The last gasp of laptop Linux?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ?
As for alternatives... there really are no good ones for those of us who aren't bachelors with a steady stream of disposable income.
So if disposable income was available, what would be your choice?
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.
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.
As to Dell hardware, see my comment above.
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/
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.
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.
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.
As to the Ubuntu problem, I have found it very buggy from 10.10 on.
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.
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. :)
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 :)
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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