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Ubuntu Linux's Achilles' Heel: It's Tough To Install On Laptops

The wildly popular Linux distro isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially if you try to install it on a laptop, our reviewer Alex Wolfe finds. Come along on his Ubuntu safari, as he hacks his way through bug-fraught installation attempts.

All told, I had spent a good deal more than Ubuntu's promised 25 minutes to work my way through an unsuccessful installation. More problematically, in failing to install itself successfully, Ubuntu also screwed up the OS I already had on the system. After shutting down, removing the Ubuntu install disk, and restarting, the laptop was unable to load Windows XP.

Kubuntu Calling

Not wanting to back down from my review, nor reinstall Windows XP, I decided to follow up the failure of the Feisty Fawn install by taking a crack at Kubuntu. The OS is the same as Ubuntu expect it's fitted with the KDE desktop instead of GNOME. KDE is often characterized as more complex than GNOME, but mostly they're just two different approaches to the same thing. (Articles contrasting the two are available here and here. There's also a discussion thread from 2006 on the Ubuntu forums.)

Kubuntu went through its paces more cleanly; here it is in the early phases of loading the Live CD.

(click image for larger view)

Kubuntu went through its paces more cleanly; here it is in the early phases of loading the Live CD.

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I wonder if the Linux newbie to whom Ubuntu is pitched would think of trying Kubuntu next? That's another bone I have to pick with the Ubuntu community. True, installation glitches are common occurrences, whether you're talking Windows or Linux. However, since Ubuntu is pitching itself as a Linux panacea for new users, you'd think its installation guide would offer more hand-holding. For one thing, the main Ubuntu 7.04 help page doesn't link to installation notes. Perusal of the Community Documentation page quickly turns up a guide. However, it's a pro-forma walkthrough of the obvious stuff, with no troubleshooting tips. The 7.04 release notes do mention several bugs, but the notes seem of little value to newbies.

A key argument here is that I'm far from the only one who's had problems getting Ubuntu running. A check of the heavily trafficked Ubuntu forums turns up a long list of incompatible hardware. A search also reveals numerous messages seeking advice on how to right broken installations.

A point about the forums: They're the best feature of the Ubuntu ecosystem, and speak to a promising future for the OS, assuming its supporters begin to seed more realistic expectations in potential users. Notwithstanding Ubuntu's current efforts to appeal to inexperienced users and new Linux converts, the site's message boards are trolled by many highly experienced people.

The Ubuntu message boards gave me support, by showing me that many others were going through the same travails in their installs. They also helped me come up the learning curve very quickly, and ultimately enabled me to get Ubuntu going.

First, though, I took the Kubuntu detour, which also resulted in my first success. It took another 30 minutes to download the Kubuntu ISO image and burn the DVD. However, Kubuntu loaded and ran successfully from the Live CD. This indicated to me that there was something in the HP laptop's graphics subsystem that Ubuntu's GNOME desktop didn't "like." (That observation correlated with Ubuntu forum message traffic I found later on.)

Great, I'm halfway home, I thought, as I clicked on Kubuntu's install icon. However, it was not to be. Kubuntu made it through the screens asking me to select a language, time zone, and user name, but it bombed out when it started partitioning my hard drive.

Back To Ubuntu

Now I was really getting frustrated. However, since I'd invested a fair amount of time, I was determined to see things through. The notion that the HP laptop "liked" Kubuntu's KDE but not Ubuntu's GNOME led me back to the Feisty Fawn DVD. This time, I selected "Start in safe graphics mode." Things did not go well. So it wasn't surprising that this safe-mode attempt resulted in a fritzed out screen, displaying an illegible text message or logo.

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