Monday, May 29, 2017

Shifting to Linux

Some time ago I received a notification via Twitter about someone who installed XP on his notebook after reading my article about Linux I wrote some years ago. I think the tweet is ironical, but that doesn't matter.

The fact is I didn't remember I wrote that article, but actually I'm using Linux full time in my desktop computer. How can it be possible? How someone who ranted about Linux on the desktop ended using Linux full time?

Well... it's difficult to explain but it was a gradual shift to Linux, so gradual I almost didn't notice it until it was too late. Everything started after I resume my meteor observations using Graves radar. At that first stage a lot of calcs and simulations were needed and I choose Octave. I knew it already, works fine and it's free. Most people told me to use Matlab, but I didn't had a license. Both programs are quite similar and both will work fine for me, so why spend money on a license by having a free alternative?

Octave worked fine and was free so the decision were crystal clear. But as soon I needed to automate things problems arised. Windows is not a good automatization / scriptable platform. Some people told me about PowerShell, but its language / syntax is like alien language to me. I had some decent bash skills thanks to years of server maintenance, so I started to play with Busybox for Windows.

Busybox on Windows worked acceptably well. But lacked some important features and many commands are so striped down versions that they don't work exactly in the way one expect from them. I replaced some of Busybox commands with full command versions of GNU utils for Windows. Things were far better, but soon I realized another Windows problem: Pipes are a joke on Windows and intermediate files slows down the computer to a crawl.

After some time working in this way I decided to try a small Linux in VirtualBox. Something small to use primary via the (text) console. I created a small VirtualBox Debian installation I used through network using PuTTY. What a relief! All commands worked as supposed and everything worked just fine.

But day after day I realized I was spending more and more time in the Debian virtual machine than in Windows. I played a lot with Baudline and created Baudmeteors. I played a lot with GNU Radio and RTL-2832 based DVB-T dongles. But soon I realized a virtual machine is not good for full speed USB transfers while another problem slowly arised: Virtualbox could use only one core from my dual core CPU, so I was seriously limited with many cpu-intensive GNU Radio flowcharts.

During those days I discovered many interesting projects in Github, I downloaded, compiled, modified and studied many source files and it was fun. Some years ago I wrote about the lack of specialized software in Linux, but I was constantly finding new and exciting projects.

The meteor work arrived to a point where simulations were needed so I reached a point were installing Linux again in the computer for some time would make sense. I was reticent after the last experiences, so I decided not to install Linux and continue with the Debian virtual machine.

But simulations extended for a longer period of time than I expected, so I needed both of my CPU cores working on them. Because I didn't want to reinstall Windows when the simulations were over, I bought a large external USB 3.0 disk and a PCI-e USB 3.0 controller. The idea was to save a full disk image on the external disk, install Linux for some period of time, and then restore the Windows disk image. All these tasks can be easily done with a simple live Linux distribution booted from a USB drive.

And I did it. I installed the USB 3.0 controller, connected the new external hard disk, and booted a live Linux Mint from the USB stick. I did the hard disk image and then, I installed Debian in the main disk.

Everything went fine. The simulations were notably (much!) faster than on the virtual machine and everything worked fine. I played a lot with GNU Radio and did all those things the virtual machine were not able to do. In general the experience were positive. I had some problems, but fine in general. I was about three weeks on Debian and when the simulations finished and the data was processed, I restored the hard disk image with Windows on it. And things started to happen...

Suddenly I felt my computer to be slow, unresponsive. It was the same Windows as always, but suddenly I didn't feel my computer to be as snappy as it was the three previous weeks: three weeks is more than enough to get used to a machine and when something changes to worse, you notice it immediately.

Maybe a problem with the restored disk image? Just to be sure I did a clean Windows installation, and after two or three days installing software, drivers, and the endless Windows Updates, I didn't feel the computer as fast or snappy as I felt during those three weeks. Why? The primary thing I noticed when coming back to Windows were slow file transfers, both to SATA drives but specially to USB drives. USB3.0 file transfers were painfully slow. I checked for newer drivers for my USB 3.0 Renesas card but I had the latest ones.

