Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gentoo Series Part I : Past and Present

For the first post of my multi-part Gentoo blog series, I will be discussing the quirks I've encountered, the desired goal of my objectives, and the path to take to get there.

The purpose of the following Gentoo blog posts is to document how I went from the base command-line Gentoo system to a 3D-accelerated environment using the proprietary ATI drivers. Unfortunately, those, mixed with some quirks of my Alienware M17 machine, make for a lot of frustrations and cursing. Something hopefully those who read this blog will avoid, if you are following in these footsteps.

In retrospect, I was quite lucky for things to turn out the way they did.
It all started when I purchased this laptop a year back, in December 2008. The school-based laptops had a ton of resource-consuming Windows apps on them (Anti-virus for example) that severely degraded performance. The screens were poor, small (1200x800, so not that horrible), and they had the most gimped left-shift-key I've witnessed on a computer. Major productivity killers.
So I ordered this baby, with 1920x1200 resolution, dedicated video, but otherwise quite plain. Ever since discovering GNU/Linux in 2005 way back, when Ubuntu 6.10 was out and new, it had been my distro of choice. Well, Kubuntu to be exact, and I had not had experience in anything else but Fedora Core (not a great experience). Upon the laptop's arrival, I installed Ubuntu 8.10, the most recent at the time.

Upon first booting up into the system, I was met with the ugly 'no video driver' resolution desktop. The newest driver at the time, the Catalyst 8.12, provided excellent 3D and all was right with the world when installed. It could be run via command line installer without any additional configuration or patches.

And so I used such a system for about a year until KDE 4.3 came out. For those who have used Kubuntu 8.10, there is no official (stable) kde 4.3. Unless you use a nightly repository or compile from source, chances are you won't get it. Being a fan of the K Desktop Environment, this slowly nagged at me.

Now 3D acceleration is important to me, as it's required to play Warcraft 3, one of the few games I play on a constant basis. This is important, as a few other distributions I tried to get kde 4.3 off of, arch, gentoo, and future ubuntu versions, wouldn't give me 3D, or so I thought.
At this time, it's worth mentioning that there's an issue with either the Alienware M17 hardware, the ATI HD Radeon 3870, or the Catalyst drivers that prevent the desktop from appearing on the laptop screen. It's a strange issue, where plugging in an external monitor will show the desktop, the but the laptop lcd remains black (but lit up). It holds true on Ubuntu 9.10 with Catalyst 9.10/9.12 drivers. The HD Radeon 3870 is part of the R600 series.

So now I'm in the situation where I've been trying to migrate from a working, but old system to a new, no-3D system. It seemed like everytime I would migrate to another distribution, the lack of 3D drivers would force me back to the Kubuntu 8.10 system.

By this time, total hours spent attempting to get a newer working system with 3D has probably reached 30-40 hours (non-continuous, over a year period)
I haven't installed Gentoo by this point, only Ubuntu derivatives and Archlinux. Arch worked fine, but no 3D.

Gentoo was compiled with the core2, -pipe and -O2 optimizations. Once the base system was up and running, X and KDE quickly followed. It took about ~30 hours total including download times to get it set up and compiled with most of my programs.
Even though there was no 3D at this point, it ran deadly fast with the open-source 2D ati drivers.
Things were near-instant opening and closing. Sure, the fan was running constantly because the driver doesn't yet have proper power management, but things worked great.
It was about this time that frustration at not having 3d set in.
After installing Ubuntu 8.10 alongside Gentoo, I went in and began to check all the versions of packages that I felt would affect 3D.

This is the point where I noticed the difference in Xorg versions.
Gentoo had the newest 1.7 series, whereas Ubuntu 8.10 had 1.5.2. In a nutshell, I figured that I'd have to install the same version of packages in order to get the same setup I had in Ubuntu, which theoretically should work fine.

And so concludes the first part of the Gentoo series. This was the first step I took to getting 3D on Gentoo. And to be frank, it was the easiest part.

Stay tuned for the next part, documenting resource and configurations used in getting it setup properly.
It's loads of fun, with a bit of patching, lots of forum scrounging, and lots of compiling.

NP out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Windows 7 Versus Vista, an end user's perspective

It has been more than 4 years since last seriously using a Windows environment to do work.
I've never been a Windows expert, but I know enough about computers to do installations and driver updates without too much trouble; A couple years back I installed Windows XP on a laptop using a slipstreamed XP cd (sadly they don't include SATA drivers) so I wasn't expecting much trouble.

Both Windows 7 and Vista are the 32-bit editions, as compatibility seems to be better as such.

On my first install attempt, my current partition setup was like this:

1 Primary Boot Partition (Linux)
1 Primary Root Partition (Linux)
1 Empty NTFS Partition to install Windows on
3 Logical Partitions for Linux mount points.

Now, there is a good reason why forums will suggest installing Windows first, then Linux on top.

The first issues I encountered were:

- Windows cannot install to the desired partition error
- Windows cannot install to an external USB error

I figure it had something to do with the number of primary partitions already set up, in addition to the logical ones. Both Vista and Windows 7 had these issues and would not install on the current configuration; they don't seem to recognize logical partitions at all.

