From Windows XP to Linux Mint

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From Windows XP to Linux Mint

Postby igor83 » Tue Oct 23, 2012 10:01 pm

No questions in this post, only a little bit of feedback by way of a story.

"Living Room Computer" began life as a K9VGM-V running an AMD Sempron 2.2 ghz cpu (1mb L2 cache, single core, 45W). I installed Windows XP SP3 on a 2tb drive to play media on a 46" plasma. The videos were all standard def, as my Plasma only had 800x600 res anyway and my Internet bandwidth is quite low, so I didn't really mind. All went fine for years, until one day I decided to examine the electricity usage of this PC with Kill-a-Watt and learned it was burning 60W, which to my way of thinking is high, although the Plasma of course is the real culprit in regards to electrical consumption, however the Plasma gives a fine display even with standard def, so I am not inclined to replace it at the moment, although I may in the future--LCD prices are getting ridiculously low. I decided to upgrade or downgrade as the case may be to an Asus E35M1-M running the AMD E-350 APU, which sips a mere 18W and has other features such as not needing any fans at all, cpu or case, which I elaborated upon here.

At the same time, I snagged a discount refurbished 2.5 tb drive, WD25EZRX, for $100 and there began my difficulties. You see, Windows has extreme difficulty with drives > 2 tb. With Windows 7, things are a bit easier, and I was able to find a bootleg Windows 7 Ultimate DVD, but didn't really trust it to be free of viruses, and also it too had severe difficulty with the drive due to the cracker clown having eliminated the EFI driver from the install .ISO for no reason, which rendered the DVD incapable of partitioning the drive under any scheme other than MBR, when GPT is the format Windows 7 requires for accessing all of a large capacity drive. I must have spent about 20 hours researching the problem, and I did find glimmers of hope here and there on the Internet that kept me going, but in the end I had to throw in the towel because the complexity of sourcing a proper EFI driver was great, and my trust in the sources and in the install DVD itself were low. I never got around to installing Windows 7 due to the complications of the 2.5 tb drive and my lack of trust in the source. Avast, for instance, flagged several of the crack files as PUPs of various flavors.

So I turned to my old interest, Linux Mint, which I have experimented with over the years but never actually used for real in a "production" computer. With Linux Mint, my trust is high due to its reputation and the reputation of Linux in general. Also, I feel that Linux Mint provides a proper pathway into the future because it will always be possible to upgrade any computer at any time, since the install files are free and free of "protection," i.e. the Microsoft mafia hitting me up for money every time I buy a new motherboard. When a household has many computers it is no trivial thing to upgrade them all to a new version of Windows. You can be talking about hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the number of computers. Then again pirated copies have problems too of various kinds, not just one problem but many that are difficult to solve, and that is in addition to the technical difficulties involved in Windows itself.

I was pleasantly surprised that "Linux Mint 13 Mate 64-bit" was able to partition the complete 2.5 tb drive without issue, although I have not verified that everything is free of problems. It looks good at present and I don't see any obvious issues with the partitioning. I was not able to partition more than 4 primary partitions. I goofed on the partitioning and plan to reinstall when Linux Mint 14 comes out in November. First of all I had OpenElec already residing in a Fat32 partition, not realizing that OpenElec demands on being the sole controller of hardware and is not intended for multi-boot situations. Read the documentation to OpenElec, where the developers make this quite clear. I do not feel the developers have the beginning user in mind at all when they designed their system. I think OpenElec is designed for people who eat, breathe and drink Linux all their lives. Also, OpenElec does not appear to have any capability of partitioning hard drives and requires a partition being already created by another Linux distro, such as Linux Mint. So in the end I had to install Linux Mint just to install OpenElec, but then as I read further I realized OpenElec would be too limited in capability for me to consider it as an OS even for an HTPC. OpenElec overall seems highly experimental and only for very advanced Linux users who already know what they are doing and need little or no guidance or hand-holding. I do like the design of their web site, but I also like Linux Mint's web site design. I think that Microsoft could take lessons in design from the Linux distros.

