[Updated: Added a new paragraph to the end describing my success in getting rid of gnome-panel.]
I thought it might be nice to write about my computer setup. I haven’t made a post like this in years and I just recently upgraded my operating system so it felt like a good time. I’ll begin here with part one which discusses my operating system installation and hardware setup. Part two will talk about the software I use and part three will focus on Firefox 4 because, well, like many others, my browser is where I spend most of my computing time.
I know how to build a computer. I know how to choose high quality parts that operate great together and cost altogether much less than pre-built systems. However, after spending far too much time fixing these by diagnosing the issue, finding replacement parts on eBay (if I get exactly the same part I don’t need to reformat) and then realising problems are still present and starting over, I chose another approach to computer hardware: buying very common, pre-built DELL systems.
The reasons for this are numerous. First of all, they’re so easy to get hold of. I went for the small form factor Optiplex 745 from a few years ago and if I ever want to get another one there are many, competitively priced, local options on eBay. The small form factor version is a little less common than the standard desktop system, and I need to make sure I get one with the correct CPU, but I imagine it will be simple to get hold of one in an emergency for quite a few years to come. Second, as a person who doesn’t feel comfortable buying ‘new stuff’, especially electronic equipment, this allows me to buy used computers and still have access to fairly decent technology. I know I could build a computer with better specifications, but, really, I’m not going to notice the difference. Third, speaking of specifications, packaged systems tend to be quieter, have lower power consumption, and take up less space than something I’d build myself. Fourth, these can be incredibly cheap!
Lastly, and perhaps the most important point here, because I have two of these computers in the house, if my main computer has a problem, I can simply remove the hard drive and put it in the not-as-important media computer located in the lounge room. Let me put that another way: if my computer dies, I can be back up and running within a few minutes! I could fix the problem in my own time, and have the luxury of looking for and waiting for a replacement when I get around to it. The biggest problem I have with computers is immediately, heavily dissipated. As long as I keep good backups of my files, my productivity should never receive a major hit.
The only changes I need to make to these computers is to: put in a simple, low-profile, passively cooled (read: quiet) NVIDIA video card that has a DVI video output (I can’t stand the quality of D-SUB); find a good, second-hand monitor on eBay; change the hard drive if I have a spare one of larger capacity; remove the ‘Made for Windows’ sticker on the front and replace it with a ‘GNU/Linux INSIDE’ sticker (I got some after a Richard Stallman talk and they’re awesome), and; reformat the computer so it uses my currently preferred flavour of GNU/Linux.
I’ve been running GNU/Linux as my primary (and often only) operating system since about 2004, back when having non-standard hardware meant you received a crash course in unix commands and software compiling. After various tinkering with GNU/Linux as a dual-boot playground, I began using Slackware as a primary OS because I liked how configurable it was and its tendency to force me to learn how the operating system functioned. I soon moved to using Kubuntu due to its larger support community and ease of use – I realised I spent a large portion of my time fixing things and wanted to be a bit more productive, and I preferred the configurability and look of the KDE environment over that of Gnome.
Last year, feeling a bit bored with the KDE interface and wanting to try out an alternative, I came across the Linux Mint project. The aim of this OS, an offshoot of Ubuntu with interface improvements and media codecs as standard, can be summed up by its motto, ‘From Freedom Came Elegance’. It looks great, is incredibly intuitive to use, and releases updates when they are ready rather than keeping to a proposed release date at the potential cost of stability.
Another important difference in this latest release is that Mint has chosen to retain the Gnome environment rather than switching to Unity, which many long-standing Linux users vocally dislike. (I haven’t used Unity, but from the videos I’ve seen I don’t believe I’m the right audience for it.)
Mint 11 was released last week and I’ve experienced the simplest – and quickest! – OS installation ever. For the first time in years, I decided to make it a dual-boot system so I could use Windows without having to open the case and change the hard drive. (I have a few ancient games I like to be able to play, even if it’s rare, and I’m not yet able to submit my tax return using GNU/Linux.) I first used the DELL recovery CD to install Vista, allowing it to use 80Gb of my hard drive, and run updates, which took almost two hours. In contrast, Linux Mint 11 along with its updates took perhaps twenty minutes from USB boot to me being logged in, transferring my documents. (I know this is an unfair comparison to an OS that has numerous years’ worth of updates, but even without them Mint was quicker by a long shot.) It’s strange using Vista again, even briefly; it’s far less intuitive than Mint (and GNU/Linux systems in general?) and is really starting to show its age, visually.
Also making the Mint install process quick was not having to install much additional software. Almost everything I need is right there, as standard, and is updated automatically. Apart from games, the only additions I installed were icecat, avant-window-manager, wine and emusicj (more on them later), only the latter of which was not done through the software manager. And in terms of hardware, my printer ‘just works’, my digital camera is detected and uploads photos after a simple declaration of file preferences, and my video card runs superb after prompting me to install proprietary drivers for it. I encountered absolutely no issues with sound or network, as was common with GNU/Linux distributions and my hardware many years ago.
Here’s what my desktop looks like after configuration:
(Click to see larger version on flickr)
One day in and I only have one issue with my current setup: getting rid of the default Gnome panel. I like to use the OSX-dock-like Avant Window Navigator for everything. It has a menu, lists the few programs I access regularly and is set to ‘intellihide’ so it disappears when a window goes near it – simple, yet powerful. However, it’s not easy to get rid of the Gnome panel completely (I’m still looking into a simple method, but the one everyone mentions does not work in Mint 11 – more research needed). For now I remove all the items I can from the panel, put it in the top-left of my screen and set it to auto-hide.
Its presence is a little irritating, but at least it doesn’t get in my way.
Update: Thanks to david4dev, I found a way to get rid of gnome-panel. The details are outlined in my Linux Mint Forums comment here. Now, the only remaining annoyance I have is that I can’t configure the Cairo Main Menu as well as I could the default one. The result is a slightly more bloated menu list than I’d prefer – I never use ‘Session’ or ‘Recent Documents’ links – but it’s still a major improvement.
Update 2: After installing this same version of Mint 11 on my server in late October, installing awn, setting it to run on startup, running system updates and then restarting the computer, it appears that the fix no longer needs to be applied – the gnome panel disappears automatically.