Laptop Renovation Part II – The Community Feeds Back

Upon reading responses to my previous post, I decided to put some of the community’s suggestions to the test and examine some of the other options out there. Of the suggestions given, I primarily focused my attention on Debian (Lenny), Damn Small Linux and the wattOS beta.  All the distros had relative advantages and disadvantages, and this provided me with an opportunity to look at some distros I otherwise might not have.

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The Laptop Renovation Project

At my office, we have a pair of old laptops purchased back in 2003 or 2004, which are terribly slow, woefully underpowered and horribly outdated, but which we still use periodically.  In other words, they made a perfect target for an OS makeover.

Anyone who has run Windows XP on a P4 with 256MB of RAM should be able to appreciate just how sluggish these machines are.  So with my boss’s blessing, I gathered the two machines and tried to breathe some new life into them.

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Synergy: A software KVM switch (without the “V”)

A good friend of mine and fellow technology wizard has on several occasions brought up Synergy as a great solution for doing work spanning a couple of local workstations.

I know I have several times added it to my “Mental List Of Apps To Try”, but somewhere along the way I forgot about it. Last weekend Jered was over at my house for dinner and he brought it up again, and this time I installed it.

To make a long story short: I should have been playing with Synergy a long time ago!

For those who like to read a little bit more than that, continue, because I have a writeup.

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Fluxbox on Ubuntu: two more problems, two more solutions

Continuing with my attempt to document the problems I’ve run into running Fluxbox on top of Ubuntu 9.04 and their solutions, I figured I’d present two more things I’ve encountered and resolved since the other day’s rather annoying touchpad fiasco.

These two were both relatively little things, but they’re the kind of things that tend to drive me nuts. The first was a problem with the screen automatically locking (using Xscreensaver‘s built-in lock function — even though I had all such functions disabled), and the second was an issue with sound being muted and the master volume being set to 0% every single time I rebooted — necessitating my manually unmuting it and raising the volume if I wanted sound every day.

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How to disable the touchpad in Ubuntu

As I had mentioned in yesterday’s post about configuring Fluxbox on Ubuntu 9.04 on my old Toshiba laptop, I had one nagging issue I couldn’t figure out, namely the rather simple fact that the touchpad wouldn’t stay disabled.

I know this isn’t a big deal for most people, but for me it’s a rather vexing one, and it bothered me that I had to manually do so every single time I logged in.

So this afternoon I took a deep breath, did some more Google searching on the subject, and arrived at an overly-complex (but doable) solution.
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Now using Fluxbox on Ubuntu 9.04

Even though the jury’s still out on my opinion of Ubuntu 9.04 on my laptop, I finally had enough of GNOME today and configured Fluxbox on it and set it as my default window manager.

I’m running into some weirdness with that even, however, which may color my opinion of Ubuntu as a result… things that I’m not accustomed to fighting with when using Fluxbox.

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Fluxbox: How I make it feel like home

In the wars between GNOME and KDE (which now has even split between the two factions warring over KDE4 and KDE3.5), some of the other environments get lost in the shuffle and are often forgotten about.

One which I think is underappreciated is Fluxbox. Based on the original Blackbox 0.61.1 code, Fluxbox is a blindingly fast, simplistic approach to providing a graphical user environment while staying out of one’s way. Easy to use, easy on resources, and easy on the eyes, Fluxbox is an elegant choice that is often overlooked when the options are weighed between other graphical environments on Linux machines.

I started using Fluxbox when I was on some extremely quarrelsome hardware and needed something with a lot less going on than GNOME or KDE so that I could more effectively troubleshoot it. What I found out was that Fluxbox had an extremely tweakable interface… and I like things I can tweak and customize. I also discovered that it ran extremely fast on the limited hardware I had at the time, something else that KDE and GNOME didn’t have.

Intrigued, I stuck with it for a while and over time I learned a few good hacks that I thought I would share with the three or four readers I’ve acquired here.

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Ubuntu screenshot time

Just another quick blurb. I’ve uploaded a screenshot of my laptop as it appears now that I’ve tweaked my Ubuntu installation to the way I like it.

I’m more of a KDE 3.5 kind of guy, so I rearrange GNOME to have the main stuff (panels/toolbars whathaveyou) a bit more like I’m used to, but I still like the way this looks so far.

I’m still learning where things are in Ubuntu (well, GNOME, mostly, since that’s the main thing that’s different for me here), but one thing that has struck me is how impressive the speed is. Remember, before this, I was running Slackware 12.0 on this exact same laptop, and I was using Fluxbox as my window manager — not exactly a visually heavy system.

So for me to say that Ubuntu runs pretty snappy on this laptop is saying a lot, and I’m not much of a fan of the bloat in GNOME, so I think that’s significant.

To be fair, I think what this says is how well the Canonical people have their act together at optimizing GNOME for their project. Nice job, guys. Coming from a Slackware guy, I’m here saying that I’m not only impressed with the setup process, but I’m impressed with the performance so far too.

Giving Ubuntu a real try

Just a really quick blurb on my experience with the latest version of Ubuntu last night.

I managed to, over time, break Slackware on my old Toshiba laptop, and since it needed a reload and I just burned an Ubuntu 9.04 disc the other night, I figured I’d install it on my laptop last night.

I’ll write more regarding this process, but I have to say, while I’m much more of a Slackware guy, the installation went really well, and even though the default interface for Ubuntu is GNOME (which I have never liked much), the folks at Canonical have put together a nice package.

Within minutes of having the OS installed and up and running I had Fluxbox installed, Opera installed, root access enabled, and wireless working without any trouble at all.

I’ll be giving this a try for a little while to see how it goes, but so far, so good.

A quick blurb about Notebooks / Netbooks

I’ve been getting really excited about getting a new laptop of some kind. The recent spate of netbooks from various manufacturers has me thinking lately that I don’t really need a full-blown laptop.

All I really do with my laptop is write, email, surf, and the occasional other little thing here and there… but nothing involving too much heavy lifting for the CPU or graphics. I definitely don’t need any kind of top end gaming laptop or anything.

So as a result, why should I spend close to $2000 on my next laptop?

Answer: I shouldn’t.

Netbooks have gotten me riled up lately, not only because as a product they are now beginning to show offerings of lower-end portables that are in the $500 and below pricepoint, but because most of the main netbook sellers also provide Linux of some sort as an option.

So I’ve been watching the developments in the netbook and notebook market eagerly for the past 6 months or so, and it seems like every week something new is popping up that grabs my attention, particularly from Dell.

HP is also making some really interesting moves in this market, but Dell has been going one step further and making low-priced regular notebooks as well.

A different linux blog which I follow regularly recently talked about the Dell Inspiron 15n, which gave me a total doubletake. I’m not looking for a regular 15″ laptop… I’ve been waiting for Dell to offer better options on their 12″ netbooks… but this made me reconsider that.

Even when I pimped it out with 4GB of memory, the top-end processor option and the slim LED display I still came out under $600. Not bad. Looks like the crappy economy is causing at least one company to make some interesting moves in pricing!

Anyway, it’s something I’m watching. Dell is putting more and more on the line by offering Ubuntu on many more of their products, and they’re not just hiding them in the closet or back room anymore like they were. It’s now possible to get Linux on their flagship models, which is saying something.

Since I’m in the market for a new laptop — be it a netbook or a full blown notebook — I’ll be keeping an eye on them in coming months. This is bound to get interesting.