Ubuntu 14.04: A Pleasant Surprise

This is a long personal rant that most of you may find TL;DR. Feel free to skip it, or feel free to read it and enjoy a walk through my tumultuous past with Ubuntu.

If you have been reading posts on this blog you already know that it has been quite some time since I gave up on Ubuntu.

The last Ubuntu release that I had installed on ALL of my computers at home was probably 10.10. Then, Ubuntu announced a lot of changes so I switched to Fedora (verne) on most of my home systems. But, I have always found Fedora, and Redhat, a bit weird. Add to that the fact that I had a bunch of scripts that I used frequently to manage my Ubuntu systems, from package updates to package listing and everything else. But, more than anything else I missed the Ubuntu community.

I feel that, as a Linux distro, Ubuntu’s biggest achievement was the creation of a wide (and very helpful) fan-base around something as trivial as Linux. I say trivial because for people who have been using Linux for some time now, there were always newsgroups and mailing lists. But, Ubuntu’s web based “knowledge management system” (the wiki, askubuntu, etc) combined with, numerous Ubuntu-focused blogs that seem to crop up out of the blue made Ubuntu interesting. Add to that Google’s fantastic search engine, and Ubuntu’s popularity was guaranteed.

Way back in late 2004, a young engineer “gifted” me a whole bunch of Ubuntu CDs. All I could say was “OK! Thanks!”.

That night, at home, I installed Ubuntu on an ancient Thinkpad 600E. Without a doubt, Ubuntu was very easy to install, but, then almost 5 years earlier I had installed Mandrake Linux on that same notebook. And my thought/feeling was that Mandrake Linux felt far easier ages before Ubuntu came on the scene. Bottom line: Ubuntu’s ease of installation didn’t impress me. That night, after playing with Ubuntu for about 2-3 hours, I realized that Ubuntu wasn’t bad, but neither was it as great as most of my colleagues wanted me to believe. Ubuntu felt like a decent Debian based distro.

Oddly enough, I continued to install and use Ubuntu on all of my systems at home. But, I was NEVER happy with Ubuntu. And the fundamental reason was all the useless packages that they were pushing, or rather FORCING,  on to the users. I don’t like people pushing useless pieces of code onto me. And Ubuntu pushed and peddled a lot of useless, open source, crapware onto its users while leaving useful and essential packages out of the distro. And all along, while pushing this bad-ware onto us, Ubuntu did not include essential-ware like compilers and build-tools on their CDs! Or codecs!! You had to download and install the build-essential tools and restricted-extras!! But you had access to absolutely useless pieces of software like Tomboy, Gwibber, UbuntuOne and other stuff that I am fairly certain a VERY SMALL portion of Ubuntu user’s actually found useful.

It’s one thing to say that “you may find the following pieces of code interesting and useful” and its a completely different matter to actually go ahead and just install useless software onto a user’s system. But much worse than those useless software packages was the horrid package dependency tree that required you to uninstall the ENTIRE operating system if you attempted to uninstall a seemingly trivial package!

Realize something: if/when Microsoft installed crapware onto our system, we all – you and I – would be up-in-arms against the 800 lb gorilla from Seattle, WA. But, in Ubuntu’s case … most people seemed to be praising Canonical for peddling useless pieces of software while leaving useful pieces off the distro-CD.

In spite of all my complaints, I continued to use Ubuntu on almost all of my home computers for a L-O-N-G time. There was always one or a few old laptops dedicated to trying out weirdo Linux distros, but, most of my laptops at home ran some version of Ubuntu.

But, by Ubuntu 10.10, things were getting unbearable. Unity and Compiz were well set to make their way onto Ubuntu. And compiz kept crashing on my systems. And Ubuntu had a hard-time supporting hardware devices as trivial as 10-year old Ethernet chipsets, and Wifi and built-in cameras.

Even worse, the “social” features were getting tightly integrated into Ubuntu for reasons that I did not understand. Even worse, trying to remove the stupid “social indicators” like “you got mail” or “your FB friend is trying to bother you” meant a complete system uninstallation.

So, in stead of pulling out my left-over hair, I decided it was time to find a different Linux distro. So, in late 2010 … part ways with Ubuntu … I did.

Somtime in late 2010 or early 2011, I ran back to a distro I had used quite extensively in earlier life: Redhat. But, I never really liked Redhat. For an unknown reason RedHat never felt like a distro for human beings. RedHat always felt snobbish. Ubuntu’s community made Ubuntu the “Linux distro for human beings.” But, I didn’t want to use Ubuntu any more … and I wanted to try GNOME 3.0 … so Fedora seemed to be the best option.

