Category Archives: ubuntu


How long should it take to set up a laptop?

So you need a new laptop. Ignoring those irritating voices that say you should go Apple, you select a value-for-money offering from one of the big names like Toshiba or HP, hit the buy button at Ebuyer or the like, and a day or so later a van is at the door and you have your shiny new laptop. You slit the tape, pull the thing out of the box, plug it in and turn it on. How long should it take before you are happily typing away in Word or enjoying a DVD?

The answer I guess is as short a time as possible. In principle, I don’t see why it should take more than 5 or 10 minutes. The manufacturer has pre-installed the operating system and can ensure that all the right drivers are in place.

Here’s what actually happened when I did this for a friend yesterday. Toshiba Satellite Pro A200 with Vista Business. Not a bad machine, great value. We also had a key to activate Office 2007, which came pre-installed as part of Microsoft’s Office Ready scheme.

I started mid-morning. Turned on. It takes ages before it lets you in. I lost count of the reboots. There is some sort of partitioning dance, then when Vista itself starts up it goes through an optimisation process, then various Toshiba and third-party utilities install themselves, sometimes requiring a reboot. I broke for lunch.

After lunch I connected to the Internet. Vista immediately set about downloading updates. Needed reboots, naturally. Then I ran the Office Activation Wizard. Microsoft’s Office-Ready program is great marketing, but fairly annoying, because typically you don’t want to purchase all of it. In our case we had purchased Office Small Business, but not Access. In consequence, you end up with an installation that is partially a trial version, even though you have paid. I’ve heard of this scenario actually preventing a machine from passing “Genuine Office Validation” when trying to download updates from Microsoft. Not a good way to treat customers. The solution is to uninstall the bits of Office you are not actually buying.

At this point I could have declared “job done”, but I knew that it wasn’t. I applied Vista SP1, which takes ages. I applied Office 2007 SP1, which is fairly quick. I removed a few things that I knew would not be needed, like Outlook’s Business Contact Manager.

I uninstalled Toshiba’s ConfigFree utility. This is a thing that is meant to “simplify” managing wireless (and wired) networks. It hijacks Vista’s perfectly good built-in wireless configuration utility. Now, it is possible that ConfigFree genuinely offers some added value, but even if it does this kind of thing is still a nuisance. First, because people like myself know how the Windows version works, and are disinclined to learn the foibles of an unnecessary replacement. Second, because the official item will be maintained and updated through Windows update, rather than at the whim of Toshiba (or whomever).

If you are really unlucky, the supplier of your wireless card, or wireless router, or your ISP, will persuade you to install yet more network configuration software. Once two or three of these guys are fighting to manage and diagnose your wireless connection, you have little chance of connecting successfully to anything.

There there is anti-virus to think about. Personally I reckon the practice of installing trial versions of Norton’s anti-virus suite (or similar) is a disgrace. It makes for a lousy user experience because the first thing you see after enduring setup is a nag screen assuring you that your new computer is insecure. It is a disgrace because if you accept the trial but don’t pay up, you end up with an out-of-date anti-virus utility, which leaves you vulnerable. Let’s not forget that basic anti-virus software is available for free from AVG and a few others – if Toshiba really cared about the security of its customers, it would pre-install that. I have zero confidence in anti-virus software anyway, but this is not the place.

Result overall: three to four hours spent on something that should take a few minutes.

I have a good understanding of the commercial, technical and political reasons for these hassles, and I don’t regard Toshiba as the worst offender. Nevertheless, Microsoft and its partners have failed to tackle the problem effectively, and this is a factor behind Apple’s resurgence. Frankly, Ubuntu and other Linux distros are more fun to install, though with Linux you inevitably end up Googling to solve one or more strange issues so overall it is no better for the non-technical user.

Recently I’ve been working with Windows Server 2008, which is a delight by comparison. The concept is simple: pre-install the bare bones, and make all the features optional. So Microsoft can do it. Why can’t consumer Windows work the same way? Install a clean, fast, basic version of Windows, and then let the user decide what else they require?

Gutsy Ubuntu and Precipice Computing

The good news: I’ve successfully upgraded two machines from Ubuntu 7.4 (Feisty Fawn) to the new 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon). I followed the instructions here. The bad news: neither upgrade was without incident.

I’ll start with the server. I use this for SlimServer and for experimenting with interesting Linux-based software; it has no GUI installed. Towards the end of the upgrade I got this message:

Message saying Could not install the upgrades. The upgrade aborts now. Your system could be in an unusable state. 

Not good. I call this “precipice computing”. In the UK a few months back there was some fuss about “precipice bonds”. These are a type of savings bond that guarantees at least your money back, unless certain conditions are met, usually to do with stock market growth. The conditions do not look likely to occur, but if they do, all bets are off and you could lose heavily.

Computing is like this sometimes. You tinker with your system and safe, user-friendly options guide you every step of the way. Except that under certain circumstances they do not, and then you may be deep in the mire.

It turned out to be not so bad. Ubuntu automatically ran dpkg, a package management tool. It reported some dependency issues and suggested how I might fix them. This worked. It is all because I have been messing around with Fuppes, a promising UPnP media server that is not quite done yet. I had to compile this manually, which entailed installing a bunch of multimedia development packages, and it was two of these that tripped up the upgrade. I doubt this would have happened on a production server, and in any case one would not upgrade a production server so soon and so casually. Even so, it was a scary message.

How about the other PC? This one is a Toshiba laptop which I have written about before. I had it running sweetly, and there was really no need to fiddle with it, except that I need to try new stuff for my work. I ran the upgrade. I was presented with some difficult dialogs offering to remove “obsolete” packages. Naturally I had no idea whether these were really obsolete or not, but I allowed the upgrade to remove them on the grounds that I could always put them back later if necessary.

All went smoothly until the inevitable restart. Unfortunately the machine would not longer boot. It reported “Drive does not exist”, if I remember rightly. Fortunately I had seen this before. The upgrade restored the same wrong settings that it used on initial installation, and I had to edit the grub boot menu.

After that is was fine, except for a disappointing lack of 3D desktop effects, normally the most visible new feature in Gutsy. The desktop had gone a slightly deeper shade of brown (I don’t much care for Ubuntu brown) but otherwise little seemed to have changed. The Appearance Preferences did not offer anything exciting, like the rotating 3D cube effect when switching desktops.

I investigated. I went into the Synaptic Package Manager and installed compizconfig-settings-manager, following a tip from the Ubuntu forums. That helped; I now have an option called Advanced Desktop Effects Settings, and can select the Desktop Cube and more. Something is not quite right though. After the upgrade, I only had one workspace instead of 4. Apparently there is an interaction between the Workspace Switcher and the Compiz desktop effects. To add workspaces when Compiz is running, it seems you have to use the General Options in the Advanced Desktop Effects dialog, under Desktop Size. I set this to 4, then restarted the X server.

Now I had 4 desktops, and could sometimes, but not always, switch between them with a rotating cube effect. What was odd is that I actually seemed to have more than 4 desktops, but could not switch between all of them using Ctrl-Alt-Arrow. To do this I had to use the Workspace switcher. Even then, I managed to get into a state where I knew Open Office was running, but could not switch to it at all.

At this point I reminded myself that I don’t much like the 3D cube effect anyway. Disabling it again was no great loss.

Just a few minor problems, then. The next question: does the upgrade deliver anything of value? I’ll let you know.