Sunday, May 20, 2007

Kubuntu on a laptop

I just installed Kubuntu 7.04 ("Feisty Fawn" for those who like those codename thingies, which I don't) on my laptop, a Toshiba Satellite M50. I rarely use my laptop, but when I do use it I want it to "just work" (TM). I use Gentoo on my desktop but given the amount of messing about that requires it was obviously not an option for this machine.

I've been through the Kubuntu install process before and it was fairly smooth - the only hitch being that it told me it was unable to create the first partition layout I gave it, without telling me why. I chose a different setup and it continued. Once everything was installed the laptop booted into Kubuntu, complete with nice smooth startup screens. I was very impressed to see that I could plug in my ethernet cable and even switch on the wifi and it happily connected automatically to both of them with no problems. Plugged in a mouse, digital camera, USB stick - all detected and worked immediately. It even suspended and resumed with no hacking required, which is a first as far as this laptop is concerned.

However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the problems that I had after installation:
  1. Setting up DVD playback using the instructions in the help documentation did not work. After a visit to Google and installing xine-ui the problem went away.
  2. The version of vim installed by default, vim-tiny, is horrendously broken. Arrow keys and backspace don't work in insert mode - I mean, WTF?! Eventually I got sick of this and installed the proper "vim" package and it worked as expected.
  3. Hibernate didn't work - when it booted back up it brought up a grey bar on the screen and froze up. Hibernate is something I can do without at the moment so I'm not too worried about this one. (I was able to recover simply by selecting the built-in recovery mode from the boot menu and then restarting).
  4. The worst however was when completely on a whim I attempted to plug in an external monitor. After fiddling with the System Settings application I succeeded only in completely borking up my xorg configuration, without trying too hard I might add. After changing the settings and rebooting I was greeted with the primary screen being the external monitor (which was not what I set it to) and both screens stuck at 640x480, which on a laptop screen with a native resolution of 1280x768 does not look very good at all. So I thought I'd just log in and disable the second monitor - but no, as soon as I logged in the power manager applet crashed, and when I tried to run the System Settings - Monitor and Display settings, it also crashed. After a bit of searching it seems that this is a known bug - the xrandr library that both of these things use (which allows changing screen resolutions on the fly) just crashes when Xinerama (ie, multi-monitor support) is enabled. After much fiddling and cursing I found the only way to get back to a configuration where the laptop's widescreen video mode was detected and available was to restore a backup copy of the xorg.conf file, which fortunately the Monitor and Display settings applet had saved.
I'd have to say I'd still recommend Kubuntu to people looking for a nice desktop distribution, since apart from the problems mentioned above it seemed very well polished - for inexperienced users it certainly beats all of the other Linux distributions I have tried.