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February 11, 2009

My Dark Linux Confession

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Creative Commons License photo credit: phauly

When it has come to operating systems, I have always had a hard time making up my mind. Windows, for me, has been a good choice for my gaming consoles and a reasonable one for work as well. Mac has become my default office system, having used it now for nearly two years as my primary “getting things done” machine.

However, Linux has always been my secret love affair. It is a relationship that has stretched over half a decade. It began with some spare hard drive space and a desire to to see what Linux was all about. Now, it is a relationship on life support.

You see, I’ve come to notice something. After seven years of using Linux, seven different distros, countless versions and six computers, I’ve finally hit a point where I have to admit something. That every computer I’ve had both Linux and Windows XP on has worked far better with Windows than Linux.

There’s a lot of reasons for this, but none of them bode well for penguin.

A Bit of History

Real fast, I want to explain where I am coming from and why I am not some random Linux-hater. I have been using Linux for about seven years. I started in 2002 with Mandrake Linux. I was curious to see what Linux was about and wanted to see if it would work well for me. I first installed the OS in the free space of my Windows hard drive but that went afoul after a few weeks when Windows was nice enough to “fix” my hard drive by removing the partition divide and then erasing my Linux setup.

Still, it didn’t take me long to get back to Linux (I was kind of mad at Windows at this point). When I bought a new system a few months later, I wiped the hard drive and made my former machine Linux-only, giving the new computer to my significant other. I had my Linux comp and, if I wanted to use Windows to play a game I could borrow hers.

Ever since then, I’ve had a constant relationship with Linux. At no point between then and now have I not owned at least one machine with Linux. In the time that’s passed, I’ve had Linux on four different desktops and two laptops. I put it on old machines, I put it on new ones.

I’ve also tried a wide variety of distros too. I started with Mandrake, but I’ve also tried Red Hat, Xandros (both desktop and Eee PC version), Debian, PCLinuxOS, gOS and, of course, four different flavors Ubuntu (Ubuntu, Kubntu, Xubuntu and Easy Peasy).

Though this relationship has been constant and exciting, it’s also been a love/hate one. On systems where I was dual-booting with Windows, it was always a struggle to resist the urge to boot back into Windows. Between problems with the OS, missing programs and inelegant solutions to common problems, Linux always felt like a sacrifice, something that I was giving up to appease the open source Gods.

To quickly explain why, I’m going to break it down into three parts.

1. Major Issues

I was aware that, especially early on, that Linux was an OS for “tinkerers”. I liked playing with computers and learning, so I didn’t mind and even relished some of the fiddling, but there comes a point where I want to get down to work and Linux, at times, seemed dead set against that idea.

Consider the following things that happened to me over the years:

  • CPU, Slightly Roasted: During a routine distro/kernel update, I rebooted to find that every time I tried to work in the system, it would begin to overheat almost instantly. It turned out that the kernel I had installed had a broken implementation of ACPI, causing the CPU fan to never come on. As a result, it would power up, start to overheat and shut down to try and save itself. I had to reboot the system while spraying compressed air on the CPU to keep it cool in order to turn ACPI off and “break” the system so at least the fan would stay on constantly. However, even after the kernel was fixed, that system never worked right again, likely damaged in the ordeal.
  • Laptop Issues: Linux on laptops has always been a gamble, but after setting it up on an aging laptop of my own, I found out why. I could never get the wifi card in the laptop to work, even though the card was fairly common, battery life, already struggling due to age, went in the tank (making it a plugin-only laptop) and this says nothing about the 3G wireless card I had for the laptop, which worked only once, for a few minutes, despite dozens of hours spent tinkering. The laptop is now almost completely useless and has been replaced by my technically-inferior Eee PC.
  • Frozen System: A more recent “facepalm” came when I tried upgrade from Ubuntu 8.04 to 8.10. Somehow, in between the two versions, my computer completely stopped booting, freezing about a quarter of the way through the loading bar (some have said it is an issue with the video card). Fortunately, by this point, I’d learned not to keep critical data on any hard drive that had Linux on it, so it was trivial to format the drive and put 8.04 back on it, thus returning to normal.
  • Could any of these things happen on Windows or Mac? Sure. Some people have had similar or worse problems with both. But here’s the deal. Neither have happened to me and no one I know has spent a Saturday with a can of compressed air trying to keep a CPU cool so they can fiddle with Windows options.

    Either I have the worst possible luck with Linux, am doing something so obviously wrong that I should hurt myself (like flipping the magic “make Linux suck” switch) or something is wrong.

    2. General Laggardness

    One of the sales pitches for Linux is that it is supposed to bring old systems back to life, run better on old hardware and move faster, more reliably than Windows.

    Bull.

    I have to give Linux its credit. It doesn’t hang up, hour glass, pinwheel or do any of the things you see from time to time on Windows or Mac, instead though, every action feels slow. Every time I’ve put Linux on a system that had Windows previously (or even still does) it has moved slower. Every click felt less responsive, every keyboard press a little more delayed. Any gain I got by not being hourglassed every hour was lost by the million or so micro-delays throughout the day.

