Reflections on Debian on my netbook.

Well, the install was more trouble than I would have liked, as I have detailed elsewhere. On the other hand, the tools for monitoring battery life, controlling sound, keeping an eye on system performance and seeing what the network is doing are far more open and easy to use (and responsive) than Windows. Since I never used gestures on the touch pad (indeed, I disabled them in the Windows days) I can’t say how well the pointer driver copes with that sort of thing. But once the non-free firmware was installed, the whole thing just worked beautifully.

Obligatory redacted screenshot.

Obligatory redacted screenshot.

The main reason I moved off Windows was the way Microsoft manage Win 10 updates. After nagging me to upgrade from Win 7 (which I did because the machine was in need of a refresh and because I half-thought I would just try Win 10 and probably shift to Linux anyway), Microsoft then foist upon me enormous upgrades at inconvenient times over which I have little or no control despite burrowing down into the menu system and trying to manualise things. And apt-get/synaptic completely solves that issue for me. I issue a couple of commands at the command line:

sudo apt-get update

that updates the list of available packages and versions.

then I type

sudo apt-get upgrade

and it tells me exactly what is going to be upgraded and how big the download is. If I decide that I don’t want to do it, I just say ‘no’. If I decide I just want to do a subset of proposed upgrades (in particular, there are times and places where I do not want to be stuck waiting for a big download but I might want an update to something of big security impact, like ssh, to go ahead) then I just say

sudo apt-get install << package names >>

and it does those ones and no others. It never upgrades without asking, never does it and then tells me, almost never needs a reboot after an update, and I upgrade the OS and the applications all at once. This is a well-known strength of the Open Source Linux ecosystem, but it is brought home really strongly by comparing the exact same machine before and after the changeover.

Before I changed, I would run a Windows update. Then a cygwin update, then LibreOffice, then VirtualBox, then… etc. Every updater using its own interface, some crudely sending me to the web to simply download a new version, some nagging me, and so on. Adobe products seem to be hugely bloated and since often what you download is just an installer that downloads more crap, you never know just what they are going to do.

Now, I am not a typical case. I do not use Adobe Illustrator, I rarely use Microsoft Word (though I do like Excel). I used cygwin on my Windows machine a lot, and it is a Unix-like environment. I use LaTeX and gfortran. So I do not use a lot of proprietary software anyway. I am old enough to remember when the command line was the interface, though the one I learned first was MSDOS, and I am not afraid of issuing commands at the prompt. So I am a good fit for Linux, though far from expert.

Negatives of the transition:

When people send me Word documents and complicated Excel sheets, and PowerPoint slides, I often, despite the efforts of the good people working on LibreOffice, see an incomplete translation of the document (this is really Microsoft’s doing, of course, since they never fully implement a transparent standard without their own little fiddles). I’ve had no trouble connecting to wireless networks at various offices. As noted, installation was not as transparent as I might have liked, though I wonder if a net install on an open network, or using a distribution less ideologically ‘free’ (eg Mint) might have solved that. (And, regardless, I only had to do it once.) Umm… I think that is it.

OK, not quite ‘it’: Printing.  Went to ‘System’ menu and chose ‘Administration’ and ‘Synaptic’. Searched for ‘cups’.  (Common Unix Printing System).  Installed it and its default dependencies.  Then, to use the web-GUI to manage my printers, I fired up Iceweasel (since replaced by Firefox) and went to ‘http://localhost:631/ ‘ and clicked ‘Administration’ and ‘Add Printer’ (at some point entered my login details).  It found my USB printer, got the model correct automagically, so  I just had to click ‘OK’ a few times, and moments later I was printing. Very easy once you know it is ‘cups’ you have to look for, but I wonder if that is non-obvious to too many users? Again, there are many other distributions out there that do hold the user’s hand through the process, so this is not a criticism, more a note.  Indeed, I would say that the OS has done a great job of finding and talking to the hardware, and the only trick is in knowing what to do; once I found out there was no problem with it working.

The nicest thing for me has been that the experience has confirmed some things that I had seen stated but never verified for myself. In particular, current Linux really does feel faster on the same hardware than current Windows, and it really can drive all the hardware, the modems and webcams and suchlike. (Of course, this is not cutting edge hardware — more like five years old. But a five year old computer should be useful.) In my opinion, this Linux install may not be quite ready for the complete GUI-only novice, but once the computer is up and running the interface and the tools it provides are ready for anybody.



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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