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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Fedora 11 to Ubuntu 9.10

I was beginning to have problems with my aging PC -- an HP Pavilion a520n. If you do a search on this machine, the consensus is clear: upgrade. I bought it in May of 2004. I've been using various versions of Linux on it ever since.

Most recently, I was running Fedora 11, which was actually pretty snazzy. It was gorgeous onscreen, and remarkably responsive. Then, suddenly, I was having all kinds of issues with my wireless connection. The reason had nothing to do with the operating system. As I determined through popping in a bunch of live CDs, the problem was the wireless card. It was dying.

So one of my friends installed a new card for me. It works great. But something about the change disabled all my cool graphics -- the nvidia resolution, the Compiz effects, all refused to function.

With a little diligence, using Google as my troubleshooting manual, I probably could have fixed it. But I admit it: I got bored. I started distro hopping. (I'd made a backup of my files before I turned in the PC for repairs. It was a weekend. I'd already raked the leaves on the front lawn. So....)

I started with Linux Mint, which looked promising. But Mint couldn't talk to my new Atheros wireless. Start over.

I went to the latest Ubuntu - 9.10. At first, all was well. It connected. But then I decided to install it while I was online. It took about an hour, which seemed excessive. On the other hand, it immediately offered to upgrade proprietary graphic drivers. At the conclusion, although things looked good enough, there were no window controls. I was back to editing the xorg.conf file. I might have fixed that, too, I bet (through System>Appearance>Visual Effects). But as I suspect may be clear, the issue was not a problem with the OS. The problem was with me. Attention Deficit Disorder.

So I backtracked to an older CD, the Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support). I got everything to work, and started off some 712 updates as I went to bed. But it still wasn't done by morning, and I couldn't help but notice that that particular CD had loaded up my system with a whole bunch of conflicting choices -- Gnome AND KDE. I like Gnome. Frankly, I really didn't want the cruft of multiple approaches. I'm a simple guy. Or so I imagine.

So before I went back to Fedora, I thought I'd give one more try to the latest Ubuntu. This time, I didn't log online before the install. This time, it took about 15 minutes. THEN I did the video upgrade (system>Administration>Hardware Drivers). And this time, it worked.

So then I spent some time installing codecs, extra software packages (Jpilot, Thunderbird, Vym, Notecase Pro, gftp, Kompozer). Hey, it keeps a boy off the streets.

Bottom line: I don't think Ubuntu is really any better than Fedora. Setting up ANY Linux distro to navigate codecs and video/audio formats is a pain. But for both key distros (Ubuntu and Fedora), it's the sort of thing you mostly just do once. Call it a couple of hours -- but less than five minutes of typing. I kind of like the idea of the new Ubuntu One program -- free online storage that promises to sync across systems.

I'm back in business. It's easier to do this stuff than it used to be. Of course, it's still more work than Windows or the Mac. On the one hand, I'm using a 5 year old computer, but absolutely cutting edge software. Most Windows or Mac users can't say that.

On the other, it took a couple of years of whacking my head against the learning curve -- not to mention, of course, lots of very hard and intelligent work by open source software developers -- to make it EASIER to wipe and install three or four distros in just 24 hour or so. And wind up with something that fulfills my modest needs.

Another observation: my little Acer Aspire has filled in quite nicely as I've waited for my "main machine" to come back home. The truth is, a little Netbook is probably better on many levels than the big honking desktop computer. Less power, less space, less weight. And as you learn after copying over megabytes of data, most of it doesn't really matter much.

At any rate, after a weekend of puttering, I'm back online with a new distro. Whoopee.

P.S. No animals were harmed in the reinstallation of this PC. On the other hand, I doubt any animals are all that happy about it, either.