Yet another computer to play with

So… after 6 years of having laptops as my main computers, I suddenly decided to build myself a nice new desktop system. I’m not sure why now… but the more I thought about the projects I want to do, the more I realised they would be much easier to do on a Linux box with plenty of RAM and disk space and a reasonable amount of processing power (especially Project X-ray, Project Buster and Project Bits). I still had my old desktop machine, but it had been left unused for so long that I realised I was going to have to replace pretty much every bit of it now (new processor and RAM wouldn’t fit on the motherboard, so the motherboard was going to have to be upgraded as well, then the old IDE hard disk and DVD drive wouldn’t connect to the new motherboard so they’d have to go, the graphics card was ancient enough to be AGP rather than PCI Express, and even the power supply unit was lacking some connectors a modern machine would need). But despite all of this, I still found it would be cheaper to keep the old case and replace the guts of it than to start again.

I started with a pretty minimalist system: just a new motherboard with onboard graphics and sound, 8GB RAM, a quad core AMD CPU and a 2TB SATA hard drive. The new power supply unit was one I bought for my Dad’s old PC which then turned out not to actually be the source of his problems after all, and everything else (DVD drive, card reader, etc.) can be hooked up via USB – I might add more stuff inside the box later on.

The old case – I got this in early 1998 and it’s served me pretty well!

The new motherboard arrives, with RAM and CPU already installed. Unfortunately they’d installed the RAM in the wrong slots so only half of it was visible til I swapped it around, but that was still outweighed by not having to faff around installing the CPU and cooler myself.

I found it amazing that brand new components can fit into an almost 15 year old case and all the screw holes and connectors still line up perfectly. Almost nothing in the PC world lasts that long!

Success! Originally I’d been planning to dual boot Xubuntu Linux and Windows 7 on it, but the more I thought about it the more I realised I probably didn’t need Windows at all, so Xubuntu it was.

Although I’ve probably spent much more time using Windows overall, coming back to Linux still feels like my spiritual home, in a very geeky sort of way… like returning to your native country after years away; no matter how fluent you get in your new language, it’s never quite the same. It just feels like I understand it and am in control and find all the stuff I want to do easy, in a way that Windows never really feels, especially for coding. I love that I can install package after package in a few minutes using apt-get, and that I was able to copy and resize all the photos for this blog post in a single shell command (sure, you can install the UNIX shell on Windows too, but it doesn’t work as well, it’s not integrated deeply into the system the way it is on Linux). Not to mention no activation worries, no virus worries, and hardware that hasn’t worked for years in Windows (like my scanner) suddenly becomes usable again.

So far I am loving it. There have been very few problems apart from having to swap the RAM around, and the card reader I took out of my Dad’s old PC not working (I suspect that, like much of the hardware that’s spent a long time in his room, it’s probably died of smoking). Even though this kit would probably have hardcore gamers sniggering with derision, it still feels amazingly fast after years of using primarily Windows laptops. It has USB 3 ports so copying my files from my external drive was very fast as well. The sound quality from the built in 7.1 sound chip is much better than I expected, so I might not need to replace it after all. I’ve discovered some very nice new software (including a video editor, one of the things I was worried I might need Windows for). Although I decided not to dual boot with Windows, I did try installing Windows XP in a VirtualBox VM. This worked amazingly easily and allows me to run some old music software that hasn’t worked properly since I upgraded to Windows 7.

The only problem is, I’ve rediscovered Day Of The Tentacle after finding the CD while I was looking for something else, so my hopes of being productive on my projects may be out the window for a while.

Oh, and since you ask, yes it does have a name :). It’s called Luna. Not after any particular Luna, but I thought it sounded cool and I do quite like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter as well as the Pet Shop Boys song Luna Park. So Luna it is.

(This wasn’t actually the first blog post I’ve written on Luna. That honour belongs to the Berlin post).

Impressions of the new Ubuntu

Recently I had to re-install the OS on my little red HP Mini.

It came with Windows 7 originally, which was ok, but always felt pretty sluggish on such a small machine, even after I upgraded the RAM to the maximum of 2GB the day after buying it. I wondered if it was time to give Linux another try. I’d used it as my main desktop OS years ago, but eventually got frustrated by all the things it couldn’t do and went back to Windows XP, which seemed to Just Work in comparison. Though I kept on using it on servers at work and then on my Android phone, so I wasn’t completely out of touch with it.

