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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ubuntu Desktop part 3: Hardware support and development

I’m going to make this my last post on Ubuntu on the desktop (read the previous ones here and here), as I’ll soon be getting a new ‘toy’ that I’ll be putting through it’s paces and blogging about. I’ll also be trying to keep future tech related posts to Tuesday, henceforth to be known as (drumroll..)  Tech Tuesday.

In this post I’ll discuss my experiences with Ubuntu’s hardware support, and touch on using it as a dev platform.

Hardware ups and downs

As mentioned in my first post, my home machine is a P4 notebook with 1Gig ram and an ATi 9700 mobility video card. It’s a Mecer branded machine which I’m assuming uses fairly standard components. With no built in WiFi, Bluetooth, Webcam or any such gadgets, Ubuntu really didn’t have much to deal with.

What it did have (and continues to have) problems with is my video card. Strangely enough when I tried an older Ubuntu version (6.x) on it many moons ago, I seem to remember the hardware acceleration working fine. Somewhere along the development path to 8.4 something went terribly wrong though. I have done a lot of research and fiddling, and what it seems to come down to is that ATi (now part of AMD) has not kept up with it’s Linux drivers and there are a large number of unhappy owners of older mobile ATi graphics cards who run into compatibility issues on Ubuntu. AMD have promised that updated drivers will be available soon, but for now I am without video acceleration in Ubuntu. 

On the other side of the coin is Ubuntu’s incredible printer support. I have wasted many hours getting a wide assortment of printers to play nicely in both home and business contexts, and I would have loved Ubuntu’s awesome printer support in those situations. We have a fairly obscure Brother printer/fax/scanner combo hooked up to our ADSL router and accessed by our PCs over the LAN. Setting this up in Windows XP is fairly tedious (though admittedly much easier in Vista) and Ubuntu detected everything pretty much automatically. No messing with driver downloads or custom ports, everything just worked.

Other than the video card issue I would have to say Ubuntu has hardware compatibility and ease of setup nailed.

Ubuntu as a development OS

I’m working on a web development project at home at the moment (sorry, no details just yet) using PHP and MySQL, and it’s the first such project I have done. I’ve been using the excellent XAMPP package to run my web and database servers, and NetBeans 6.5 for coding and debugging. Like much of the software I’ve ended up using in Ubuntu, getting it all set up was definitely not as simple as it could (or should) have been, with a number of strange issues between XAMPP’s MySQL server and the settings expected by the default tools. As with the video card issue, this is a third party problem, not so much a Linux problem, but it does illustrate that there seems to be a serious lack of consistency in the way things are done from developer to developer when implementing software. This can be an absolute nightmare for users.

That said, now that my environment is up and running, it’s a pleasure to develop in, with NetBeans running significantly faster in Ubuntu than it ever did (on the same hardware) in Windows XP. I could honestly recommend the Ubuntu/XAMPP/Netbeans combo to those who want to fiddle with web development at home.


That’s it for my musings on Ubuntu. Next week I’ll introduce my new toy :)



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