Life is a journey - this is mine.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mac Withdrawal and Linux Laments

If you hadn't guessed by reading previous posts, I'm a pretty big fan and user of Apple computers and the Mac OS X platform. My main machine is first generation MacBook Pro that I purchased a little over two years ago. It's become my almost constant partner as I take it nearly everywhere with me. Not only is it the ideal work computer, it's an excellent personal computer, too. In two years, I'd had very little to complain about with this machine.

It. Just. Works.

I plug in a camera, it opens up iPhoto and asks me where to put the pictures. I plug in a camcorder, it opens up iMovie and starts importing the video. I plug in my Verizon eV-DO card, it asks me if I'm ready to connect. I plug in an external monitor and it asks if i want to mirror or extend my desktop. There's very little in the way of getting things done.

Last Wednesday, however, my beloved machine wouldn't start up. The night before, I'd worked on music for church until the wee hours of the morning. When I finished what I was doing, I clicked on Time Machine and told it to backup immediately then went to bed. Time Machine does automated hourly backups - I just got in the habit of doing a backup every night before bed long before Time Machine came into being, and haven't stopped. The next morning, I came into my office, sat down at my desk and grabbed my mouse to wake up my Mac- like I do every morning.

Nothing happened.

"Oh dear," says I, "wonder what that's all about." I tried to reboot, nothing but a gray screen and startup sound. I unplugged it and removed its battery for a few minutes, then tried again. Same results. My "oh dear" got a little stronger. Next step, I decided, was to bring the thing to Genius Bar at a local Apple store. I'm fortunate in that there are two stores within 20 minutes of my house, and two more within an hour. Anyhow, I got on Apple's website with my spare laptop, found that the Boulder Apple store still had Genius Bar appointments available, so I made one.

I made my way to Boulder and was greeted by a friendly guy at the Genius Bar. He fiddled with my machine for about 20 minutes trying various key combinations, attempted to boot it from their network, and then with an external hard drive. He decided that since the machine would respond with the gray screen and sounds, that it was probably just a bad hard drive, so he ordered one and said it would take a few days to get the drive and get it installed. Inconvenient - but tolerable, especially since I purchased Apple Care when I bought the machine and this work isn't costing me anything more. I then beat a hasty retreat from Boulder back to civilization.

Meanwhile, I still have to work. I work for a technology company from my home office, so a well-connected computer is absolutely essential - which is why I keep a spare laptop around. My spare is an IBM (Lenovo) ThinkPad T43. It's a few years old now, but still serviceable. I got it really cheap because it had, ironically, a bad hard disk. I replaced its hard disk and installed Ubuntu Linux on it some time ago. I keep the machine updated, and regularly use it as it spends most of its time in the living room for those times when you just have to look up what other movies that actor you're watching on TV was in on

Now since this is a backup work machine, I already had lots of things configured for what I need to work like Pidgin IM client, ssh configs, vmware console, softphone for our VoIP system, and so on. That and everything on the machine hardware-wise seems to work fine - including wired and wireless networking. But that's where the fun stops.

I mentioned above that I have a Verizon eV-DO card - what a great invention. I plug it in and bascially anywhere there's cell coverage, I'm able to get online. I've already mentioned how easy this device was to get working with my Mac: plug it in, click connect. That's it. Using it under Windows (on my wife's work laptop) was a little more difficult - had to install a driver and some goofy program to use it - but once that's done it's a matter of starting that program, sticking in the card, and clicking connect. Now to the Linux machine. I searched the internet for someone who's done this and found a blog with instructions on how to make it work. It invovles using the command line to probe the usb subsystem for the device, watching what happens when inserting the card by watching a logfile, writing a script, and editing a couple of config files. When you're done, there's a menu item on the network monitor applet that allows you to connect or disconnect from the network. However, there's absolutely no indication that you're connected nor any indication of the signal strength, so when when you click connect, you just get to hope it works by starting your browser (or email client, or terminal program, or...) and hope you have a network connection. It's worked well since I've had it configured - but man, what a pain to get setup and working. I can't imagine my mom, wife, son, going through this to get a peripheral device working.

So now I have my T43 that can connect virtually anywhere, and all my software working, I'm ready to use this as my main machine, right? Well, almost. On my desk, I have a laptop stand and a Samsung 19" monitor. Nothing fancy, in fact I bought it at Sam's Club. Anyway, plugging this monitor into my Mac and using it as an extension of its screen was super easy, just a couple of clicks after plugging it in the first time, and now every time it just works. In windows, it's just as easy. Plug it in, go to the display properties, and fiddle with things until it's how you like it. Linux however... well, I wish I could tell you, because I still haven't gotten it to work. I even spent time installing windows on the stupid thing to see if it was even possible - works fine. This evening I found an article about this laptop's display and how to hack the /etc/X11/Xorg.conf file to make external monitors work right, so I'll be attempting that tomorrow. Looks like I'm about to get an unwanted education in the intricacies of X11 configuration.

Don't get me wrong. I love Linux. We run our business on a farm of ~60 servers, all running Linux. I believe in the product, the philosophy of Open Source Software, and especially in UNIX and UNIX-like platforms. It's fast, flexible, stable, secure, scalable, configurable, interoperable - all the things you want in your infrastructure.

On the desktop, however, it's still an OS for the geeks who don't have a problem with hacking at system internals in order to make stuff work - or for closed hardware environments where things that will trip people up just can't be added to the system. I'll continue to use it, and will work through the problems I come across, thanks mostly to the user community. But, when someone asks me what kind of computer to buy, I'll tell them "Buy a Mac."


Michael J Mahoney said...

The biggest reason I will not go Windows-fee to Ubuntu is just that: there is virtually zero support for a second monitor. I mean, I know no one uses a laptop to power a projector, right?

The network support is my other issue, as well as it is with you. It's kind of a "this should work" philosophy.

If MacOS can work so well, and it's basically Unix with a nice GUI, why is Linux such a mess? I'd go that way in hearbeat if they can get that working.

Bruce Milne said...

100% believable, and exactly what I tell people too: buy a mac. Unless you *want* to fiddle.

I should point out that one person I saw did not have a 'just works' experience with EVDO over USB, but that was probably the hardware and carrier being silly. But to the casual user, I'm not sure that matters.

Xorg is a bit of a black hole. Did you try using the 'System -> Administration -> Screens and Graphics' option to turn on the second monitor? Can work. Really depends on the video card though. Nvidia cards also have a 'restricted driver' and GUI manager that make it easy.

Steve said...

Mikey - to be clear, the second monitor does work - but it's just displaying the same thing as the laptop's display. That's probably desired/intended behavior for using a projector as the presenter can look at the laptop to see what's being presented. I've not, however, attempted to use it with a projector, but I'm reasonably confident it would. And, networking works - this laptop has wifi and gig-e networking built in that's worked just fine out of the box. It's adding the verizon card where I run into the flakiness. It works fine, but is not easy to use nor was it easy to get going.

Your final point is exactly where I'm at, too.

Bruce- I don't have a 'Screens and Graphics' option. Greg suggested the same thing, actually, so I'll look into that further. For reference, this machine has an Intel 915GM Video card.

And true, with any platform, there's the oddities that crop up - like the day at the man cave when I had trouble connecting to your wifi with my mac.