The New Year Linux Resolution: Switching to Linux for a Week
The plan: Ring in the new year by switching over to Linux for a week, documenting each day of the transition.
Day One, Research and Installation.
My impressions of the Linux operating system are coloured by memories of the first time my computer-whiz friend unveiled his sort-of-new copy of Redhat Linux to me. Check this out! he said. This OS doesn’t suck like everything Microsoft makes! It came in an over-sized jewel case with 4 CDs, handed down second-hand from another computer-whiz friend who recommended we try it.
Upon installing it we were greeted with an unceremonious command console that might as well have been written in the ancient tongue of the long-dead tribe of Gnitth Shhta Star-God worshippers. We had no idea what to do, and it was exciting. Linux had that combination of sparseness, functionality and seriousness that gave it the feel of being a real operating system, unlike that flighty Windows 95. In short, Linux seemed cool.
But that was my first and last encounter with Linux. In the ten or fifteen years since that first Linux install other operating systems have shown up, like XP and OSX, that have mostly pulled my attention away from Linux. Now my impression of Linux is bundled up with old memories of screwing around with the config.sys file on my DOS computer in order to allocate enough virtual memory to get Ultima running. In short, Linux to me has always been synonymous with “command console,” and although command consoles may work well, they definitely aren’t easy to use.
All these year later, now that those newer and simpler operating systems are available, I find myself wondering: why use Linux at all? Why go through all the trouble of installing an operating system that’s difficult to use, when almost everyone has a perfectly fine operating system already installed on their PC? I’ve never seen the reason to make the switch.
But I’ve also heard all the reports about how Linux is different nowadays. It’s easy to use! they say. It’s even easy to install, and it’s way more stable than Windows! they insist. It’s not like the old days; Linux has changed, man! Just give a try, all the cool and smart and handsome people are using it! Linux still has that indie cred that I experienced all those years ago that makes it seem just a little bit more elite than its competitors, and power-nerds everywhere seem to be cajoling me into trying it.
Lucky for them I have an incredibly weak will. So I’ve decided to give in to peer pressure, light me up some Linux, and trip my way through the alternative operating system carnival in the sky.
Step one is to research what Linux has to offer nowadays. I know absolutely nothing about it, other than the fact that it is associated with penguins and guys with crazy beards, and that I remember it having all the subtlety and ease of use of a sledgehammer to the patience-center of your brain. But my plan is that I shouldn’t really need to know much of anything about it; if all the reports are true, and Linux is no longer the battleaxe it used to be, I should be able to head out and find the most user-friendly version of Linux on the market, pop it in and get all Linuxed up.
So where to start? From what I remember there are at least two or three version of Linux, so I’ll need to narrow down my choices. Unfortunately, my google search for linux os that doesn’t suck doesn’t turn anything up, so I’ll have to turn to the Internet user’s best friend: Wikipedia. A quick Wiki search reveals that there is actually a few more than two or three Linux builds; in reality there is roughly 158,000 million types of Linux, each of them named after a different type of hat.
Ten-gallon Linux sounded a bit old-fashioned, and Beret Linux really looked too pretentious, so I made my choice to try the decidedly un-hat-like Ubuntu on for size.
At the Ubuntu site I found a cute logo that looks kind of like a red, yellow and orange gun barrel pointing at my eyes. Later on, while eating my lunch, I would realize that it was actually representative of three people holding hands, presumably to keep each other from running away to a Mac or XP operating system.
My goal is to do this as painlessly as possible, so I hurriedly look for a copy of the OS and blissfully ignore anything that looks like a guide or set of instructions. I find a download location, and it turns out that downloading things is pretty easy. (You click on the button that says download.) So that’s one point for Ubuntu; good job on making use of basic http protocol, Ubuntu!
The file downloads quite quickly given its size, and a little bit later I’m ready to go. The file is an .iso, so I burn it to a CD, pop it into my drive and reboot.
