2005-12-01

Ubuntu 5.10 live CD on the Ultra 20

At the end of my recent round-up of my Solaris 10 experience I wrote "If it were no more complicated than inserting a DVD and power-cycling, I'd be installing Linux on my Ultra 20 right about now."

Then I remembered that Ubuntu comes highly recommended, and that they have a "live CD" that you can supposedly boot without installing anything on your hard disk. That is, there's a no-risk easily backed out free trial.

What the hell; how bad could it be? I decided to give it a go.

In short, I was impressed. I didn't know Linux could be this painless. The live CD did what it was supposed to, and worked fine on my Ultra 20. It didn't take much longer to boot off CD than Solaris 10 takes to boot off disk (the Solaris x86 boot process is over-complicated), and the feedback was much better while it did so. Not quite as attractive as Mac OS, but better than the Debian installations I'm used to at work. Strangely reminiscent of the Amiga and the whole 16-bit home-computer era.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The "installation" asked only one stupid question, about the maximum resolution X11 should support. The question was worded incoherently, which didn't help; it asked which ones to disallow, but you actually select the ones you want to allow. The default settings -- which you couldn't see, thanks to the ugly text-based whiptail(1) interface -- was dumb: 1024x768 being the best on offer. The verbose but confusing wording implied that if you just selected everything, it would do the right thing anyway, and it certainly seemed to when I rebooted and selected everything.

Other than that, i had to hit return to accept English as my language, hit return to accept US as my keyboard layout (the alternative being "type some stuff, and i'll work out what you've got"), and ... well, that was it.

It automatically tried DHCP, it automatically chose a UTF-8 locale (w00t! first Unix ever to do that for me!), and it automatically used NTP (Mac OS made me click a check box, so this was one better, though I'm not sure it was full-on NTP rather than SNTP).

The GNOME setup seemed way better than any other I've used. As if someone had selected modern versions of the various components that actually work together, and had tried them. The default theme wasn't unreasonable; certainly much nicer than anything I've seen on any other GNOME. If a little too orange. Made me think of socal trophy wives.

There are worse things a UI can remind you of. MS Windows makes me think of sweaty little accountants. I can't believe that anyone else is the target audience.

I was surprised how fast everything was. I'd read that the problem with live CDs is that you don't get much of an impression of what the performance will be like in real life; the implication being that it was going to be really slow. But it wasn't. Firefox started the first time about as fast as the Blastwave Firefox started on Solaris 10 (when it started at all; since my last pkg-get it's stopped working), and successive starts were as fast as Safari on my PowerMac. Much better browser start-up performance than I'm used to from Linux. Of course, it had an old make(1) and a free (read: useless) Java VM, so I've no idea what real performance will be like. Last time I ran Linux instead of Solaris on a Sun, it was like getting a whole new computer. (Albeit one where the X11 server didn't work properly.) But that was years ago. Both OSes have come a long way since then.

Under the hood, stuff was familiar for being basically Debian. This might not appeal to everyone, but it pleased me. Having the stuff you're used to, where you're used to it being, working as you're used to, apt-get and all ... that's pretty cool.

So, it'll be sayonara Solaris next time I get a spare hour at home. That I'm not wasting on writing junk like this. I've no doubt that a real install will be more hassle, but at least then my computer will be in the right time zone, which was the one problem I noticed — you'd think they could use those IP geolocation web sites to guess that right!

(I'm actually serious. Apart from the X11 thing, the live CD was hugely impressive. Fixing the X11 thing by getting the monitor's details from the monitor and knowing the graphics card's limitations, and guessing my time zone would make it perfect. I'm almost glad of those flaws, because they let me know that I didn't just imagine the whole thing.)

The one bit of hardware that wasn't as well supported as with Solaris 10 was the fans. They were under control (going full blast, they're seriously loud, and this was nothing like that), but they were up a notch compared to Solaris 10 under the same conditions.

I don't understand why there wasn't a prominent "click here to do a real install off the network" button. As it is, I'll be burning another CD-R soon; this time with the real thing.