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Week of 7 June 2004

Latest Update : Sunday, 13 June 2004 08:50 -0400

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Monday, 7 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

11:02 - Yesterday, I sent in the draft manuscript of the last remaining chapter. It was also my birthday. I turned 33(H).

Our friends Mary Chervenak and Paul Jones came over for dinner Saturday night. Both are organic chemists, and both were fascinated by the Molecules screen saver in Xandros, which puts rotating 3D models of various organic molecules on screen. As we were sitting there on the sofa watching the molecules, Jerry Pournelle called to ask me something about something he was writing for this month's Chaos Manor column.

Jerry could hear other people talking, and asked if it was a bad time. I told him we had a couple of friends over for dinner, and that Mary was sitting next to me on the sofa, but I didn't think she'd hit me. She hit me. Later on, Jerry called back with another quick question. As we were talking, Mary walked over with her hand out. I thought she wanted to talk to Jerry, so I started to hand her the phone. That wasn't what she wanted. She smacked me again.

I guess that'll teach me to talk on the phone while we have guests. Mary Chervenak. Think of her as a combination of Miss Manners and Attila the Hun.

I sent a message to my subscribers over the weekend, telling them about my initial experiences with the Xandros Linux distro. I also CC'd my contact at Xandros, and she replied with several comments. I'm posting my original message with her comments interspersed.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: Xandros Eval copy request
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 20:03:06 -0700
From: Xenia von Wedel
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Hi Robert, please our input below (in blue), I sent it to our techie to look at the described problems as well. Could not get any answer over the weekend though...

Thanks and regards,


-----Original Message-----
From: Robert Bruce Thompson
Sent: Saturday, June 05, 2004 1:56 PM
To: Xenia von Wedel
Subject: Re: Xandros Eval copy request

Hi, Xenia

I took a couple hours today to install Xandros and play around with it. I sent the following email to my subscribers this afternoon, and will post it on my journal page Monday.


I took a short break from writing today, and blew away Windows 2000 on my den system. I installed Xandros 2.0, the Business version. I have the basic, enhanced, and business versions. The main differences seem to be that the latter two include Crossover Office, and the business version includes StarOffice 7 rather than OpenOffice.org and is able to authenticate against an NT4 primary domain controller or AD domain controller.


My first impressions were excellent. Xandros detected all my hardware and installed flawlessly. The only configuration I needed to do was entering my username and password. Xandros did everything else automagically, including setting up TCP/IP and Windows networking. Their autoupdate app is much better than any other similar Linux app I've used, and better in fact than Windows Update.

The first hint of trouble occurred when I was using autoupdate. The first-run wizard fired up all by itself--this had to be at least five minutes after I logged on. It displayed the first screen, which I stared at for a while, but it didn't do anything else. Finally, I clicked the Cancel button, which did nothing. Neither did the big X button. The only control that worked was the Minimize button, so I did that and went about my business, looking to see what was available in the file repository.

The autoupdate app had installed several critical updates and recommended I reboot the system, which I did. Foolishly, I ran the first-run wizard again, manually this time, and it locked up again. I hadn't found a way to get a console (it's in the file manager app, well hidden), so I just rebooted again.

* *

*The First Time Run Wizard certainly should not lock up your system so obviously other things were going on. Will need Ming's input on what might have occurred, but he may need more step-by-step details.*

* *

*While you can launch the console from Xandros File Manager, you would normally do this from the Launch menu:*

* *

*Launch > Applications > System > Console *

*Launch > Applications > System > Administrator Tools > Console (Administrator) *

*Or Launch > Run Command ... , which has an option to run in terminal*

I then started playing around with Windows compatibility. Xandros does this right, worlds better than any other Linux distro I've looked at. Connecting to Windows shares is as easy from Xandros as from another Windows box. Everything just works.

Then I made another mistake. I fired up Mozilla, which is version 1.6. At that point, the wheels came off. Mozilla was set by default to go to the Xandros home page, which it did. But when I clicked on the URL bar, intending to set my default page, it selected the current URL, but refused to accept any keyboard input. It wouldn't close, either. I was able to minimize Mozilla, but like the first-run wizard, that was all I could do.

I rebooted again, very disappointed in Xandros. Then it struck me. Mozilla version 1.6. This is the same computer that I ended up using Thunderbird and Firefox on because it refused to load Mozilla 1.6 under Windows 2000. I eventually concluded that the most likely problem is that there's a programming bug in Mozilla 1.6 that causes it to fail on fast systems (this is a D865PERL motherboard with a Pentium 4/3.2 GHz CPU). The behavior under Xandros was not identical (I couldn't even get the program to come up under Windows), but it was close enough that I now suspect the problem is Mozilla rather than Xandros. Of course, that doesn't really help me, because I want to run Mozilla as my browser and mail client.

