The continuing adventures of a new open source tinkerer and his experiences with Ubuntu MATE on a vintage Sony Vaio.
The Linux Gadabout
Some folks seem to be under the impression that toying with open source operating systems is harder than rocket science. Dr. David Teter, one of the smartest cats I know, had this to say when I mentioned I was giving Linux a try:
“For the love of God, just get a MacBook. Meth does less damage than Linux.”
When I asked him if he could please elaborate, he took a deep, pensive breath (I imagine, because this was all conveyed via Facebook) and continued:
“Endless frustration. Difficult distros. Frustrations with X11 and custom drivers. Constantly wondering how/why things don’t work. I spent 15 years dealing with this nonsense before I moved to Macs. I’d rather hitchhike on acid than deal with Linux again. YMMV!”
I don’t know what Dr. Teter’s experiences with meth or hitchhiking on acid entail, but I do know he’s literally no stranger to rocket science. And if even he’s moved to hide under his desk and gently rock back and forth with both thumbs jammed into his drooling mouth at the thought of dealing with Linux, should I prepare for the worst? My mileage may indeed vary, but Ubuntu MATE has been kind to me thus far. Is it all just a cruel ruse? Is Ubuntu MATE luring me into a false sense of security so I start to rely on it more and more — until it can really put the hurt on my psyche with some yet-to-be-encountered “nonsense” when I least expect it?
In fairness, all operating systems have their quirks. Over time, we either learn to live with them, find ways to circumnavigate their treachery and possibly improve them in the process, or throw our hands in the air and move on to an operating system that seems more benevolent to our disposition. I do understand that, like Windows and OS X, the Linux distros of today are probably very different animals than they were a decade or two ago. I suspect the Linux with which Dr. Teter spent fifteen years wrestling and wrangling may have been fundamentally primordial in comparison to what I’m seeing today. Ubuntu MATE of 2016 may truly be a kinder and gentler iteration of Linux than whatever wretched Frankenstein’s Penguin drove my poor friend to denounce the whole of Linuxdom from here into some unforeseen forever.
Last week, I relayed that the only real difficulty I’d had with getting Ubuntu MATE onto my 11-year-old Sony Vaio VGN-FS550 was the machine’s lack of option for booting from a USB drive in its BIOS. It had everything to do with the hardware and nothing at all to do with Linux — I’d have been faced with the same problem if I were trying to install Windows from my thumb drive. This break in stride was eventually remedied when I stumbled across and installed Plop Boot Manager, which gave me the option to boot from USB with nary a peep of complaint.
Granted, this was no deep dive into the belly of the beast, but it was a positive first step in introducing me to the world of Linux on a machine that was otherwise gathering dust in my closet. In comparison to how it ran with Windows XP, I was impressed with how quickly everything responded in Ubuntu MATE — though cautiously optimistic because I know that’s how it tends to go with newly installed operating systems. It’s only been a week so far since the installation, so I’ll see if it still plays nicely after being shackled to my habitually unreasonable human demands for a little longer.
As to how I should proceed now that I’ve bounded my first hurdle, several of you were kind enough to offer suggestions for further enhancing my Linux experience. Matt Hartley — who can be blamed for getting me from the “perhaps I might try someday” to the “I guess I’m finally doing this” stage of the game — recommended I take advantage of the Software Boutique in Ubuntu MATE’s Welcome for finding ways to make my resurrected system useful. From there, I downloaded GIMP (the Photoshop alternative) and FocusWriter (“a simple, distraction-free writing environment”) before happening upon Freeciv. Like a twitchy addict faced with the object of his affliction, I should have run — not walked — away as soon as I read these words:
Freeciv is a…turn-based strategy game for workstations and personal computers inspired by the proprietary Sid Meier’s Civilization series.
In the early ’90s, Civilization was responsible for more than a few sleepless months, missed classes, and zombified workdays. I’ve played it up through the current version, but I know better than to start a game if I’m planning on having a bedtime in the next 24 or so hours. Clearly, if I wanted to accomplish anything of note in Ubuntu MATE, downloading and installing something inspired by this tried-and-true timewaster was a bad move.
I told myself this repeatedly even as I downloaded, installed, and began to play it. Fortunately, it only took a few hours for my fledgling cities to get beaten into oblivion by the AI before I was inspired to do something more constructive. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen in time to give many of your suggestions a try, so I hope to have more to report by next column. The one I’m looking most forward to testing is reader Jeff’s:
“According to the published specs, that laptop has an open RAM slot that you can fill with up to 512 MB, for a total of 1 GB. Looks like the part would cost $10.”
Ten dollars to double what’s in there now? It’s really hard to justify not giving it a try. As of this writing, the RAM has been ordered and is slated to arrive in the next couple of days. I’m excited to find out how much zip it’ll add to the ol’ Vaio and how much better Ubuntu MATE will perform with twice as much RAM to help it along — and I look forward to reporting my findings here at FOSS Force next time. Engage!
“Bob” Fogarty was the editor-in-chief at Chris Pirillo’s LockerGnome.com for nearly 12 years, and has written for ReadWrite.com and TheArtofCharm.com. He lives in San Diego with his wife and a medium-sized menagerie of beasties great and small. Follow him on Twitter: @Fogarty