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7/10/2007
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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.

One implicit message in all the hoopla surrounding Dell's embrace of Ubuntu is the notion that opting for Ubuntu is a no-brainer, not only for the direct-PC powerhouse, but for Windows users, too. It's pretty clear from all the press that it's widely assumed not much tuning was required to fit the Linux distro to Dell's hardware.

I won't know for sure until I test its system, but I believe Dell had to do some tweaking, probably by adding drivers, tuning the Ubuntu install options, and working around some of the bugs I found. (For my HP laptop, these included ACPI handling issues and false CPU-overheating shutdowns.)

One view of a working Ubuntu desktop.

(click image for larger view)


One view of a working Ubuntu desktop.

view the image gallery

Regardless, unless you have a standard desktop with an already partitioned hard drive (more about that later), the point is that you may have to do significant tweaking to get Ubuntu to install and run smoothly.

The first step in the installation process is to go the Ubuntu site, so you can download and burn an ISO image of the OS onto a DVD. I selected the most recent version of Ubuntu, which is officially designated 7.04 but often referred to by its code name, Feisty Fawn. An image is a complete copy of everything you need to put onto a disk, so you don't need to figure out which files have to dragged and dropped into your burning program. The resulting Ubuntu DVD is used to boot your system and start the install.

I was psyched to get my laptop up and running Linux in short order. That's because the What is Ubuntu? page promises: "Everything you need on one CD, which provides a complete working environment. . .The graphical installer enables you to get up and running quickly and easily. A standard installation should take less than 25 minutes. . .Once installed your system is immediately ready-to-use."

That didn't turn out to be the case. The download of the 697-MB Feisty Fawn image took me 40 minutes. (This was via my Roadrunner "high speed" cable-modem access at home. At work, where the link operates close to its 1-Mbps capability, the download took 18 minutes.)

Slow-Starting Install

With Ubuntu ISO image disk in hand, I fired up my HP laptop. I pressed "escape" and changed the boot order so that it'd look to the CD drive first. However, after I hit "return" in response to the "Start or install Ubuntu" request, I was faced with a blank screen for the better part of 10 minutes. There was no indication of whether the installation was proceeding, other than the fact that my CD-ROM drive's light continued to flicker.

Whatever you may think of the advertorial "tips" Windows displays during installation, they at least let you know that everything's running okay. Moreover, since the Microsoft "screen of death" paradigm--blue, with XP and earlier OSes, black, with Vista--has trained us to view blank as bad, Ubuntu would be better served by playing to our expectations and putting something informative up on the display. I was treated to a logo, beneath which lurked an activity bar. Mostly, though, I had to check the CD drive's light to verify that the system was still loading.

The "Start or install" message is itself misleading. (I know, old Linux hands will say Ubuntu newbies should read the documentation.) Selecting this option doesn't initiate an installation. Rather, Ubuntu loads onto your machine without installing. It's getting itself up and run off of the disk, which is called the "Live CD."

An early installation attempt ended with this jumbled display.

(click image for larger view)


An early installation attempt ended with this jumbled display.

view the image gallery

The installation can begin only after the Live CD is running. At that point, installation is commenced by double-clicking on the install icon in the upper-left quadrant of the screen. However, if you can't successfully load the Live CD, you can't install Ubuntu.

That was my problem. After 15 minutes, a white box appeared in the upper left portion of the screen, and a nonspecific, 2-second sound came and went. More churning away, and after two more minutes an ominous message appeared:

"There was an error starting the GNOME setting daemon. Some things, such as themes, sounds, or background settings may not work correctly. GNOME will try to restart the Setting Daemon next time you log in."

You've got to love Linux. I haven't encountered the word "daemon"--a Unix-era term for a background process--in years. Perhaps that's why I took the message as an indication that it was time to shut down the install attempt.

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