Having used Linux on servers for many years now, I’m always keen to see if it has progressed enough for me to use as my “daily driver” desktop/laptop OS.
The test this time was on a NEC Centrino Laptop (1.6gig, 1 gig of ram 64MB Intel Video.) Could I get Linux installed and use it for both work and home and completely exclude Windows without making myself less productive in the process. The answer sad to say is no. But it was a really close thing and only one area really let the side down, but I’ll get to that in due course. I’ve been a big fan of CENTOS for my servers and since it’s an rpm based distro, I figured I’d stick with a desktop OS that has as much in common with CENTOS/RHEL as possible. To that end I’ve based this on Fedora Core 7.
1. Installation: Awesome, Better than Windows by far. If I had to pick anything wrong with it, it would be the partitioning tool. Except for the really basic stuff, it is very “non obvious”. Mandriva makes a far better GUI frontend tool for partitioning, it’s a shame that they don’t co-operate since it’s all OSS anyway.
2. First boot: Excellent ran me though all the usual for setting up network email etc. No complaints here.
3. General usage: Very nice, everything worked well and as expected. I updated Firefox to the latest. (It annoys me that this is easier in Windows than it is in Linux. I found myself having to edit symlinks.) Openoffice, The Gimp all the usual suspects were there and in fine form. Very impressed up till this point and as a desktop OS, it was looking like I could personally leave Windows XP totally behind and work just as well or better.
At work I used Linux GUI tools to connect to a Microsoft PPTP VPN, take over Windows machines via rdesktop, copy files to and from SMB shares on a domain and basically do all the things I’m required to do, that up to this point had been done on a Windows machine. I was stunned with how much better things had gotten since I last tried. Windows was easier in some respects, (like the VPN) but only because they had dumbed their tools down and limited their abilities. I was however still required to know a fair bit about networking, routing and VPN’s to get usable PPTP connections though. Once setup however, everything just worked, every day without fail. My personal feeling is that setup wizards would help newbies make full use of the tools available.
My biggest complaint is wireless. This NEC is a true Centrino in that it has the lousy Centrino 802.11b Intel IPW2100 wireless card, which while limited to 11mb, worked flawlessly in Windows. My daily travels involve me connecting to at least 3 different Wireless networks. My home network has WPA with hidden SSID, and two at work have WEP with differing settings. No GUI Wireless tool I tried in Linux would consistently work with all of them. If I was prepared to mess around for 10 or 15 minutes each time I could usually get it working, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise, doing so would have made me less productive than Windows. For the record I tried the Redhat Wireless tool, then wifi-radar, then wlassassistant and then I got desperate and tried anything else I could find. The problem seems to be that these tools hand off to other apps for different things, and none of them do it flawlessly. WPA, DHCP etc etc, the result being that I couldn’t go from one AP to the next without issues. On all three of the wireless networks I was required to connect to used DHCP, and Fedora only scored an IP address wirelessly once in every 10 or so attempts, and thats regardless of what I set the timeout to. I plan to change the Intel IPW2100 with a different chipset (non Intel) and try again before I write off Fedora Linux’s wireless ability, but I’ve got to say I’m not hopeful. If however, you just connect to one wireless network, then there really isn’t a problem as the Redhat tool will do that just fine, but I’d really hoped for better. Sad to say it but Microsoft XP SP2 Wireless tool is surprisingly good and better than anything I’ve seen in Linux thus far. Ditto with Intel’s wireless tool that comes with their Windows drivers. (Wouldn’t it be great if they ported it to Linux and released it OSS?)
To get a bit more cutting edge, I then swapped to KDE, installed the kde-redhat groups updated KDE packages, and then headed over and grabbed the latest Compiz-fusion stuff. This laptop had a 64MB 3d video card so while it wouldn’t do much with Vista, it did some amazing stuff in Linux with Compiz-fusion. I was blown away with the 3D eyecandy that this old laptop was capable of. Especially after seeing what is required to get a good Vista 3d performance.
