My History of Computing, Part 4: The Year of Linux on my Laptop

Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Please read those before continuing me on my computer reminiscence journey… Thanks!

Even after my first attempt at installing Linux broke my AMD-K6 machine, and I had become a total Mac user, I was still keeping tabs on what was going on in the open-source world. Through the 2000s I was reading sites like Slashdot and Distrowatch, learning about the gradual expansion of Linux in the server realm, in embedded systems such as routers and smartphones, in supercomputers, and the field of desktop computing, where it was making great strides. It seemed like every year from about 2000 on, someone on Slashdot was declaring that this was “the year of Linux on the desktop.”

I wanted to experiment with Linux again, but I knew from reading online that there were only a few PowerPC-based Linux distributions, and installing them on anything older than the iMac was iffy at best. So I kept reading… and waiting.

Then, right around 2007, a new Linux distribution started appearing on my radar. Called Ubuntu, it was created by South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth who spent several years and a lot of his own money to hone and polish the open-source operating system to be user-friendly and run on a wide variety of home computers. The hype was incredible. The Linux nerds on the interwebs were practically calling Shuttleworth the next Steve Jobs. I was even hearing about it on non-Linux-specific websites and on the TV news. I knew I had to give this a try.

It just so happened that I had a guinea pig to test this new operating system on. My sister, who also lived in Yellowstone at the time, had a AMD Athlon-based laptop that had a hard drive corrupted by a virus. For some reason, I took a picture of the virus scan:

IM000795

She wanted me to reinstall Windows XP on it. I decided that I would rather take Ubuntu for a test spin. I had gotten a disk with (I believe) Ubuntu 7.04 on it just by asking Canonical, the company that managed Ubuntu, for one. Back then, they were still mailing people Ubuntu CDs for free. I stuck the disk in her laptop’s CD drive and it started running a test version of the OS from the disk itself.

Ubuntu_7.04_Feisty_Fawn

Everything just seemed to work, except for the wireless card, but I had a spare USB wifi adapter which was instantly recognized. The desktop was instantly recognizable and looked very Windows XP-like, except for the brown-and-orange “Human” color scheme. I could easily access files, settings, a web browser, and even an open-source office suite, unimaginatively named OpenOffice. It had support for MP3s and video files, and even included a video with Nelson Mandela explaining the meaning of “Ubuntu,” which in many Southern African languages means “humanity towards others,” or “I am what I am because of who we all are.” There were a few bugs and glitches, but the system seemed amazingly complete and simple enough for anyone to use.

So I installed Ubuntu and handed the computer back to my sister, saying, “Look, I fixed your Windows problem.” My sister turns the machine on and goes, “Well, this is nice, but can it run <insert name of proprietary Windows program here>?” So that was the end of Ubuntu, for now. I didn’t even bother installing it on my MacBook, because by the time Apple made it easy to dual-boot into another operating system on the same hard disk (via Boot Camp) I had already been using Mac OS X for a while and figured that I could do everything in it that I could in Ubuntu.

It would be a while before I would install Linux on another computer. In 2012, my sister, bless her heart, gave me another broken Windows laptop, but instead of asking me to fix it, she just gave it to me, because she bought herself a brand new one. This was a HP Pavilion DV7 with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a 512 MB NVIDIA graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, 17″ screen, and a Harmon Kardon speaker system with a built-in subwoofer. Pretty awesome specs, and she just gave it to me. I have the most awesome sister.

HP-DV7-1245DX
(Yeah, I know, another stock photo, but the camera on my phone isn’t worth a damn.)

So I fixed the problem (another busted hard drive) and set myself to installing Linux on it. Well, there were problems. Not that it couldn’t run Linux, but many of the features were poorly supported. The audio system couldn’t operate the speakers very well, especially the subwoofer, which warbled terribly in every Linux distribution I tried on it. I used Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and PCLinuxOS, but they all had the same problem.

Also, something about Linux’s display system refused to work quite right with the video card. It displayed video, it even played 3D games quite awesomely, but it hurt my eyes. It’s kind of hard to explain. I can only think it was something to do with font rendering, but working in Linux, any Linux, for more than a few minutes gave me serious eye strain. I complained about this on forums and the general consensus was “you need to get your eyes checked”… but this wasn’t the problem. I had a Mac laptop at home and a Windows 7 computer at work that I could both use for hours on end with no problems whatsoever.

