The Red Toshiba

Okay, so it's been a little over two weeks that my Windows partition got hosed by Windows Update, so here's an update (ha!) on that and how I've been dealing with it.

I've been running Fedora Core 4 on my M100 ever since (it was already there, so I just toggled the dual-boot) and doing 80% of my work over Remote Desktop without any issues.

The rest was done either in Linux or inside VMware Player, where I pieced together a working Windows environment with the stuff I need (and where I will be doing more and more work as time progresses).

And it looks as if I might stick to this setup for a while, if only because I don't feel like reinstalling the whole lot before Xmas break. I've since gotten read-only access to the stuff I had on the NTFS half of the disk, so nothing at all was lost (remember, kids, always store your personal files in a different partition from your Windows install).

There were, however, a few points of note I feel like sharing:

Stuffing The Hat

My classical gripes regarding using Linux on a laptop have been the utter lack of decent power management (suspend/resume, CPU throttling, hard disk spindown, etc.), very poor Wi-Fi support, and poor hardware support (on laptops).

Taking advantage of a few minutes here and there (as well as Fedora's amazing popularity and excellent built-in support for the basics), I've since managed to get around most of these limitations by either tracking down fixes or implementing them myself - which is not optimal, but doable if you have the right incentive (as I did this time around):

  • With the latest kernels, CPU throttling finally worked out of the box, as did fnfx and ACPI.
  • The built-in Wi-Fi chipset is (almost) natively supported, and I was able to get Bluetooth working.
  • NetworkManager has made it almost as painless to switch between several Wi-Fi networks and a wired connection as it is on XP.
  • Suspend/resume works well, with only a few NetworkManager hiccups (it occasionally fails to understand it was plugged in to a wired network before resuming).
  • Hard disk spindown works (as much as possible on a UNIX system, of course) and can be tuned via laptop-mode and hdparm.

All in all, battery life is almost the same as when I was using XP (assuming similar display brightness and usage patterns) - not as good by any means, but comparable. I don't know if I could put up with the difference if I hadn't replaced my DVD drive for an extra battery, though.

Office's Many Hats

As to applications, I have to say that OpenOffice still isn't all there for me. It's useful as a document viewer (although it still mangles most of the ones I throw at it in subtle ways), but I can't bring myself to actually use it - even if only to draft stuff - because every time I do, I have to go over everything in Office 2003 and do style and formatting fixes.

I haven't used most of it, nor have I attempted to repeat my failed attempts at getting Evolution to speak to Exchange - no, I've pretty much given up on Linux as a corporate desktop in that sense (at least for the next year or so), and still use Office on Windows (more below).

I have, however, used the GIMP and Inkscape a bit to handle packet dump screenshots, diagrams and such, and can confirm that the former still has an absolutely hideous, completely counter-intuitive UI and that the latter is very promising indeed - it's no Visio, but then again I wasn't using it like I use Visio.

The rest is just the stock Gnome environment that ships with Fedora, with a few little doodads like Ethereal and other network tools thrown in. I have no gripes with any of it, except Evince (which fails to render quite a few of the PDFs I have to deal with).

Over The Rim

Of course, there are a few things that I'm still not happy with overall:

  • Multi-head support is, of course, a joke. Sure, it works, but restarting my X server to enable it (and having a sorely limited Gnome UI for setting it up) is a major put off, so I haven't really used it (on a related note, fnfx lets me switch from the LCD to an external monitor, which is the critical thing).
  • Setting up and maintaining several dial-up connections (which I need for UMTS access) is still a right pain. wvdial setup and all of the dial-up UI ought to be taken out and scrapped.
  • There are still no usable UIs for Bluetooth support. I actually prefer using the CLI to set it up in Linux, but ordinary users need something minimally usable, and what there is in Gnome isn't it.
  • rdesktop still has an irritating bug that causes it to not relinquish input control back to the window manager at random times (forcing me to switch to a text console to kill it and take back my X session). It's infrequent, but extremely annoying.

It may, however, stop being an issue soon.

Windows in a Box

The next step will be tweaking my VMware Player install to replicate the QEMU setup I had on my desktop, and host a stable, easily resettable Windows instance inside my laptop.

Running Windows in this way is a relatively seamless experience, and has a number of good points that bear pointing out:

  • Full screen works fine, and if you install the VMware tools you can resize your Windows desktop on the fly and switch to/from it as if it were just another X application.
  • Suspend/resume doesn't kill the VM, and it resumes from where I left it if I close the Player (which saves me a lot of time in the morning).
  • If you setup both NAT and bridged network interfaces, it pretty much just works regardless of my laptop's connectivity (although I still have to figure out whether it's best to use the Cisco VPN client inside the VM or bite the bullet and try to get it to run on Fedora).

There are, of course, a few downsides:

  • The Player has no UI for most of the settings you see in VMware Workstation (fortunately, I've always tweaked my .vmx files with a text editor, so I know my way around).
  • The overhead involved isn't completely negligible (i.e., Windows isn't slow, but it isn't snappy either), and my 512MB RAM might not be enough for prolonged use (I can use Outlook and at least one more Office application without significant slowdowns, but it might get crowded in there).
  • There's now a single, hard to move 3GB file that hosts most of the stuff I need to work (documents and drafts are all in Exchange, but I need to set up an easier way to handle individual files).
  • USB devices don't always work - a case in point is my Blackberry, which I will be trying to sort out sometime next week (it works over the air just fine, but I can't upgrade the firmware over USB).

Wearing The Hat

All in all, I have to say that there's definitely an improvement when comparing this to my previous attempts at using Linux in my office environment - but most of it is due to hardware and basic network support having reached a new level of maturity, and not (by any stretch of the imagination) due to the Linux corporate desktop actually "being there".

It just isn't (neither on the application or compatibility fronts), unless your company relies on Novell or IBM instead of Microsoft for its basic IT infrastructure. Smaller businesses may be able to switch, but like the old Perl filename length joke, I can't even think of doing it.

I suppose that somewhere down the line I will have to return to XP - my first attempt at using System Restore mostly worked, but considering that I got a bunch of error messages when logging in, I'd feel better if I reinstalled the whole thing.

Until I have to, however, I'll manage. It's not a PowerBook, but it does the job.