Is Linux ready for the desktop? Yes, it is for all the usual everyday stuff, if your needs are more complex, like you need to connect to a Microsoft network via VPN, it can do the job, but don’t expect to get out of it without learning about routing tables and the like.
Is Linux (fedora at least) ready for the laptop? No, I don’t believe it is, GUI Wireless is frankly far behind Windows and I also had several other issues that may have been specific to this laptop, but googling shows not. I was required to install 855resolution in order to get my screens native resolution. (a bug of Intels not OSS, but Fedora could have detected the problem and loaded 855 resolution for me.) In addition, I had a massive key bounce problem with the touchpad that I did eventually solve, but not without much gnashing of teeth.
1. No centralized control center. I’ve been spoiled by Mandriva in this respect I suspect. Redhat hasn’t had a centralized unified control center since Linuxconf went away. It isn’t a huge thing for me, but I think it would be to those still learning the ropes, and I must admit I did find it annoying when I didn’t know what tool I needed and had to google to find out rather than looking in a central control.
2. This one is more about KDE/Gnome than Fedora. Why can’t they work together? Neither has a total “better” experience, both do different things better than the other. But since they compete rather than co-operating, you get two lesser experiences as a result. Sad really since we’re essentially on the same side. I’d love to see some sort of system that allows Gnome apps to fully integrate into KDE when run from within it, and vice versa with KDE apps in Gnome. That way we could actually get some consistency in form and function and allow the best of each to compliment the other for the betterment of all.
3. This one is touchy from a security perspective, but on a desktop machine, I hate having to enter the root password to start networking tools, to start wireless tools and other stuff of that nature. I know why it is the way it is, but on a desktop it isn’t good enough. I know there are ways around it, like sudo for example (which I did make some use of) but none of them were setup that way out of the box, and thats annoying because real people like to burn CD’s and join wireless networks and most of them won’t want to have to start them as root to do so. I am not suggesting we get as lax as Windows, but we need to find some middle ground here because in an average morning on my Linux desktop, I’d have entered my root password at least a dozen times. (And since I’m paranoid, my root password is traditionally quite long and convoluted. By the end of the second day, I was considering making my root password a couple of characters long to speed things up and that is even more unacceptable.)
4. Wireless, for people with a wireless lifestyle, Linux GUI is not gonna blow their socks off. It’s on again off again performance was a surprise and a disappointment as it was a deal breaker for me at this stage. If I can’t consistently connect as I need to in Linux, I have to use Windows, simple as that. Before I give up, I’m going to change the MiniPCI from IPW2100 to something non Intel to see if it makes any difference, but as I said earlier, I’m not overly confident that it will change anything. One of the big Linux guns like Redhat or Novel really needs to take Wireless in hand and come up with something as good as or better than XP’s tool, because the current setup is a mess. I actually find myself missing UnitedLinux for the idea if not the result. WLassisstant and Wifi-radar are both better in look and usability than Redhat’s tool, but their lack of functional consistency lets the side down badly. We need to help these guys build on what they have and get it right.
5. Wired networking. While I had no problem at all with Ethernet networking, I must say I was surprised that there isn’t some sort of hotswap system in place with it. Everytime I unplugged/re-plugged the Ethernet, I had to restart networking or do the old ifdown/ifup eth0. In Windows it detects/recreates the connection it all by itself. I was surprised that something so simple hadn’t been addressed yet. It isn’t a big thing, but on a battery powered computer, it’s definitely nice to not have to open a root terminal and re-establish your network connection
There is no doubt at all that Linux has come leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. But anyone that tells you it’s all the way there yet is deluding themselves. In many cases it can be a useful and productive replacement for Windows on the desktop but in just as many cases, it can’t. I know the *nix ideal of each tool doing one job really well, and I agree on servers, but it just doesn’t work on the desktop unless all the parts seamlessly work together to create the whole. Being a huge supporter of Linux and OSS, I really wanted to only have good things to say here today. But failing that, honestly is the only way the issues will get addressed and so I’ve not held anything back. I haven’t gone entirely back to Windows on that machine, but I am dual booting it now.
Anyone who has suggestions of other Linux wireless tools to try should comment below and I’ll give it a shot.