*Way beyond me, though I doubt this is either Xandros or Mozilla.*

Oh, yeah. The Xandros file repository. It's very slick. You just select the program you want and Xandros downloads and installs it for you. No RPM hell, no dependency problems. No problems at all. Well, one problem. There's not much there. I intended to grab several key utilities, including Privoxy to block ads, NetTime to sync my PC time to a timeserver, the Xephem astronomy program, and so on. None of them were there. In fact, where I'd expect to see dozens of choices, there were at most one or two, and often none. There wasn't even a category for scientific and engineering apps, for example. Where I'd expect to see scores or hundreds of choices, e.g. games, there were half a dozen or a dozen. There just isn't much there.

Some of the apps in the repository are freely available, but much of what is there requires registration to get to (although many/most of the apps in the registered-users-only area are free for the download). I provided my name, address, email, phone number, and so on, and was immediately authorized to access the restricted section of the repository. Just for something to do, I grabbed Tuxracer, which downloaded, installed, and ran just fine.

Xandros doesn't restrict you to using their repository, fortunately. You can use any Debian repository, either via the GUI or with apt-get. Of course, they have a horrifying warning that using anything but apps from their repository may crash your system.

*You can use any repository you want, including the large unsupported Debian repository that Xandros has set up. The packages on the regular Xandros Distribution Site have gone through extensive quality assurance testing to assure that the programs will install smoothly in the system, appear in the menus, and not create conflicts with existing programs. We would be remiss not to warn users that we can't provide that assurance if they install packages from other sites.*

I'm going to have to try Xandros on another system, one slower than the one I have it on now. But, overall, my initial impression of Xandros is very, very favorable. The crashes of Mozilla and the first-run wizard are, I'm pretty sure, an artifact of my fast hardware. My guess is that on a mid-range system Xandros would work flawlessly.

*Would like to hear the results.*

If you're a Windows user who wants to use Linux but you don't want to spend a lot of time learning Linux arcana, this is the distro for you. The standard version is inexpensive, but lacks the Crossover Office app that allows you to run MS Office and a few other selected Windows apps. If you don't need to do that, you can get by with the standard version. Otherwise, you'll need the Deluxe or Business version, both of which include Crossover Office. (I may wait a while before I install MS Office. Xandros comes with StarOffice 7, which may suffice.)

I've been watching Linux for years now, hoping to see a desktop version that could compete head-on with Windows. This may not be that version, but it's closer than anything I've yet seen. As Churchill said, "This is not the end. This in not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

If I were Microsoft, I'd be very, very worried.


In the interim, I've received several responses from subscribers, some of which I'm posting below. Alas, I'm really pushed for time, so I don't have time to respond to them in any detail. I will be installing Xandros on another system, or, alternatively, setting the CPU speed in the current system down to 2.8 or 2.6 GHz to see what happens. (I use Intel engineering sample processors, which aren't locked.)

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: xandros
Date: Sat, 05 Jun 2004 23:43:56 +0200
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Xandros repository sounds much like Debian apt-get, though newer and much smaller (centralized). Select and go: installs and configures.

Dependency issues are guaranteed to crop up when you get more to choose from and when there's been time enough for development paths to fork. They will. Depend on it :)

A good update-installer system (apt-get) can usually handle the situation quite well (assuming package maintainers are reasonably careful) and resolve dependency conflicts automatically, occasionally with a few manual overrides.

I've so far updated or installed several thousand packages in various combinations across 4 Debian systems over the past year or so, and I've documented only a handful of fairly minor "breaks", all possible to resolve with a bit of web research.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [RBT] Xandros 2.0 desktop Linux first impressions
Date: Sat, 05 Jun 2004 18:47:58 -0400
From: Brian Bilbrey
Organization: Orb Designs
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Hash: SHA1

Robert Bruce Thompson wrote:

| Oh, yeah. The Xandros file repository. It's very slick. You just select

In case you hadn't gotten to this yet...

Xandros Networks:

~ Edit --> Set Application Sources check the Debian Unsupported site box.
~ Settings --> Expert View
~ Search turns up privoxy, I've never used it...
~ Search turns up ntpdate, which is an even better choice.
~ installing ntpdate prompts for time servers. Use pool.ntp.org, a DNS
~ round-robin address for volunteer tier 2 and 3 timeservers.
~ then, as root in a console,
     crontab -e
     i to insert
     8 0 * * * /etc/init.d/ntpdate restart
~ [ESC] to stop editing
:wq to write, quit.

~ That sets up ntpdate to run at 8 minutes after midnight every day, by default it runs at boot time, if that's good enough, then don't do the cron job.

~ Search turns up xephem, too.

I'm going to have to try Xandros on another system, one slower than the one I have it on now. But, overall, my initial impression of Xandros is very, very favorable. The crashes of Mozilla and the first-run wizard are, I'm pretty sure, an artifact of my fast hardware. My guess is that on a mid-range system Xandros would work flawlessly.