I loved GNOME 3.0. I still do! In fact, I have an old Lenovo 3000 v100 running Ubuntu 13.10 minimal with all GNOME 3.x additions. I feel that GNOME 3.x is a nice departure from the usual Unix/Linux desktops. And I feel more people should contribute to the GNOME 3.x development to make it stable, leaner and overall better.

Within about 3 weeks of starting to use Fedora Verne I knew that I really needed a Debian based distro. And that is how my my search led me to my current favorite distro: Xubuntu.

I believe I started using Xubuntu from the 11.x series. Xubuntu felt like the desktop OS I had always wanted. It’s simple, but NOT ugly. You can install most of the software that is there in Ubuntu repos. And Xubuntu didn’t and still doesn’t come with half the crapware that Ubuntu packages by default. There’s no useless social integration. And there are no useless programs to do useless things that you really don’t want to do: like make notes in software written in C# using Mono on Linux! (What the …)

Sure, I still had to download the compilers and build-tools on Xubuntu, but that was a “hangover” from the parent (Ubuntu). And sure I still had to download the codecs and what have you, but that was because of the bad decisions the parent (Ubuntu) made. But most importantly Xubuntu felt like Linux, not a lame attempt at copying of some fruity, feline operating system that Ubuntu was trying to be and failing miserably. Add to that the fact that most of my scripts from the Ubuntu days worked flawlessly on Xubuntu. And most importantly, I once again had access to the fantastic and helpful Ubuntu community.

So, that was that. Back in Oct 2010 I severed my ties with Ubuntu. And then sometime in late 2011, I established ties with Xubuntu. And I have been using Xubuntu on all-but-one of my home systems for the past 2-3 years without any significant complaints.

For all practical purposes, I had completely forgotten Ubuntu. And I would have never thought of it if Ubuntu hadn’t sneaked up on me the way it did a week ago.

So, a week ago, I got myself a new laptop. At the time of ordering, I knew it did not have any version of Windows on it … which was the reason I bought it … but at least in India, the “cute” thing most of these PC vendors do is that they install FreeDOS on the system when they send it to you. Not the company which made my laptop! Or at least not that reseller from whom I bought the laptop. My new laptop came with Ubuntu 12.10 LTS!! Imagine my shock when I started the notebook and it said “finalizing Ubuntu“!! I was like “no! no! no! what the heck are you doing? nobody installs ubuntu in my house …” but, before I had finished uttering those words … in my head, of course … the laptop was happily smiling at me, asking me for login information. I figured what the heck, why not give it a try … so I logged in and looked around. And lo-n-behold, a lot of the complaints and the bitchin-n-moanin I had done as an Ubuntu user seemed addressed in that release!! I don’t know who did it: was it the hardware manufacturer or was it Canonical/Ubuntu. But, the Ubuntu installation on my new laptop did not have Tomboy or Evolution or Gwibber or all the useless social integration. It had UbuntuOne, but, I purged it even before that piece of software could say a word. There was that ugly Unity interface, but, I could live with it. Unfortunately, the application menu (file, edit, view, etc) still shows up in the top bar. And because of that, there’s no way to switch the “x [] _” window control buttons from left to right because … the application menu still shows up in the top bar. How idiotic is that? Who puts window controls in the top bar other than some tooty-frooty, lame, unncessarily high priced operating systems named after feline species?

But, you know what … just the absence of all that crapware (Tomboy, UbuntuOne, Gwibber, Evolution, etc) and a saner package dependency tree in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS made me happy. Just to give it a hard time, I purged avahi. Without complaints Avahi was gone from my system. I tried to uninstall a few more packages (cups, anyone?) and still no complaints. I was “almost” impressed.

I tried uninstalling a few apps (Thunderbird, etc) and thankfully, the package manager did not suggest that I should try a different distro like it used to in earlier days. So, after playing with Ubuntu 12.10 LTS on my new laptop for about 2 hours, I was pleasantly surprised. Surprised because Ubuntu seemed to have taken some feedback … not necessarily from me … but from a lot of its users and purged a lot of the crapware and cleaned up the package dependency tree. Yes, Unity was still around, as was Compiz … but, then it is never easy to convince people to do ALL the right things.

I attempted a system update from 12.10 LTS to 14.04 LTS but things seemed to break at first. Some editing in /etc seemed to fix a few things, but, I am not sure what else is broken at this point in time. On the whole the system seems to work fine. For an unknown reason this Ubuntu feels OK to use. I may actually use this Ubuntu installation for some time before I install Xubuntu on that new system.