    Applications, for me, load slower. Pages come up with less speed. Clicks take a split-second to respond and my typing often gets more than a bit ahead of the screen. I don’t have these issues with Windows so how is Linux making things faster?

    The worst (for Linux) is my current dual boot machine. Here we have a true apples-to-apples comparison as Windows and Linux both run on the same hardware, each have their separate hard drive (of the same size/kind) and I can trivially reboot between the two and try each out in similar situations. Linux boots faster and is ready to work a bit more quickly, but once Windows XP gets up fully, it starts running laps around the penguin.

    It’s sad, but entirely true in my experience.

    3. App Backwards

    Finally, though most major applications have decent Linux counterparts (Firefox is on Linux, OpenOffice is pretty good, etc.) there are some apps that have nothing. What if you want a version of Windows Live Writer or Ecto for Linux? Last time I checked you were out of luck. Most Linux blog editors are like using crayons to do high art.

    Even the apps that do seem to have Linux ports don’t seem to work as well in Linux. The last time I tried playing online games on Kongregate in Linux I nearly threw my monitor. Flash, despite being almost almost version-equal, runs like garbage.

    The bottom line is that there is almost always some sacrifice when switching to Linux. There is some program that you’re going to have to give up, one that won’t work nearly as well or some other problem that you don’t have to put up with on Windows or Mac.

    Excuses, Excuses

    Linux supporters and developers are quick to point out that the problems I describe are pretty well-known and are also not their fault. They are quick to blame hardware manufacturers for not release adequate specs and open source drivers. They say they could get more speed and better effeciency if hardware manufacturers would just work with them.

    I am almost certain that is true, but that isn’t a problem Windows has. Microsoft is powerful enough to strong arm the hardware companies into doing their bidding. Mac, on the other hand, just controls which hardware they allow their OS to run on, eliminating the problem completely.

    Is it fair? No. But consumers don’t care about fair, they want a system that works. Consumers don’t like “evil” and if all else is equal they’ll choose one that is “good”. But if given a choice between an evil system that works and a good one with flaws, they’ll choose the evil one almost every time.

    The reason is that open source, though a great buzzword, is no a feature. It doesn’t, by itself, make the computer go faster, crash less or be more productive. Better programming and design do those things. When open source has been able to make better programs, as with Firefox, users have adopted it. When it hasn’t, as with desktop Linux, they won’t.

    The major benefit of open source favors programmers and hardcore tinkerers. People who want to buy a CPU and do work on it don’t to choose new windows managers nor do they want to be forced to make such a choice. A computer, to them, should be a like a toaster, fast, efficient, rarely breaking and getting its job done. Free as in freedom, doesn’t matter and free as in free beer only goes so far.

    If there is such a serious issue with hardware drivers and support from 3rd parties, and I believe that there is, then perhaps we need fewer Linux-heads coding the kernel and more pressing the flesh and working with these companies. Maybe we need more lawyers working to combat Microsoft’s behavior and maybe we need businessmen bringing in companies to the fold.

    A lot more than code goes into making a great OS. Microsoft and Apple both have business partnerships, legal teams and countless other non-programmers helping to build every next OS. Linux can not grow on programmers and fanboys alone.

    Yet, it seems like that is exactly what they are trying to do.

    The Good News

    In all of this I have discovered something. Going back to the “controlling the hardware” issue, in cases where Linux is built around a specific computer, it does seem to work very well. Take my review of Easy Peasy. Though others on different versions of the Eee have had some serious problems, as indicated by the comments, for my laptop it worked swimmingly. I’m sure that, if I installed XP on the same machine, I would be in for a world of frustration.

    The Eee PC is an excellent example of what happens when manufacturers use Linux well. They built a laptop around Linux, it works out of the box and it does what it is supposed to do. End of story. Linux CAN work and work very well but it takes more than blindly slapping CDs into drives and rebooting.

    Rather than encouraging end users and the uninitiated to download and burn Linux distros, thus putting them on PCs built with Windows in mind, perhaps we should be focusing on getting manufacturers to sell Linux. There has been a lot of push on that front and some mixed success, but it makes more sense than letting install problems, broken drivers and slower computers sour potential customers on Linux before they’ve had the chance to really see it work.

    Conclusions

    In the end, what Linux needs may not be a kick in the rear, but a change in strategy. I may be done installing Linux on computers that weren’t built with Linux in mind, but that doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Linux desktop if the price is right and my needs are met.

    As long as Mac and Windows get to cheat and have assurances the hardware they’re on will work great for them, Linux will always look like a slow, problem-riddled OS. Sure, the open source nature of it may convince the die hard, but the people who are just punching a clock online don’t care enough to make the needed sacrifices.

    I know that this is going to get me some hatemail and possibly worse, but at some point I have to face up to reality. Every computer I’ve put Linux on ran better with XP. It may not be Linux’s fault, but the fact remains.

    Until that fact changes, Linux will remain the third place desktop OS by a longshot.