I had other issues with my partitioning. I really did not plan well due to ignorance. For instance, my sda2 mounted to sda2 has 500gb, with only 8gb occupied and it is clear to me now this is too large. So I downloaded gparted, which sounds like a bad word, and used it to resize the boot partition to 24gb. However, now I have a 400+gb partition that is not mounted and I do not know how to use it or mount it. It seems best to carefully plan the layout of partitions prior to installation in order to avoid difficulty with partitions that are too small or too large or can't be mounted or easily accessed.

The good news is that the issues with partitioning are relatively minor and again, once I reinstall with a brand new DVD containing Linux Mint 14 (when it is released), I will know better what to do. More good news is that I am now watching my videos like usual with 5.1 surround sound and no issues. I traveled quite a journey to get to that point. In the first place, I wrestled with the ATI proprietary driver for the better part of a day, trying various dodges to get the latest version installed. I do not understand why the "Check for New Drivers" tool in Linux Mint says, "No proprietary drivers are installed on this system," yet the ATI Catalyst Controller is right there and indicates it is installed. At any rate the versions of the ATI driver also confuse me. Catalyst says it is version 8.6 something, whereas the latest version is 12.9. I guess I am using a very old version on Linux Mint. It works okay with standard def, but I haven't tried 720p yet. I cannot install ATI's latest Linux driver. I tried using instructions I found in various places, but they did not work and eventually I gave up, and I'm glad I gave up. I think that future versions of Linux Mint or of the ATI driver may solve the problem somehow and patience may be the best policy here because there seem to be a lot of people talking about on various forums. So eventually surely a solution will be found that does not require a long list of command-line input and waiting around and crossing fingers. But then again one never knows. So with the ATI driver I just accepted whatever the package repository provides and ignore the message that says "No proprietary drivers are installed on this system," because it is not telling the entire truth I think.

After experimenting with VLC and XBMC I chose SMPlayer as a front end and Mplayer as a back end for playing videos. XBMC seems too unstable. My computer crashed several times trying to play videos with it and it never worked right even when it wasn't crashing, so in the end I gave up and uninstalled it. Again, I am glad I did not install OpenElec, because that is based upon XBMC.

SMPlayer works fine and I am playing videos without any problem after tweaking the settings a bit. Video output must be xv, because xv is optimal for my APU. I chose 4 threads for decoding h.264 video which seems to help a good bit, and turned off Direct Rendering, and turned off any audio processing. Most of the defaults for Smplayer are good. In Misc Tweaks I also set the monitor aspect to 16:9 to properly display all videos.

Sound output must be alsa. Just plain old alsa is fine. I select direct DTS passthrough in Smplayer. Originally, to achieve optical S/PDIF output to my 5.1 surround sound speaker system, I employed a tricky little dodge devised by rmkimathi here. I followed all her wonderful advice, but in the end, ditched XBMC, because it just would not work right on my system.

The ASUS E35M1-M has a built-in S/PDIF fiber optic output port which I am using. Upon receipt of the input, my stereo system was only outputting 2.1 sound, and changing the option in Smplayer and even in the Mplayer config file did not make any difference at first, but I pressed a button on the stereo system controller and changed the "Effect" from Stereo to Dolby Digital Surround Sound. I did not have to do this on Windows XP, so perhaps certain drivers in XP had been sending some kind of code to let the stereo controller know to use a surround sound effect. I think that is the case. At any rate the stereo system controller has fixed things nicely.

So now my plan is to just accept hard drive partitioning imperfection and roll with LM 13 until November and Linux Mint 14, when I can, with more knowledge by this time, install a system that will endure the ages. :wink: My plan is to watch lots of shows and just enjoy the system and get to know Linux Mint much better. I am thinking of trying out Cinnamon with LM 14, because I read some reviews that informed me that Cinnamon is more advanced and so on. I am honestly afraid of wrestling with the newer versions of the ATI driver anymore because I hear about people suffering from various glitches when they go the solitary route. I would rather just get things that have been tested and proven on Linux Mint and that autoinstall like everything else. I think I'll pass on the bleeding edge thing. :) I'm just happy to be watching my shows.

