Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Experiences with Unix/ Linux distro

For most PC users who are aware of Linux, the default distribution appears to be Ubuntu now a days.

I switched to using Linux fulltime about 8 months ago - at office as well as at home. At office, my system had Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4.0 installed but for my home system (Compaq Presario V6316TU) I decided to go against the convention and try different things before finally settling on a distro.

As is well known, wifi support on Linux distros is a pain. This blog summarises my experiences in this regard with different distros.

Just to be clear, here is what the different commands say about the wifi chip on my laptop:

$ lspci | grep 4311
02:00.0 Network controller: Broadcom Corporation BCM94311MCG wlan mini-PCI (rev 01)

$ lspci -n | grep 4311
02:00.0 0280: 14e4:4311 (rev 01)

At first, I installed FreeBSD. It really brought back pleasant memories about my under-grad study where we had to use Solaris on Sun workstations. On my laptop I used it for about a week and tried to make it work with the devices on my laptop. As expected, Wifi didn't work but what surprised me was that the level of support from community was pathetic for the wifi chipset Finally, I had to switch to a more 'functional' distro since Wifi became more and more critical and lugging around the ethernet cable was proving to be a pain.

As a result I decided to switch to Fedora. I had worked with Red Hat Linux 9.0 distro earlier at work and had a good experience with it. So I downloaded the latest version of Fedora at the time - Fedora Core 7. It worked pretty well to start with. Wifi didn't work out of the box, but that was expected. 'ndiswrapper' was a known solution and I used to get my work done.

As time progressed, Fedora would announce daily updates. Initially, I was lucky and the updates only appeared to "improve" my system -- I didn't notice any ill effects. About a week later, Fedora announced a kernel upgrade. As a diligent user, I downloaded the upgrade over Wifi network. But after installing it, the wireless connection stopped working. I had to go through the rigmarole of removing ndiswrapper, installing it again to get the wireless networking to work again.

It was painful but I persisted with it for some more time since the next few updates didn't do any damage to wireless networking. And then, the whole thing happened again. I wondered -- how can someone be so "irresponsible" to hose their users. Perhaps wireless networking support is not a focus area for Fedora folks.

Thus I decided to ditch Fedora as well and tried a couple of other distributions before finally settling on Ubuntu.

The latest Ubuntu version when I moved was Gutsy Gibbon (v7.10). Although wireless again didn't work out of the box, ndiswrapper worked reliably. The updates also worked fairly smoothly and never hosed the wireless networking ability of my laptop. Currently I am on Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) and I no longer need to use ndiswrapper. Wireless also works out of the box (after enabling the 3P driver under "Hardware Drivers".

As a side note, although audio on my laptop worked with both FreeBSD and Fedora Core 7, the special audio control keys weren't recognized until I switched to Ubuntu.

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