I’ve been using Linux as my primary desktop operating system at work for years, and I’ve been dual-booting on my desktop at home just as long. Caldera, Mandrake, Red Hat, Debian, Knoppix, Gentoo, Kubuntu . . . I’ve used them all. I even have a Yggdrasil Linux CD somewhere, and nobody even remembers them any more. When it comes to my laptop, though, the machine I actually use the most at home, it has been a different story. To be quite blunt, I haven’t thought until quite recently that the driver and application support on Linux was quite good enough to switch entirely. Sure, browsers and email clients and pffice suites and window managers finally grew up a few years ago, but video drivers were a pain and audio drivers were worse and plugging in a USB device was almost foolhardy. Some Linux systems are still like that. Just today I had one hang when I plugged something into the headphone port. Sad. Nonetheless, I figured a modern version of Linux was finally good enough. Between that and security issues and general curiosity, I finally decided to complete the switch to Kubuntu 6.10 (Edgy) this weekend. No, it wasn’t seamless, but it went well enough that I’m using it to type this now. Of course, I still have a completely separate hard disk with Windows XP ready to slide back in if I find something catastrophic, but I don’t think that will happen. Here are a few notes about the process:

  • Wireless. What a pain. Rumor has it that Linux has finally grown up in this regard and I probably should have waited. Not only installing but actually having to build ndiswrapper to use my very-common wireless card is ridiculous. I build software for a living, but I don’t think I should ever have to do it just to get basic functionality on a home machine.
  • Video. Not only did I have to get a new driver to run the screen at full resolution, but the driver’s installation program was broken so I picked out the pieces I needed and installed them by hand. That doesn’t say “consumer ready” to me.
  • Sound. Amazingly, this just worked except for the fact that the system beep doesn’t go through the normal sound system and would happen (loudly) even when mute was on. Annoying, and lame. I eventually figured out how to kill it by blacklisting the “pcspkr” driver.
  • Front-panel buttons. I was even more amazed that these just worked.
  • Function keys. Now, who would think you have to blacklist the “video” driver to get these working?
  • Power management. An area where Linux has generally been lacking, but one where I really had no trouble. The system sleeps when I want it to and wakes up when I want it to. If only “powernowd” could be persuaded to load automatically. It seems to load OK by hand, which I always end up doing when I notice that the fans are running because one CPU is at full power even though it shouldn’t be.

I know that looks like a long list, but it’s really not that bad. I should point out that, when I had to reinstall Windows from my original Dell install CDs I had some of the same problems. I had to get a new wireless driver (using another machine), a new driver to make the front-panel buttons work, etc. Then there was the BIOS-upgrade fiasco, which I won’t even get into because it didn’t really involve either Windows or Linux. The fact is that installing an operating system is a pain.

So now I have wireless working and the screen at full resolution. Firefox is set up with Google Sync and FoxyProxy, Thunderbird with all of my POP/IMAP accounts plus LDAP, ssh, vnc, etc. I can play audio and video. I’ve inserted my USB drive, mounted the TrueCrypt volume that’s on it, and used OpenOffice to update my workout spreadsheet. Everything looks and feels at least as smooth as when this machine ran Windows. Maybe soon I’ll even try ripping/shrinking/burning a DVD in Linux, or maybe even finding a program to edit that Amy video from Christmas. Or maybe there are still a few things I’ll still want to use the Windows machine upstairs for. The key is that I have a choice. Long the better choice (compared to Windows) in the server room, Linux is finally an appealing choice in the living room as well.