Bottom line: I am going to play with my old friend “Ubuntu” for some more time. All I am hoping for is that my old friend (Ubuntu) doesn’t remind me all over again, all the reasons I had to hate it: like useless packages and even worse, a broken dependency tree that required you to uninstall the operating system or live with all the crapware.

Kudos to the Ubuntu team on FINALLY producing a decent enough Debian based Linux distro.

Xubuntu 13.10 … first impressions

So, I downloaded Xubuntu 13.10 within a few hours, if not minutes actually, of the release going live. Xubuntu 13.10 was released on Oct 17, 2013.

I decided to install it on my brand new Fujitsu Lifebook AH-532. This is a 15″ notebook with Core i3, 8G (upgraded from factory installed 4G) RAM and 500G hdd. The notebook seemed fairly priced for its configuration, especially when compared to other notebooks from popular brands like HP and Dell. Just a side NOTE: I am typing this blog post on an “almost” similar notebook that came with Windows 8 installed. 🙂

Anyway, the reason to talk so much about the hardware is that the Lifebook comes with Fastboot “disabled”, CSM “disabled” and SecureBoot “disabled” in its BIOS, but, … and that’s a big but … Xubuntu 13.10 consistently wanted me to install in EFI mode. That wouldn’t have been a problem if the installer didn’t fail every time I tried it. What essentially happened was this: I would let the Xubuntu installer go ahead with its default partition scheme and then, it would happily say partitions created … copying files … installing … and then BOOM! The installer would say something along these lines “grub2 failed to install grub-efi to /target/ … blah, blah, blah”. After the first installation failure, I tried playing around with the BIOS settings. I enabled CSM in one try, enabled and then immediately disabled Secureboot on another try and so forth. But, the Xubuntu 13.10 installer wasn’t happy with all of my goofing around. I figured while I was at it, I would also try out my usual partitioning scheme with 8G of swap and the rest of the HDD put into an ext4 partition mounted at /, but, that partitioning scheme was a complete no-no. The installer didn’t like that partitioning scheme and it repeatedly warned me that an EFI partitioning scheme was necessary on this notebook.

So, I was almost ready to give up … when I cursed the Gods … and then I decided to try one last thing. So, I went through the following steps:

  • I reset the BIOS through “Load Setup Defaults”
  • I made sure Fastboot and SecureBoot were disabled
  • I enabled CSM in the BIOS. The Compatibility Support Module (CSM) provides backward compatibility for OS that need it
  • I saved the BIOS and boot from my USB pen drive that had the Xubuntu 13.10 installer
  • I configured and enabled my home wireless network on the notebook so it was connected to the global net
  • During the installation, I chose to create 3 partitions: (1) EFI partition of 100MB instead of the ~500MB partition the installer was creating by default (2) Swap of ~10G (3) rest of the HDD formatted as ext4 and mounted at /

With those changes the installer ran like a happy puppy and completed its work! No complaints this time through!!! Since it was connected to the Internet, the installer (probably) downloaded a few updates during installation, but, I am not sure of that.

(UPDATE 2014/03/28 – Today I did the following with the Fujitsu laptop that came with Windows 8.1:

  • I removed the Windows 8.1 hard drive from the notebook.
  • I installed a new 500GB hard drive into the notebook.
  • I did NOT change any of the UEFI BIOS settings. This was important, because if and when I decide to or need to go back to Windows 8.1, I do NOT wish to worry about what the BIOS settings were. I just want to pop-in the Windows 8.1 hdd and reboot the laptop.
  • I started installation of Xubuntu 13.10 on the new 500GB hdd.
  • On first attempt the installation failed with the same grub installation failure notice.
  • On the second attempt I connected the laptop to my home Wifi network and chose to update the system.

With update enabled, the installation succeeded! So, at this point in time I am fairly certain that at least for the original Xubuntu 13.10 install image, you MUST enable “update the system” at installation time to ensure that Xubuntu 13.10 installs on your UEFI BIOS based system. No BIOS changes should be necessary.

Old post continues …)

So, after about 3 hours and multiple attempts I finally got Xubuntu 13.10 installed and running on my new laptop. A quick look around Xubuntu 13.10 tells me that there are no major changes. Sure there’s Gimp installed by default, but, I like Gimp, so that doesn’t bother me. There’s also Abiword and Gnumeric installed, but, again, I don’t care.