But first, why not try to install it on the very fastest system you built for the book, just on the off chance that there's something wonky with the den system??? Or is the den system the fastest? Grin.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [RBT] Xandros 2.0 desktop Linux first impressions
Date: 5 Jun 2004 17:13:58 -0700
From: Richard G. Samuels
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I'm not sure your problem is with Mozilla. I am typing this message in Mozilla 1.6 on a dual 3.02 ghz P4/Xeon (Intel SE7505VB2 motherboard) running XP Pro and have had no problem with Mozilla. This board "only" has a 533 mhz fsb, so it's possible the problem is with the 800 mhz fsb. The Intel boards seem to be very picky about the RAM you're running, so that could be a problem. I build a lot of systems. I almost always use Intel boards and Crucial RAM. They may not be as fast as some over-clockable boards, but they tend to be very stable. I'll trade stability for a little extra speed any day.

Rick Samuels in Portland

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [RBT] Xandros 2.0 desktop Linux first impressions
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 14:28:33 +0100
From: Michael Hill
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I guess that you will get enough replies to draw up a matrix, but Moz 1.6 works fine for me on a D865PERL board with a 2.40C (512KB cache) processor.

As an aside, I looked a couple of months ago at upgrading the processor in this board and I was surprised to see that only recent steppings of the board would support the 1MB cache processors and only then with BIOS 13 installed.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: [RBT] Xandros 2.0 desktop Linux first impressions
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 22:11:03 -0500
From: Yancey
To: 'Robert Bruce Thompson'

I have installed Xandros on several computers without problems. It was easy to break if you install software from a different source. Libranet is also built on Debian like Xandros, but installs a lot more apps. I have purchased both and like Libranet because I can use Debian repositories to install software from. Xandros only gives you KDE and no other desktop choices. I installed Xandros on 2 friends computers and the love it, one an old Pentium 300 laptop and the other a new Dell. Both like having no viruses now and Mozilla worked fine on both. Open Office works great and has 99.9% od the features of MS office. http://www.libranet.com you can read some reviews on libranet also. http://www.osnews.com

15:24 - Uh-oh...

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: Smack me, will you?
Date: Mon, 07 Jun 2004 15:01:39 -0400
From: Mary Chervenak
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Must...control...fist of death...

I didn't really mean it. Honest. "Attila the Hun" was a typo. I meant to type "Attila the Hon". As in "honey". As in "sweetheart". As in the nicest person I know, and one whom I'd go to any lengths to avoid offending. Really. Honest. Please don't hit me.


Tuesday, 8 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

7:35 - We were up at oh-dark-thirty to watch the Venus transit, the first since 1882. The weather forecasts didn't look good, but we decided last night to head for Bullington, an observing site near Pilot Mountain. Barbara and I arrived at Bullington under severely hazy conditions at about 0545. Steve Childers had gotten there a few minutes earlier, and Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak showed up a few minutes later. Paul announced that he was heading for the mountains, and asked if I wanted to go along. Barbara and Steve both had work commitments and so couldn't drive in search of better skies. I decided to ride along with Paul and Mary. We drove up to Virginia, and things didn't get any better. In fact, as we were driving along, Paul started to laugh. I asked him what was so funny, and he pointed out that it was now raining.

It was pretty certain that the weather wasn't going to improve as we climbed the mountain, so we turned around and drove back. At 7:06 a.m. as we were coming down route 52, the sun peeked out through the clouds. C III, the moment when Venus as it egresses touches the edge of Sol's disk, was at 7:10 a.m., so Paul pulled off on the shoulder, planning to set up the scopes along the highway. Alas, the clouds intervened, so we headed home.

We were disappointed, but that's part of being an amateur astronomer. One learns to be patient and to deal with frustrations like this. As Paul said, he'd been waiting a quarter century for this to happen, since he first read about the transit as a pre-teen, and then we missed it. I'd been waiting longer. I first read about the transit when I was 13 or 14, back in the mid-60's. I remember thinking then that I'd have just had my 51st birthday, which seemed an extreme age to me back then.

Oh, well. At least we tried. And there is another Venus transit in 2012.

12:06 - O'Reilly sent me a PDF draft of the front cover for the new book yesterday. I liked it, but Mark Brokering (O'Reilly's VP of Sales and Marketing, and the guy who had the idea for the book) thought some changes were needed. The lady who shot the photos originally told us that the hardware in the photos belonged to another O'Reilly employee who'd decided to build himself a new system based on the book. They'd shot the images at the office as he built the system, and to re-shoot would require him to bring his working system from home and tear it down.

I told the folks at O'Reilly that I'd be happy to shoot the cover image, so for the next couple of days Barbara's kitchen table is going to be covered with components again. The original image used an Antec Sonata case. We talked about using an Aria, but Mark rightly pointed out that the Sonata is immediately recognizable as a PC case, while the Aria might not be.

I have two Sonata cases here. One is Barbara's main system, so tearing that one down is a non-starter. The second is my den system, which currently has Xandros installed on it. I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone by pulling the Sonata from the den to use in the images and replacing it with an Aria SFF system. That'd also give me the chance to see if Xandros ran properly on another system.

