Vincent Zoonekynd's Blog

Sun, 01 Jan 2006: Ubuntu

Ubuntu was the next stop on my journey away from Mandriva. Though the distribution has a very good reputation, though it is touted as rock-solid and easy-to-use even for beginners, it left my computer in an appalling state: it is of course plagued by the patent-induced lack of media players that infects more and more distributions, but the rare present applications lacked most of the features, most of the appeal of their KDE counterparts. Even worse, the distribution failled to install -- a power-user will manage to fix things, but the begininners, the very target of this distribution, will throw the CDs in the bin.

While you might keep Gnome alongside KDE on your computer, for the rare worthy applications (Gimp, Gnumeric) and to keep an eye on the competitors, Ubuntu is, for me, a no-go.

Installing the system

First impressions

The (text-based) installation first seems seamless. There are two stages: the first from the CD, the second without -- apparently, the files were copied to the hard drive.

According to the messages flashing on the screen, it seems to be using LVM, Raid, Alsa.

Second impressions

Even though I had said "British English", the welcome screen greets me with the date in American English (furthermore, the time is an unhelpful "3:31" instead of "15:31" -- American people would prefer 3:31pm, but 3:31 is plainly wrong).

The fonts are awful. The fact that the installation process failed to recognise the screen resolution does not help.

Once I log in, nothing.

Yes, nothing. A dung-coloured, blank screen.

Troubleshooting, 1: no graphical environment

Press CTRL-ALT-F1 to get a console.


Look in ~/.xsession-errors

less ~/.xsession-errors

There seems to be a problem with a missing

I ask for a root shell.

sudo -s

I try to install the missing package.

man apt-get
apt-get install libgnome-desktop-2

It does not work because it is already there...

I run the graphical interface (there were no problems with the X server), that, luckily, does not seem to rely on the missing package.

DISPLAY=:0.0 synaptic &

To get to the X11 server screen (I am currently in front of the console), type ALT-F7.

Search for the "libgnome-desktop" package (there are two "search" buttons: it is the one at the top of the interface -- the one at the bottom apparently has a different, non-intuitive purpose).

Ask that it be reinstalled.

When prompted, insert the CD.

Then, we have to restart the X11 server. Since I forgot that CRTL-ALT-BACKSPACE does just that, I go back to the console (CTRL-ALT-F1) and I switch to run-level 3, then 5.

init 3
init 5

Unfortunately, contrary to Red Hat or Mandriva systems, the X11 server is launched in all the runlevels. So I try to kill gdm

killall gdm

naively hoping that it would automatically restart. Apparently it does not. To check what happens, I switch to the X11 screen, with ALT-F7 and...

Frozen. Again.

This time, however, I cannot go back to the console with CRTL-ALT-F1.

I violently reboot the machine with the power switch.

It works, the graphical environment is there!

Troubleshootings, 2: Screen resolution

Some distributions know that they cannot infer the size of your screen so they ask you (Mandriva, Knoppix), others can infer it (Suse), but Ubuntu cannot and imposes the default resolution.

I carefully looked in the menus, but could not find something to change the resolution or to configure the Xorg server.

Since there is no search facility in the menus (Suse has one in the "Start" menu), I cannot be sure it is really absent.

I also tried the Help system: but there again there is no search facility. Since the fonts are hardly readable, I refuse to look further in this direction.

Google finally gives me the solution:

sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-org

This is a text-based application (which is fine), in which you can safely accept the default values. However, there are far too many questions, and you have to go through them in a linear way -- it is impossible to change just one setting without bothering about the others. Furthermore, there is no "back" button: if you gave an incorrect answer (for instance, if you pressed "enter" instead of "space"), you cannot go back, you will have to run the whole application once more.

I can finally change the resolution of the screen (1280*1024) and the colour depth (24 bits, not 16).

This time, I know that to reset the X11 server, it suffices to press ALT-CTRL-BACKSPACE. It apparently stops it but does not restart it. Since the machine is not frozen, this time, I can cleanly reboot.

sudo reboot

Problem: fonts

The problem is still there.

External media

When I plug the external hard drive, it is not automatically mounted.

