Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 

Exploring Linux – Part 26
by Alan German

Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx), a long term support (LTS) version, reached end-of-life status on May 9, 2013 which essentially meant that there would be no further security updates for this version of the operating system. However, the good news was that Version 12.04 LTS (Precise Pangolin) was to have support through April, 2017.

My plan, therefore, was to switch my production machine to the new Precise release. In preparation, I had been running this version of Ubuntu on my development machine for the previous year, ever since its initial release on April 12, 2012. While the new OS had run in this manner without incident, installing Precise on my production machine resulted in a litany of problems, all seemingly related to incompatibilities with the AMD/ATI HD 6450 video card installed in the desktop computer.

The really interesting feature was that booting the desktop from a live-CD (actually a live-USB) produced a stable system that performed perfectly normally. The troubles only began once I installed the new operating system to the machine's hard drive.

The first odd behaviour was after rebooting immediately following the installation procedure. The machine booted into a blank, light-purple screen – not a good sign! Using a combination of reboot and recovery options, I was eventually able to bring the screen into a “split” condition – with the left third being displayed on the right of the screen, and the right two-thirds showing on the left. Not only was the effect disconcerting, the entire display was constantly flickering, so that reading and responding to prompts in this mode was somewhat challenging!

To cut a long story short, the main fix for the non-booting/odd-display problem proved to be to install the proprietary AMD Catalyst Driver for Radeon. However, one further issue was that subsequent updates to the xserver files broke the Catalyst driver which then had to be reinstalled, but this process did produce a more-or-less stable system.

The final straw came when, following a cold boot, a series of short black lines was left dancing across the top portion of the screen. Another user had noted this problem and his workaround was to log off the system and then immediately log back on again! Amazingly, this worked for me also; however, I didn't consider this to be a viable solution. Furthermore, the dashed lines were occasionally displayed on login – but only occasionally. So much for computers being consistent, logical devices!

The bottom line turned out to be that no solution to this specific issue was forthcoming from Google searches; error reporting to both AMD and Ubuntu was both frustrating and fruitless; and dancing lines before my eyes, even only on occasion, were completely unacceptable. So, the ultimate solution was – move to a new distro!

Enter Linux Mint 13 (Maya) with the Mate user interface. Mint 13 is a derivative of Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) and hence is an LTS version with support through 2017. Furthermore, because it is based on Precise, it is a reasonably familiar operating system to both use and troubleshoot. In addition, Mate is interesting because it can be configured to look very much like Gnome. This is perhaps not surprising since Mate is a fork of Gnome2.

Despite nominally being based on Precise, Mint 13 installed and ran flawlessly on my desktop machine. Ah! – hints of the good old days – when successful use of a live-CD preceded an uncomplicated installation to the hard drive.

The as-installed display is somewhat different than the Gnome Classic under Ubuntu. In particular, the control panel runs along the bottom of the screen rather than across the top. The wallpaper is clearly different and, by default, on-screen icons indicate any disks that are automatically mounted at boot-up.

The good news is that the layout of the panel is customizable. It can easily be moved (Right-click – Properties – General – Orientation) to the top of the screen, or a new top panel added if so desired. In addition, a “custom menu bar” can be added to the panel that restores the familiar Applications – Places - System menu options.

The icons for the mounted disks can be eliminated by changing the desktop settings (Main Menu – System – Control Center – Desktop Settings – Mounted Volumes), Even Mint's main menu can be removed from the panel to really give the screen a truly Gnome-like appearance.

All of my favourite Linux applications, including inosync, Back In Time, BleachBit, DOSbox, Kalarm, and KeePassX work flawlessly under Mint. The default file manager, Caja, looks and feels very much like Nautilus; however, I did replace Pluma, the default text editor, with the more familiar gedit. This wasn't because Pluma functioned in any significantly different manner, it was purely that I couldn't get used to typing “pluma” instead of “gedit” in Terminal commands!

Ubuntu, with its insistence on the Unity interface, and I have been moving apart in recent years. Mint, with its Mate interface, currently seems to offer me the best of all worlds. So, for now at least, I have a new favourite Linux distro.


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