Holiday Cheer, Holiday Uncheer - Part 2

Continuing my holiday machine maintenance saga I move on to some notable trials and tribulations with Ubuntu, but not before I report on a little more holiday cheer.

Update Love

I'm losing my wits. In my last article I forgot to mention that Jean-Pierre Lemoine has updated his AVSynthesis to version 25_05_09. This release includes new features for realtime control of audio and video parameters (Figure 1), opening a new way to explore this amazing program. I also failed to mention that discoDSP has updated the native Linux version of the Discovery synthesizer to release number 3.1 (Figure 2).

Figure 1: AVSynthesis with realtime controls

Figure 2: Discovery 3.1 for Linux

Un-Fun With Ubuntu 8.10

In a previous article I wrote that I'd report on my ongoing work with my new HP G60-125NR laptop and its brand new Ubuntu 8.10 distro. As I said in that article, there are many things to like about the Intrepid Ibex, but there are also some major annoyances that rival the experiences I had with Ivy's XP system.

The first annoyance was the Synaptics touchpad control. The machine includes a hardware switch to disable the touchpad, but it doesn't work. Fortunately I can turn off the touchpad with the GNOME Control Center's mouse control dialog. Unfortunately the process also switches my Fluxbox theme background to the Ubuntu default image. That image is nice, but I didn't ask for it and I don't like the system switching to it without my approval. I searched Google for an alternative and found the synclient utility. Alas, that software requires a configured SHMConfig, so I went back to Google to find out how to enable SHMConfig. My first attempts were made by adding appropriate lines to the meager /etc/X11/xorg.conf, to no avail. I then discovered that xorg.conf is no longer where the appropriate changes should go. X11 input devices are now defined and registered in the HAL .fdi configuration files located at /etc/hal/fdi/policy/. I created an shmconfig.fdi according to this design :

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
    <deviceinfo version="0.2">
          <match key="input.x11_driver" string="synaptics">
    	    <merge key="input.x11_options.SHMConfig" type="string">True

With that file in place I added this command to my custom start-up script :

    synclient TouchpadOff=1

I run the script after logging in, and I have no more trouble with the touchpad.

Update 28 December 2008: I reinstalled the system and decided to stay with GNOME, even though I do not like it. My touchpad settings in the GNOME Control Center are now persistent between sessions, though little else about the system has changed.

My start-up script also disables another HAL feature. I noticed that the hard-drive light flashed excessively during normal operation. Eventually X performance would slow to a crawl, so I checked with the good Doctor Google and learned that this problem and its solution are also well-known. The endless disk reading halted after I added these commands to my start-up script :

    hal-disable-polling --device /dev/sdb
    hal-disable-polling --device /dev/scd0

Highly aggravating endless looping seems to be a design characteristic of Ubuntu 8.10. I recently learned that clicking on the Help button in a GNOME application will launch an infinite series of borked help pages, stoppable only by power cycling the machine.

Finally I come to the last and most annoying problems I've encountered with the Intrepid Ibex. Its shutdown, restart, and logout processes do not work properly, and I've yet to resolve them to my satisfaction (and yes, I keep this system updated).

Shutdown and restart just don't. The system hangs after the "Will now halt" or "Will now restart" messages, but I did find a workaround at that point to avoid pressing the machine's power switch. If I issue a ctrl-alt-del reboot command the system restarts cleanly. Then I can shut down the machine cleanly by booting into recovery mode, selecting the root prompt from the recovery menu, and issuing a shutdown -h now command.

The logout problem is more serious and I've found no solution for it yet. If I issue a logout command (e.g. Ctrl-D) in an terminal window the cursor simply skips to the next line and stays there, the xterm doesn't close, and the entire system is unstable and requires a manual power cycling. All because of a logout bug.

The real un-fun begins when you start Googling for answers and find dozens of them, none of which work for you. I assume the best intentions on the part of the Ubuntu developers, but these problems remain after the most recent updates. Meanwhile I'll continue to scour the many (too many?) Ubuntu user forums and wikis, hoping to find a fix that will work for my machine. I also welcome any and all polite suggestions that my readers may have, so please feel free to share your own insights and/or advice in the Comments section below.

