Sunday, 17 June 2007

Ubuntu 7.04 on an IBM ThinkPad T42

I inherited this IBM (now Lenovo) ThinkPad T42 from a previous job. It's a great machine, built according to development specs: it's got a decent processor and lots of RAM and is a good desktop replacement. I had never really changed what was installed on it so it was still running its original operating system, Windows XP Professional, and it was still setup to connect to the company's domain. I was virtually never using it, having everything I needed on my Mac and being very happy with it. However, my Mac is a desktop computer and more and more I'd like to have a laptop I can use regularly but without the pain that goes with running Windows. I thought about buying myself a MacBook but then why would I buy another computer when I have a perfectly good one doing nothing? So I decided to see if this laptop could run a decent operating system. Ideally I'd like an OpenSolaris distribution because I know Solaris very well but there are currently no really tried and tested OpenSolaris distribution and Solaris has always had weak support for laptops. So I decided to go for Ubuntu as I've heard a lot of good things about that Linux distribution. I fired my browser at the web site and got downloading.

Download

The download of the latest Ubuntu distribution, 7.04, was a breeze. The mirror I choose, Ubuntu in the UK, was fast and I had an ISO image of the Live CD very quickly. It actually felt like it took longer to burn it on CD than to download it.

Boot

Ubuntu booted from CD without complaining. It took quite a long time to start up. Luckily, a progress bars come up very quickly to tell you that it's actually doing something useful. For some reason, the start procedure starts looking for stuff on the hard disk, as I had the hard disk LED full on for a long time. It then loads from the CD before worryingly switching to a blank screen for a few seconds. Then the desktop flash screen comes up, it initialises everything and you're in. Welcome to Ubuntu.

Sound

No need to test if the sound card works: the jingle you get on login told me immediately that all was well with the sound card. I still went through a few quick tests to confirm it was all fine. And it is, no configuration needed.

Display

Ubuntu automatically identified all the screen resolution that my video card supports and set itself to use the highest possible resolution. Once again, no configuration necessary.

Network

Wireless

I then tried to connect to the internet. To do this, I tried to set up the wireless network so that it would connect via my broadband router. Unfortunately, Ubuntu only supports WEP authentication. My router is configured to use WPA-PSK. So that didn't work. Nevermind, it's no worse than Windows that couldn't connect to that network either. I'll have to try on a WEP or unprotected network but I didn't feel like re-configuring my router tonight. So I decided to see if a cable connection would work properly.

Cable

I connected the cable and... nothing. I went through the network setup dialog, checked that the interface was defined in such a way that it would use DHCP. But still no luck. I tried setting a fixed IP address and still no luck. I tried to manually bring up the network interface through the command line and still no luck. Eventually, I decided to try what would happen if I configured the connection to be a roaming one. And lo and behold! It worked! So, in Ubuntu speak, a roaming connection is one you can connect and disconnect at will and it will notice when you do that. Exactly what I need for a laptop.

Software

The pre-installed stuff

Ubuntu comes with a decent software suite installed by default, in particular it includes software like OpenOffice.org, Firefox or GIMP. It all works out of the box.

Add/Remove dialog

Now, for a newbie, that's probably the best feature of Ubuntu. Like Windows, Ubuntu has an Add/Remove dialog to manage the software that is installed on the machine. But, unlike Windows, you can choose to add new software from a list downloaded from the internet. You want a project management tool similar to Microsoft Projects? No problem, you don't have to know what it's called, just browse in the list and select it. When you're done with your virtual shopping, click Apply and Ubuntu will download and install everything. Of course this only works for the open source and free software that is in the list but looking at said list, you're unlikely to ever need anything that's not on there. Of note, there is quite a large education section, which is nice.

Of course, this being a Linux distribution, there is much more software to choose from than what's in the list of supported packages offered on the list but then you would not benefit from the simple checkbox install it offers and the list is very comprehensive anyway.

Install to hard disk

Having played with Ubuntu sufficiently to know that I wouldn't miss Windows on that laptop, I decided to install it to hard disk. So I double-clicked the install icon on the desktop. After specifying my time zone and keyboard layout, I choose to use the full hard disk and blast Windows to oblivion. A nice touch on the keyboard layout screen is the ability to type text into a box to verify that you've choose the correct layout. The installer also asks you for the details of a user account it will create. After that, it does everything on its own without requiring manual input so I had a tea break. Ubuntu was quicker in installing itself than me in drinking my cup of tea.

Once everything is installed, you need to reboot without the CD so that it boots on the hard disk. The restart is very fast and once you've entered your user name and password, loading the desktop happens in a snap.

The first thing that Ubuntu does when you log in is to check for updates. As it was a fresh install from a CD, I had 60 updates to download so I mentally prepared myself for the long haul. Fool that I was! The update was significantly faster than any OS-X update I've seen. Compared to Windows Updates that recently took 5 hours to install 70 odd updates on a friend's computer, well... there's no comparison possible, they are in a different league.

After such a large update, Ubuntu needs to reboot but there is no pressure to do so, no nagging, as you have on Windows or OS-X. I restarted anyway and this is where it became scary. The computer started to boot, then the boot process forced an fsck on the main partition, presumably because it had never been done before, and failed, triggering the system to reboot once more. At that point I was getting quite worried that the system would fall in a heap, as I have seen so many versions of Linux do in the past. Luckily my fears were unfounded and a few seconds later it was up and running.

Power management

This being a laptop, I decided to check the power management features. The options about the notification area in the General tab are a bit confusing but otherwise everything you would expect is here: when to shut things down, screen luminosity, what happens when you close the lid, etc. with different settings whether you are on mains or battery. So I set everything the way I wanted, closed the dialog and pulled the mains cable out of the laptop. As you would expect, it immediately dimmed the screen and showed the battery charge icon in the status bar. Shutting the lid put it into sleep mode as expected and it woke up without a glitch when opening the lid again, reconnected to the network without any problem and was back in service in a few seconds.

Conclusion

Installing Ubuntu on this laptop was a revelation. It reconciled me with Linux after years of aborted tries. Apart from the network, the installation was a real breeze and could be performed by anybody. It's actually more straightforward than Windows, on a par with OS-X. The live CD means you can test drive it before committing to it and because it's a Linux distribution, you can always install it with a boot loader so that it shares the computer with other operating systems, although I didn't try that.

Compared to the competition, there are two things that set Ubuntu apart. The first is the Add/Remove software dialog as described above. The second is the blisteringly fast network connection. I don't know what the difference is in the network stack but Ubuntu is a joy to use on the internet. Browsing is extremely fast, much faster than on OS-X or Windows, and that's with the same web browser (Firefox) on all 3 operating systems.

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