At this point in time the major question I have in my mind is if I really want to upgrade the rest of my notebooks from Xubuntu 12.10 to Xubuntu 13.10. And I don’t have a firm answer for that. Sure, Xubuntu 13.10 comes with a newer kernel and with an updated Xfce. There’s a newer version of Thunar, the Xfce file manager, that supports multiple tabs. But, frankly most of those are minor improvements from my perspective. A lot of the complaints I had in 12.10 are still unresolved in 13.10. But, even more importantly, I have made so many modifications to /etc files on my 12.10 systems that it’s not going to be easy to start all over again. And this is the fundamental reason I really hope, wish and pray that Ubuntu and all of its derivatives like Xubuntu would move to a rolling release model. The 6-months release cycle and having to start all over again every few months is just plain painful. But, all that is only applicable to people like me who already have a few machines running older versions of Xubuntu and are happy with that installation.

So, if you are coming from a different world and now need to use Linux in some form, should you try Xubuntu? My short answer: ABSOLUTELY. Among all the Ubuntu variations out there, I feel that Xubuntu is probably the best. Let me qualify that statement.

I was introduced to Ubuntu sometime back in 2005. Since then all the way through Q3-2012 I always had some or other machine, and more typically all of my machines, running Ubuntu. But, I always hated the Ubuntu experience. The problem, for me, was very simple: Ubuntu was installing way too many packages that I really didn’t want and/or care about. Also, it was trying to be a hipster OS by adding all those “cute social features” in which you could add your Facebook and Twitter and other accounts and get instant updates notifications, etc. I mean seriously dude, if you need those features go get yourself a Mac Book or some Windows notebook. Now, all those packages and all those “cute” features wouldn’t have been a problem if Ubuntu’s package dependency tree wasn’t so messed up. Although it has been some time, if I remember it correctly, trying to uninstall something as useless and as trivial as Tomboy mandated that I uninstall the entire Ubuntu. Or a significantly worse package: GNOME Evolution, the mail reader. Jesus! That’s one messed up piece of code with messed up dependencies and messed up naming. And having lost my entire mail through Evolution, I never ever wanted it ever on any of my systems. But, Ubuntu, in trying to be cute and all that, wouldn’t let me uninstall Evolution completely. Also, Ubuntu’s kernels and drivers were always behind the curve so there was some or the other device in my laptops that would not be supported. Finally, there was Unity. With Unity it became obvious that Ubuntu was trying to compete with Mac OSX and unfortunately, Ubuntu was miserably failing at that attempt.

Please realize that none of this is to say that Ubuntu is a bad distro. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee you that if you have never used Linux before, then Ubuntu is one of the better Linux distros out there. It is fairly easy to install on most standard Wintel hardware, and if you can live with the cruft that it installs and updates regularly, you would never have to worry about paying a single dollar, euro or baht for any piece of useful software. And best of all, Ubuntu has a HUGE community of people always willing to help out others.

So, anyways … with all the frustrations I had with Ubuntu … starting in early 2012, I decided to try other distros. I decided to go back the Redhat way by downloading and installing Fedora. That let me try the new GNOME 3.x and although I liked GNOME 3.x, I have never been a fan of Fedora because it comes with SELinux enabled.

So, after trying a few other popular Linux distros and not being happy with any of them, I figured it was time for me to give up on computers altogether! (Not kidding.) But, then I decided to give one more distro a try … and that was Xubuntu. The rest is history! Within moments of installation I realized that Xubuntu 12.10 was the distro I had been looking for all my life. (Please don’t mess it up Xubuntu guys and gals.) There was no GNOME, there was no Evolution, there was no Tomboy and there were no fancy social notifications. The misery that is Open/Libre-Office suite was pleasantly absent from the default installation. Xubuntu felt like a plain simple Linux kernel with a basic, but functional UI slapped on top of it … just the way I wanted it. Within hours after the first install, Xubuntu 12.10 found its way onto all of my other computers, except one. And I have been happily using it as my primary OS for the past year or so. Sure, I had to make a few modifications and almost all of those modifications had to be done through the command line, but, I can assure you that most average users don’t need those modifications.

So, with that background, I don’t see a significant change in Xubuntu 13.10. And to me, that’s a good thing. The only thing that would really make Xubuntu better would be to transform it into a rolling release, but, that is probably asking for too much from a derivative distro.

So, in some ways I am happy with the new Xubuntu 13.10, but, I am just not convinced, yet, that I want to switch all of my other machines running Xubuntu 12.10 to the new release just yet. But, I guess its gotta happen … sooner than later.

I like Xubuntu 13.10. It continues to be the clean, good, simple and functional OS that most of us really want and desire. Try it, you will like it.