Leaving Ubuntu for PCLinuxOS

Wednesday Jun 24th 2009 by Carla Schroder
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A Linux expert finds the 'Buntus aren't dependable enough for a busy life, so she's taking her distro business elsewhere.

I've been spending the past few days migrating some of my home computers to PCLinuxOS. Not my studio computer which is going to run Fedora with the Planet CCRMA packages. I keep a current Ubuntu on my laptop just to stay up-to-date, and Debian powers the home server. Nobody is pushing Debian out of that spot; it's too important.

I've been using Kubuntu as my main workstation since 7.10, and so has my wonderful significantotherperson. You could say this is the end of a long *buntu experiment. I used to distro-hop a lot more because it was fun, and it was great article and howto fodder. But the past few years I've written a number of books in addition to my real jobs, and I have a little farm to run.

That pretty much eats up every waking minute, and some of my sleeping minutes too, so it's a medium-big deal to change operating systems. Why do it now? One word: efficiency. The *buntus are not dependable enough for me. It doesn't matter if it's a mature long-term release or something fresher, they get in my way too much.

I will list a few examples; this not intended as any kind of detailed criticism, just to give an idea of some of the issues that became deal-breakers for us:

  • Bad performance. Tasks are forever becoming CPU-bound, to the point that the whole system comes to a halt until the task is finished. The Ubuntu desktop kernel is supposed to be optimized to give precedence to user input and therefore feel peppier, but I have not seen this.
  • Audacity, my workhorse audio production application, does not get along with any of the *buntus. It hangs, screen redraws take forever, simple scrolling hangs, and it crashes.
  • Ubuntu Studio (from 8.04 through 9.04) has so many rough edges I can't recommend it. (Dave Phillips wrote a good review of it, and I could have added a half-dozen more issues.) I had better luck using stock Ubuntu and customizing it myself.
  • Here is a weird one: on a lot of Web sites in both Ubuntu and Kubuntu, Firefox renders them with significant amounts of overlapping text. The same version of Firefox on any other Linux I have tried does not do that.
I can't say if my experiences are typical; I've heard everything from "It's the best" to "It's the worst." I know there are millions of happy Ubuntu users who are satisfied with how it works, and that is good. That's the whole idea, to enjoy your computing experiences and to get things done.
Deciding which Linux to try next was no easy task because there are so many attractive choices. Mint? Mepis? Sabayon? Sidux? OpenSUSE? Mandriva? Slackware? DreamLinux? gNewSense? What about something FreeBSD- or OpenSolaris-based, like PC-BSD or Nexenta? Nah, I'm too spoiled by Linux's wealth of desktop applications. Anyway I've used all of those at one time or another, and they're all good.

I finally settled on PCLinuxOS 2009.1 because they just had a new release and they're using KDE 3.5.10. I haven't warmed up to KDE4 yet; it is still missing some key features that I rely on.

Installing PCLinuxOS 2009.1 was interesting, and not in a good way. The live CD hung at the same point every time I tried to boot up, when udev started. A visit to the PCLinuxOS Web site revealed that this is a common problem with no simple solution. However, choosing the Safeboot option worked (duh, next time I'll try the simple stuff first!) and I was able to boot it up and install it.

I always choose manual partitioning because by gosh I know what I want. PCLinuxOS' partitioning tool is kind of weird to my eye, with some misleading visual cues. There is a color-coded partition diagram at the top, and immediately under it is the color legend. Which is nice so you know what the colors mean, but the legend looks like something you click on to get more information, and it isn't. Another problem is when the partition menu comes up it is squished so elements of it overlap. You can make it bigger, but this is not obvious, and I always wonder why, after all these years of GUIs, do we still have this problem of tiny windows that we have to manually enlarge before we can use them?

The installation goes pretty fast, but you can't just set your options and walk away; you have to hang around to click this and answer that. One thing Ubuntu did was spoil me for sleek, easy installations.

There was one last hurdle, and that was the GRUB bootloader. When I tried to boot into my nice new PCLinuxOS there was a GRUB error complaining that it couldn't find the root filesystem. Oh joy. The problem was this particular system has both an SATA and a PATA hard disk, which confuses GRUB. GRUB labels hard disks as hd, not sd. So I told the installer to put the master boot record on sd0. If GRUB supported the sd nomenclature that would put the root filesystem on sd0,0. But no,GRUB sees it as the second PATA drive so it is drive hd1. I edited /boot/grub/menu.lst to look for hd1,0 instead and now it boots fine. It's a good thing I know how to fix these things.

Next up: Long-Term Review

I'm going to go ahead and put PCLinuxOS on another PC or two. Already I like it better. It is noticeably peppier-- a LOT more responsive. It handled a GeForce FX 5500 NVidia graphics card with no problem, which none of the *buntus could do; I always had to manually fix something even when I chose the kernel nv driver. Audacity is fun again--everything works with no danged drama. I'll torture the poor thing for a few weeks and then report back on how it holds up over time.

Carla Schroder is the author of the Linux Cookbook and the Linux Networking Cookbook (O'Reilly Media), the upcoming "Building a Digital Sound Studio with Audacity" (NoStarch Press), a lifelong book lover, and the managing editor of LinuxPlanet and Linux Today.

Article courtesy of LinuxPlanet.

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