Saturday, 26 June 2010

Lucid Lynx, two months later

Ubuntu basically has two release cycles for its desktop products: there are the regular releases, every six months in April and October, and then these include the Long Term Support (LTS) releases, which come along every two years. The regular release cycle tends to include new features and new technology, while the LTS releases tend to be more tried-and-true, and as the name suggests, are supported for three years after their release instead of the usual 18 months. Ubuntu 10.04, Lucid Lynx, is an LTS release. After the travesty that was my upgrade to Ubuntu Karmic last October, I couldn't wait for Lucid to come along.

I learned two related lessons thanks to Karmic: first, don't rely on the upgrade-in-place option to work, and (since it might not) keep your home directory on a separate partition from your root file system. After downgrading back to Jaunty from Karmic, I implemented these ideas about halfway: that is, I kept my home directory where it was, but moved my data onto a different partition. This time around, I was ready to finish the job: I copied all my data over to that other partition, then reorganized it in a /home/ransom directory hierarchy.

Then, I downloaded and burned the ISO image for Lucid. My third lesson learned was not to upgrade instantaneously. I waited two days. I guess I have a bit to learn yet. (By the time Maverick Meerkat comes out this fall, I'll also have a "scratch" partition I can use for playing with new releases without risking damage to my default setup.)

As usual, the installation from CD-ROM was simple and uneventful, and there were no issues to deal with before restarting my PC and booting into my beautiful, new, eggplant-coloured installation of Lucid. Then the hard job, customizing and configuring, began.

Viva la resolution

The first snag I hit was with my screen resolution under GNOME, my preferred desktop environment. This came as no surprise. I own an Acer 22" flat panel with a native resolution of 1680x1050. I've never seen any driver for my antique Radon 7000 AGP that supports that resolution out of the box - in any operating system, even though it is technically capable of it. Ubuntu defaults to a lower resolution and an incorrect aspect ratio, which is hard on the eyes. Previously, I've been able to fix this by adding a new video mode to Xorg.conf (the main configuration file for X Windows), but either Lucid doesn't use it anymore, or it's been buried so deep that it's impossible to find. Fortunately, after a little googling, I found a workable solution, which I'll detail in a separate post in a few days.

Bring out the Gimp!

After the base installation was complete and GNOME was a little easier on the eyes, the next step was to reinstall my applications. Thanks to Larry Bushey of Going Linux, I learned a straightforward way to migrate all my applications after a clean Ubuntu install.

  1. Before doing the install, start a terminal window and type:
    dpkg --get-selections > installed-pkgs.txt
    This will save a list if your currently installed packages to a text file named installed-pkgs.txt. Save this file somewhere safe (like a USB drive).
  2. Install the new version of Ubuntu as usual.
  3. Once the install is finished, copy installed-pkgs.txt back to the system (for example, to your home directory), start a terminal and type:
    dpkg --set-selections < installed-pkgs.txt
    This command tells the package manager to install the packages listed in that file.

You can hear Larry explain this himself, on his 12th appearance on Computer America, in Going Linux Episode #61. He also warned me via email that this process may not install everything on the list (so it is necessary to install some packages manually), and that this is more likely while downgrading than upgrading.

I opted not to do this at all, as my return to Jaunty was intended to be transitional, and the number of applications I'd actually installed between January and April was minimal. So I did the whole thing manually. First and foremost amongst my preferred applications is the Gimp. This brings me to my first pet peeve with this Ubuntu release.

Canonical, in their infinite wisdom, has decided not to include the Gimp on the Lucid CD. I question the rationale behind this. Granted, most people don't need such a powerful graphics tool when all they really want to do is get rid of redeye in their photos or post cheesy home videos to YouTube. Hence they have included F-Spot for digital photos and Pitivi for video editing. Personally, I have no use for the former and will likely never use the latter. Also granted, the Gimp is readily available from the repositories. However, this was the "killer app" that pushed me toward wanting to move to Linux in the first place - even though it wasn't too long before it was ported over to Windows anyway. Relegating the Gimp to the repos means it's no longer part of that user experience when someone boots up that live CD for the first time.

But one little pet peeve wasn't about to stop me from forging ahead. However, an issue with the Synaptic Package Manager, threatened to do that. Every time I tried to search for packages, Synaptic would commit suicide. Ugh. Fortunately, there's more than one way to download and install packages, and the new Software Center rescued the situation. (And since my next reboot, Synaptic has been perfectly stable, which made me happy, since it is my preferred package management tool. Meanwhile, the Software Center seems to have gone all flaky. Go figure.)

But apart from that, the upgrade went pretty well, and here's the happy result. new Linux, new look, new Doctor, new wallpaper:

Kicking the tires

For some reason, the decision to move the window buttons in the new default Ambiance theme to the left of the title bar instead of the right has generated a not inconsiderable controversy around the Linux blogosphere. I quite like the new theme, and haven't bothered to change back to Clearlooks, which I've been using since 2007. At work, I'm accustomed to using both Windows (buttons on the right) and OS X (buttons on the left), so I didn't see that it made any difference what side the buttons were on. I felt the whole controversy was a tempest in a teapot.

However, after the first month, I still found myself habitually aiming for right-hand buttons. So, based on a tip from the OMG! Ubuntu! blog, I installed Ubuntu Tweak and used it to move them over to the right. Now, after another month, I ironically find myself habitually searching for them on the left. I can't win. But it's still a tempest in a teapot.

More serious is my degraded video performance. With Jaunty, full-motion video (at a typical resolution of, say, 640x480) played back smoothly at any size, including fullscreen. Now, it seems that only a small display window will show full-motion video smoothly. Anything else is choppy, and anything approaching fullscreen resembles a slide show more than a movie. This is true of all video players that I have tried: Totem, VLC, MPlayer, and xine. To make matters worse, switching Totem to fullscreen mode actually scrambles the entire display - unrecoverably. It's necessary to get out of X entirely and restart it. I can find no help for this situation online, and if it's an unresolved bug, I don't know enough about the process yet to file a report. If anyone has an answer, please feel free to offer a suggestion. This is a major annoyance, as I like using my great big monitor to watch DVDs.

If I can find a fix for that one thing, though, I'll be quite happy. Lucid Lynx seems to be a good, solid release. Just for the record, I'm approaching 14 days, 6 hours of continuous uptime, which must be some kind of personal record.

My next post will detail my video resolution fix. After that, I'll stop talking upgrades (at least for the next four months!) and discuss some of the other issues I've had to resolve, as well as some of the software applications I use regularly, and why.

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