Staying in Linux full time

Ever since I was first introduced to Linux, I have been a happy camper. However, I never ever stayed with Linux as my one and only desktop operating system. In the beginning, the reason was simple: absence of appropriate drivers for hardware such as printers, modems and webcams. Increasingly, in the last few years, Linux has become a platform that is supported by vendors - in both hardware and software. Initially, this was due to a demand from the enterprise for their servers. Later on, the open nature of Linux led to Linux being adopted under the hood in many other places such as Android. Once IBM and Intel decided to support Linux, desktop Linux versions became very easy to set up though laptops often had device driver issues. Even though most desktops ran fine on Linux, I still used Windows because of certain software: Powerpoint, websites which almost never performed as well on Linux browsers (Youtube and Flash come straight to mind) etc. Keeping both Windows and Linux was never a big deal for me because I had a dual boot system. Nowadays though, for most inter-communication mechanisms - be it word processor documents or instant messaging, standardized protocols have made it easy for desktop computer software across different operating systems to inter-operate with each other. Gradually, it happened that I would stay in Windows for the most part and reboot into Linux for software development. The best of both worlds. But the times have changed. For most of the world, computing is now web and the mobile phone. Even for those people who have desktops, a web browser is open all the time.

Why move to Linux full time?

Early on (say 15 years ago), my dissatisfaction with Windows was due to one reason only: price. As a college student I could not afford it and I had to pay three-to-five months of my meagre savings to get a new version. My parents had bought DOS 5.5 for me but after that I never asked them to get me an OS. Later, once I joined some top ranked universities as a student and researcher, I was able to get a copy of Windows for my personal use and today I can even afford to buy my own copy without feeling a price pinch. Unfortunately, today (Windows XP and 7), has become bloated beyond all reason. A bare install (x64 with Service Pack 1) takes 29 GB. Running the Windows update process increases the disk space consumption to 44 GB. That is Windows alone. There is zero additional software on top. Contrast that with Linux that comes with all bells and whistles in less than 8 GB. Moreover, Windows is a tremendous resource hog! My laptop which ran Windows XP fine, is excruciatingly slow on Windows 7. With a lightweight desktop environment (LXDE), a modern Linux version (Ubuntu 14.04) feels nearly times faster. So why not just use Linux all the time? When Windows 10 was announced, I thought it was time to answer this question.

As is usual with me, every two years or so, I reformat my system and build my computer setup from scratch. So when it was time, I made a list of all the software on the Windows system, thought about their equivalents on Linux and then formatted the main disk. Although I did choose to re-install Windows as well, I have made it a point to not install anything else on it (except for the Windows updates). Everything went into my Linux install - Mageia 4.

What is available?

The very first problem I ran into was that graphics drivers for my cards had to be obtained separately. The OS was clever enough to do it automatically once I decided to get them. All the other software such as my development tools (for Android, C++, a web server, Eclipse etc.), LaTeX, PDF viewer (okular, evince), movie players (VLC, mplayer), music player (Amarok), web browsers (Firefox, Chromium), multi-protocol instant messenger (Pidgin), editors (emacs, Libre Office), image viewer (gwenview), image editing (GIMP) and the KDE desktop installed without any trouble.

Certain software that are not available directly with Linux such as Skype can be obtained easily enough. Other software that I could not find in Mageia were jitsi (a SIP client), atom and brackets (HTML editors), readymedia (DLNA server), newsbeuter (text RSS reader) though they are available for other Linux distributions such as Ubuntu. I was able to install Skype and Jitsi. Not the rest. I would have to download the source code (they are open source), compile it and then use them. This is not nice because it means that sometime or the other, they can break compatibility and I won't automatically get updates. Mageia? Are you listening?

So how has it been so far?

The system has everything I need to do my research and software development work and almost everything else that I want. Why do I say almost?

Since a lot of action happens in the browser, I was quite surprised to see a relatively old version of Firefox being offered (after updating the even older version that came with the CD). Chromium was a much newer release. So perhaps this a problem with Mageia?

One of the first things I did was mount a second disk in the system (which was formatted as NTFS) and created a symlink to it in my home directory. Mounting a SMB share as another directory (and then symlinking to it) was also trivial. However, it's not the same as seeing it as D: on Windows.

An unexpected problem that I have run into is sound. The sound card on my computer's motherboard is fancy in that it offers both an analog (5.1) output and mic and a digital (TOS Link) one. Both can be operated simultaneously. In Windows, my headset was attached to the analog input and output (for Skype, Yahoo, Hangouts etc.) All other sounds (such as those from music and youtube videos) came from the digital one. In Linux, I found that although I can mess around with the sound server (PulseAudio) to manipulate where the sound from an application can go, I cannot hardwire it into the application through the GUI. The application only sees PulseAudio. Also, if the optical sound link is down (i.e. the audio receiver is OFF), the system defaults to the analog output. After the optical sound link is up (once I switch it ON), I have to manually route sound to it. I never had to do that in Windows. I will probably need to dig a little deeper into the PulseAudio configuration to make sure that it remembers which application should default to which sound card. This is not something I am keen to spend hours on so I hope the interface for these will be much better in the future.

The video drivers that are installed are clearly not as good as the ones on Windows but right now I don't need them to be so I am okay.

One strange problem that I ran to was playing some videos which were mp4 containers containing m4a audio streams (probably AAC as per mplayer). They worked fine on VLC in Windows but not in Linux. The system offered no clue as to what should be installed in order to make it work. After a lot of digging, it turned out that certain codec packages (with the same names) are available in the default repository as well as in the 'tainted' code repository of Mageia. I had to specifically install the ones in the tainted repository to make the videos play with sound.

One problem that is still not resolved is how to get my iPad to work in Linux. So far, despite my attempts, I can copy photos off it. Nothing else. It is likely that for this reason alone, I might have to keep my Windows installation around for a while longer.