Joining the Throng


Yesterday I became one of a growing group of people. I installed Kubuntu.

For almost two years, I had my laptop dual booted with Windows XP and Gentoo Linux. Sadly, I spent the majority of my time in the former as there were several roadblocks preventing daily use. Still, I had hoped that with a bit of tinkering, I'd be able to get Linux up and running with a bit of effort.

"A bit of effort" doesn't begin to describe Gentoo.

When I had started using the OS in 2005, I marveled at how well laid-out the operating system was. Out of the handful of distros I had tried, Gentoo was the only one I liked. It felt "clean" in a way that many others at the time did not. It did, however, come at a price: Gentoo had no installer. You booted into a LiveCD, then used the command line to manually format the drive, copy over the base system, and then build the kernel. Where many distros took a hour to install, Gentoo would take days.

The biggest reason was that Gentoo is a source-based OS. Instead of downloading pre-compiled applications, the Gentoo package manager emerge would download source code and configuration scripts. Then it would compile the software on your system and (allowing success) install it. Why do this? Pre-compiled applications are built with the lowest system specifications in mind. By compiling each application for your particular hardware, you gain a performance boost. The consequence is that you have to compile everything.

"Compiling can't possibly take that long!" you say? Compiling can take a few minutes for a small program, but hours for something as commonplace as Mozilla Firefox. A larger piece of software like OpenOffice, can take nearly all day. Unfortunately, I'm not building software I'm writing -- like these fortunate programmers -- but the very system I'm going to use.

Why the hell did I choose such a ridiculous OS? Simple: I wanted to know how Linux works.

Installing Gentoo can earn you some serious geek barging rights. Successfully installing it requires determination, know how, research, and above all else, a metric ton of patience. In total, I've install Gentoo on three different systems: One with faulty memory, Another as a desktop OS, and finally my beloved Sony Vaio laptop. Sony laptops are particularly tricky as much of the hardware was software emulated. Getting 90% functionality on that is quite a feat of tenacity indeed.

I never quite got to 90. The wifi was clumsy and often didn't hold a connection. The NTFS support was slow under captive, but miraculous with ntfs-3. I had direct rendering and Beryl (now Compiz Fusion) running. The skype 2.0 beta with video support? That too. While it may sound like I'm talking up my skills, in reality I'm astonished I was able to pull it off.

The biggest problem was maintainability. Gentoo is seemingly on the decline the last 9 months. The project has suffered management and direction problems. There hasn't been a system update I've run in the last 6 months that didn't break two-thirds of my system. Instead of using my laptop, I was in perpetual maintenance mode, always grasping for that "mostly functional but stable" straw.

On a whim one evenng, I decided to put together a VMWare image of Kubuntu. I'd walk through an install and play with the OS. I was impressed. Since I had first tried it in 2005, Kubuntu has come a long, long way. There was a sense of organization and polish that I found lacking in previous versions. VMWare, however, doesn't give you an accurate picture of how the system will run on actual hardware. The device drivers are emulated and do not resemble your physical system at all. The only way to truly tell was to boot my system into the Live CD.

About a week later I did indeed boot my system off the Kubuntu Live CD. I spent the entire evening astonished. Everything just worked! No hacking, no rambling, no experimental kernel patches! I was floored. The system ran with more functionality off of the install cd than I had ever gotten with over a year of Gentoo.

It wasn't until yesterday that I had made the switch. The last two evenings have been spent installing and configuring applications. I'm still quite impressed with this system.