March 18, 2019

Linux on the Desktop: a Quick Follow Up

by James Mawson

Could this really be true? I’m pinching myself.

After such an excruciating effort to install Linux on the Desktop just a few months ago, I found myself having to do it all again.

But this time, it was easy. That’s in large part thanks to a neat little trick I found to install the wireless drivers without wireless internet. We’ll get to that shortly.

I’ve also distro-hopped from Ubuntu Studio to Linux Mint – which means going from Xfce to Cinnamon. I’ll share my thoughts on both changes.

But first, disaster:

Old Faithful Gets a Viking Funeral

There I was, minding my own business, trying to add a user to a server somewhere, when all of a sudden my arrow keys stopped working. It’s hard to use nano without arrow keys, so I went and plugged in a USB keyboard. This worked fine for about half an hour, when the internal keyboard started randomly interjecting keypresses every few minutes, making it completely impossible to work.

That’s a bit frustrating. After so recently rejuvenating the machine by upgrading the RAM and ditching Windows for Linux, I was hoping to get at least another 6 months out of it. But still, better that it happened while I wasn’t on the road.

I was in the middle of a busy work week, so there was nothing for it but to nick down to the local computer retailer and grab whatever was on special.

What I ended up with was an HP 245 G6. If I’d had more time, I might have gone for something with much better specs, but things don’t always go to plan.

Of course, I intended to install Linux on it sooner rather than later. But work had piled up and I’d already lost a day to this crap. So for a couple of days, at least, I would have to make do with Windows 10.

Windows 10 is Even Worse Than I Remembered

There’s nothing new about computer guys going on rants about Windows. As a kid in the early 90s, I’d dial up to bulletin boards and you’d always see one.

Honestly though, I never thought I’d be that guy.

It’s not just that I respect the hell out of Bill Gates, though that’s definitely in the mix. As a businessman, visionary technologist, generous giver and all-round nerd king, he impresses the hell out me in so many ways.

It’s more than that – I’ve liked Windows since it booted from a floppy disk and it was DOS.

So how did this all go wrong?

Let’s start at the Start menu. Good luck trying to find anything in it. It’s like poking a dead albatross with a stick. It’s a sprawling, foul smelling, maggot-ridden mess.

And then there’s Microsoft Edge. I mean, it’s fair enough to have a pre-installed browser.. you’ve gotta have a default browser, right?

But then you use Edge to search for the one you actually like, and already it’s your needy ex-lover scrawling “Don’t Leave Me” across the Bing results in large letters. So you install it anyway, and tell – you have to delve into the control panel to do this. At this point, you might think.. but, oh no, you innocently click on a PDF or something and you’re back in Microsoft Edge.

Windows 10 injects Microsoft Edge into the conversation the way a dull racist at the pub bangs on about a minority community: constantly, compulsively, and with no regard to what anyone else was actually talking about. Nothing can deter it from this endless, maddening preoccupation.

And what about the documentation? Well, in theory, this would be a huge advantage that a billion dollar behemoth’s proprietary product might have over open source software.

But to actually get anything done, I had to use blog posts, how-to websites and forum threads, same as I would with Linux. But, because they shuffle everything around so much from update to update, most Windows 10 advice is out of date and the things you’re looking for are no longer where the instructions say they are.

Once you’re using to a Linux package manager, installing software on Windows 10 is just awful. I mean, in theory, there’s the Windows Store, but does anyone actually use it? It always looks like it’s mostly just crufty junk.

No – all the programs you actually want are out on the web. You need to Google them yourself and then arse about with a .msi file, total old school, like it’s still 1994 and you’re installing Warcraft from pirated floppy discs – except Warcraft was actually good, god damn it.

Then there are all those User Access Control windows flung at you, constantly. I lost count of how many of these jarring, ugly things I saw in just two days. It’s often enough that you very quickly tune out from what they’re saying; no wonder it’s so easy to run phishing scams on Windows users.

Worst of all is how slow it was, right out of the box. And look, I totally get that I’m running a modest machine here. I guess I’m just traditional enough to expect that a brand new computer should give you at least a few months before you start swearing at it.

The only saving grace here is that I ditched OS before I had to suffer an update, because Windows 10 updates are the pits.

Sorry Windows. It’s not me, it’s you.

Goodbye to Ubuntu Studio

Ubuntu Studio 18.10 wasn’t at all a bad distro.. in fact, if it weren’t for the mishap, I’d probably still be on it.

So why did I shift?

Well, I never ended up getting very far with the music apps I’d installed – even the basics are very confusing for a caveman guitar power chord guy like me. I was instead relying on it as a general work productivity machine.

Maybe, if I decide to give them another go, I will just install the applications individually, and perhaps swap in a low latency kernel if I need to.

The other problem was a memory leak – more and more memory would be. This meant that if I forgot to switch, it would be incredibly unresponsive, kind of like a Windows machine.

After efforts to diagnose which process was offending, it turned out to be none of them, which left me fairly unsure what to do next except just remember to switch it off every night. This was never enough of a deal breaker to make me uninstall Ubuntu Studio in disgust – but it was enough to stop me going back.

Despite that little hassle, my final verdict on Ubuntu Studio is that it’s an excellent distro – anyone looking for a creative/media centric variant of Ubuntu should stay tuned for 19.04.

