Dante’s inferno (or the three levels of OS)

Dnte AlighieriDante had a sense of humour, even back in the 13th century. Anyone who can create such a nightmarish image and call it the Divine Comedy would have been the kind of guy who went to bed with a twinkle in his eye. But he proposed a very interesting concept about the various ‘levels’ of the Christian afterlife and how things can get progressively worse, and there’s my rather tenuous link. It’s about how depending on which OS you choose, and what your priorities are, some things just get progressively worse.

I thought about this following my ordeal with Ubuntu, and when I started wondering why I had bothered trying to install it in the first place. What was I going to do with it? I mean, really DO with it? I have a friend who is what I’d call a Linux guru. He’s built his very own ‘distro’ and arcane terminal commands flow from his fingertips whenever he’s sat at a Linux machine. Much as he’s an advocate for Linux, the GPL and all things open-source, he frequently recounts to me, horror stories about trying to get various bits of hardware to work – hardware that just springs to life under Windows.

So let’s think about my webcam, a rather neat little Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 that I bought for a modest outlay of £45 ($90) because of it’s superb picture quality and built-in microphone.

Under Windows XP SP3 it works perfectly (helped not least by the fact that Logitech, like virtually every other hardware manufacturer, supply the drivers for it on a CD in the same box). The camera has face detection and auto-zoom and is a joy to use with Skype in said OS. In fact using it is as difficult as popping in a CD and plugging the camera in.

Now we descend to the next level – Mac OS X Leopard. Again the story is reasonably good, the camera’s basic function of capturing an image and sounds via its built-in microphone are there and working. For the most part. Ok, with Skype the face detection and zoom have gone as you have to rely on a generic built-in Leopard driver, but it’s perfectly usable. Then we have programs like Evernote and MacJournal which can’t hear a thing through the camera’s mike. PhotoBooth is another – deciding whether it’s going to detect the camera based on, well… I don’t know, maybe the weather?! As for Leopard’s built-in Speech Recognition, it’s a complete non-starter.

Finally we reach Linux. You may find yourself trying to determine the camera’s device id at a command prompt and then searching for drivers courtesy of Google. If you’re lucky enough to find one, the features it supports and how are a bit of a lottery and you may have to compile (and re-compile) things and edit other system files in order to treat the world to a moving picture of your ugly mug. I appreciate that the hardware manufacturers don’t help by keeping the specs of their devices secret, but it’s a problem that unfortunately ends up firmly in the lap of the Linux user far too often, and let’s be honest – there are an awful lot of people out there who simply want to use a PC to do something creative or fun, rather than tinkering with the inner workings of its OS.

While I appreciate the community spirit of Linux and the stability and beauty of OS X Leopard, Windows has it’s place. For the millions who don’t care about the politics, about the proprietary code, about the struggle to win the minds of the computing public, about the tinkering trying to make things work, and who just want to use their PCs in peace… it’s there. Off you go. Just sorry I won’t be joining you.

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Ubuntu feels my wrath

I have a fairly modern high-spec Intel Core 2 Duo PC with 2Gb of RAM and enough hard disk space to take a family holiday in, so I thought I would give the latest incarnation of Ubuntu a chance to stretch it’s legs. Well I’ve been using openSUSE 10.x on my work laptop for some time now, and thought playing with another flavour of Linux would broaden my horizons. What follows is a lesson in how to burn a few hours of your life away in a completely unproductive manner.

I started by downloading the latest Ubuntu ‘distro’ (the Linux community love their lingo) for AMD/Intel 64-bit architectures, and burning it to CD. My PC has 3 SATA drives in it, two 500Gb ones on which XP is installed on the first, and a 640Gb one I use as a data store and backup. The plan was to install Ubuntu to the second 500Gb drive in a dual-boot setup. I say plan, because Ubuntu had other ideas! 53% into the install process it complained … Failed to copy files; faulty CD/DVD or hard disk? I repeated the exercise, this time running the optional Ubuntu media check feature which came up clean, and boosted by this message I repeated the install. Same problem. So I threw away the CD and burned it again. Repeated the media check. Ok. Restarted the install. Same problem. So my next move was to re-download the 700Mb image from a different source (not something that’s quick to do). I burned a fresh CD, same problem. I threw that CD away and burned a new one using the slowest speed setting on my CD burner. Media check ok – re-install. Same problem. So I threw that disk away, opened a fresh box of blank CDs from a different supplier and burned the original image at slow speed. Another successful media check by Ubuntu, restarted the install. Same problem. I also downloaded the i386 version and tried that. Same problem. I tried moving the partitions around during configuration. Same problem.

At this point I started searching Google for the I/O error message I was experiencing. I quickly learned from a variety of posts by hapless users that if you dare suggest it’s a fault with the Ubuntu install routine then some Linux enthusiasts (while generally helpful and fun-loving chaps) will not take kindly to you, and by that I mean they’ll set fire to your head and then jump on your grave. However I did find one or two useful pointers that might suggest the problem is down to less-than-perfect memory modules. Ahh, just so happens I have two new 1Gb modules of the correct speed/type sitting in a box, so I carefully removed both 1Gb modules from the PC and replaced them with the new ones. You know what’s coming next…. same problem!

Ok, it must be the CD burner itself, and guess what – I have a brand new SATA CD/DVD burner just waiting to be used. Trying both images, fresh CDs, slow burn speeds and successful media checks, I was no further forward. Next on the list … the hard drive. Using a bootable hard disk utility CD I checked the drive but found no errors. I even booted the machine into Windows, wiped the drive and having reformatted it to NTFS, ran checkdisk but again found no errors. Finally I loaded SpeedFan and checked all the S.M.A.R.T. diagnostics for the drive which came out as 100% healthy. Nevertheless, I pulled a 500Gb SATA drive out of an external enclosure I’d built and replaced the one I’d been using thus far. And… wait for it… SAME PROBLEM!

So, I’ve changed the image, the CDs, the burn speeds, the memory modules, the partition layouts during setup, the CD/DVD drive and the hard disk and still Ubuntu refuses to install on this PC. I consumed numerous hours of my weekend in the futile pursuit of trying to get Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04 to run on my PC. What else can I do? Well quite frankly – nothing! No-one should have to go through this much pain and effort just to load an OS. Maybe it’s some obscure BIOS setting that needs to be changed, but I’m not going there. I’m ok with OpenSuSE but I am so sick of looking at those beige Ubuntu install screens that if I so much as sniff a heron in the vicinity I’d probably shoot it! Ok… I don’t own a gun and we don’t have heron in these parts, but you get my drift.

I just wish you could install Mac OS X Leopard on a PC. No I’m not talking about bootcamp or those ‘hacked’ versions of OS X that I’m sure are very clever, I mean the proper thing… on any old (ok reasonably modern) PC hardware. But then if I was Apple, I wouldn’t be interested in making that happen. Imagine the support problems, and what the infinite variety of hardware permutations out there would do for OS X’s reliability image! We’ve got Windows for that.

Postscript – I just installed openSUSE 10.3 on my PC. Where Ubuntu choked (repeatedly!), openSUSE installed first time without any problems. Sort of defeated the object though, which was to look at a different Linux package.