So I decided to restore the machine to its original state. I acquired a Windows 7 install DVD through completely legal means and installed it on the HP laptop. I promised myself long ago that I would never run that buggy, virus-ridden piece of crap on any of my machines long ago… but sometime between the time I gave up Windows and now, Microsoft really got their act together! Installing Windows 7 was a piece of cake, and once I got the necessary drivers from HP’s website, it ran like a charm. I was soon listening to music on the most beautiful-sounding laptop speakers I had ever experienced, as well as playing Blu-ray movies in 1080p, blasting my way through video games actually written this century, and everything else I normally used a computer for. And best yet, no eye strain!

I was even able to transfer all of my old Mac stuff onto it with a free HFS+ utility, which was my last hurdle to using Windows. So I was able to forgive Microsoft, seeing as though my hate of them was based on experiences I had a decade ago and buying all of Apple’s anti-Microsoft propaganda. This laptop became my primary computer for all of 2013, after my MacBook went to meet its maker in the big old Starbucks in the sky, and so far I haven’t had a single virus or incidence of data loss.

Of course, then Microsoft had to deplete all of their good will by releasing the horrid dreck that is Windows 8… but that’s another story.

So when my wife accidentally spilled water on her 8-year-old Windows XP-running Toshiba laptop last month, I was able to get her running on my HP laptop with no problems at all. All of her Windows programs run well on it, so she’s happy. Meanwhile, I wanted a new laptop so we could both get online at the same time, and I wanted a better Linux experience than the one the HP laptop could provide me. So I set out to get a cheap laptop on eBay that I could tinker with, that would tide me over until I could afford a new machine. One of my coworkers recommended Lenovo Thinkpads. They were rock-solid business laptops that you could get for extremely cheaply because companies lease them for three years, after which they end up flooding the market on eBay. I had also heard that they had excellent Linux support, and a small but devoted following of techies who worked on getting all the special Thinkpad bells and whistles working on Linux.

In January, I found an amazing deal on a Lenovo Thinkpad T400 with a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and Intel GM45 Integrated Graphics for $120. Similar machines were running for $200 or more. So I snapped it up and had it shipped to my home. The hard disk was sold to me erased, for security reasons, I guess. I had originally intended to dual boot Windows 7 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, my current Linux distro of choice. But when I stuck the Ubuntu CD into the drive and turned it on, I was amazed. It had detected all of the hardware and ran it flawlessly. It even could activate the ThinkLight keyboard lamp, the TrackPoint pointing device, all of the media controls, and even the ThinkVantage button (which in the absence of the IBM/Lenovo ThinkVantage utility suite, defaults to activating Ubuntu’s help system.) And it wasn’t giving me any of the same eyestrain problems that I was experiencing on the other computer. So I just decided to put Ubuntu on the whole drive.

If occasion requires me to run Windows, I can just install it on a secondary hard drive, and just swap out the disks. Lenovo makes it so easy on this laptop–all you have to do is unscrew one screw on the bottom, pop out the drive caddy, and replace the drive with another one of your choice. I think I totally got my money’s worth with this laptop. It’s 5 years old, to be sure, but it beats the pants off of anything I could have gotten new at this price. And it has one of the best laptop keyboards I have ever used.

twn_thinkpad

But I’m not about to join the Church of Lenovo… not yet, anyway. I hear their newer Thinkpads have dropped the iconic boxy look, magnesium roll cages, and great keyboards, and are are essentially commodity consumer laptops with Thinkpad branding. Kind of like that MacBook I bought. Oh well. Right now, I am happy with what I have, and happy that I can successfully compute in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Unix, MS-DOS, and TI BASIC. That confounded Timex Sinclair 1000 still baffles me, though. Maybe I’ll try again with that one someday…

The first thing that popped up when I typed in "Timex Sinclair 1000 screenshot" into Google Images. I find it strangely appropriate.

Comments? Questions? Feedback? Contact me at wordpress (at) thewanderingnerd (dot) com, or leave a comment below!

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