Unsurprisingly, GNU / Linux distributions will install without any hiccup given my partitioning scheme, as I successfully installed Ubuntu 8.10 on top afterwards. But this is irrelevant for this blog topic.

So I eventually caved in and wiped my hard drive of partitions and set up all my primaries using the Windows 7 partitioner. It's installed on the 2nd primary partition and everything worked fine.
My screen resolution is 1920x1200 and I was surprised that it was autodetected and set. Generally drivers are required to get it working. However, that was as good as it got. Not only did Windows 7 feel slower than Vista (based on perception, not on actual benchmarks) as windows started to lag, tasks took longer, etc. As Windows 7 detected the video card, I expected it to detect other components of my laptop. I did not install any drivers on 7, so perhaps the slowness was due to a missing component.
The kicker came when trying to watch videos with speakers plugged into the audio jack. No sound came out through the speakers. Sound kept playing from the laptop as if nothing had been recognized. Plus the sound was quieter than when using Linux or Vista systems.

And so I judged that Windows 7 wasn't ready.

On to Vista:

Like it's newer cousin 7, it would not install when my primary partitions were already in place. I wiped 7 off and began to install Vista on the same partition 7 was previously on.

Everything was the same for installation, except when presented with the desktop, resolution was reduced, blurry, and gross.
As I had the OEM driver install cd with me (a fact that is the reason why Vista was a breeze to install; without it, it would have been exponentially more difficult to work with) and soon had all drivers working.

Now Vista at this point was still working quite slow, as most people have complained about. After using the Windows Update to get all recent updates as well as some optional ones which included optimizations (highly recommended to install for you Vista users), normal desktop usage ran like a breeze.

Warcraft 3, although quite old now, ran extremely fast on full settings. As my laptop is known as a "Gaming Laptop", a moniker I dislike personally, having 512 MB of dedicated video DDR3, it's expected to run fast.

So for the simple task of playing Warcraft 3, Vista is definitely the winner.

Of course, this is purely an end-user perspective. For all the technical jargon and points that could be made (7 is faster, blah blah blah), I prefer Vista.
And the most probable reason for my preference, is the simple fact that Vista has been out longer.
It has had more time for bug reports, updates, and real-world usage. 7 hasn't been out long enough to gain the backing that Vista now has.
And that is one reason why many companies haven't switched yet, for good reason.

Personally, the only real diff I see right now between 7 and Vista is the user interface.
And both pale in comparison to speed I can achieve with linux systems.

XP runs great with 376 MB of ram in a virtual machine with 32MB video. If I need windows apps, I've got that covered.

Lastly, I'd like to give my own personal take on what should have happened after Xp.

Since the UI is so familiar and usable for most people, what Microsoft SHOULD have done, is take the XP interface and completely rebuild Windows in order to use that interface, but with a more secure and functional system and kernel.
Naturally, UI enhancements should be included, users should be given a choice of interfaces to implement. Just like GNU/Linux users can choose Gnome, KDE, fluxbox, Enlightenment just to name a few, and have those look like Mac OS-X, Windows, or just a blank desktop (minimal), Windows too should give users more choice.

For instance, some people in China have taken Ubuntu and made it into an XP clone, pixel for pixel. Link below.

Is it so hard to make Windows modular so people can build their own Windows system?

Perhaps. At least there is KDE - On - Windows for those that want functionality on their windows desktop.

So many opinions, so little time.
I hope this post hasn't exasperated you readers. ( lol as if anyone reads this blog =p )

And for the record, Ubuntu and popular distributions in general install in about 20 minutes. Vista and 7 in about 30 or 40.
Windows still uses a filesystem that's 9+ years old (NTFS) and support for things like FAT, FAT16/32/64.
Honestly guys, make a better filesystem.

Christmas Break Update

It's been quite a while since my last rant, er, post.
I realize that Microsoft is not completely at fault for the issues I encountered though I still can't help but feel like they are underperforming in their OS.

Anyway, during the Christmas break I've spent copious amounts of time working on my laptop and learning the ropes of Gentoo GNU/Linux. There's obviously not enough room in one post to fill up what I have to say, so the following posts will be part of a series.

I will be writing a short review on Windows Vista versus Windows 7. I haven't had a great deal of experience in either, so it will be more of an end user perspective, not a technological expert's opinion. (Although it shouldn't take one to make an accurate judgement.)

Next on my list is a write-up non-comprehensive tutorial on setting up Gentoo on an Alienware M17 with a nice KDE 4 install with the latest and greatest QT / KDE packages.
It will cover issues that are found with the xorg server -- from experience it seems only the older 1.5.3-r6 version will work with the ATI Catalyst drivers (meaning 3D acceleration)

I'll be uploading my configuration files, kernel, and the driver that works for this machine.
As well, I've tested out the lasted xorg with the opensource ati drivers.
What is lacking in 3D makes up greatly with blazing fast 2D.

More to come.