I decided it was time to give it another go. After all I wasn’t going to be doing any heavy gaming on a netbook and other software seems pretty well supported by Linux these days. So I downloaded the newest version of Ubuntu, made a bootable USB key, tried it out for a while and then installed it on the hard drive.

The verdict? Very impressed, overall.

  • ¬†Hardware support is excellent. It seems to have come on leaps and bounds since I last installed Linux. Everything in the machine and everything I plugged into it works and I didn’t have to manually install a single driver. Wi-fi, a notorious weakness of Linux, just worked straight away. My little T-mobile broadband dongle, which is what I was most worried about, came up in the available networks menu as soon as I plugged it in and I was able to connect to it without any of the faffing around with a flaky, unstable driver that I had to do on Windows. It was also better than Windows in another way: my scanner, which refuses point blank to do anything on Windows Vista or 7 (even 32-bit), and which I thought I was going to have to replace, is supported as well. Yay! All the rest of the hardware – printer, webcam, sound, external drives, etc. – similarly just worked.
  • Speed is much better than on Win7. Despite the fact that Ubuntu seems to have all the fancy desktop effects like transparent windows turned on (which Windows won’t even let you attempt with such a low powered graphics card), the machine isn’t struggling anymore. Boot up, shutdown, starting applications, general web surfing are all much faster and less annoying than before.
  • All the software I wanted works fine as well. Partly this is because I’ve got in the habit of using mostly open source software even on Windows – Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, OpenOffice for documents, GNU Emacs for text editing, The GIMP for image editing (though by god I wish they’d change the name), VLC for playing music and movies, etc. – partly because other programs – Dropbox, Skype, etc. – often have pretty good Linux versions these days. I haven’t needed to fall back on trying to get Windows programs to run using Wine at all yet. The software installation and update system is much better as well. On Windows every program has its own separate installer, and often its own separate agent that runs in the background and checks for updates. This can get pretty annoying at times, especially when so many programs STILL need (or think they need) a reboot after updating. But on Ubuntu it’s all centralised – you can install new software from one place and update everything you have with a single click (hardly ever requiring a reboot).
  • Ubuntu can fully encrypt your personal files as standard. Admittedly I had to use a more advanced and complicated version of the installer in order to enable this, but it’s still better than Windows where you need to either spend a fortune on the “Ultimate” edition or install extra software (I use Truecrypt). I consider this an absolute must for laptops, especially after having had one stolen. It was a big comfort to know that even though someone had got hold of my hardware, they weren’t getting into my files unless they succeeded where the FBI failed. (Technical note: a normal Windows or Linux account password will stop someone from logging into your computer if they don’t know the password, but won’t stop them getting the files by putting the drive in another machine or booting a different operating system. Disk encryption makes the data effectively impossible to get at without the password).
  • There were some annoyances too. If you encrypt your files, hibernation doesn’t work, so you can’t suspend what you were doing to disk and resume it later. I’m kind of surprised at this and hopefully they’ll get it fixed soon. On the plus side it’s much less of a problem when boot up and shutdown are so much faster (Windows used to take an AGE to resume from hibernation on this computer, probably longer than Linux takes to boot up from scratch, so on balance I think I still prefer it this way). Also, the default GUI was a bit too weird and experimental for my liking… though thankfully it was very easy to switch back to something more traditional from the login screen.

Ubuntu effortlessly scans sheet music using the scanner that might as well be an A4-sized paperweight to Windows 7. Come on Microsoft, get your act together

So yeah. I love my netbook even more now.

(I wasn’t even planning to buy a netbook at all. When I had my old laptop stolen last year, I was feeling thoroughly fed up by the next day. Instead of spending the night at a hillwalking club social night and the morning getting useful work done as planned, I’d spent an hour shivering on the front steps waiting for a locksmith, then what seemed like countless more hours calling the police, waiting while they dusted for fingerprints, recounting exactly what happened what felt like a hundred times, and scrabbling around looking for details for the insurance company. So I needed something to cheer myself up. The next day I went straight to PC World to buy myself a shiny new replacement laptop, having decided my credit card could eat the cost until the insurance money came through.

But when the insurance money came through a couple of weeks later, it wasn’t actually money. It was Comet vouchers. Oops.

At this point any normal sane person would have phoned up Tesco insurance and said “um, look… I’ve kind of jumped the gun a bit here and I’m really sorry… these vouchers are very nice but could you possibly pay off my credit card bill instead? Pleeeeease?”. But being me I didn’t do that of course. What did I do? I shrugged my shoulders, went to Comet and came back with a flat screen TV and a netbook that I hadn’t really planned on buying. So it worked out in the end I guess).