We finally retired wife’s Dell Inspiron 1520 15″ laptop with built in DVD drive from Windows duty and that, as always, provided me with an opportunity to press it into service as a Linux computer. Linux laptops with WiFi are a special treat because I can relocate them to spots where I can access them directly when needed, or ssh into them from my Macbook Air.
I normally use Ubuntu Canonical as my go-to distribution because I’ve found it stable, easy to install, and helpful in terms of third-party drivers, but in this case I thought perhaps I’d experiment with Debian. I burned the latest Debian stable release to CD, inserted it into the Dell, and installed. The installation was straightforward but, as I feared, the WiFi adapter was not attended to and, worse, I realized that the software base was so old it was still using OpenOffice rather than LibreOffice. It was only then that I recalled that the Debian stable release is very conservative. You use the beta release if you want the latest versions.
I might have downloaded the beta and reinstalled, but I thought about the driver I needed for the Dell’s Broadcom Wi-Fi adapter. I was in unfamiliar territory. I wasn’t certain where to find the necessary driver or how to get it installed and working even if I did. I knew I could spend hours searching for the info with Google searches, working up the driver by hand, but I’ve been spoiled by Ubuntu. It makes the job so much easier.
So instead of downloading the Debian Beta release, I downloaded the current LTS version of Ubuntu: 12.04.1. I remembered using Ubuntu once before on an earlier model Dell laptop and being able to pick up the driver during updates when I jacked it into an RJ45 hardwired port. I decided since it was comfortable to do the installation in my dining room that I’d install unconnected to the Net and pick up the BroadCom driver after the fact.
Ubuntu installs are a piece of cake, especially since I was able to allow it to use the entire hard disk for its own use with no sharing or dual booting. The only surprise I got was a good one. When it arrived at the point of wanting to know if I wanted the installation to update software at the same time, via the Internet, it provided me with the necessary Broadcom Wi-Fi adapter. I chose it, typed in the network password, and Ubuntu did the rest. That’s plain classy.
When I booted up for business, after the installation, I was pleased with the selection of software Ubuntu had chosen, including LibreOffice and Firefox. I planned to add my specialized preferences, such as LyX and LaTeX, myself.
The new Unity interface was interesting — a kind of cross between Windows and Mac. It was easy to navigate and use, but it took me awhile to find my way to a terminal. You’d think that any version of Linux would set up an obvious terminal emulator by default. Worse, though was the performance. Rather than being better than Windows, I felt I was clicking through treacle. What was going on?
I did some Googling and discovered that, by default, Unity tries to use 3D graphics and works best with a graphics accelerator. I don’t know if the old Dell has an accelerated graphics chip or not, but if it does, it wasn’t working very well. So I logged off and on logging back on chose Unity 2D. After that everything speeded up to normal. All was almost well.
Except. I don’t know quite how to put this without offending the fine people at Ubuntu, whom I respect tremendously, but I really don’t like Unity. It’s a grandma’s interface. Something for the novice who never has plans to be anything else. Surely there must be a better way.
Here’s where my memory fails me. I can’t recall if Gnome Shell was an option on the relog screen or whether I went to the command line and typed $ sudo apt-get install gnome-shell. It was certainly an option after that.
So finally I rebooted into the traditional Gnome Shell and found an interface I could live with. I’ve used it before and found it plenty serviceable. The first program I stuck onto the top bar was Gnome Terminal. Now I was back in the Linux business. Next came Firefox and GEdit. TeX and LaTeX loaded up nicely, and I installed Handbrake because I have a DVD ripping project on the go.
Although I intend to do some modest development work on the Dell 1520, I’m first using it to rip the many Teaching Company “Great Courses” we own to MP4 format. As a friend remarked, I’m digitizing my university. Nowadays I purchase Teaching Company courses in download format from the get-go, but I have years of DVD courses I’d like to be able to study and review on my iPad or put on a memory stick to plug into my Blu Ray player.
All in all, it’s been another fine exercise in installing and using Linux. So far I haven’t found any trouble spots with the Dell 1520. I might, after finishing my ripping project, reinstall with Linux Mint, just to have a first look at it, but for now I’m happy with Ubuntu.