My Adventure of Switching to Linux – Part 2

My PC is far from low-spec. At least that’s what I’d like to believe anyway, seeing as I built it this year. With a solid Core i5 at the beating heart, a Radeon HD 6850 pushing pixels, 4GB of DDR3, and one of the fastest 1TB mechanical HDDs around, you’d expect Windows 7 never to break a sweat. Unfortunately, that’s far from the case. It takes at least a minute to fully start up and get past that ‘Welcome’ screen and open Firefox, a fair bit of spinning circle and takes ages to shut down. Mint takes 15 seconds to hit the login screen from GRUB (itself determined by how quickly I can press ‘Enter’ from a cold boot) and upon entering in my password – instant GNOME desktop! I was going to buy an SSD, but now I don’t really think I care – speed boosts would be minimal, if any. That’s no fluke – I’ll digress by saying my Debian-running MacBook (5400rpm HDD) takes the exact same amount of time between password and desktop, and I’ve been running that for months! Linux simply does not slow down over time unless you want it to. And shutting down my Mint desktop goes faster than you can say ‘drag race’. I haven’t even got time to read the commands that run across the screen, it’s that quick. I’ll also mention that updates seldom require a reboot – something that has continually pissed off Windows users worldwide.

If you’ve ever used Firefox on Windows or Mac (and shame on you if you haven’t, though I consider using Chrome an acceptable excuse) then you’ll be right at home with Web browsing on Linux. The experience is identical to that on Windows. In fact, it’s better, as Linux Mint comes with the plugins you’ll need to experience the majority of content the Web has to offer. Other Linux distro (and Windows, and Mac) users will have to download these separately, more often than not. So Web browsing gets a big fat A+. However, for productivity purposes, Mint comes with LibreOffice (an open source edition of – confusing yes, but let the lawyers deal with that). In short – I just can’t like LibreOffice. It is indeed a resource hog, but I don’t really care about that as the rest of the OS is nicely lightweight and I’ve got 4GB of RAM for something to use up. The thing about Libre is, for me as a uni student, it’s inadequate. Writer’s bibliography section is dodgy, presentations made with Impress do not impress anyone, but worst of all, everyone else uses Microsoft Word. That means when someone emails me the group assignment to finish it, and it’s in .DOCX format, I’ll more often than not end up with tables of contents strewn all over the place, images covering up a vital part of the essay, no cover page along with myriad other rendering issues. The spreadsheet app however, is pretty good, and Math is a useful tool for Physics/Engineering equation editing. But I did have to install MS Office 2010 in WINE (which is more than easy enough for an average end user to do) for those occasions where Libre doesn’t cut it.

DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN – A (if you don’t use Adobe), C (if you do)
Well, first up I’ll talk about development. Gedit by default is a fantastic text editor and includes syntax highlighting for what I believe is every programming and web language. Compilers for C and C++ come standard, (and probably other languages too but I only know C). Anyway, programmers already know Linux better than I do, so I’ll keep this bit short. But as a part-time web site admin, Filezilla is a godsend. Yes it’s available for Windows and Mac too, but that’s the beautiful thing about open source isn’t it? Either way, easy updating of ASP files from my home machine always keeps my boss happy. Now, design. You’ll either love the GIMP or hate it. I’ve been using the Adobe Creative Suite since wayback, and I’ll always be happier using it. It’s one of those things I can’t really find open source equivalents for InDesign, Premiere Pro and After Effects that really enables me to work better or smarter. If you’re not dependent on CS, take a look at the apps that come with the distro for designers-on-a-budget that is Ubuntu Studio. Remember before you post any “you’re not trying hard enough” comments that this is my personal choice, and it’s not a black mark against Linux in any way. If applications support isn’t there, then I’ll just have to live with occasionally booting into Windows or OS X (depending on which machine I’m using).

Linux Mint comes with all the codecs for popular media formats. That immediately puts it above and beyond almost any other operating system on the market. Windows or Mac certainly won’t play .mkv files without complaint and usually audio codecs like Dolby Digital and DTS take some coaxing on either platform to work. Not so with Mint. Other more ‘free as in freedom’ distros like Ubuntu choose to make these available as an optional download to uphold their strict ethics. But for a new user, Mint works out of the box. Banshee is a fantastic media player too. It looks like iTunes, it feels like iTunes, but it isn’t iTunes! (This is a good thing). It imported my 16GB, 2000 song MP3 and AAC rich iTunes library from my ‘Data storage’ partition straight from the iTunes .XML file and retained everything, even the play counts. My one slight gripe with Banshee is that every single Equaliser preset is absolute crap. Since I always set my own Equaliser settings anyway, this wasn’t an issue, but the presets look like something that was tacked on without any thought.

My PC has four logical drives – my 1TB Spinpoint F3 divided into one for Windows, one for Linux Mint + Swap Space, one for data storage, and the fourth is my old 250GB Spinpoint F1 used to back stuff up. All are formatted with NTFS, except for the Linux partition naturally. They’ll mount on command, but if I forget, something like Banshee which relies on data stored on /sda3 will foul up. (Remember, Linux handles drives and file systems VERY differently from Windows and Mac – just because your external HDD is mounted in ‘File System/media’ does NOT mean it’s copied to the boot drive). The tool ntfs-config (so I could auto-mount my NTFS drives) crashes on startup. Of course, I did what any Linux user would do and edit /etc/fstab but new dual-booters would be fazed by this method. Here’s a hint Linux developers, if you need to run a command in a terminal as root to fix something trivial, you probably need to fix it for Mint 12. Capiche? Anyway, USB drives work as they do on any other OS, and DVDs… oops. Where the hell is my DVD drive? Mint does not seem to recognise the fact that I have one, and sticking a CD or DVD in there gives me sweet FA. Well, I’ll cross that bridge whenever I actually need to use optical media, but I would have liked to test out the excellent Brasero and Sound Juicer CD/DVD programs. Finally, iPod. Banshee recognised my 2G iPod touch, and I was surprised to see all my tracks listed there, and I could easily sync files across. I wanted to copy across the new 360 album “Falling and Flying” across to my iPod to give me something good to listen during my daily commute. Drag-and-drop, just like in iTunes, and Banshee reports success. While I was at it, it was time to cull the crap from my limited-in-size iPod playlist, namely the few Ke$ha tracks of which I had no idea how they even got there. “iPod Successfully synchronised.” Yank out the cord, plug in my headphones… and no 360. At least Ke$ha was gone. And so was… my beautiful album art! Banshee had somehow purged my iPod of all its album art during sync, and no sign of the tracks I’d just put on it. Not happy Jan! Yes, maybe Banshee works for syncing older (or even newer) iPods, iPhones and iPads – but it doesn’t work with mine. That makes it a bug. And bugs need to be fixed. The one thing that saved this from getting an ‘F’ was that my Android smartphone synced music and video with Banshee perfectly, arguable easier than an iPod/Phone/Pad does with iTunes. Ahh, I love when open source things work with each other.

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