The Sonata system has a D865PERL motherboard, Intel Pentium 4/3.2 processor, 512 MB of Crucial DDR400 RAM, an ATi RADEON 9200 video adapter, a Seagate 160 GB Barracuda 7200.7 S-ATA, and a Plextor PX-708A DVD burner. The Aria has a D865GLC motherboard, Intel Pentium 4/3.2 processor, 512 MB of Crucial DDR400 RAM, a Seagate 160 GB Barracuda 7200.7 S-ATA, and a Plextor PX-708A DVD burner. In other words, except for slightly different motherboards, RADEON versus embedded video, and a Prescott P4 in the Sonata versus a Northwood P4 in the Aria, the systems are nearly identical.

So I pulled the Sonata and put the Aria in its place. The only common components were the Logitech keyboard and mouse and the NEC monitor. I fired up the Aria system and installed Xandros. As before, installation was very smooth and quick. Also, alas, as before, the First-Run Wizard failed. It took about five minutes to start running after I first booted the system, displayed the first screen, and locked up. I restarted to kill the wizard and tried firing up Mozilla 1.6. It had the identical problems I saw on the Sonata system. So I ran BIOS Setup and disabled Hyper-Threading, hoping for the best. No joy. After a reboot, Mozilla 1.6 behaved the same way. I'm convinced it's a CPU speed issue, and that somewhere in Mozilla 1.6 there's a timing-sensitive loop of some sort that's finishing faster than the programmers intended.

Oh, well. The next step is to try installing Xandros on a slower system. I really like Xandros, and I'm convinced that it's not the fault of the OS.

Geez, it's only lunchtime and I feel like I've put in a full day...



Wednesday, 9 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:23 - Final pre-production edits on the Preface and the first chapter this morning, followed by shooting cover images this afternoon.

I played around some more with Xandros on the Aria system last night. It's still not working the way it should be, although I'm pretty sure the problem is Mozilla 1.6 rather than Xandros.

I also tried using StarOffice 7 on the Xandros system last night to work on some of the chapter edits. Once again, I ran into the problem of Star Office (or OpenOffice.org) butchering the formatting. Here's an example. Note that StarOffice has no horizontal scroll bar and yet much of the text is off the screen to the left. There are also many other formatting glitches which aren't apparent unless you're comparing this to the original document in Word 2000. The StarOffice version is simply unusable. That's unfortunate, because I really, really want to get away from MS Office.

snapshot1-so.png (85306 bytes)

16:05 - Xandros now has a freely-downloadable Xandros Desktop OS Open Circulation Edition. As to what's missing, the answer appears to be "not much". It's for non-commercial use only, but isn't time-limited. It doesn't include support, of course. Nor does it include StarOffice 7 or Crossover Office, which Xandros has to pay Sun and CodeWeavers for, respectively. The only crippled functionality I can see in the free version is that the CD burning function built into the Xandros File Manager operates only at the lowest speed supported by your CD burner, which seems a bit gratuitous. It's easy enough, of course, to hit the Debian repository and download another CD burning app.

At any rate, if you've been intrigued by what I've been writing recently about Xandros, this is a free way to take a look at it.



Thursday, 10 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:42 - I just noticed an excellent review of Xandros Desktop 2.0 Standard written by none other than Brian Bilbrey. I read Brian's page nearly every day, so I couldn't figure out how I'd missed it. Then I saw the date. Monday, April 12th, the week of Tax Day. I wasn't doing anything much early that week except for taxes.

I played around with Xandros a bit more last evening. I have Mozilla 1.6 working, kind of. It still freezes up reproducibly if I try to use the keyboard at all. That is, I can't type a URL in, nor fill in a form field on a web page. As soon as I touch the keyboard, Mozilla 1.6 locks up tight. I'm able to browse the web by clicking on URLs, but that's it. Given that Mozilla 1.6 under Windows 2000 refused to even load on the previous Pentium 4/3.2 system and exhibited the lock-up behavior on that system under Xandros 2.0, and given that I'm seeing the same sort of bizarre behavior on another Pentium 4/3.2 system, I conclude that it's likely a question of processor speed. Also, the Xandros First-Run Wizard shoots craps on both of these fast systems.

Several people have written me to say that Xandros Desktop 2.0 works fine for them on slower hardware, so the obvious next step is to try slower hardware. I suppose it's remotely possible that the problem is one of the three peripherals I've used on both systems--a Logitech keyboard and mouse and an NEC monitor--but I don't think that's likely.

I spent much of yesterday incorporating comments from editors and technical reviewers for the Preface and the first chapter. That's finished and off to production, so the only thing I have left to do today for the new book is to shoot some images for the cover. The kitchen table is now covered with a sheet, and I'll be arranging components artistically. We'll see what happens.

I have some non-writing stuff to get caught up on, but I also need to start on the next project, which is the update of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. There may also be a mini-project book in the middle of that, and following the PCHiaN update I have yet another book in the talking-about-but-we're-probably-going-to-do-it stage.

All told, it looks like I'm going to be busy for the foreseeable future, which is better than the alternative.

