Thursday, December 26, 2013

Linux Rant

So... I am suffering some Linux frustrations. Yeah... I know... what about Linux isn't frustrating, right?

But I am going to get this off my chest. If you don't care, the internet is full of alternatives. Go find one now. If you're a geek and think you can help, read on.

1) Ubuntu's Unity UI sucks.  No, really. It stinks.

I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS because I want a Long Term Support version. I don't want to upgrade my OS twice a year... I do not need that level of sys-admin pain. And I know Ubuntu 12.04 is over 18 months old, so maybe there are improvements to the Unity UI that I haven't seen. But, frankly, what I have now sucks.

I run a dual headed system with monitors of different sizes. You have no idea how often things get wonky when I simply move a window from one monitor to the other. Sometimes it disappears off to some other workspace and I have to go hunting for it. Sometimes the mouse winds up many inches from the window I am moving, making additional manipulation and positioning "interesting. And sometimes the window winds up with the title bar and menus completely invisible. None of these things are crippling, but they are all irritating. Very irritating.

And then there's Dash, a mystery thing that pops up whenever I accidentally hit the "Windows" key to let me search (I guess) for things on my system. It's not exactly intuitive, and - apparently - in later versions of Unity it winds up sending ostensibly private search terms to places like Yay! (That was sarcasm... in case it wasn't obvious. I do not want my desktop search terms sent to Amazon, and I have no clue why anyone at Canonical thinks that is a good idea.) I have yet to figure out why Dash is a good thing. So far it's just an irritant.

Another problem with Unity is the loss of focus-follows-mouse and the corresponding ability to leave a window that has the focus in the background. I love focus-follows-mouse. Just move the mouse over a different window and it gets whatever you type. Easy. And that window doesn't have to come to the front and obscure everything else. Nice and simple. But Unity doesn't give me that, so it sucks. By definition.

I guess Ubuntu wanted to create Unity so they could unify the world: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones could all run the same user interface. Screw that! I don't want my smartphone to have the same UI as my desktop computer. Know why? Because I don't do the same things on those devices. Any idiot can see that is the case. Sure, sometimes I do similar things, but I don't make phone calls on my desktop (I don't even Skype) and I don't watch YouTube on my phone. (Who wants to pay for the bandwidth for that? Are they nuts, or just happy to shovel buckets of money to a smarmy telco?) To me, the idea of a unified, cross device UI was dead before it was ever implemented.

I limp along with Unity because, frankly, I am afraid to change it. I have seen some things about how I could get Gnome to run instead, and maybe I will try it, but only when I have a backup system running that I can use in case my main system dies in the process. I have an ancient laptop that I should be able to live - or test - on, but therein lies another story...

2) Ubuntu is phasing out support for older CPUs.  I cannot install Ubuntu 12.04 on my Dell Inspiron 8600. It's got a Pentium M chip in it that lacks something called the "PAE flag", and later Ubuntu distributions have stopped booting on those older chips.

Let's stop and ponder that for a moment: the OS that claims to run well on older hardware (as compared with Windows) is going away from supporting, um, older hardware. No, honestly. Wait... what?

This laptop is perfectly good for 99.99% of what I need to do on a computer, but Ubuntu's last 3 or 4 releases won't install on it.  Oddly, I think you can upgrade an older version of Ubuntu to a newer one and it will still boot, but you cannot get their base distribution to install from scratch. I am not making this up.

What sort of idiot at Canonical makes these decisions? Honestly? How do you get an OS to take off and get people to use it if they cannot try it on an older machine first?

3) As an alternative I am looking at Linux Mint. In fact, I have version 13 of Mint installed on that laptop, and it boots, despite being Ubuntu based. But it's not that simple. (It's never that simple.) What UI should I chose with Linux Mint? I installed one running something called "xfce", but I could also have chosen "Cinnamon" or "Mate". None of those is Gnome. None is KDE either. And all their user experiences are a bit different. Gah! Xfce is OK, I guess, but I liked Gnome and it isn't Gnome. Maybe I should have tried Mate, but at the time I was poking at this there wasn't good information about what Mate was, nor why I would want it. The same is true of Cinnamon now. Why on earth would I want that? No clue.

I just need something that works. How hard can it be?

Well, as if to answer that question, today I pulled out the laptop and updated Mint. I am trying to figure out what to install on my wife's similarly ancient laptop, and we know it cannot be Ubuntu 12.04, so I figured I would update Mint and refresh my memory about it. And it does (happily) turn out that Mint 13 is an LTS version, supported for another 2 or 3 years, which is good. But when I ran the update tool I got errors about it being unable to resolve certain domain names... domains that it needs to get certain package lists. Huh?

OK, maybe, some machine is down. And maybe no one has fixed it because it is the day after Christmas. And maybe I can try again in a day or two and it will work. Maybe. But I don't know. Lots of stuff did update, but not everything, and I don't have a clue how badly off things are. If there is a problem with Mint 13 that is more than a sick server, though, I certainly don't want to install it on my wife's laptop.

And don't get me started on printing and scanning. My wife tried to print to our color laser printer the other day and it came out monochrome. I had to get a copy of the file from her and print it from my machine to get it to print in color. Her laptop thinks our Xerox color laser printer isn't color.

I suppose we could buy new laptop computers and install a more recent version of Linux on them, but which one? And do I really want to do that if I then have to upgrade the OS when it goes out of support in less than a year? Or should I install Ubuntu 12.04 and risk getting Gnome to work on it? And just how good will that experience be? I was hoping to test that on my ancient laptop, but I cannot get there easily.

Maybe if I install Ubuntu 10.x which will run on the laptop, then upgrade to Ubuntu 12.04, and then install the Gnome system... simple! (Sarcasm again. But maybe my only real choice.)

I hear some of you... Why not just go with Windows? Or a Mac?

Suffice it to say I have my reasons.

I wouldn't trust a Windows machine with anything where security matters, and I gave Steve Jobs money a few times and he only let me down. Windows machines are great if you want to suffer with virus attacks every 15 seconds. And Macs are fine if you're doing exactly what the geeks at Apple thought you would be doing, but if you ever try to do anything else, you're screwed. (And yes, I have examples. You don't want to know.)

So for the moment I guess it's Linux. Unless I want to install Plan 9... now there's an idea!