became the default for the desktop edition, I gave it another shot and hated it even worse. With every version release, I would try it and hate it worse than the version before. Now, I just don't bother. I prefer KDE, but will use Gnome 2, XFCE, or LXDE if the distro I am using isn't real smooth on its KDE support.

As to Dell hardware, see my comment above.
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MtnSloth

In the category of workarounds . . . Have you considered VMware Workstation for Windows?

I don't install anything other than VMware, security software and perhaps a terminal app (if you need to work with routers/switches) on the physical machine. Make the virtual machine(s) your workhorses. Easy to backup. Easy to move as you upgrade hardware. And you can have virtual machines tailored to the needs of others that won't eff with your virtual machine(s).

I like VMware, but I'm sure you can do much the same with competing products.

An aside that is more idle curiosity on my part . . . why no love for Ubuntu? www.ubuntu.com­/certification­/desktop/

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groovechicken

I tried using VMs in OS X for several years to run Windows and Linux, but it just gets old after a while. I really prefer multiboot or remoting in to another running machine.

I became a full-time Ubuntu user at version 8.04 and used it for years, but Unity was the beginning of the end for me. Other decisions Canonical have made since then have soured me to the *buntu family and I am now actively avoiding it as much as possible. Despite its generally broader hardware support, I have found that the repos inevitably get squirrelly at one point or another and things start to fall apart. I have never had to do a clean install of any other Linux distro after applyinng a batch of updates... only in Ubuntu. It happened once during the 8 series, and at least twice during the 10 series, and I saw a lot of broken packages once in the 11 series. I don't have a lot of patience for that kind of thing. On second thought, I have also seen OpenSuse blow up before too, but none of the others I have used.
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MtnSloth

I see. Yeah. I know VMs aren't for everyone.

Re: Ubuntu
I figured since hardware support was the issue . . . but now I see that it isn't the only issue. I have experienced some of the same problems with Ubuntu, and I too am not a fan of Unity. I just assumed that my problems were due to overly casual use on my part.

Good luck. I want desktop linux to be good, and it always makes me sad when I see how far away from good it can be.
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groovechicken

PCLinuxOS is so close to that golden ticket, but, because it is a smaller distro in terms of community, it may be harder to solve issues with hardware support, as in my case. It's a shame, too, because it has one of the best sets of repos I have seen since I started using Linux. :(
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TgD

I was gonna bring up System76 but it seems you covered that. You can also get a sub-$400 laptop with Ubuntu from Dell

configure.dell.com­/dellstore­/config.aspx­?oc­=nb­_v24...

I have just been soured by bad experiences. My work Ubuntu machine has an Nvidia Quadro card in it, and if I click maximize on a terminal window the machine hard locks which I can only recover from with a power down.
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groovechicken

There are 2 brands of laptop I refuse to buy... Dell and HP. For the last several years, at least 80% or more of all students at school that have brought their machines to us with a hardware problem other than dead hard drives have had Dell or HP. And it is not that there is a disproportionate amount of Dell or HP laptops. A lot of them have Apple, Toshiba, Acer, and others.

As to the Ubuntu problem, I have found it very buggy from 10.10 on.
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Hardrived

I agree with 99% of the things you wrote about but there is 1% that I can't agree with. That is having to be comfortable with "compromises". No you don't have to be comfortable with compromise instead you should support any company that sells or supports GNU/Linux. Because Free and Open Source companies are trying to make a profit just like any other non-Free Open Source companies.

Now I'm left wondering if you are not willing to spend $700 on a System76 PC are you willing to donate $1 to a GNU/LInux distrobution? This is the last remaining factor people forget or neglect. Developers need to eat! If you are not donating or buying into Free and Open Source projects/products then there development will depend on the community that works for free. The later will inevitably lead to slower innovation but if we were to support (by buying or donating) FOSS companies like we support non-FOSS companies I feel this would be a moot issue.

I hope I made my self clear that I agree with you for the most part except for this one little part. And I hope I made my case for why we need to stop complaining and start supporting. Finally I hope I didn't offend you but I see your passionate about this and so am I.
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groovechicken

I agree with you that we need to support these distros. I will be honest and say that I have not yet, but mostly because I have not settled on one that I can count on with enough assurance to know that it will be my new permanent for years to come. I had settled on Ubuntu for several years, and there was no need to support them since they had Shuttleworth bankrolling things. Since I have lost the loving feeling toward Ubuntu, though, I have been distro hopping thanks to erratic hardware support and support of certain packages I really need.

You are right, though, I do need to support the one I settle one once I have settled in. As tight as my budget is, it won't be a lot right now, but I will do what I can and encourage others to as well. Thanks for the call-out. :)
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krisRm

I've had similar experiences with Linux on laptops. If I want to run Linux on a desktop machine, I'm generally very careful about picking out parts and making sure they work, and even then, I just assume that sleep and hibernate will not work properly ever. Honestly, I never had much hope for open-source Linux distros as amazing end-user experiences. There are simply not the same number of man-hours invested into the tedious things that make the user experience of an operating system good. Things like extensive QA, well written help and documentation, and even just reasonably written dialogs for control panels are mostly absent from even the best distros.

I'm a bit confused by your comment regarding Windows security, and about a yearly reinstall. Have you not used it since XP? Things have changed for the better.

As far as I can tell, Linux (on laptops especially) has always been about compromises and workarounds. I don't see any reason for this to change in the forseeable future. I guess I never saw it as a "once bright future", though, so perhaps my perspective is just different :)
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groovechicken

Yes, I have used Windows since XP. I am actually in charge of about 50 Windows machines at work, and we have only had 2 machines get viruses since Windows 7, but that is mostly because people aren't using them for much more than their work needs and because the web filter saves people from themselves. One of the infections came when the business office secretary went to the site of her daughter's dance studio... which had been hacked to load a Java exploit that hit one of the as-yet unpatched flaws. Granted, we should have limited the Java plugin to only run on sites that needed it for work purposes, but it was easy to miss that detail in the Summer rush of setting up new machines, installing a new wifi network, etc.... (This is a small college, which is why all this stuff gets crammed into the Summer) And this illustrates my point... you can lock down Windows, but it takes a lot of energy, time, and vigilance. And it is too easy to miss one detail that leaves the machine open to getting a virus through a plugin while browsing to sites that you wouldn't normally consider unsafe. I am not willing to take any kind of chance with my personal account logins or personal info getting stolen by malware. So, for me, it's just not worth the risk to run Winndows as my daily OS.

My comment about yearly reinstall is really more about my wife than myself. Odds are, I would get through unscathed (even though I am not willing to take that gamble), but she would end up doing something stupid like every other normal person and get infected. Guaranteed. And I don't have the time or patience to clean that up every time it happens.
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