I wrote this as part of a blog post, then realised it's a bit too much "me rabbiting on about myself" and not enough about the project I'm starting (which is the real subject of the post). I thought this'd be a great place to put it. Now, this is written with the intended audience being not too tech-savvy, so if I explain stuff that's old hat to you, my apologies.
The first time I tried playing with Linux was sometime around 1997. I paid around $60 for a boxed version of Red Hat Linux (while the core of Linux has always been free, I think I was paying for the proprietary elements that Red Hat had built into their version). I didn't get far; I remember the installation process being very confusing and at the time I didn't think there was anyone I could ask for help (not that I would have – I have a long-standing issue with revealing just how incompetent I [think I] am).
It was at least another decade before I dabbled with Linux again. I can place the blame for my return to it square at the feet of Cory Doctorow. His novel, Little Brother, which I read in 2008, is a primer for not just responsible social disobedience but also for being the master of your own computer. Naturally, Linux is at the heart of most of the tech he introduces in the novel. In one of those happy moments of serendipity, one of the issues of Australian Personal Computer magazine around the time (which I was subscribed to back then) included a bootable CD containing version 8.04 of Ubuntu, a flavour of Linux known for its user-friendliness, so I whacked it into my PC and want through the installation process – which was now about as complex as a regular Windows installation (possibly less so).
Things were great; I'd use Ubuntu for virtually anything non-gaming related, until I updated to version 8.10 – and my SoundBlaster Audigy 4 card stopped working. It'd operate fine when I booted under Windows XP, so the problem had to be Ubuntu-related. I trawled forums for solutions, but none solved the issue.
Around then, a good mate suggested another Linux distribution, Linux Mint. While the Ubuntu team was dedicated to making their operating system user friendly, he said, their overriding goal was to ensure it was entirely open-source. This meant no proprietary elements – including hardware drivers. In contrast, the Mint team focused on getting their operating system to Just Work from installation onward, even if that meant embracing proprietary (though still no-cost) code to do so. I tried Mint out and still had sound difficulties, but managed to find a solution to them.
By that stage, though, the stuff that neither Ubuntu nor Mint did as well as Windows (stuttering while streaming video and playing Flash games like Bejewelled Blitz, formatting troubles when porting OpenOffice documents to Microsoft Word, absence of QuickTime support for the Apple Movie Trailers website, no printing without a whole tech support project just to set printer drivers up) really got to me. Within a few months I'd fled back to the safety of Windows XP.
Fast forward a couple of years to the last week or so. As part of my endeavour to get something new up on the web log every week, I decided I was going to take another crack at recording me reading various short stories, starting with the SlamDance short I wrote (this is something else you can blame the mate who hipped me to Mint for, by the way – he sent me a link to LibriVox on Facebook last year). I started doing some test samples using the open source audio recording program Audacity under Windows XP but quickly realised something was up – even with the microphone recording volume all the way up, my computer was recording very quietly. I tried another microphone, even splurged on a SteelSeries Siberia V/2 mic/headphone set, to no avail.
Not only that, but I was also getting very dodgy, crackling playback through my headphones when I plugged them into the SoundBlaster's audio port. I even tried going into my motherboard's BIOS at boot-up and activating the sound card built into my computer's motherboard. Still no recording joy.
It was around then that I started thinking about Linux again. I still had Ubuntu installed on my hard drive, and figured it might actually work with my motherboard sound card instead. I booted Ubuntu up, let it update itself to the newest version (11.10), adjusted the sound settings and – well, while I had sound back, it had this awful, tinny ring behind it.
Out of some whim I'd downloaded the latest version, 11, of Mint a week or so beforehand. On Monday night, we were due to head out for dinner with a couple of friends, but after getting home I still had time between getting changed and ready to use Ubuntu's Brasero disc-burning program to put it on a DVD, boot it up and try sound. Hallelujah – great playback, no distortion. So I decided to blow Ubuntu away entirely, reformat my Linux partitions and install Mint on the empty space (an installation method that some tech-types call “nuke and pave”).
The fun bit? I kicked the install off expecting to leave it running while we went out. It was done within twenty minutes, including all the fiddling in the installation menus; we left for dinner while the installed operating system applied the latest patches and updates.
Since then I've been booting to it by default. It seems as though the developers have actually cleaned up a lot of the issues I had with it; Streaming video playback runs fine, as does Bejewelled Blitz. Most of what I need a PC to do, it does fine. And the great bit is? I actually feel now that the things Mint still doesn't do right, I can actually fix with a bit of time, work and even (gasp!) help from fellow users.