Debian Linux and Gnome Revisited

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[ 2005-January-21 22:57 ]

I was as Linux user for about five years, from 1997 until 2002. In early 2002, I decided to switch to Mac OS X. At the time, there were only two laptops that satisfied my needs: the PowerBook G4 or one of the IBM Thinkpad T series, both of which had a similar price. My logic was that since the PowerBook ran Linux, I could try Mac OS X and fallback to all my familiar Linux applications if it didn't work out. I have never looked back since I got my Mac. For some reason, Mac OS X works really well for me. So when my hard drive crashed back in November, I was panic struck: How would I survive for a few weeks without my Mac? Of course, my only option was to return to Linux.

Luckily, I have access to a pretty new Dell D800 Latitiude laptop, which is much more powerful than my three year old PowerBook. However, I still hate it. The screen is better, and the CPU is much faster, but those are the only advantages. It is ugly, heavy and physically large, all of which discourage me from carrying it anywhere. It also lacks many of the nice touches of the PowerBook, which I now find hard to live without. For example, the PowerBook is completely silent unless I am running some heavy task, whereas the Dell constantly has a fan running, which drives me crazy. A second example is that the PowerBook's ethernet port will automatically detect if it needs to be straight-through or crossed-over (called Auto-MDIX), eliminating the need for crossover cables. Unfortunately, the Dell does not do this, which caused me difficulty twice during the month I was using it.

At any rate, I installed my favourite Linux distribution on the Dell laptop: Debian. The first thing that impressed me was that Debian's installer has dramatically improved. Debian's install has always been cryptic, and it still is, but it has been streamlined. Tasks which used to be annoying, like formatting the hard disk and detecting the network, are now nearly completely automatic. After I installed Gnome the hard way (manually), and did the usual "search Google to figure out the magic settings for my laptop" I was able to log in graphically.

In the three years since I used Linux seriously, Gnome has made a ton of progress. The desktop, while sparse and plain, is very nice and usable. Everything seemed to "just work" as I expected, even things which have been problematic in the past like playing .avi files. Even ssh-agent is nicely integrated. In short, I was blown away, and quickly was able to make myself comfortable and be productive. Basically, Linux is now at the point that if a machine has been properly configured, I'm sure that even my Dad could use it. This is a significant change from three years ago, where everything was quirky and inconsistent. In short: it is possible that I will use Linux as my primary desktop at some point in the future. However, I will have to find a laptop vendor that puts as much care into their hardware as Apple does.