Ubuntu upgrades and fundamental problems

New job, new machine. So the last two days I’ve been setting up hardware platforms for work (one linux desktop machine, one win32 laptop, and some cool toys like an iPod Touch and a Nokia N800 – there are more to come, but it’s more than enough to start with). I’ve been using Kubuntu for work for a few years, and Xubuntu on my ancient (and now breaking) laptop at home (an Inspiron 1100, which should tell you why it’s xubuntu and not kubuntu there as well). So, no-brainer, other people have had no problems so just download the latest ISO and do a quick install, right?

Well, yes and no.

Firstly, I was a bit daft and thought I’d try the new KDE4 variant of Kubuntu (8.10) that came with the new Heron release. Okay, change is bad on a machine I want to be stable, but I figured it’s just an upgraded library with fewer bugs, right? Next time I do my reading first. KDE4 is trying to go down the whole active desktop route, with applets and the like actually sitting there in your desktop background. Okay, it’s not intrinsicly a bad idea for everyone, but I can’t stand it. My desktop background is normally black or deep gray. Occasionally, if I’m in a whimsical mood, it’ll have an image. Right now, for example, it’s this:

But I’m already growing tired of it and will go back to black later today. Sometimes, abstract patterns are nice too.

The point is, nothing active. If I need to see something, I’ll bring it up and look at it. I have some applets in the panel (a holdover from when I used to keep system status information in the dock in WindowMaker), but that hides away when I’m not using it. I try not to multitask because I’m bad at it. So generally my screen is a single maximised window. If I have more than one monitor, I may have some unminimised windows in one and keep the status info up there (things like CPU load, free memory, network traffic, that sort of thing).

This idea of needing to see the background, to my head, is just fundamentally broken. You don’t hide what you need to see, not if you want to do any work.

Anyway, philosophical problem aside, Kubuntu with KDE4 doesn’t have too many operational problems. I can’t hide or change the appearance of the panel it seems, but maybe if I’d not decided in four seconds flat to quit using it, I’d have looked harder.

This was the point where I got more than a little bit daft, and thought that while I was at it, I might as well try the new Ubuntu desktop. I mean, it’s got more paid developers working on it than Kubuntu has, maybe it’ll have the little niggles all ironed out, right?

Very wrong. Turns out that the X subsystem has been completely changed in Heron and for anything more complicated than a simple dual-monitor setup, things just don’t work. Rotation in particular seems to be a problem that’s been carried over from Gibbon. In Gibbon, some xorg.conf hacking was needed, and for a desktop machine that’s an hour’s pain in the neck at most (as it was for me in the last role, but that was with some dodgy Dell optiplex hardware and not-really-all-that-compatible video cards – with better-chosen hardware, it shouldn’t take that long at all). In Heron, xorg.conf is a stump and any kind of multiple-monitor or rotated-monitor stuff has to be done from the command line with xrandr. Which would be fine, even wonderful, if it worked properly. The idea is sound enough – hot-plugging monitors and projectors and such is a great idea for laptops and even on a desktop, being able to go xrandr -o left for work (portrait mode is far better for coding, that’s why A4 paper is printed on the way it’s printed on) and xrandr -o normal to watch videos in widescreen on the same monitor (with a rotating monitor stand) is a very nice idea.

But it won’t work for a lot of cases right now, including mine (at least under compiz – Kubuntu’s fine with it both in KDE3 and KDE4 variants). I’ve got a nice Dell monitor on a rotating stand, and while Ubuntu happily boots up when I don’t rotate the screen, the moment I use xrandr, compiz crashes and everything hangs up. I have to jump out to a text console and kill off the X server to regain control. Xubuntu seems to be suffering from the same problem, but by the time I found this out, I was simply too ticked off to care and didn’t bother looking into it too deeply.

So now I’m working in Kubuntu again, KDE3, forsaking all the nice work done by lots of people over the past few months, purely because of one show-stopping bug. And going through the bug reports on launchpad, it seems that some of those working on the X subsystem for Ubuntu can’t test it because their systems aren’t xrandr capable.

I’m hoping these are teething troubles. There’s a new laptop in my future, a thinkpad X61, and I’m going to be putting *buntu onto it. I’d like to try Ubuntu’s fancy new effects, even if just for fits and giggles. It doesn’t look like it’s an isolated problem though; and until these basic subsystem bugs get fixed, what’s the point in the fancy stuff at the top?


  1. I’m off the bleeding edge from now on, unless there’s some compelling reason to upgrade. 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon still works fine for me. It does all the stuff I need it to, including S-Video output, more than 2 monitors, optional PulseAudio, a working Flash plugin, etc. If the developers want the community to Beta test their new, immature features, that’s fine. I’m just not going to be part of that upgrade cycle for now.

  2. I’ve come to a similar conclusion to be honest. I can’t work with an unstable desktop. It turns out even the KDE4 stuff in Kubuntu Heron is broken – none of the proxy support works. Which means that from within the college, I can’t use Konqueror or any other KDE app, because all the research groups here are behind firewalls and use squid proxys to get out.

    So X is broken and the network is broken. Not a great day.

    On the positive side, X and the network both work in the LTS release of Kubuntu, but that seems like too much work being invested in the search for good things that ought to be right in front of you.

  3. hey my name is sam and i just put xubuntu 8.04 on my inspiron 1100 and i’m having 3 problems with it

    1. when i boot it up sometimes the screen just shuts off, other times it’s on and the computer boots up, but the screen doesnt show anything

    2. No sound

    3. Sometimes when i boot it up my taskbars don’t appear

    If you’ve had any similar problems and/or know how to fix them that would be awesome, you mentioned that you put xubuntu on a similar machine so i was hoping you might have some answers


  4. I’ve never encountered those problems I’m afraid sam (well, I’m not afraid, I’m actually glad because they sound unpleasant, but you know what I mean).

  5. Never encountered those problems before either. Good luck fixing them though.

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