Oh, speaking of Building the Perfect PC (which is the title of the book I'm just finishing), the drawing for free copies is now closed. Something over 50 of my subscribers registered for the drawing, and I sent those names up to O'Reilly a month or so ago. As far as I know, they're going to send free review copies to everyone who registered. I think they're also going to send O'Reilly t-shirts, which I've learned come only in one-size-fits-all (extra large).

11:11 - This from Roland Dobbins:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Dogs understand speech.
Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 07:36:23 -0700
From: Roland Dobbins
To: Robert Bruce Thompson


Heh. Nothing unusual there. I've been living with Border Collies for 45 years, and all of them have huge vocabularies. Working Border Collies often know their entire flocks individually by name. For example, a farmer with a herd of 200 cows can tell his Border Collie, "Go get Daisy", and the dog will go out, find the proper cow, and bring it back. I'm not making this up. It's quite common for a Border Collie, by itself, to care for livestock. It'll take the cows out in the morning, without human assistance, and bring them back in the evening.

Ours don't have livestock to care for, but they do have toys. Malcolm, for example, is a ball demon. He has half a dozen tennis balls that Barbara bought for him at the pet store. To us humans, they all appear identical. Not to Malcolm. To him, each ball is an individual. If he wants to play with one of them, another won't do. Barbara and I have taken up naming the balls. "Go get George," we'll say, and Malcolm goes off in search of George. There can be several other tennis balls lying around, but he'll frantically search until he finds the missing tennis ball.

BCs are extremely smart dogs. Our first BC, Abbie, could spell. She hating being bathed, so we took up spelling B-A-T-H. She made the association the first time it happened, and ever after it was useless to spell B-A-T-H, because she'd flee in terror. Note that it wasn't just the word sounds. She could actually spell. Saying B-T-A-H, for example, had no effect.

Our current two can also spell. They recognize pronounced letters for what they are, and if they don't know what those letters spell, they still get excited, figuring it must be something interesting. For example, one time I was on the phone with Jerry Pournelle, talking about a system he was building. We were talking about drives, and I mentioned "IDE". Both dogs ears stood straight up, and they began watching me intently. When, later in the conversation, I mentioned "ATA", they both made a mad scramble for the door, figuring that, although they didn't know what I was spelling, it must be something good.

They're also quite capable of deductive and inductive logic. For example, when we're going to grill steaks on the deck, we don't dare mention "grill", "steaks", or "deck", because there'll be a mad scramble for the back door. But it goes further than that. Barbara uses boxed Kraft pasta salad, and the only time she makes it is when she's cooking out on the grill. If either dog sees her take a box of pasta salad from the pantry, the mad scramble starts. They have, independently, made the link between pasta salad and grilling out. Same thing if they happen to see her get out the blue platter that she carries the steaks on.

These dogs are so bright that when a mad scramble starts for no apparent reason, Barbara and I know that we've unintentionally said or done something that set the dogs off. If we think about it, we can usually figure out what it was we said or did. We often comment that if Border Collies had opposable thumbs, we'd be in real trouble.

I realize the people who don't have Border Collies will think I'm making all of this up. Anyone who does have Border Collies knows I'm telling the truth.

12:20 - Here's an interesting article that says what I've been saying for years. Desktop Linux is slower, much slower, than Windows. Whenever I say that, I get hate mail from Linux zealots, but it's true. I'm surprised the author of this article just noticed it. Furthermore, he compares desktop Linux (slow) with Windows XP (fast). In reality, Windows XP is a pig, which is just one of the many reasons I won't use it. It's much slower than Windows 2000. If he'd compared Windows 2000 as well, he would have come up with a different hierarchy: Linux (slug-like), Windows XP (slow), Windows 2000 (fast).

I remember when, with NT4, Microsoft moved video from user mode to kernel mode. In NT 3.5 and earlier, video drivers ran in user mode, which meant (a) video was much slower, and (b) a video driver bug couldn't crash the OS. With NT4, we suddenly found ourselves in a position where a poorly-written video driver could crash the entire OS. Oh, well.

At the time, people said that, although it might make sense to run the video drivers in kernel mode for the Workstation version, it made no sense to do so in the Server version. The problem, of course, was that there weren't really two versions, any more than there are today. Windows XP Professional and Windows Server are basically the same product. A few registry entries differ, as do bundled applications, but they're really the same software dressed in different clothes. Microsoft had to pick one, and they chose to run video in kernel mode. That was no great problem on servers, of course. One simply used the guaranteed-stable vanilla video driver supplied with the OS. Crappy performance, but rock-solid stability.

Nor is Linux any more stable than Windows 2000 or later. Less so, in fact, at least in my experience. Running on top-notch, well-maintained hardware, either is about as stable as one might reasonably expect a desktop OS to be, which is to say good enough for almost any use, but not something you'd want to bet your life on. If anything, Windows appears to be more stable than Linux. I've had many fewer glitches with Windows, while glitches are Linux are relatively common and seem to be becoming more so.

