Ubuntu and Back Again, a Scenic Journey

Following my blog entry on the unetbootin application, it was only logical that i review what exactly i did with the app. Since many people who have read my blog see me as a hater of freedom and an exclusively openSUSE user, i thought its about time i gave the free software community's little darling, Ubuntu, another shot. It's been a while since i've installed an OS other than openSUSE, mostly due to moving across the world and not really having a spare PC to mess around with ( since the EEE was also my wife's work PC, and the scene isn't pretty if i break it for a day ). Last time i tried a different OS must be about the same time last year ( Christmas cheer and all ), and it was Ubuntu. This time, i've experimented a bit and went through several OSes, and my results are not what some readers might expect. Even i didn't expect what happened...

I'm a software enthusiast, always looking to try something that looks interesting, free or not. As a programmer i prefer seeing source code, and my intrigue in different software often stems from wondering how it works. When people insist that something is good, then i must try it. Discovering unetbootin was an indirect result of this. People keep telling me how good Ubuntu is, so i thought i should try it on the EEE.


Knowing that there is a large EEE community, i figured that i'd try out the first EEE distro that i found, ubuntu-eee. Turns out that this uses unetbootin to get it onto a flash drive and boot ubuntu-eee. And hence my discovery of this awesome application. So i did the deed, and fired up ubuntu-eee. As you'd expect from a EEE distro, everything worked out of the box. It even had a "cute" netbook interface which made me feel like i was operating a mobile phone, but knowing that it was easy to get rid of, i proceeded to install the os ( which is really simple with Ubuntu as always ). Install was easy, everything went as expected, and i booted to the netbook interface. A few terminal lines later ( i felt right at home because apt's terminal interface isn't so different from zypper - i know apt came first don't crucify me for that ), and i had a sort of traditional Ubuntu interface. Gnome menu bar and desktop. Now i'm a KDE user, and my reasons for not using Gnome could be an entire blog post, so i need KDE installed. And not just any KDE, i want to be using at least 4.1.2 or ( preferably ) 4.2 Beta 2. Then i discovered that ubuntu-eee was based on 8.04LTS, and i needed to upgrade to 8.10 to get any decent KDE 4 support ( as per a forum post i found ). Sadly upgrading Ubuntu works only half of the time ( heard too many complaints from Ubuntu users ) and requires 1.2GB of harddrive space, which my EEE 701 can't handle. So without being able to upgrade i couldn't find a way of getting KDE 4. So i figured i'd move on to more familiar ground, and decided to check out what unetbootin could do.

openSUSE Factory:

As a normal openSUSE user who likes to have the latest software ( even unstable versions sometimes ), openSUSE Factory is a logical choice. I finally discovered the flexibility of the SUSE installer, the fact that a 20MB image can install from anywhere! A network connection is all that is required, so after using unetbootin to get the image onto the USB stick, i noted down the Factory url and rebooted. The installer started up in an old school NCurses environment and asked me for CDROM 1. Hitting cancel, i was given the option to perform a network install and all was needed was to enter the URL, and the usual graphical openSUSE installer popped up. As much as this was more complicated that from a live disk, it's rather flexible so i wasn't unimpressed. 3GB of rpm downloads later, and i had what appeared to be openSUSE 11.1. Interestingly it was labeled as openSUSE 11.2 Alpha, but at first i took no heed to this. Only when i attempted to use the great 1-Click install mechanism, did that become a problem. For some reason, it refused to register me as openSUSE Factory, and YaST wouldn't install anything from the 1-Click install site. This is a big piece of why i like openSUSE so much, and i figured that without this, i might as well be using Mandriva or Fedora ( for want of another RPM distro ). Gladly, all EEE features were working as expected. Other than that, it was kind of slow, considerably more so than the openSUSE 10.3 install i had left just 3 days before. I figured some of that was to do with KDE 4 running ( as opposed to XFCE which i had ) but none-the-less it was too slow for my daily use. I figured after a day or so, that i didn't give an Ubuntu based distro a decent chance, and since a colleague was saying that my experience of Ubuntu was poor because it was ubuntu-eee, i thought i should keep up the experiment.

Kubuntu 8.10:

So i got the next distro and booted it up. As per usual, Kubuntu came as a live distro, with option to install, so i jumped right in. After the painless install process, i booted into a clean Kubuntu install for the first time. There were two things that i noticed instantly. Firstly, there were updates available. Secondly, my wifi driver wasn't working and i had no internet access. So how exactly did it know about the updates? I'm still debating the ways in which this might have occured but haven't yet thought up a reasonable answer. Maybe it should have been called Omnipotent Ibex. So i pulled out a lan cable, fired up konqueror and did some browsing. It turns out that even though 8.10 claims that the EEE 701 wifi card is in the driver list ( in use and working ), it isn't. Many posts are in forums about this, and there is no official kernel support for this card. There is however a EEE kernel which i proceeded to install following a few command line tricks. It was at this point i really missed the 1-Click install, since i prefer as little command line interaction as possible. So after a reboot, everything was working ( and i put that lan cable away ). So now to get some software. The Adept software manager was the only software installer available, so i played around for a while and wasn't too impressed. I needed finer control of the packages i wanted, and i remembered that Synaptic package manager should be here somewhere. Oddly i had to install it! This is really odd for me, because even OpenOffice was installed, which should never be on the EEE 701. Given that, i installed Synaptic and removed Oo, and then continued setting up all my usual stuff, gimp, abiword and others. One thing that did impress me was that since the install, compositing had been running perfectly ( thanks KWin ), and really smoothly too. Being somewhat impressed i kept playing around for a while, but couldn't help feeling that it was still not much faster than openSUSE, even without Compositing. Boot time was still long, and as with every distro i've tried on either of the ( widescreen ) laptops, boot process still spams text ( in Kubuntu's case, it starts with a graphical logo and then returns to a full text boot ). Feeling somehwat ok with Kubuntu, i only have a few complaints. Firstly, there is no centralized system admin tools, and knowing that only Mandriva and SUSE focus on this, i'm ok to accept it if decent admin tools are provided. With Kubuntu this was borderline, but still ok. It's enough for most users, and i could see why people would be more than happy to accept this given that their hardware all worked perfectly with the OS. I really dislike the Synaptic package manager, as it it somewhat difficult to tweak the installed packages to a point where there is minimal disk usage, but everything still works. Some packages won't deselect no matter what, and i feel that i need more control over my system. Overall though it felt good, if not a little to slow. Yes, i am giving Kubuntu an thumbs up! There is also something about Ubuntu, which is my main reason for not using it, that it feels very raw. It's hard to describe, but i've always thought of Ubuntu as feeling like someone might imagine a community distro. There's something rough about it, like a bunch of people hacked together some tools and gave it a name. Maybe it's because i have very little Debian experience, and that is just the feel of Debian, but i like things to feel like they are products, not progressions. This aside, i could live with Kubuntu, and so, i decided to download some Live ISO's ( onto an external HDD ) and try out unetbootin's set up from ISO feature. And then i met Fedora 10.

Fedora 10:

At first booting the live distro with no intention to install, something struck me. There was no streaming text on boot. It seems that if Fedora cannot find a resolution for boot, it does an NCurses style loading bar which still looks impressive given i've been staring at scrolling text for the last year. A small thing, but still a nice little bit of polish. KDE 4.1.3 starts up, and i notice immediately that it feels just like what i'm used to, on the other laptop! The speed was incredible. Granted, the compositing was disabled, it felt ridiculously fast. I also realised that the wireless networking was working perfectly and somehow seemed to connect quicker than i've ever seen network manager connect. This wasn't just perception, and i think there is some preloading trick somewhere, or maybe i'm just used to bad drivers. It seems like a Fedora KDE live cd, is really a KDE cd! There was no OpenOffice ( for that i'm grateful ), and KOffice was installed by default. There was almost nothing non-KDE or non-Fedora, which was interesting, because even ubuntu using some Gnome stuff on Kubuntu. I also noticed that they had backported panel hiding to plasma, which was a pleasant surprise ( given on Kubuntu i was used to having the panel on the left ). Menu icon was themed ( unlike Kubuntu ) and overall it felt really well put together. The Fedora themes are also beautiful, and i must admit that i've always disliked the default color scheme of Ubuntu and openSUSE always overdoes the green, so the blue of Fedora 10 is a rather nice change. Given that i was rather taken aback by a distro i've never given more than 20 minutes to, i figured i'd install it knowing that i could always go back to Kubuntu. The install was the simplest yet, even  easier than Kubuntu's which really impressed me. Simple process, done, and after a reboot, i had a Fedora 10 EEE. Again the boot process was covered up by the nice loading bar. Desktop speed was even faster installed, to be expected, and overall a great feel. Trying to install software wasn't as simple as on Kubuntu, given that the software installer is the rather new KPackageKit, but once i was used to it, it was relatively impressive. It still needs some work, but i have a lot of faith in the KDE team, so i'm willing to keep using it. One issue, for example, was that it wouldn't install a non-trusted RPM, so i was forced to do a command line install. Seems this is a known issue and i think it has to do with PolicyKit. On that note, Fedora has a really nice Authorizations dialog, allowing you to set things like that and grant the user whatever permissions are needed Generally the tools were just enough for my EEE, and the OS was the fastest so far. As far as KDE use goes, they did really well, by far better than Kubuntu and openSUSE. Although i miss YaST, Fedora makes me feel comfortable enough to not need it. I decided to try one more Live distro, Mandriva 2009.0, but that failed on boot, although i won't deny being slightly relieved that i didn't have to relinquish Fedora.

The result really surprised me in the end, but i have to say that Fedora is the best distro i've put on the EEE so far! The perfect tradeoff between speed and beauty ( with KDE 4.1 ), they have really done a fantastic job of making sure that the core elements are provided without losing any performance. I still need to retry Mandriva and openSUSE 11.1 ( not that factory nonsense ) to be fair, but i'm not convinced that they will be able to dethrone Fedora.


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