Meet Vertumnus, my new GNU/Linux desktop (running on a Dell Inspiron 530)

If this post seems a little glowing, don’t be alarmed; it’s because I’m still basking in the brilliant sheen of my new GNU/Linux desktop (which I am composing this blog post on as I type these very words — and these words, too). That’s right, I went through with my plans for setting up a GNU/Linux desktop, though I didn’t actually use the parts list I threw together two weeks ago. I ran across an amazing deal through Dell’s small business site (instant savings of nearly half off!) on an Inspiron 530 and I jumped on it. For $360 ($407 after shipping and state taxes), I got a nice little Dell mini-tower with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 processor, 2 GB of DDR2 PC2 6400 RAM, 500GB SATA hard drive with 16 MB cache, SATA DVD burner, keyboard, and optical scroll mouse. It ended up being about the same price as the parts list I put together, but the performance is marginally better, with the added possibility of upgrading to 4 GB of RAM. It also came with Windows Vista Home Premium, which I suppose would be a value add-in for some, but which just made me wince at how much cheaper I could have gotten this system without paying the Microsoft tax. Anyway, Vista’s in the trash now, where it belongs, and the price was good enough that I’m not worrying about it.

Installing the OS

I was going to install Kubuntu on my new system, but I opted for Ubuntu instead on a recommendation from Drinian, who says that Kubuntu isn’t quite as well put-together. The only reason I wanted Kubuntu was because I wanted to run KDE instead of Gnome, but it turns out that’s incredibly easy to accomplish in Ubuntu (just install the kubuntu-desktop meta-package in aptitude, then set your login session to KDE). So choosing Ubuntu over Kubuntu hasn’t left me disappointed in any way.

Unfortunately, installing Ubuntu GNU/Linux still wasn’t as easy as it should have been. I blame the problem on hardware incompatibilities, most likely with the SATA controller on the motherboard. The installation CD wouldn’t boot without passing the kernel parameter “all_generic_ide”, which is something I can handle but the average computer user is likely to be turned off by. Then, after the installation completed, my system wouldn’t boot from the hard drive for the same reason, so I had to boot back into the LiveCD environment, mount my boot partition, and then edit grub’s (a bootloader) menu.lst to pass that same kernel parameter. So, yeah, GNU/Linux isn’t exactly friendly for the masses, at least not on this hardware. Curiously enough, I had this exact same problem when dual-booting Fedora Core (another distribution of GNU/Linux) on my previous desktop. There’s definitely some room for improvement in this area by either the Linux kernel developers or the Ubuntu packagers. There’s no real reason this can’t be one of those things that “Just Works”.

Naming the system

But after the minor hitch with “all_generic_ide” , everything else worked just fine. It was the smoothest GNU/Linux installation I believe I’ve ever done. The GNU/Linux graphical installers have become quite advanced, completely putting anything Microsoft offers up to shame. Actually, the part of the installation process that took the longest time was picking a name for my new computer. I have a long history of naming computers after various mythologies, deities, or nerdy things (Ixion, Dark Anima, Fyre, Quezacoatl, Geminoid, Phoenix, etc.), so I wanted to continue the theme. I figured since this is the first time I’ve ever used a dedicated GNU/Linux system as my primary desktop (as opposed to Microsoft Windows), I wanted to emphasize the change this brings to my computing life. So I got into a lively discussion on IRC with someone who apparently knows a good deal about ancient Greek/Roman mythology, and his best suggestion was the Roman god Vertumnus, who is “the god of seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees”. I liked both the change aspect and the environmental aspect, so Vertumnus it was.

I should point out that I’m having second thoughts about the choice of my Vertumnus as the name. Since I set it up, I’ve begun reading the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Guide, and I was struck by the deity Avandra, described as “The god of change, [she] delights in freedom, trade, travel, adventure, and the frontier.” Even more fitting, one of her commandments is “Strike back against those who would rob you of your freedom and urge others to fight for their own liberty.” Is there a more perfect name for a GNU/Linux system?! I don’t think so. So don’t be surprised if, at some point in the future, Vertumnus gets a sex change and becomes Avandra. Heck, it would be fitting with the theme. And Avandra rolls off the tongue more easily than Vertumnus, always a consideration in these kinds of things.

By the way, I believe the preceding nomenclature discussion puts to bed all doubts over whether I qualify as nerdy enough to be messing around with GNU/Linux. But I digress.

