A weblog about engineering and home brewing

A new laptop and a move to Linux

5 May 2012

A new laptop

I’ve been using Windows XP Professional since about 2003, originally on a laptop with 512MB RAM and for the last few years on a laptop with 1GB RAM; recently upgraded to 2GB.  I have been reasonably happy with it to be fair and especially happy when Vista came along and I saw others complaining.  In the last year or two I’ve had more customers asking me to write programs that will run on Win7 and some of them specifically asking for 64bit versions so I’ve periodically had to gain access to a Win7 machine for software testing.  This year I decided to upgrade my laptop and go for an i5 processor with 8GB RAM. It was advertised as 4GB but an optional 4GB RAM upgrade was available for just £20 extra so I thought it would be silly not to go for it.

Moving to Linux

For some years I have played around with Linux “Ubuntu” both server and desktop editions.  I use the Linux based EMC2 program as my CNC controller on my Denford milling machine.  Although sadly none of my customers have yet asked me to write a linux version of software for them, I am a big fan of open source software and for some time I have really wanted to start to migrate so that I use Linux as my main operating system. My new laptop came with Win7 installed so I could reasonably easily dual boot with a flavour of Linux and drop back to Win7 if required although my intention was to install an XP image inside a VirtualBox environment running on Linux.

Linux Desktops – too much choice?!

I know I shouldn’t complain but things got confusing…  I would have just gone for Ubuntu but from my previous experience, I knew I was not a fan of the Ubuntu Unity desktop and was pretty confident therefore that I would not like the Gnome3 desktop interface either.

Apart from the standard Ubuntu distribution, there are derivatives that use Ubuntu as their foundation.

  • Xubuntu – Ubuntu with the XFCE desktop environment
  • Ubuntu Studio – Designed for multimedia editing and creation
  • Mythbuntu – Designed for creating a home theatre PC with MythTV
  • Kubuntu – Ubuntu with the KDE Desktop
  • Edubuntu – Ubuntu for education
  • Lubuntu – Ubuntu that uses LXDE

There are also numerous other distributions based on Ubuntu – too many to list all here so just a couple:

  • LinuxMint – with MATE or Cinnamon desktops
  • ZorinOS – Gnome2 but configurable to appear like WinXP Window7

I was advised to try a KDE Live CD which I did.  Although I liked the interface better than Unity, It felt quite unfamiliar to me and I was unconvinced.

After spending an entire evening watching YouTube videos on various Ubuntu derivatives, I finally found a derivative that thought I liked; ZorinOS.

ZorinOS 5 is currently based on Ubuntu 11.04 and it uses the Gnome2 interface. It seems to be aimed at Windows users who are migrating to Linux. The desktop is highly configurable and has a facility to change the appearance to look and operate like WinXP or Windows 7.

I downloaded the ZorinOS live CD but I had a lot of trouble getting the network configured initially; after I had booted the live CD and entered my WiFi password it simply would not connect despite showing all the signs of trying to connect.  I also tried connecting via the wired LAN connection but again that would not connect.  My XP machine was happily working on WiFi and when I rebooted my new laptop into Win7, that connected on WiFi so I knew it was unlikely to be a hardware problem – it therefore looked like a problem with ZorinOS.  Out of desperation I unplugged my router in the end and when I plugged it back in all was well – no idea why though.

After that I continued to install ZorinOS and then experimented switching between Win7, WinXP and Gnome2 desktops (changing is easy – you just have to select it in the “Zorin Look Changer” then log out and back in). The default look is Win7 so I played with that first. It definitely feels familiar to someone used to the Windows interfaces. I then switched to WinXP expecting to prefer it but I actually found myself thinking it was a bit dated. I then tried Gnome2 and actually I think I might prefer that to the others…

I did a bit of reading on the ZorinOS forums and found out that they are planning to develop their own desktop offering in Zorin 6 so that they can keep the same look options but it will be based on Gnome3 (so probably like Cinnamon??).

Having realised that I quite liked Gnome2, probably because I am reasonably familiar with it from my previous Ubuntu experimentation, I decided I should definitely try LinuxMint so I downloaded a live CD for that next.

LinuxMint

LinuxMint seems to have at least two desktops – MATE and Cinnamon.

MATE aims to replace and replicate Gnome2. Cinnamon aims to move on from Gnome2.

Both MATE and Cinnamon sit on top of Gnome3 as does Unity and in fact they are basically the interface that you see. GNOME Shell also sits on top of Gnome3.

LinuxMint starts by default with a Gnome3 desktop with MGSE extensions.  As an experiment I tried disabling the extensions so it reverted to pure Gnome3 – not pleasing to me.  I can understand the desire to develop desktops which work better with touch interfaces but fail to see why the designers think that style will also suit a traditional desktop user; it seems to take more movements and actions to achieve the desired result.

I then tried switching to MATE.  A MATE menu appears at the bottom left although it still seems possible to use the Gnome3 interface at the same time.  MATE is supposed to be a direct replacement for Gnome2.  It definitely has a Gnome2 feel to it but I’m not convinced.  Upon clicking on the menu button, a menu appears with Applications etc.  If you click on Application for example, a second menu appears with the program shortcuts however instead of these being in a menu that is sized to contain them all, there are a fixed number visible and it is necessary to scroll down to get to the hidden ones; again this seems to increase the time required to achieve the desired result.

I’d have liked to try Cinnamon on a live CD but couldn’t seem to find that available.

Xubuntu

Not very impressed with the LinuxMint interface, I finally got around to trying an Xubuntu live CD.  I was very impressed with the look and feel of the Xfce desktop and menus etc.  My enthusiasm was initially dampened when I couldn’t seem to get the touchpad to work.  I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what the problem.  The OS provided options for the touchpad so it seemed to know it was there but it still didn’t work.  Eventually I realised by chance that it is possible on this new laptop to switch off the touchpad input using the Fn+F5 keys (red faced to say the least).

Despite feeling immensely stupid, I’m very pleased to know that it is possible because sometimes I used to accidentally move the caret on my old laptop if my palm touched the pad while typing.

With my enthusiasm in Xubuntu restored, I realised I had to make a decision between ZorinOS and Xubuntu…

My thoughts went along the lines of:

ZorinOS

  • Pro – Can select Win7 or WinXP if I wanted to although I’d already decided I preferred Gnome anyway.
  • Con – Based on a Ubuntu 11.04 with the Gnome2 interface – the plan for ZorinOS 6 is to be based on 12.04 and Gnome3 with a custom desktop in a similar way that Cinnamon is a custom desktop on top Gnome3.

Xubuntu

  • Pro – Fully up to date based on Ubuntu 12.04. Future development of Xfce is destined to be along the same lines; definitely not moving to Gnome3.
  • Con – Can’t get the Win7 or WinXP look.

I decided to go with Xubuntu and Xfce.  I therefore had to install Xubuntu but first I wanted to rid the machine of ZorinOS so there was no room for confusion.  I therefore booted the Xubuntu live CD again and deleted the entire contents of the “sda” Linux partition before hitting the Install Xubuntu desktop icon.  A short while later and the installation was completed.

A week on and I am very pleased with my choice; Xubuntu suits me.

Leave a Reply