October 27th, 2009

Ubuntu to Vista and Back Again

Happy Halloween everyone! I’ve been writing this blog post for about a week now, continually adding to it as I acquire new information. At the moment, I have some work to do, but am waiting for Oracle XE to finish downloading, and so I’m going to try to finish this blog post before I feel obliged to resume being productive.

I’ll split this post up into a few parts. I’ve been having operating system trouble, which has been ongoing. This may be interesting to others, so I thought I’d share it.

Leaving Ubuntu 9.04

I’ve been using Ubuntu as my primary OS since 2006, when I switched from Windows XP. In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to install Ubuntu on a lot of different hardware, but I’ve used a Dell Inspiron 1300 laptop as my main machine. In August, the laptop finally died a slow, lingering death due to hardware failure, and so I bought a new laptop, an HP Touchsmart tx2-1000. In addition to having pretty good specs, this machine has the distinction of being what HP calls the first consumer laptop with a multi-touch display. I chose this particular machine because it was on sale and offered extraordinary value for the price, and because I believe that the multi-touch display will prove very useful and interesting for my research into UI.

I put Ubuntu 9.04 on the new computer the very first night I received it. I was pretty impatient, and didn’t even attempt to create Windows Vista restore disks. I intended to make a dual-boot, but didn’t defragment the hard drive before installing, and so the Ubuntu installer failed to resize the Vista partition, and ended up hosing it. The restore partition was still intact, though.

Unfortunately, Ubuntu 9.04 did provide a very good experience on this hardware. Audio playback worked alright, even if it was somewhat suboptimal. Headphone jack sensing didn’t work,a nd so it was necessary to manually mute the front speakers through the mixer. Most importantly, I could never get the microphone to work. Linux is such am ess right now that it’s hard to say where the fault lies when something isn’t working. For example, when Ekiga fails to make a voice call, it could be Ekiga failing to communicated with Pulseaudio via the Pulseaudio alsa plugin, Pulseaudio failing to talk to alsa, or alsa failing to properly communicate with my hardware. VOIP is critical to everything that I do on a day-to-day basis. I need it to work, and so I tried many different things in order to make it work: I tried different voip clients (Skype 2.0, Skype 2.1, and Ekiga), I tried stripping out Pulseaudio and using ALSA directly, I messed around with ALSA, and then I swapped out the stack entirely and used OSSv4. This was as painful as it sounds, and I was unable to converge to a resonable result.

The screen worked well as a tablet (using the pen, not fingers) out of the box, which was nice, but the requirements to get the touchscreen working were nontrivial. When presented with clear instructions, I’m very comfortable patching and compiling my own kernel. Unfortunately, the instructions are still evolving. The end result was, I spent a few hours working on this, broke tablet support, and then gave up. I might have tried again, but I’ve been exceptionally busy.

I had some trouble with suspend/resume, in that it would occasionally suspend and then be unable to resume. The screen would simply be black; no X, no backlight, nothing to do but reboot.

Finally, while the open source radeon driver worked very well with my graphics card, and provided a very solid experience, I really wanted to use Compiz, and the proprietary driver, which enabled 3D graphics on my hardware, turned out to be rather sketchy. Once again, I treid many permutations, but was unable to converge on something that I felt was solid and reliable.

After all this, for the first time in 3 years, I decided it might be better for me to switch back to Windows. If this were Windows XP, this might have been a good decision. Unfortunately, Windows Vista was far worse than I had anticipated.

Reinstallation of Windows Vista

Reinstallation of Windows Vista was nontrivial, and I’ll only say a few words about it, as the procedure was not very difficult, but was nontrivial to discover. I had not created Vista restore disks, and I didn’t have a a true Windows repair disk. Fortunately, when installing Ubuntu, the installer is clever enough to detect the restore partition as a separate Vista install. I was then able to boot into the restore partition using grub. Unfortunately, the HP restore tools were unable to restore Vista with Ubuntu on that partition. The solution was to use the windows cmd shell provided by the restore partition to:

  1. restore the MBR to use the Windows NT bootloader,
  2. delete the Ubuntu partition, and
  3. initiate system restore

I discovered the details of how to do this by reading this post on Ubuntu forums, which proved to be a critical resource in this process.

Trying to Construct a Linux-flavored Userland in Vista x64

I was fairly optimistic about transitioning to Windows. I know that there are a lot of FLOSS projects that would help ease the transition. There are some basic tools that I need readily at hand in my OS in order to be comfortable there: GNU screen, bash, vim, a unix-like shell environment, and X11.

At the top of my list was Portable Ubuntu. Portable Ubuntu looks like quite a nice piece of work: it uses coLinux to run the Linux kernel as a process inside of Windows; it the uses the Windows port of Pulseaudio, and Xming, an XServer port for Windows. The effect of this is that you get the full Ubuntu Linux userland, running full-speed, with simialr memory consumption, and exellent integration into the Windows shell. Windows kernel, with all of the hardware support, and Ubuntu userland, sounds like a pretty attractive ideal combination.

Unfortunately, this didn’t work, for two reasons. First, because coLinux doesn’t work on 64-bit versions of Windows in general. Second, because Windows Vista 64-bit does not allow the installation of drivers that are not signed by Microsoft. This basically means that coLinux is full-out for me.

I next tried Ubuntu running in a Virtual Machine inside of VirtualBox. This is pretty wasteful for just an X server and a shell, but whatever, my machine has a nice fast processor and lots of RAM. Unfortunately, this did not provide very good integration with the Windows shell, even with seemless mode, and soon proved annoying to use. I may revisit it at some point, but I decided to look into a Windows-native solution that would provide better integration.