Hello to Linux Mint

Before installing Linux Mint, I thought I’d at least try a live install of Debian. I’d been using it a bit on the server, and liked it enough there that before going straight to another Ubuntu derivative, I could at least try the daddy distro. Unfortunately, the USB stick wouldn’t even boot.

Frustrating? I ain’t even mad. If an installer isn’t going to work, I’d rather it be quick about it. Not to worry, Linux Mint has a lot of Debian underneath.

So I flashed Linux Mint 19.1 on the USB stick, booted it, had a play around and then ran the installer, which worked first go. The dreaded wireless driver problem struck again, but this time I had an ace up my sleeve 🙂

Since then I’ve used it daily. It just works. And it’s super stable – so far I’ve had it running for 10 days without rebooting and it still just goes.

It’s also incredibly fast and lean. I was expecting it to consume slightly more resources, because I’d read that Cinnamon was more resource hungry than Xfce – but actually, straight after booting, it’s only using about 800 megabytes, while Ubuntu Studio would use 1300. I suppose all that audio stuff had a footprint.

Xfce vs. Cinnamon

Having used both of these desktops, I am actually not sure which desktop I prefer.

A lot of that is because they feel more similar than different. They’re both snappy and responsive, both dirt simple to interact with, both sort the applications in a menu in much the same way, both give you plenty of options to customise, both are only ever a few clicks away from what you want to do, both stay out of your way and let you do your work.

Cinnamon might have the edge in design – once you replace that default wallpaper anyway. It owes more than a passing resemblance to Windows XP, Vista and 7. To me, that’s a good thing – and for anyone else who didn’t hate Windows as it was back then, Cinnamon makes sense immediately.

I also love the transparency effects on some of the windows. I realise those little details do absolutely nothing for productivity – it just makes the desktop a tiny bit nicer place to spend your work time.

There’s one little thing about Xfce I really miss though. It’s the little quick start buttons I had to launch your most used applications with a single click.

Cinnamon has something similar: if you pin an application to the taskbar, one click will start it – unless you have one of those windows open already, in which case a left click just switches to the one that’s already open. But I very often want a local terminal when I’m already in a remote one, I very often want multiple file explorers open, and often want multiple word processing documents as well.

Installing Realtek Wireless Drivers Without Internet – the Easy Way

The maddening part about installing Linux and then finding that your wireless driver doesn’t work is that the instructions to fix this require you to connect to a github repository. That’s difficult when you need the wireless adapter working to connect to the internet.

If you’ve got physical access to your router’s Ethernet ports, it’s probably easiest to just plug in.

But for digital nomads, people in shared accommodation, or those who are just on the road a lot, that’s not always possible.

When I ran into this situation a few months ago, what frustrated the hell out of me was that I knew that, if you could compile the right driver from source and binaries available in an online repository, it should be relatively trivial to copy these same files onto the local hard drive and compile them from there. I just didn’t know what to type.

This time around, I managed to find clear instructions on how to do just that.

Thanks to this overview of Linux on the HP 245 G6 on Big Blen’s blog, I stumbled upon these instructions.

Pro tip: to make this even easier on yourself, . That way you can view these pages in your browser in Linux without .

Do I Feel a Bit Silly for Being So Stuck Last Time?


As many of you probably don’t need explained, git clone is just a schmancy way of downloading files and directories to your local machine. If you do the same thing caveman style, you miss out on the nice version control shizz that Git was written to handle – but hey, at least you can install your driver and connect to the internet.

Of course, at that point I didn’t realise this. I’d heard of Git, but I’d never had to use it, so the command was basically just heiroglyphics.

But even though I couldn’t, it wouldn’t have been very difficult at all for me to just look up what git clone does. So why didn’t I take this step?

I think I was already just tired and overwhelmed by all of it – I was spending hours downloading and testing these images, after doing full days of work as well. If this was the only thing I had to consider, it’s possible I would have figured it out pretty quickly.

But Ideally, This Wouldn’t Be Necessary

In a weird way, I can see a positive in having the chance to level up a little bit as a proper Linuxy chap. But that’s just me.

I still stand by my previous comments – if Linux on the Desktop is to really go mainstream, this needs to be made easier. Joe Average isn’t really all that clear on what drivers and compilers even are, let alone willing to compile a driver from the bash shell.

It would be really nice if the installer could just handle it. But maybe there are technical or licensing barriers there. If that’s not possible, maybe it’d be nice to have a little utility to fetch and compile your wireless driver and install it onto your USB stick before you boot into it.

Then you’ve got a working internet connection for any other drivers you need.

Right Now, Linux is Just Easier

If you’d asked me just six months ago, I would have told you that Linux on the desktop had all kinds of advantages: security, performance, stability. But the idea that it’s easier would have had me quite incredulous.

A few months after switching to it full time, I feel like the ease of use is one of the best things about it. There’s no need to deal with shitty .msi installers, jarring user access control prompts, or a file system that makes no sense.

It doesn’t take 20 minutes of downloading and configuring software just to set up an SSH connection either.

And I can’t tell you how nice it is not to have the thing randomly reboot itself with little to no warning.

It would be great to make it easier for regular people to move from Windows to Linux. Once you’ve got an install working, it’s honestly just better.