In Search of a Linux Distro that Doesn’t Suck…

2021-08-11

This little rant’s been brewing for a while.

I’ve been using Linux Mint for some years on my daily driver machine, and Mint13 Mate edition had been working well enough that I hadn’t noticed how many years had gone by since I installed it.

Until…

Firefox silently updated itself one day, to a version which requires a newer GLibC. That’s basically game over – using an outdated web browser is not a great plan, even if I could persuade an earlier version to (a) install, and (b) not update itself immediately afterwards.

I briefly considered using a chroot environment to run a newer version of Firefox – and since I had a spare drive with a newer Linux on it, I thought I’d mount and chroot into that. Nope. Something has changed in the ext4 filesystem, and the older distro can’t mount the newer distro’s partitions.

To be fair, the distro’s old enough that it’s already challenging getting newer software to build from source – so it’s clearly time to bite the bullet, stop being stubborn, and upgrade. Since I’d got on so well with Mint13, Mint20 was the distro I reached for. Thus began a series of frustrations which reminded me why I’m drawn so much towards retrocomputing.

The first problem I found is that it’s no longer possible to import an old profile into a new Firefox installation – instead you have to use their cloud sync service – which of course you can only do if you can actually run the old version. So I shrugged and started with a fresh profile – all bookmarks, cookies and saved form data lost.

Secondly, the multi-monitor approach I use is no longer possible.

I have two monitors side-by-side, and one of them is typically connected to an FPGA dev board via VGA, but also to the computer via DisplayPort. This monitor is thus only available to the computer some of the time – so I absolutely cannot have windows opening on that screen when it’s not displaying the computer’s output. Therefore I used to use the traditional (pre-Xinerama, pre-XRandR) X setup, where the main screen is display “:0.0” and the second screen is “:0.1” – with separate applications and toolbars on each display. This works beautifully. OK, I can’t drag an open window from one screen to the other – but neither do I have to go through the multi-button-press procedure to momentarily switch the monitor over to DisplayPort just to find and move a window onto the correct monitor, just because some boneheaded window manager decided there was spare space over there.

Now I don’t get the choice, because even if I create a custom xorg.conf file, it appears the two displays are merged into one, which is just called “:0”. By editing the config files I can end up with two individually addressable displays – as long as I don’t actually try and run a display manager – as soon as I do that they get merged again, and I either end up with a single desktop across both screens, or one of them blank

The other thing I would often do is set a movie playing on the left hand monitor and leave it running while working on the right-hand monitor. If I do that on Mint20, changing virtual desktops makes the movie vanish, because I now have a single desktop extending across both screens. Come on! This is basic stuff.

OK, the X problem is due to my quirky way of working – but I’m still annoyed to discover that I can’t do it any more – and since I do need the left hand monitor to be displaying the output of FPGA boards much of the time, I just shrugged and stopped using a multi-monitor setup for the desktop.

Next problem: I tried switching to a different display manager when looking for a workaround to the first problem. Bad idea – something broke, and now the system doesn’t boot into the display manager – I have to log in and run it manually. Oh well. (Yes, I’m sure this is fixable, but I really can’t be bothered to fix it since I won’t be sticking with this distro.)

Maybe 1 boot in 5 the desktop volume control applet will fail to find the soundcard, and just bind itself to a “Dummy output”.

Maybe 1 boot in 20 I’ll get two volume control applets instead of one – both controlling the same soundcard.

When I insert an SD card, there seems to be a roughly 50/50 chance of the card automatically opening a file window. If it doesn’t, I generally get two when I open the card from the Places menu.

The Window manager crashes occasionally

The system will sometimes hang at the end of the shutdown process.

The update manager has screwed up somehow, and I can’t update the system – though I can still install new packages.

And – here’s an obscure one – gtkterm can no longer send files over a serial port – it hangs shortly after starting the transfer! (I can forgive them not noticing that one – there can’t be many people who’ve wanted to do that in 2021!)

So… I’m not super-impressed with Mint20 – and somewhat disappointed by just how much that used to work doesn’t work any more.

I’m aware that at least some of these problems are friction I’m encountering through being stubborn and set in my ways – but given that re-installing a computer with a new distro feels almost like moving house, I’m deeply annoyed to have had this forced upon me by one key application choosing to update itself, with no easy way of reverting.

I’m now seeking a distro that sucks less. Bohdi Linux is one I’ve used in the past on lower-powered devices – and I’m now seriously considering it for day-to-day use on my main machine.

3 thoughts on “In Search of a Linux Distro that Doesn’t Suck…

  1. Hi! Personally, I just gave up1-2 years ago, fighting with different Linux distributions. (even had a lot of *BSD boxes) Now I’m on Ubuntu, LTS versions. Why? Got tired of fixing a lot by myself, Ubuntu is pretty well supported, and most of the FPGA tools environment works there. (I’m also interested in all the weird HDL versions like Silice, nMigen, SpinalHDL and other open source tool chains) So gave up fighting the OS itself, and can now focus on the challenges I actually like to solve. Yes, Ubuntu is not small, but how much does one pay for a decent PC this days? Another tip: clean up your desk 😉 One/two decent monitors, good USB hubs, etc …
    Just mu 0.0000001 cents

    • I used to use Ubuntu LTS – in fact that’s what Mint13 replaced, because at the time Ubuntu were still busy diving off the all-the-world’s-a-tablet cliff. Maybe that’s changed now – I shall check it out, thanks. (I haven’t yet succeeded in running Lattice Diamond on anything, though!)

      As for the desk – sorry, the C64 stays! But yes, I do need to sort out the tangle of cables and the litter of random SD cards for testing various FPGA cores!

Leave a Reply to AMR Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.