Laptop Linux, Revisited

As I wrote before, the whole Linux on laptops thing is, generally speaking, a mess. My Ubuntu disaster put me off it for a while, too, but some of my main points against running Linux as a primary work OS on my laptop have traditionally been about getting, decent, seamless, and "automagical" hardware support (i.e., same as XP on the same hardware), plus decent power management.

Laptops move, OK, Buddy?

Around 99% of the people who say "Linux runs fine on my laptop" are using theirs as desktop replacements (i.e., chained to a desk) or had to tweak, mix and match their hardware until it worked sort of like XP. They have no power management, no CPU throttling, and, quite often, no built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support either.

Yeah, we all know there are Linux gods out there who achieve this sort of thing painlessly. I've long gotten past the "Configuration To Death" phase of late teen enthusiasm and, at my advanced age of thirty-three, think it is about time things just bloody worked, period.

None of the whining about licensing issues, lack of vendor support for driver development or distro turf wars is worth a wet sock as far as laptop usability is concerned, but that hasn't stopped most of the Linux distributions I've tried on and off from generally making a mess of things, whatever the hardware.

The Chameleon, And The "It Should Just Work" Mantra

Well, apparently Novell is ahead of the game here. The latest SuSE not only installed seamlessly, but also had built-in support for all my M100's hardware, from function keys to wireless. It also figured out CPU throttling, Bluetooth (which I haven't tested extensively yet, but which appears to work) and let me set up suspend to RAM using nothing but (drum roll) the mouse.

Update: Bluetooth has since been revealed to be somehow missing in action. It was listed during setup and installed, lsmod lists the bluetooth module, but I cannot for the life of me figure out exactly why hci0 is missing (It may be the age-old incompatibility between the toshiba extension and ACPI, or some kernel 2.6 weirdness I can't fathom). Still, I knew it wouldn't be perfect with ipw2100 and decent power management, that's two out of three right out of the box.

After years of the "Real Men Don't Click" approach to setting up power management on Linux, this is a godsend. Fedora never got this right - yet. Ubuntu told me it did, but it wouldn't work without major voodoo (I eventually got it to work on a buddy's laptop, but by then I had gotten sick of it).

Obviously, mine is one hardware configuration. But in all the years that Linux groupies have been touting it as a Windows replacement, it's the first time that I can simply install and have all my hardware detected and configured automatically without my having to open a single terminal window, letting me use my laptop as a laptop without any compromise.

It's the Hardware, Stupid!

The Open Source community has spent countless man-years on trying to beat Windows GUIs, Office suites, etc., despite acute denial that they were really trying to compete with Microsoft. It was (and sometimes still is) all about freedom of choice, "sticking it to the man" and other suchlike nonsense. Usability for Linux geeks is a poorly understood GUI thing, and never got pushed down to where the user experience really begins - which is, of course, installation and setup.

Over the years, I got the feeling that getting your Linux box up and running was always a sort of rite of passage. Setup was mostly a matter of getting the kernel, drivers and an editor on a hard disk, and having the user twiddle it from there.

Which, of course, means that Linux installers still suck, and do a half-assed job at hardware detection and setup. RedHat was the first to create what I would term an "enterprise-ready" installation framework (and Fedora is getting better and better at this), but their focus on servers began to show right about 9.0 - a rather unpopular choice right about the time when laptops started outselling desktops by a reasonable margin.

The Debian installer, of course, has become a bad joke of mythical proportions. The fact that Debian has been fragmenting hasn't helped, either, but even Ubuntu can't shake off the installer ghost yet. Other distros like Gentoo will get the job done, but are still too geeky for painless use.

So far, SuSE has them all beat, hands down. The installer isn't of the "OK, Next, Next, Next." variety (it is entirely too detailed in some sections), but at least it is easy to use and gets everything running.

Want Painless Laptop UNIX? Get a Mac - For Now

Of course, it is far from perfect. I have a lot of gripes with the hardware setup UI (SuSE's YaST is not what I would call "intuitive", nor "pretty" by that matter), Wi-Fi has browned out without any apparent reason twice and suspend failed spectacularly once (I am sort of stress-testing it - every 2 minute break I take, I close down the lid).

Comparing it to my three-year iBook shows there is still a way to go - the iBook resumes from sleep almost instantly, everything works flawlessly and the environment not only is much more intuitive to use (changing Wi-Fi networks or twiddling power settings is easier and faster) but also uses real Aqua goodness instead of those fake, plasticky KDE things.

Apple laptops are still the best portable UNIX machines you can get, and only "Freedom of Choice" nuts (who seem mostly to want to be able to claim they can choose to have a worse user experience) can ignore this, but perhaps not for much longer. Of course, it took years for Linux to come this close, so my guess is that the Mac will keep the laptop UNIX crown for a decade still.

The Software Angle

SuSE has Gnome 2.10 and all the usual goodness. This is not the point, but I would be crucified if I didn't mention it (it was why people lent me the CDs in the first place), and it happens to be the UNIX desktop environment I have the least gripes with. It is also full of Mono goodness, includes the Sun Java VM, the latest Flash plugin, RealNetworks junk I deleted upon install, and the Acrobat reader (which, incidentally, has become a bloated monstrosity ever since it reached 6.0). It is a corporate Linux user's dream come true, and deserves a lot of success (either on its own or as a part of Novell Desktop).

I have in the meantime installed QEMU from CVS (plus the new CPU virtualization layer it has), and will be using it to get the best of both worlds: XP runs fast enough to be usable (it feels near native if I give it 256MB and fullscreen mode), and it will let me toss out OpenOffice for Office 2003 and a complete clone of my corporate environment running in a VM - I've been meaning to do this for a while now, since it will eventually let me run a couple of special-purpose applications on my Macs and have stable system snapshots as well.

And yes, I'm dual booting. I don't have free time at all these days, so all of this is being slowly done throughout the evenings.

Will The Chameleon's Tongue Stick?

So, I have Linux on my laptop again. Will I keep using it? Tricky to say. SuSE is miles ahead of Ubuntu in the hardware detection/setup game, but feels enough unlike Fedora to be annoying (I keep looking for stuff in the wrong menus, package dependencies are subtly different and I really dislike the KDE icons all over the place).

The main issues will still be around software. I'm too used to the slick, polished Mac OS X environment to enjoy using anything else, and 90% of what I do these days has to do with some sort of Office format, often used in ways OpenOffice simply can't deal with.

But having UNIX on my laptop lets me do the other 10% (which ocasionally takes me 90% of my time) faster and more effectively, so until someone figures out that my company would really benefit from buying me a PowerBook, this will probably be the only way to get things done.

In the meantime, maybe Fedora will get better. And, being a stickler for triple backups, my XP partition is still there, pristine and untouched.

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