To be honest, the file transfers were as fast as they always had been on Windows, but once you see how your hardware works with Linux for a long period of time and come back to Windows, things were really noticeable, for example when you make a large file transfer and your computer become somewhat unresponsive while the transfer is working. Probably you know what I'm talking about.

It take two or three days to figure out by myself that Linux worked much better that Windows on my computer. Analyzing those three weeks in retrospective they were very pleasant. I missed none. Most of the programs I used on Windows had Linux version, and those who doesn't, worked fine using Wine without too much effort.

I had to surrender to the evidence. Linux works just fine as a desktop machine. It takes me just a few days to remove the Windows partition and install, again, a Debian on the hard disk. I'm still using that Debian installation, but upgraded to Sid, in a new computer and no complaints at all.

I would lie if I said that the transition to Linux had no problems. I was bitten by some nasty bugs, but they were resolved as new versions (both kernel and userspace) appeared. I have many problems in my life but my computer is not one of them.

Time gave me the reason. When the final version of Windows 8 came out I didn't like what I saw. I had hopes in Windows 10 but it was even worse. I really don't like that dead brain tablet interfaces in my desktop computer. A desktop computer has a very different usage than a mobile or tablet. You can't be productive with a tablet interface in a desktop computer. It is fine for those users who do not distinguish a file or directory from a coffee maker but not for a power user, or developer, or anyone that use his computer as a Workstation, a concept very relevant in the 90s and 2000s but completely abandoned today by Microsoft.

For me it is clear Windows peaked with Windows 7 and has been downhill since then, and nothing indicates that this is going to change in the near future. Now Windows is only a small virtual machine in the deep of my hard disk that I use almost only for a single program from time to time: Spectrum Spy.


Maybe you are surprised to find a Windows vs Linux reading in 2017. Those were very common in the 90s but now? In my life I have used many OS and platforms, MS-DOS, Windows, AmigaOS, even MacOS for a little time. I learned the OS doesn't matter at all. Applications matters, OS don't. You finally will ending with the OS who runs all your applications flawlessly and let you do whatever you want with your computer with confidence. And for me, in this very moment, that OS is a Linux variant: Debian. That's all.

Miguel A. Vallejo, EA4EOZ


  1. Thanks for posting your experiences. I've tried several linux flavors in the past, but they always seemed a little unstable and required more investment in fixing issues from the command line than I was willing to devote.

    But, recently I've become more disenchanted with Microsoft's heavy-handed policies and future plans with Windows 10. I run Win 10 on a laptop for my shack and Win 7 for my everyday machines for my wife and I. With Win7 sunset looming in a couple of years, I decided to revisit linux to see if it has matured.

    I first tried kubuntu as that seemed the most customizable version to help my wife make the transition. I was two days into setting it up as a dual boot on my PC when I hit a serious windowing issue making the O/S unstable and unusable. Yesterday, I found Linux Mint Cinnamon and two days into the setup, so far, it just works. I've also found a Mint-XP theme to help ease the transition for my wife. I had her do a usability test this morning and gave her several tasks (open this program, find this folder/file, find a music app, etc.) She's pretty tech-savvy and found it pretty easy to adapt.

    I'll continue to run Mint as my everyday machine, looking for linux options as I hit roadblocks, or launcing a windows VM where I can't find a good solution. When I feel comfortable enough, I'll convert my wife over and set up a windows VM for any of her one-off programs.

    Finally, I'll investigate linux ham radio programs to see if I can find something to take the place of my beloved HRD 5 and convert my shack laptop from Windows 10 to linux.

    Good luck on your journey Miguel!
    Tim K6ACF

    1. I am sure you will find the way, it is not so hard after all. Good luck!

  2. Hi Miguel, the same for me, my main computer is Linux Mint and I am so happy ! faster, and more reliable than Windows and all its updates ! thanks for sharing your experience, it helps !