I then tried Cygwin, which attempts to create a unix subsystem in windows. Cygwin would give me X11, Xterm, bash, screen, vim, and pretty much everything else I require.

Unfortunately, Cygwin has its own problems. Specifically, Cygwin attempts to be POSIX-compliant, and the way it encodes Unix filesystem permissions on NTFS, while totally innocuous in Windows XP, seems to conflict with Windows Vista’s User Access Controls. This is not something that the Cygwin developers seem to have have any interesting in fixing. The result of this is you get files that are extermely move and copy, and very difficult to delete using the Windows shell. So Cygwin was not an effective solution for me.

I finally tried one last thing, a combination of tools: Xming, MSYS, MINGW, and GNUwin32. MSYS and MinGW appear to be mostly intended for allowing easier porting of software written for a unix environment to Windows, however MSYS provides a very productive unix-flavored shell environment inside of Windows. GNUwin32 ports many familiar GNU tools to Windows, so I have a fairly rich userland: rxvt as a terminal emulator, vim, bash, and a unix-flavored environment. This is not ideal, as it is not easily extensible, and doesn’t support any concept of packages, but it seems it’s the best I can do on Windows Vista x64.

A Very Late Review of Windows Vista

Let me start with the things that I like about Vista.

When I develop software, I primarily target the web as a platform, and so I like the fact that I can install a very wide range of browsers for testing: IE 6, 7, and 8 (Microsoft publishes free Virtual PC images for testing different versions of IE), Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Opera. It’s very convenient not to have to fire up a VM for testing.

Hardware support is top-notch. The audio and video stack feel polished and mature. I’ve never had an instance of them failing. And, all of my special hardware works, including the multi-touch touchscreen, and pressure-sensitive pen.

Now for the bad stuff. I want to keep this very brief, because it’s no longer interesting to complain about how bad Vista is… But it is so bad, it is virtually unusable, and I want to make it clear why:

  1. I seem to get an endless stream of popups from the OS asking if I really want to do the things I ask it to do. This transition is visually jarring, and very annoying.
  2. It maints the behaviour that it had back in Windows 95, where if a file is opened by some application and you attempt to move it, it will fail without meaningful feedback. This can be overcome with File Unlocker, but it’s crazy that this simple usability issue has never been addressed.
  3. File operations are so slow as to be unusable.
  4. Before attempting to move a file with Windows Explorer, it attempts to count every single file you’re going to move before it attempts to move it. This makes no sense to me at all, because moving a file in NTFS, I believe is just a matter of changing a pointer in the parent. If you use the Windows cmd shell, with the “move” operation, or Cygwin/MSYS’s “mv” operation, then the move takes place instantaneously. It does not attempt to count every file before moving the parent directory. So, this really is just a windows shell issue. It has nothing to do with the underlying filesystem. So, as bad a user experience as moving files using Windows Explorer is, it’s much much worse when you discover that it’s completely unnecessary.
  5. Out of the box, my disk would thrash constantly, even when wasn’t doing anything. I eventually turned off Windows Defender, Windows Search, and the Indexer service, and things have gotten better.
  6. It takes about 2 minutes to boot, and then another 5 minutes before it is at all usable, as it loads all of the crapware at boot. I’ve gone through msconfig and disable a lot of the crapware preinstalled by HP, and this has gotten somewhat better, but out of the box it was just atrocious.
  7. Windows Explorer will sometimes go berserk and start pegging my CPU.
  8. Overall it just feels incredibly, horribly slow. I feel like it cannot keep up with the flow of my thoughts, or my simple needs for performance and responsiveness. It does not offer a good user experience.
  9. Only drivers signed by Microsoft allowed on 64-bit Vista. This is a huge WTF.

All in all, Vista sucks and I hate it. Maybe Windows 7 will be better. Right now, though, a real alternative is necessary, because Vista offers such a poor experience that it is simply not usable for me. I had forgotten what it was like to want to do physical violence to my computer. No longer.

Really, at this point I feel like I should have gotten a Mac.

Last Word: the Karmic Koala

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala came out this past Thursday, and I just tried it out using a live USB. I’m happy to say that it sucks significantly less on my hardware than 9.04! In particular, audio now seems to work flawlessly: playback through speakers, headphones, and headphone jack sensing all work fine; recording through the mic jack works out of the box. I didn’t try Skype, but the new messaging application shipped with Ubuntu, Empathy, is able to do voice and video chat with Google Chat clients using the XMPP protocol.

I had mixed success with Empathy. It wouldn’t work at all with video chat; I think this had to do with an issue involving my webcam, as Cheese and Ekiga also had trouble using it. With regard to pure audio chat, it worked fine in one case, but in another it crashed the other user’s Google Chat client. Yikes. So, clearly there are still some bugs that need to be worked out with respect to the client software.

I now feel much more optimistic about the state of the Linux audio stack. I wasn’t really sure that the ALSA/Pulseaudio stack was converging on something that would eventually be stable and functional enough to rival the proprietary stacks on Windows and Mac OS X. The improvements I have seen on my hardware, though, are very encouraging, and so I think I may go back to Ubuntu after all. At the very least, I’m going to hook up a dual boot.

Wow, that was long post! I hope parts of it might be generally interesting to other who may be ina similar situation. In the future, though, I’m going to try to focus more on software development issues.

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