6 min read

Growing linux frustration

I’ve already mentioned my linux-related laptop problems some time ago. Some things changed since then. Canonical released a new version of Ubuntu, 10.04, which in my opinion is a huge improvement over 9.10, and I got a new laptop (kindly provided by HiB), an HP EliteBook 6930p. Old problems are gone, but new have arisen.

At first it all seemed ok. I’ve installed Ubuntu 10.04 and didn’t have to tweak anything. Wireless, bluetooth, suspend/resume – all worked automagically. Except graphics.

My laptop has a built-in Intel 4500 graphics board. Most of the time it works fine, hardware acceleration and dual-display mode included. It’s also quite fast for my needs – flash videos work with no frame-dropping, HD films as well, and Quakelive works smoothly (the last one especially relevant to my research). But from time to time, completely randomly, weird annoying things happen.

First weird annoying thing is the Non Existing Display problem (which we shall henceforth refer to as NED). It goes like this: I power on the machine, the kernel boots, plymouth loads, and the GDM screen… well, it also loads, because I can hear the bongos, but it’t not visible. The thing is, GDM login window is being displayed on the NED. If I simply press enter and put my password, it will log me in, and in most cases I will see my desktop. If not, I can use Gnome-Do to evoke the display configuration panel. Once it opens, the screen usually flickers and realizes that there’s only one display connected, or, ontologically speaking, that the NED indeed does not exist (as the name clearly suggests). If it can’t realize the obvious truth immediately, it will do it after a couple of clicks in the display configuration panel. If not after a couple, then after a couple more, but anyway after some time the display works correctly. That doesn’t mean Ubuntu won’t have any doubts as to the NED’s ontological status anymore, and that’s the most annoying part.

The second weird annoying thing is the Proper Resolution Holding problem (which we shall henceforth refer to as PRH). Imagine a situation like this: you have your Emacs open and you’re working on some non-trivial piece of code. As any programmer will tell you, this requires utmost concentration. I often have situations like this, perhaps even more often than other people, because most programming problems are non-trivial for me, since I’m a bad programmer. Anyway, I have my Emacs open, and I’m thinking deeply about some problem. If I keep thinking for more than 9:59 without touching the mouse/keyboard, e.g. reading the algorithm description from a printed article, the screensaver will go on. And then boom!, the displays go crazy. Oh right, did I mention I’m using dual display configuration? I guess I didn’t, but I don’t think having an external display connected to your laptop is something fancy in 2010. Anyway, when the screensaver wants to switch on, X.Org turns the mirroring mode for my displays, and sets 1024x768 resolution on both screens. Unfortunately, the only way to solve this situation is to save any work I have, switch to a virtual console 1 with Alt+F1, execute sudo service gdm restart and hope for the best.

Display problems occur randomly while trying to change laptop screen’s brightness too. And of course after resuming from suspend, but thankfully this happens really seldom, like one in fifty suspends. When it does, however, the only way to bring your display back to work is to forcibly reboot the laptop.

There are more problems, like the silent microphone (no matter what I do it’s just too quiet for most people to hear me via voip), short battery life (i.e. much shorter than on windows), and terribly bad trackpoint/touchpad support (i.e. much worse than on windows), but these problems I could live with. The graphics related annoyances are just too much. And the worst thing is that I no longer know which graphics board should I recommend to people who want the best linux experience. Nvidia? Yes, but only with closed-source drivers, although some people claim that nouveau work well. Ati? Well, I remember both mine and Karolina’s problems with our Radeons, so that’s a no. Intel? As far as I recall everyone always told me that Intel chipset based products (graphics, wifi, ethernet) are always best for linux, but ever since the introduction of KMS-enabled drivers this is apparently no longer true. By the way, my case is nothing compared to a case of a new PhD student in our department. He’s new, so he’s got a newer laptop. Good for him? Not quite. Not a single linux distro supports his brand new Intel HD graphics.

Now the obvious question is: did I try to fix my problems? Yes and no. Yes, I’ve searched the forums, and yes, I’ve tried some solutions. None of them worked. There probably are some new tips, new kernel releases I could compile, new patches I could apply, but no – thanks, I don’t want to. I’m too old. With all my previous computers it was tuning and tweaking all the time. Thinkpad T40 needed a custom TuxOnIce-patched kernel for suspend to disk to work (suspend to ram made no sense, the battery was too old and I was loosing too much power even during suspend). Dell Latitude D430 had huge problems with newer Intel graphics drivers. There was always something I needed to tune. It’s like this joke about Lancia owners – they like tinkering with their cars in a garage, which is only a nice way of saying that their cars won’t work unless tinkered with.

I’ve been a linux user since about 1999, and during that time I’ve been using linux exclusively on all my computers. First it was SuSE 6.0 and RedHat Manhattan (was it 5.1?). Then different RedHat versions for a short while, then Slackware for a long time, then Debian, Gentoo, Arch, and finally Ubuntu, since somewhere around 2005. In fall 2010 I’ll stop using a linux-based operating system on my home computer, and I don’t mean switching to some BSD (huh, been there!). I need a second computer, so I won’t have to carry my laptop in a rucksack all the time (I moved to Fyllingsdalen and I work at HiB – everyone who knows Bergen sees the reason). It will be some Windows 7 based computer, or a product of one Cuppertino-based company.

Either way, I feel sad.

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