Putting the system through its test paces

Another thing that really struck me immediately upon using Vertumnus for the first few hours is how easy it is to install new software in GNU/Linux. In Windows, getting a new system set up is a many-hour ordeal: you have to go to a bunch of different websites to individually download and install all of your favorite and essential software. For me, that list includes Pidgin, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, X-Chat, OpenOffice, a non-Adobe PDF reader, PuTTY, WinSCP, Notepad2, and countless others I’m forgetting at the moment. By contrast, GNU/Linux already comes with most of those installed (or at least their GNU/Linux equivalents), and installing the rest of them is as simple as marking a few checkboxes in Synaptic (or your package manager of choice) and hitting apply. There are literally tens of thousands of Free Software programs all available for installation at the press of a button, neatly ordered by category and with nice description pages detailing what each one does. You can find, download, install, and configure all of this software in a single location. It completely blows the Microsoft Windows experience out of the water. I’ve been using command-line package managers on my servers for years, of course, but on a desktop system there’s so much more software to be installed, so the benefits of a package management system for installing software really become obvious.

Oh, and the neatest thing about package managers? They centrally track updates for all of your installed software. I can verify that all of the software installed on my system is up-to-date in seconds by clicking on one button, and then rectify it in minutes if it is not. Try doing anything even close to that in Microsoft Windows. You can’t. If you’re running Windows, I bet you have many outdated programs installed on your system, some because you can’t be arsed to upgrade them and some because you aren’t even aware upgrades are available. On the other hand, I have zero outdated programs installed on my desktop. In the Windows model, a program either has to check on its own for updates (a time-consuming feature to add in that most programmers don’t bother with), or you have to visit the programs’ website regularly to check for updates manually (for each installed program). In the GNU/Linux model, the package manager keeps track of all installed software, as well as which version is installed, and uses that information intelligently. There’s no competition whatsoever between the two models.

Just plain goofing off

I’ve also been playing around with Compiz, the 3D window manager that runs on top of X11. It’s awesome. I’m not going to lie; I don’t think it makes me more productive, per se, but the effects are contagiously fun. Windows XP is utterly boring in comparison (I can’t make any specific statements about Vista). I think my favorite effects, even though they are completely superfluous, are the ability to make it rain on my desktop, the ability to draw fire with my mouse cursor, and the rotating dragable cube whose side faces are composed of four virtual desktops. Although these effects don’t directly improve productivity (and indeed, the raining can make it a bit hard to read windows), they serve to make the desktop environment more fun, which I believe is a very important thing. If a system is entertaining me, it’s a system that I will enjoy using. Sometimes, especially in frustrating computing moments, there’s no better panacea than taking all of your program windows a wild spinning ride, setting them on fire, and then dousing the flames with rain.

As far as I’m concerned, any windowing manager that you can’t do that in is worthless.

15 Responses to “Meet Vertumnus, my new GNU/Linux desktop (running on a Dell Inspiron 530)”

  1. Cyde Weys Says:

    I should point out that playing with Compiz and various 3D games and screensavers has definitely left me less-than-impressed with the integrated Intel graphics card, so my next upgrade for this system will likely be a discrete video card. Anyone have any recommendations? I hear I can get a GeForce 8800 in the $70 range. I don’t want to spend much more than that; this is a budget system, after all. Or, should I be looking at ATI? Which has better GNU/Linux compatibility?

  2. drinian Says:

    Quick Google shows that the state of open-source drivers for ATIs is much better than I expected, but beyond that I can’t say much. My 5-year-old laptop ran on the radeon driver. I’ve always dealt with laptops or low-end cards. I am curious to see if the Penny-Arcade game will run on my newer laptop with an Intel chipset, though.

    If you have a rainy Saturday sometime soon, consider giving Dell a call and asking for a Windows license refund. There are success stories out there, and it certainly makes the system more Free.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    I should point out that the picture I’ve included in this post (which came directly off of Dell’s website) is a lie. The front and top of the case are indeed that shade of gray, but both sides are a glossy white (imagine any Apple product and you’ve got it). I’m not complaining about the look of the case I got (it honestly doesn’t matter to me much); I’m just curious why they changed it, and if people ordering off the website are going to be upset if they expected one look and got another.

  4. William Says:

    Actually, it’s very possible that’s a render. It doesn’t really make sense for it to be, but the way the lighting is done doesn’t seem like something any sane person would set up with real light.

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t think it’s a render, but looking at it more closely, you can see that the side actually is white (look where the side joins the front at the very bottom). It’s just that the lighting is so weird on the rest of it that it makes it look really gray. I’m not sure why they would want to do that.

  6. William Says:

    I don’t think it’s a render, either, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
    You can also tell if you look closely at the Dell logo stamped on the side, I think.

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  11. knacker Says:

    I didn’t even have to go to this much trouble to get Mac OS X running on a cheap HP desktop I found at a pawn shop.

    I will never use linux.

  12. knacker Says:

    In fact, installing XP on this machine was HARDER.

    Because it’s officially a Vista machine, which had no native XP drivers, and because XP is crap and can’t use the drives in AHCI mode without slipstreaming the CD.

    With Mac OS X, all I had to do was find the right packages, and they install and run. I don’t know why, I’m not a hardware junkie, or a low level programmer so if something works I just accept it and make a backup so that it’ll keep working if something goes horribly wrong.

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