I’m greeted by a colourful and clear menu, which gives me a series of options for installing. One of them is to try Ubuntu without installing, which is a clever idea for the creators to include, but I decide not to opt for it; my plan is to install Linux as an alternative to Windows and use it consistently, so there’s no point in trying it just yet when I will presumably have it installed in its entirety soon.
So I opt for the full install option. Since I want to keep Windows intact, because it has all kinds of Windowsy things I need, I am going to install Ubuntu on an external hard drive, which I’ve already connected to my computer. Next I select the full install option, after which I am greeted with an earthy-looking background and am serenaded with a truly bitching drum solo. I figure this will probably take a while, so I leave the room to marinate a steak for supper (with garlic, onion and horseradish if you must know.)
As I return I realize I’m actually pretty excited to get this thing installed and try it out. Gleefully I hop into my room to find… it’s locked up. The mouse won’t respond and the screen is stuck in a desktop with a beige background.
So much for the simple install. With the latest development I abandon my bull-headed approach and decide to get some help. Luckily the support forums on Ubuntu’s site have a thread that looks like it addresses my problem. According to the forums it looks like I have to press F4 at the install menu and enter graphic safe-mode; either that or do something with an alternative install CD that I really don’t want to deal with.
I heed the advice about the safe-mode, the installer doesn’t lock up this time and I’m grooving to sick bongo beats once again. I follow the dialogue box, select what I think is my external hard-drive to install on, enter some more basic information, experience a moment of powerful apprehension and potent dread that I might have picked the wrong drive to install on and might end up screwing up my Windows drive, press back a whole bunch, then finally build up the guts to go through with it.
The install process takes about half an hour, during which time I cook up my well-marinated steak (it was delicious, thank you.) I restart my computer and I’m feeling that excitement and wonderment again that I felt all those years ago in those heady days when me and my buddy first experimented with alternative installs. Then my computer starts to boot and… it locks up.
Damn, I think, Something must have gone wrong with the install, which I did on my external hard-drive so that it would be completely separate from my Windows hard-drive so I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.
Disappointed that I’ve run into another road-block and won’t get to use Linux just yet, I unplug my external hard-drive so I can boot into Windows and go to the support forums for more advice and… my computer locks up. It tells me that GRUB is loading, and to please wait, and also that Error 21, which is presumably the Linux-talk equivalent of two middle fingers and a crotch-thrust in my direction.
Now I’m super-screwed; the computer I use everyday has somehow gotten a whiff of the aromatic Linux that I was installing on my external hard-drive and is now throwing a hissy fit and not talking to me any more. I ask my roommate if I can use his computer, log on to the Ubuntu support forums once again, and post a thread: Subject: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, Body: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD.
Luckily the Ubuntu forum staff are able to interpret my well-considered communication and they inform me that I need to boot from a Windows XP install CD to repair the boot-sector of my XP drive.
Success! My computer is un-ruined. But I’ve had enough excitement for one day, and decide to call it. The forum staff explain to me that they can tell me how to set up Ubuntu on my external hard drive so that it works properly, so tomorrow I’ll take another swing at it.
To put it softly, installing Ubuntu was hell. I ran into more problems than I ever imagined I would, and for a moment I thought my computer was reduced to a pretty silicon and plastic paperweight. The simplicity I was looking for was not there, and I’m not exactly planning to recommend that my parents replace their Mac OS with Ubuntu any time soon, given that they would probably have given up when they couldn’t figure out what an .iso was.
Nonetheless, I’m willing to give Linux the benefit of the doubt; I imagine that the majority of users don’t encounter the sort of problems I have, and I’m willing to concede that my hardware is likely to blame for all the peculiar issues. And while it wasn’t an easy process, the Ubuntu forum staff were very helpful and I was able to solve all my problems fairly quickly. Thumbs up for the support!
So tune in tomorrow, when I put the install problems behind me and move on to testing Ubuntu for the first time!