At this point I rate the un-fun factor for Ubuntu 8.10 at a solid unrespectable 9. Its instabilities obviate its use as an audio production workstation, and only some of its notable virtues keep me on it. At one point I wiped Ubuntu from the drive and reinstalled OpenSUSE 11, only to discover that there are fates worse than Ubuntu 8.10. For the moment I've returned to the Intrepid Ibex, but I will say that I'm not at all happy about its egregious bugginess. I'm not the only user pleading for relief on the Ubuntu forums, but alas, there are only so many developers available, and the bugs remain. For more opinions, check out this poll of users' experiences after the install/upgrade to 8.10. The results of that poll are not encouraging, with by far the greater number of users reporting unresolved problems with Intrepid. On the more hopeful side, if the Ubuntu developers can resolve the shutdown, restart, and logout issues then the Intrepid Ibex would lose most of its un-fun factors. We await the day.

Comparison Fun

Despite its blemishes and shortfalls I'd still choose Ubuntu over XP any day. I'm not sure I could have repaired Ivy's system without it, and I must shout out great thanks to the Ubuntu team for such thoughtful amenities as Ubuntu Live and the creator for a bootable USB drive. One thing is certain: I could never have repaired a Linux system with Windows tools. Maybe it's possible, but it's obvious which system truly believes in openness and transparency, and I simply find it too difficult to work with a system so opaque as XP. Yes, I'll admit it, I've been spoiled by Linux. Alas, I'm not so thrilled with Ubuntu 8.10 as I'd like, but for various reasons I need to use it.

Happy Holidays !

I'll be back soon with a 2-part series on the Buzztard project, including an interview with team leader Stefan Kost. Until then, may your days be merry & bright, and I hope everyone has enjoyed an excellent holiday season.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.


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Ubuntu 8.10 Just works on my Compaq laptop

guidotg's picture

I've been using Ubuntu since Effty Elf with no problems at all. When I got my Compaq I immediately installed Feisty instead of XP. I love it. It has been stable and is fast enough to satisfy my needs.
I am an experienced Linux user, starting out with Slackware, moving to Debian and RedHat. I will never go back!

Ubuntu 8.10 - the problems are not unexpected

Ken Sarkies's picture

I also sympathize, although not having upgraded to Int Ibx my Ubuntu experience is quite good so far. The basic problem I think is that like most OpenSource distros, Ubuntu is pushing the boundaries hard. This is not necessarily bad. The developers need to be able to continue expanding and adapting the software, and users should be testing and reporting bugs, which is the OpenSource model. If you need a really stable distro then you could look to Centos5 or the commercial supported version RedHat Enterprise Linux. The latest kernel there is almost 2 years behind the front-line Fedora 10. Perhaps Ubuntu could consider actively maintaining an older, more stable release. It wouldn't need to be the same overworked developer team doing it, but perhaps another group of enthusiastic supporters.


Too Many Problems Running 8.10

Tom B's picture

I feel your pain. As a matter of fact, I became so annoyed with the various nit-picking problems I experienced with 8.10 that I re-installed 8.04.

The problems? Lets start with trying to get Pulse Audio working. Come on, guys, this isn't rocket science! What's so hard about getting a simple basic sound card to work properly? Then there's the replacement of the X11 config file with HAL. Arrrgh! The upgrade process was nice enough to comment out all the custom lines I had entered to support my extra mouse buttons, but that was as far as it went. Call me crazy, but I would expect it to transfer those lines to whatever HAL needs to do the same job. If you're going to replace the old system, kindly do the *whole* job, thank you very much. But, no. Sorry, friend, you're on your own. Hey, if I wanted to deal with half-a**ed upgrades that break everything, I'd run Vista! I Googled for instructions on how to fix this, but found nothing that worked. It seems I'm not alone in my confusion and frustration. It's bad enough the system doesn't contain built-in GUI configuration for mice with all those extra buttons (It's a pointing device, guys -- you use it on a GUI, so *configure* it on a GUI) , forcing me to go spelunking through the dark recesses of /etc. That's not fun, even in the best of times.

