The existing system

We have a moderate to low spec'd computer in our lounge room running Windows XP. We built it about a year ago with spare parts lying round the house. We use the box for:

The box usually doesn't have a monitor, keyboard or mouse attached. As it has no input devices we use VNC server. This works out ok as we have several other desktops and laptops around the house we use to connect to it and control it.

Why change

The box was working fine so there was no real reason to change to Linux except that I really wanted some exposure to it. Eventually I want to try out setting up a LAMP web server and maybe try Struts and JSP.

I knew I needed to get the box doing everything it was doing before or else my house mates would be pushing to revert back to the XP system. I haven't used Linux much, but I figured if I spend some time with it I could probably get it doing all the things the existing box is doing. I wrote a list of the things I need the Linux box to do:

Nothing to difficult sounding there you would hope..

Choose a distro

I went into this with fairly limited knowledge of Linux. I'd installed Mandrake years ago as a dual boot on my personal PC but never really spent any time actually using it. I'd also used openSUSE while I was in Ireland getting training with OpenJaws travel software. Recently Brodie tried the Ubuntu live CD at work, but we didn't really get passed the gimmicky UI features.

After doing a bit of reading I still had no idea which one I wanted to use.

Trials and tribulations

I started with Mandriva for no real reason. On the first install it didn't detect my graphics card correctly and crashed horribly every time I went anywhere near the GUI graphic settings. I wasn't ready to start screwing with my xorg.conf yet, so I tried installing it again. I didn't have any luck this time either, I couldn't even finish the install because after I tried testing a graphic mode it returned me to a mode I couldn't read the text. (That mode reminded me of writing little real mode VGA graphics demos in assembly, it was easy to leave the console unreadable if you messed with the graphics mode using the BIOS interrupts and didn't return it to the correct mode, 0x80 I think I remember). I decided to try another distro in hope the install might do a better job detecting my graphics card.

openSUSE was much quicker to install but comes with very few extras. openSUSE did choose the correct open source drivers from my graphics card and installed perfectly. There were tools to configure a dual head display but after a couple of hours reading endless forums, manually editing my xorg.conf file, restarting the X system and unsuccessfully attempting to install the ATI binary drivers, I gave up. It wasn't a success yet but I did learn heaps more about Linux and was confident I could get the TV working if I persisted.

Finally I tried Ubuntu after I read that installing the ATI drivers was easy. Installing the ATI drivers was simple but it didn't immediately solve my problem. I still wasn't getting anything on the TV. After another couple of hours many more "atp-gets" I finally got the TV to clone the primary display.


Everything else was pretty easy;

Can't turn water into wine

Everything went so well I was inspired to try using a crappy DVB TV tuner card I bought, hated and never used to watch television. Even with a fast computer and perfect reception it would still start losing frames when the video was panning. What frustrated me even more was I could only use the software that came with it to use it, when I started using Vista I couldn't use it at all.

In about 20 minutes I able to add it, tune it and get some video out it. The only problem was it looked even worse than when it was using its own software on XP. I know there is plenty more I could do to get it working better, I was happy I got it working at all and probably won't use it again.

The response

After two weekends I've finally got the box back where it belongs, doing everything it was before except now running ubuntu. I can still boot into the old XP system if I boot off the secondary hard disk, but I'm happy leaving ubuntu as the default boot and not even adding XP as an option in the boot loader. My house mates are happy too, apparently the VNC is much better that it was with windows but they want a music player that supports play lists.

That's it

I'll report back on how the Linux box handles over time and what I do with it. I've also created a VMWare Linux instance on my personal computer which I'll hopefully use to try out running web servers and maybe get into a little bit of programming.

Its been frustrating at times but over all its been lots of fun getting this Linux box up and running, I've learned lots about Linux and I want to learn more.