$ dmesg | tail
[4295392.100000] ieee1394: Node added: ID:BUS[0-01:1023]  GUID[00d04b590e076011]
[4295392.100000] ieee1394: The root node is not cycle master capable; selecting a new root node and resetting...
[4295392.359000] ieee1394: Node changed: 0-01:1023 -> 0-00:1023
[4295392.359000] ieee1394: Node changed: 0-00:1023 -> 0-01:1023

I do not see anything in /dev that I could mount.

Let us try to reboot -- the hard drive could be recognized at boot time...

sudo reboot

Yes! Half the hard drive is recognized (there are two partitions, only the second is mounted).

If I go in System --> Administration --> Disks, I learn that this 300GB contains "no known partitions" -- even though the system managed to mount one of those partitions.

"Plug-and-Play" should be renamed "Plug-Reboot-Fix-and-Play"...

Multimedia problems

The multimedia situation of Linux distributions is getting ever gloomier: one year ago, you could read MP3 files out-of-the-box -- this is no longer possible...

OGG files are fine.

Some videos are fine -- well, I have at least the sound (Ogg Vorbis, apparently), if not the image. Actually, no: Gnome decided to run gnome-video-thumbnailer, which freezes the video player (Totem), that does not recover even after the thumbnailer has finished.

If I wanted to have some multimedia capabilities, I would more or less follow this:


sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

sudo cp /etc/apt/sources.list /etc/apt/sources.list.backup

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install w32codecs libdvdcss2
sudo apt-get install libmad0 libdvdread3
sudo apt-get install lame sox ffmpeg mjpegtools vorbis-tools
sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.8-misc gstreamer0.8-plugins gstreamer0.8-plugins-multiverse gstreamer0.8-ffmpeg gst-register-0.8

sudo apt-get install mplayer-586
sudo perl -p -i.bak -e 's/vo=x11/vo=xv/g' /etc/mplayer/mplayer.conf

sudo apt-get install timidity timidity-interfaces-extra freepats

I can now watch videos with Totem -- but the subtitles are not in sync with the image and the sound; the subtitles create grey artefacts on the sides of the image; the image does not flow as easily as with good, old MPlayer.

I can listen to MP3 files. However, the graphical animation that Totem creates to accompany music is choppy -- it is like a screen saver, only smaller and choppier. I try to desactivate it (we can, in the "Preferences" dialogue), but it is just flagged as disactivated, not actually disactivated.

MPlayer could not be installed, because of a version problem.

Update: For Mandrake, I new about the PLF (Penguin Liberation Front, that hosts the multimedia and other patent-encumbered software), for Suse, I quickly found PackMan, but I did not find the same thing for Ubuntu. It is well-hidden, but it does exist: it is called EasyUbuntu.

Other, random remarks

In the file manager, there is no location bar in which we can type a URL or from which we could copy. We can just look at it -- we cannot even copy it by hand, because it does not give us the full location, just the last directory).

I really liked the systematic use of sudo.


Was there ANYTHING that worked?

The main advantage of debian-based distributions is, according to their advocates, apt-get, that can "resolve dependencies". That was perhaps the case three or four years ago, but other distributions have evolved and incorporated those advances.

Another advantage is automatic hardware recognition. Knoppix (another Debian-based distribution -- but it is a LiveCD, not a distribution designed to be installed on a hard drive) does an excellent job here, but Ubuntu fails to follow suit (screen resolution problems, inability to recognise the external hard drive).

Another salient difference between Ubuntu and other mainstream distributions is the use of Gnome as opposed to KDE. If we take individual applications, we can find good choices on both sides -- and actually, an "optimal" desktop is likely to mix both. Err... To back this statement, I was about to list Gnome applications superior to KDE ones, but I fail to find any (except Gimp, but noone will see it as ties to Gnome), but I am sure there must be.

The main drawback of Gnome as implemented in Ubuntu is the fonts -- they are absolutely unreadable. I also have similar problems with KDE on Suse, but they are easily solved (I just increase the default font size) -- on Gnome, I have no clue as to what to do. That was the state of KDE a couple of ears ago: Didn't Gnome evolve?

(I found it: disable antialiasing, hinting, and set the pixel size to 150 dpi.)

And, as always, the multimedia and latency problems...

Another distribution down the sewer...

posted at: 20:30 | path: /Linux | permanent link to this entry