But speed will be the major issue for most prospective desktop Linux converts. Running on the same hardware, a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM, Windows 2000 simply blows the doors off every Linux distro I've tried recently, including Xandros, Fedora Core 1, Fedora Core 2, and Mandrake 10. And this is with the same applications--Mozilla 1.5, OOo 1.1.1, and so on. Under Windows, without their memory-resident "speed up loading" stubs loaded, Mozilla loads almost instantly on the 3.2 GHz system. OOo takes a bit longer, but still loads reasonably fast. Under Linux, loading either one takes a long time, at least 10 or 15 seconds for Mozilla and longer for OOo.

Same deal on small applications. I had a desktop icon for FreeCell on the Windows 2000 system. When I double-clicked it, FreeCell was up and running literally before I released the mouse button from the second click. On Xandros, loading the Solitaire application takes a good 10 seconds. Not identical applications, certainly, but surely not that different.

The Linux zealots who claim one can run Linux on old hardware are telling the truth, if they're talking about running it as a server in command-line mode. But if they're talking about running a desktop Linux GUI, they're full of it. Modern desktop Linux distros are acceptable on fast modern hardware, but no more. Attempting to run them on a system that was state-of-the-art just a couple years ago is an exercise in patience and frustration.

So why am I looking at Xandros as a potential replacement for Windows? It's not speed, obviously, nor is it stability. It's not even security. My network is well protected by firewalls, and I run applications like Mozilla that are pretty much immune to the plague of viruses and worms that affect IE, Outlook, and other Microsoft apps. To my way of thinking, Windows and Linux are about equally secure. The real reason I want to migrate to Linux is to get off the Microsoft merry-go-round. I don't want DRM and other nasties infecting my computers, and I'm willing to pay a price in reduced performance to get there.



Friday, 11 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:39 - Lots of comments on my recent posts:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Microsoft bootlicker
Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 13:49:17 -0700
From: Huth Mark
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Regarding your recent rant in which you claim that micro$oft desktop operating systems run faster than Linux desktop operating systems.....

You obviously are in the pay of Microsoft, unable to see the truth because of the huge monthly checks you get from Bill Gates. Either that or you are criminally insane and sleeping with Steve Ballmer.

By the way, Bob, I'm getting $42,000/month from Bill to say nice things, how much are you getting? I trust you get more, you've got a much larger readership than I!



Yeah, what can I say? I gave Linus a chance to outbid Bill, but I never heard back from him.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Linux speed.
Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 13:53:41 -0700
From: Roland Dobbins
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Even though I've switched to the (quite speedy, thank you) Mac for my day-to-day computing purposes, I have to strongly disagree with your pronouncements about Linux being slower on modern hardware than Windows.

It just isn't true.

Before switching to the Mac, I routinely ran Linux with XFree86 and WindowMaker or Fluxbox on standard Intel P4 hardware with high-end nVidia cards, and the GUI speed (as well as everything else) was lightning-fast, much faster than Windows XP on similar hardware owned by friends. Disk access was much faster, too - XFS really screams.

I'm sure that's true, but alas I'm not a Linux expert like you, so I've never used those other desktops. Like most of my readers, I just install Linux using the GUI installer and end up with a KDE or gnome desktop. All I can do is report what I see, and that's what I've done.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: slow and slower
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 2004 01:04:26 +0200
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I find your comparison on app startup times *really* strange...

Mozilla loads almost instantly on the 3.2 GHz system. OOo takes a bit longer, but still loads reasonably fast. Under Linux, loading either one takes a long time, at least 10 or 15 seconds for Mozilla and longer for OOo.

On Xandros, loading the Solitaire application takes a good 10 seconds.

I'd be extremely unhappy with >10 s times too, even on a "slow" system.

So to check, I timed a few apps on my own system (1.6GHz P4 mobile, Centrino, 512 MB RAM, 5400 rpm ATAPI IDE 2.5"), running Debian and KDE -- generic Knoppix kernel compilation, not optimized at all for my system. Now granted, using KDE does make a number of things slower than some of the other GUIs, especially when various animations and such are on, but these were my results for Linux-KDE:

1. Open Office 1.1.1 Writer. "Cold" start (no OOo app run before in current boot session): 7 seconds, give or take. Shut down completely and started again (in same session) 3 seconds or less (many files are then already cached). Splash screen is on in both cases.

2. A solitaire game. Cold start: 2 seconds, including splash, before ready to click on cards. The original Freecell (from Windows) cold started, associated with Wine (which thus has to start first, then load the freecell exe): 3 seconds total time before I can start clicking cards! Restarted: < 2 seconds.

3. Konqueror, KDE's own multipurpose (file & web)browser. < 1 second. Likely this has, like MSIE many komponents (sic) preloaded with the base GUI.

4. Vuescan, my scanner app: 5 seconds, cold. About 3 seconds restart in same session.

5. The Gimp v2 (the Linux approximation of Photoshop). About 7 seconds cold, with more than half that time spent loading umpteen plugins. About 5 seconds second time around.