I have more important things to do than waste time playing around with the OS. I suppose my mistake was not sticking to the Long Term Support version, 8.04. Hopefully, by the time they release the *next* LTS version, they'll have worked out some of the kinks. If not, I guess I'll continue to stick with what I've got. At least it works.

sidux or mepis

Anonymous's picture

You might want to try sidux or Mepis I have found both of these to be superior to ubuntu for various reasons. However, I am not running them on a laptop, but on my (now outdated by Windows standards) desktop machine. At least it cannot hurt to download and boot the live CDs, and see if your hardware works.

In any case, good luck!

xterm: try "exit"

Ferndinand's picture

There are a few gotchas that might make control-D not work correctly in xterm. Instead of control-D, try the "exit" command. If that succeeds in closing the xterm and proceeding with logout, then the problem may lie in control-character handling. Investigate with "stty -a" and "cat ~/.inputrc".

Intrepid Ibex

Anonymous's picture

I have installed Ibex on a rather old Thinkpad X30 and a Dell Vostro 1000. The only issue I have found is that I get inconsistant right mouse click options in Firefox when using the X30 on board mouse. It is trivial and occasional. Beyond that all hardware has been successfuly detected and the only surprises have been pleasant. I enjoy very much reading your column and hope that you continue to entertain and educate me.

Reboot/Shutdown issues.

G's picture

One possible cause of your shutdown and reboot issues could be the system's BIOS. You might look into whether there is an updated BIOS available for the system. When the kernel is shuting down or rebooting at the point indicated, the kernel makes a call to an ACPI function for the reboot/shutdown, but if the BIOS has buggy code for the ACPI tables, the function call fails to do what it should. I work in a computer validation lab and have seen plenty of buggy BIOS's with similar issues. My HP 8510w laptop will reboot or shutdown just fine with Ubuntu 8.10.

Similar un-fun

Michael Raugh's picture

I converted an XP desktop (Acer Veriton) to Intrepid in November. It's a 2006 vintage machine, so the hardware was old enough that I didn't have any issues with drivers (no touchpad or wireless) to deal with. However, I do have a chronic problem with shutdowns and reboots: the system stops most processes, then halts with a cryptic error message on screen about CIFS (it's not handy so I can't quote it). Sure enough, if I first umount the CIFS shares I keep in my /etc/fstab (which are Samba shares hosted on CentOS 5) it shuts down or reboots cleanly. The trick is remembering to do that.

In a similar vein, I spent a memorable -- for all the wrong reasons! -- day recently upgrading that machine's hardware with an NVidia GeForce 9600 video card and dual 22-inch screens. I'd picked that card because I'd read that it was well supported. All I wanted was a basic dual-screen desktop, with maybe some Compiz effects for fun. Shouldn't have been too hard, right?

Wrong. Intrepid went nuts and wouldn't display graphics on either screen even after running dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg. The live CD (figuring I'd run from that while downloading a patch or driver or something) also choked and died trying to start X. Ditto the live CDs for Fedora 10 and MEPIS, so it's not just an Ubuntu problem.

After losing count of the reboots (and temporarily commenting out those CIFS mounts because I kept forgetting to umount them!) I finally got it working by downloading NVidia's binary driver from another machine and installing it in runlevel 3. By then 5 painful hours had gone by on what should have been a simple, fun little bit of geekery.

Throughout the process NVidia's (Windows only) driver CD sat there on the table but not once did I consider putting XP back as an option. For me, I suppose, being a Linux user is like having a spouse with a temper -- things may get ugly once in a while, but the overall experience is so enjoyable that I'm willing to overlook the occasional tantrum.


Ubuntu 8.10 doesn't do most of this for me

Tony Maro's picture

I had been using a script for disabling my Synaptic touchpad when I started typing, but it did stop functioning in 8.10. Thankfully my blue function + F5 button does enable/disable the touchpad on my Acer. The new HAL is handling things a bit differently, and the xorg.conf file isn't doing as much as it used to. This seems to be interfering with the way I had my touchpad configured before.

I definitely haven't had any of the other problems you discussed, though it did bork my wireless when I first upgraded to 8.10.

Of course, this does lend a case to staying with an LTS edition of Ubuntu on machines you don't plan on just playing around with ;-) My office machine is definitely staying on 8.04 for now - I don't have the time to fix the differences that no doubt will happen.

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