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09/02/2004 Archived Entry: "Three Linuxes, two computers, and a printer"
For those who are interested in my experiences with Linux, and perhaps contemplating a switch to that operating system, I have more personal experiences to relate about Mandrake 10, SuSE 9, Xandros 2, and an HP OfficeJet. Those not interested can feel free to skip all that follows.
Xandros 2 vs. SuSE 9
Recently I broke down and bought a new laptop computer, a (pre-owned) Compaq Presario 2170CA. Knowing in advance that I wanted to run Linux on my laptop, I checked the machine out at http://www.tuxmobil.org/ and found it to be Linux compatible. Since I'm running Xandros 2 on my desktop, I thought I'd install that on the laptop as well.
The laptop came with Windows XP (and since I bought it used, I didn't have the option of returning the Windows for a refund). So I figured what the hell, I'd dual boot XP and Linux. Xandros 2 has the ability to resize an NTFS partition, so I figured I'd shrink XP down to 5 GB or so and free up 35 GB for Linux. Except...Xandros 2 kept telling me it couldn't resize the partition.
Time for plan B. I'd recently acquired a commercial copy of SuSE 9 Linux, and I knew it could resize NTFS, so I figured I'd use it to partition the hard drive. Aha! SuSE's different resizing tool wouldn't let me reduce the XP partition below 10 GB; obviously this is the problem that Xandros failed to report. SuSE 9 went on to install flawlessly, autodetecting all the laptop's hardware except the modem (more on this shortly).
Having partitioned the drive, I went back to install Xandros. The default install didn't work, and here is where I do have a gripe with Xandros: if the default doesn't work, you have to try eight different alternative options, installing each one from scratch, until one of them works. I got alternative #5 to install, but then it wouldn't boot. A bit of research on the Xandros forums, and I learned to disable "legacy PCI support" in the BIOS. Then it would boot, but wouldn't recognize the Ethernet port, modem, floppy drive, or CD-ROM.
Finding no help on the forum, I contacted Xandros tech support, and after a few exchanges, the tech support guy realized that there was no driver for the Ethernet chip. He found and sent me one, with instructions for installation, and lo! everything except the modem began to function. (Extra kudos to Xandros tech support for this, because technically my support period has expired. I'm told this driver will be included in the next release.) So, after some weeks and a lot of aborted installs, I now have Xandros 2 running on the laptop.
About that modem...the SuSE web site informs me that a Linux driver was just released for this "winmodem" chip a few months ago. I'll have to download it and install it, and then figure out how to install it under Xandros. Meanwhile my laptop remains a triple-boot system: XP, SuSE 9, and Xandros 2.
The moral: laptops frequently use unusual or new interface chips, and this can be a problem for Linux. Before you buy a laptop, check it out at http://www.tuxmobil.org/ or http://www.linux-laptop.net/. If you already own a laptop, and it isn't listed, don't despair: new drivers are being released all the time.
I've been building a new firewall machine to replace our old Linux 2.2 machine. (That machine works fine as a firewall, but since it's on 24 hours a day, I want to add some other functions.) So I've resurrected an old Pentium 133 and decided to give Mandrake Linux 10 a whirl.
Mandrake's installer didn't recognize my graphics card, so it forced me into text install mode. It's reassuring that you can fall back to this mode, but it's nowhere near as polished or as easy as the graphical install mode (which I've done on another machine). It let me configure both my Ethernet connection and my modem connection, which is a plus.
Except...it installed the wrong driver for my Ethernet card, so that part isn't working. And my old ISA modem requires the "setserial" configuration tool to set its IRQ -- and I wouldn't have known this, had I not recently discovered this in connection with another machine I use. setserial isn't on my Mandrake distribution disks, but I found the package immediately by Googling "setserial RPM", and I can download it with another machine.
So at the moment, I have a Mandrake 10 system working, but I need to install the correct Ethernet driver and setserial tool. On the bright side, I noticed a built-in configuration tool for sharing internet connections. I'm hoping that once I get the interfaces configured, setting it up as a gateway will be easy.
On the downside, Mandrake 10 on a 133 MHz Pentium is reallllly slow. (Slower than my old 2.2 kernel on a 100 MHz Pentium.)
HP OfficeJet G85
Our photocopier bit the dust years ago, our old fax machine lacks an automatic document feeder (thus a pain to use), my old scanner is limited, and I have to borrow Wendy's printer (over the network) when I need to print in color. So for some months now I've been checking out all-in-one print/scan/fax/copy machines.
Important tip: when you're looking at these, make sure they can fax and copy "standalone", that is, when the PC is shut off. Some low-end machines require the PC to be running -- worse, require a Windows program to be running -- in order to do any faxing or copying. Avoid such machines. Usually a quick trip to the manufacturer's web site will tell you all the specs and features.
The low-end "consumer" all-in-ones are running $300-$400 Canadian, so when a bunch of nearly-new office-duty HP machines came onto eBay recently for half that price, I bought one. Of course, before buying I visited http://www.linuxprinting.org/ to make sure it was supported under Linux. All-in-one printers have historically been a problem under Linux, but HP (to their immense credit) has been moving to change this by releasing their "hpoj" Linux drivers. Sure enough, the G85 is listed as "mostly" working (printing and scanning work ok, but faxing from the PC is not supported -- no problem as far as I'm concerned).
I had to install the software twice, and I have only myself to blame. I tried to install the printer before downloading the hpoj driver from Xandros Networks. One click to install hpoj, and then I had to "uninstall" the printer, reinitialize the driver, and reinstall the printer. Then it worked perfectly (and over the USB port, which I have heretofore avoided).
Better still: one click to install the Kooka scanner software from Xandros Networks, and the scanner was recognized and worked immediately. (Once you get Xandros installed, it's really easy to use.)
Based upon these incremental additions to my experience, I now recommend as follows: for those wanting a "full" Linux distribution, I recommend SuSE. I was very impressed with its ease of installation and its autodetection of my laptop hardware, and their YaST configuration tool is very easy to use for hardware configuration and software updates. (Mandrake offers a similar tool but I found it difficult to use; I haven't figured out how to replace a driver, or how to enable an Ethernet interface that is not being used for the Internet.)
I still like Xandros 2 once you have it installed. Installation is a binary proposition: either it's a smooth five clicks, or it's a week-long struggle. It's probably ok for a current desktop system, but I'd be cautious about choosing it for a laptop or for "legacy" ISA hardware. Once installed, though, it's the easiest for management and installing new hardware.
When assembling a desktop machine, avoid the use of old ISA cards and go with PCI cards. This is only a problem with "pre-owned" computers -- no one includes ISA slots anymore in new computers. ISA support is starting to disappear from Linux distributions; if you're going to use older hardware, get a "full" distro like SuSE or Mandrake. (A caution about new desktops: some of the latest models use "serial ATA" hard drives. The newest Linux distros are starting to support this, but SuSE 9 -- to name one example -- doesn't. Avoid serial ATA if you can, for the next little while at least.)
When acquiring a laptop, always, always check compatibility. Too many of these use odd chips, and you don't know when those chips will be supported.
Ditto for printers and scanners! As quick a rule of thumb you usually can't go wrong with Hewlett-Packard -- techies like HP equipment and are quick to write Linux drivers, and HP is actively supporting the Linux community with drivers. But there are exceptions: for example, the popular Scanjet 2300C scanner is not (yet) supported under Linux. So check first.
Linux compatibility resources
Laptops: http://www.tuxmobil.org/ and http://www.linux-laptop.net/