6. Xine DVD-player: < 2 seconds. Significantly faster than any of the comparable Win2k players I have on similar systems.

As I recall, times were somewhat faster than this in the leaner desktop alternatives, such as wmaker or icewm, though such a comparison is from memory on my previous machine.

In the comparison with Windows, I believe both OOo and Mozilla by default use resident background stubs preloaded in Windows, just like MS Office, to significantly speed up loading times. This is not the default case in Linux, at least on my system.

In theory WinXP was supposed to be way faster than Win2k, as XP could delegate a whole list of components to the loading subsystem for concurrent fetches while Win2k must do them sequentially, but my albeit limited experience of XP is mixed about the actual gains. One thing that *is* optimized in both Win2k and WinXP is that the visuals come up long before you can actually click on them -- an intentional "instant gratifier" for the user who thus gains the illusion of loading speed.

Like I say, I find your times really odd given you have much faster hardware, or perhaps that's the problem here too...?

/ Bo

Again, all I can do is report what I see. Obviously, given that article, I'm not alone.

In Windows, Mozilla and OOo do have memory resident "fast-load" applications, but I was talking about load times with them disabled. With them enabled, Mozilla and OOo both load instantly on my P4/3.2 systems under Windows 2000. By "instantly", I mean that the application loads with no discernable pause after the second mouse click used to start it.

Subjectively, Xandros is slower than the more standard Linux distros I've used, such as Fedora Core. I'm wondering if perhaps the fact that I'm using a Serial ATA hard drive is affecting things. It may be that the S-ATA driver in Linux is very slow. Under Windows 2000, disk response is noticeably faster with an S-ATA hard drive (8 MB buffer) than with a P-ATA hard drive with the same size buffer.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: another datapoint
Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 23:56:10 -0000 (UTC)
From: Bo Leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Curious at what it would take to have 10-15 second startup time for OOo writer in Linux, I just now went to my Compaq Armada 1750, which these days runs the "same" Debian-KDE setup as my main notebook. However, it is a much slower 300 MHz PII MMX with less than half the RAM.

Current status (runs p2p and stuff 24/7) indicated that a fair bit of buffered stuff would need to be cleared out to swap before, which should slow things down even more. Also, I wasn't going to kill any running apps just for this test. So a typical "top" gave:

top - 01:25:19 up 95 days, 13:41, 1 user, load average: 0.94, 1.04, 1.04
Tasks: 81 total, 2 running, 79 sleeping, 0 stopped, 0 zombie
Cpu(s): 13.3% user, 6.5% system, 0.0% nice, 80.3% idle
Mem: 191548k total, 188268k used, 3280k free, 4828k buffers
Swap: 514072k total, 247624k used, 266448k free, 90348k cached

Ok, cold start (I've not used OOo on this machine for a *very* long time. It was here the 1.1.0 upgrade over the 1.0.1 original install.)

A lot of swap activity got me a roughly 18 second first start to writable page in a window. Second start clocked just over 10 seconds. Third a bit later took 13 seconds. Fourth 9 seconds. Variations no doubt due to the varying p2p load taking between 10% and 30% of cpu and consuming some harddisk bandwidth. No dual spindles here. :) Hmm...

(30 GB primary, 4200 rpm, dma on)
hdparm -t /dev/hda:
32 MB in 3.03 seconds = 10.56 MB/sec

Ok, so your high-end tower system in your Linux installation compares in app-startup performance to an 300MHz PII notebook system on my end with a moderately pathetic drive. Something seems seriously off on your end.

Well, when I get a moment I intend to install Xandros on another system, so we'll see what happens.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 3.2ghz & Mozilla
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 2004 08:09:38 -0400
From: Mike Mills
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
CC: Brian Bilbrey

Hi Bob

I had a thought on this - what are your memory timings for that DDR400 ram? If they were set to aggressively for the prototype CPU/MB you could be seeing excessive bit errors causing the slowdown of memory-intensive operations. I'm not sure that it would cause a 3.2 to perform some operations slower than a 650mhz, but still - it might be worth checking. Set the CAS timing to 3 for that ram and see what happens.


Good thought, but I'm running default memory timings on all my systems. Also, this wouldn't explain why, for example, Mozilla 1.5 runs fine under both Windows 2000 and Linux, while Mozilla 1.6 won't even load under Windows 2000 and is completely weird under Linux.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Timely Article
Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 23:27:52 -0700
From: JHR
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Bob -

Very timely article on BC intelligence in the SFGate.

It would seem from reading it, and your today's post, that your and Barbara's observations and conclusions are /way/ ahead of the Max Planck researchers. Perhaps you might wish to send the institute your observations & conclusions.

You might even persuade me that a BC might - just /might/ - be worth the energy required! Keep it up.<BG>

Heh. They slightly underestimate the number of hours of activity a BC requires. I'd put it somewhere around 16 hours a day.



Saturday, 12 June 2004

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:56 - Malcolm is on a tear as I write this. This is the first time he's done this in a while. He turns five years old in September, so he's getting pretty old for it. For those of you who don't have Border Collies, a "tear" is a mad scramble for no reason whatsoever. Malcolm started back in the bedroom and came tearing down the hall, through the den, up into the love seat, bounced off the love seat (literally), back down the hall, slid into the wall at the end of the hall, turned around, back down the hall into the den and up on the loveseat, etc. etc.

Mozilla 1.6 is working under Xandros, with one exception. If I touch the keyboard while Mozilla is up, Mozilla locks up for a couple of minutes. It eventually does come back, but that makes it pretty hard to use Mozilla for general browsing. If I try to type a URL in the URL field, for example, it locks up, as it does if I try to enter data in a form field. Fortunately, cut-paste is unaffected. I can type whatever I need to enter in StarOffice Writer, copy it from there, and paste it into Mozilla.

If that sounds unworkable, it isn't, really. I have Mozilla's default home page set to my personal links page, and I have my other frequently-visited sites on the Mozilla Personal Toolbar. That and the drop-down history list means I very seldom need to use the keyboard while I'm browsing.

One of the things that always shocks me when I bring up a Linux box is how polluted the web is with banner ads, pop-ups, and other garbage. With Windows, I automatically install WebWasher or Privoxy before I actually use the system, so I never see any of that stuff. With Linux, I always start using the box before I get around to installing ad blockers, pop-up stoppers, and so on.

On Xandros, Mozilla comes with Flash and other plugins installed by default, so for the last few days I'd been deluged with obnoxious Flash ads and so on while I was browsing. Last night, I installed the Adblock and FlashBlock extensions, so my browsing is once again a peaceful experience. The difference is incredible. Without those extensions, browsing is like a demolition derby in Times Square. With them, it's like a stroll in the country.

Adblock seems to work pretty well. I installed it rather than attempting to install Privoxy, because doing the latter raised several questions that I wasn't sure of the answers for. By default, Adblock starts out not knowing how to block many ads. You have to "educate" it by clicking on ads so that it will recognize ad sources. Fortunately, someone had posted a list of ad sites on the Adblock page, so I simply copied that and pasted it into Adblock.

I say "simply", but it wasn't, really. The first problem I ran into was the copy/paste issue in Linux. In Windows, if you cut or copy something from one application, you can always paste it into another. That's not true with Linux, and I think it has to do with the two toolkits that KDE versus gnome apps use. If you attempt to "cross" app types, what you copy from the source may not be there when you try to paste it to the destination. Unfortunately, it also seems to happen when you attempt to copy and paste between similar applications, and sometimes even within the same application. Linux hasn't mastered cut/copy and paste yet, which seems a fundamental problem.

At any rate, that's what happened the first time. I copied from Mozilla's browser screen, and pasted it into StarOffice Writer to clean it up. I then copied from StarOffice, but when I tried to paste into AdBlock, the paste command was grayed out. There wasn't anything in the paste buffer. So I copied again from SOW into the app that Xandros listed as Text Editor. This time, it worked, and I was able to paste it into Adblock.

Which brings up the next problem. The only way I knew to bring up the configuration screen for Adblock was to press Ctrl-B from within Mozilla. And we all know what happens on this system when I touch the keyboard with Mozilla up. Yep, it locked up. But this time I simply waited a couple of minutes. Sure enough, the Adblock configuration screen eventually came up, and I was able to paste the list of ad URLs into Adblock.

So now my browsing with Mozilla 1.6 is peaceful. If only I could use the keyboard.

I did try reconfiguring the keyboard in Xandros. It recognizes the Logitech Elite Keyboard as a standard keyboard, so I thought perhaps telling it what it was really using might help. I went into Xandros configuration and looked at the list of keyboards. There were several Logitech models, including some pretty recent models, but the Elite wasn't one of them. I chose a similar model and saved the changes. I then fired Mozilla back up. No joy. It still locks up.

The next step is to try a different keyboard. I've been resisting that because the Logitech is the only black keyboard I have available at the moment. Still, I suppose there are worse things than having a black system with a black mouse and a beige keyboard, so perhaps I'll try it. I may also try a PS/2 model. Perhaps it's USB that's causing the problems. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that USB screwed things up.



Sunday, 13 June 2004

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8:50 - I replaced the Logitech USB keyboard on my Xandros box with an old PS/2 Gateway-branded Maxi-switch. No joy. when I fired it up, Mozilla still misbehaved the same way. Just for the halibut, I tried connecting a different mouse and monitor, which were the only other components I used on both systems that have problems with Mozilla and Xandros. Same thing happened. There must be something about the 865 chipset or a 3.2 GHz processor or perhaps Serial ATA that Mozilla (and Xandros) don't like.

I suppose I should pop the lid, set the config jumper, and tell the processor it's a 2.4 or 2.8 GHz rather than 3.2 GHz. If that doesn't work, I'll load Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Hmmm. The former requires that I install an FDD temporarily (because W2K won't recognize the S-ATA hard drive without a driver loaded from floppy) and the latter won't recognize my NT4 Server domain. Some days I hate all software.



Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.