Also, I much like Linux Mint. It is the fastest Internet and Network install I have ever seen on any OS, and there's a lot to like about LM although as with anything patience and time is needed to learn a new way of doing things. Fortunately for former Windows folks the learning curve is not too steep. For me the greatest difficulty has been trying to grasp how disk partitions work and how files are organized. Also, the many flavors of Linux Mint seem bewildering and I don't feel I made an informed choice when I first downloaded, so it is easy for me to imagine that most users probably download 2 or more .ISO's before they settle on the one that will suit their purposes. I am sorry to say I downloaded probably 2-5 .iso's, when it is likely that I should have just gone with "Linux Mint Cinnamon 64-bit". But that is probably not such a big deal since there are so many mirrors. I have a feeling that bandwidth is not a concern.


Update: I decided to add to this message rather than post another one, because I don't want to artificially "bump" this thread. I made some more discoveries today and wanted to record them here on the forum in case they are of use to others (or myself, sometime in the future).

For users of the ASUS E350M1-M who intend to receive 5.1 surround sound via fiber optical link, I believe that it is crucial to follow the tutorial suggested (above) for configuring Alsa. Doing so permitted me to enjoy 5.1 surround sound via the fiber optic S/PDIF output on my ASUS E350M1-M. Linux Mint 13 configuration of Alsa does not at this time seem to function for this purpose, justifying the workaround. So that will be the first step for anyone that is configuring the ASUS E350M1-M, to follow that tutorial at least in regards to Alsa. The writer of that tutorial uses XBMC, but I did not have so much luck with XBMC and chose a different player.

Out of Totem Player, VLC, XBMC, & the combination SMPlayer 7.0 (GUI) + MPlayer 1.0rc4 (backend), I believe the latter seems best-in-class, for my motherboard, for playing video files of all types, although I have not tested high definition 720p or 1080p yet. I do not normally watch high def due to the limitations of my plasma monitor and limited internet bandwidth. For me, XBMC is too unstable. If a video player doesn't play right, that is okay, I am willing to tinker and be patient, but if it crashes the whole system, then I am not quite as eager to work with it, so that is why I abandoned XBMC and its derivatives. VLC is nice and comparable to SMPlayer in many ways and requires less configuration, however the screensaver is a big problem and even when I check the "disable screensaver" box, hidden deep in the Settings, the screensaver still activates while I am watching a video file. I am glad VLC is so thoughtful that it wants to turn my monitor off and save energy while I am watching a video. Totemplayer also seems to play many different formats but it does not offer many options at all, such as full-screen display for one. So I recommend for users with the ASUS E350M1-M to select SMPlayer + Mplayer with the following settings.

Relevant contents of /etc/mplayer/mplayer.conf:

# Specify default video driver (see -vo help for a list).
#xv may be all you need here. I am not sure -igor

#alsa is best

# Use pulse, then alsa, then SDL video with the aalib subdriver by default.
#you cannot specify 5.1. The following must be an integer!
#so if you have two speakers and a woofer, put 2 instead of 2.1
# I have a 5.1 system so I put 5

#although smplayer's option does work, I put this in because disabling screensaver is so important

# Use 64MB input cache by default.
#i do not know how much this helps, but my drive has a 64mb cache so I thought mplayer should read this much ahead
cache = 64000
# Prefill 20% of the cache before starting playback.
#I would rather give mplayer a "head-start" on reading before it starts playing.
cache-min = 50.0

It is true there is a later version of SMplayer for Windows but the updates mainly concern youtube functionality and revenue generation for the developer, and don't really do much for me, so 7.0 is quite adequate for Linux. Mplayer is the main deal.

Open up SMplayer and click on the Options | Preferences. Under the General tab, select Video. Output driver should be set to xv. I chose xv (0 - AMD Radeon AVIVO Video). Smplayer says it is the fastest and I see no reason to believe otherwise. Everything else should be unchecked with the exceptions of: Direct Rendering: CHECK, Double Buffering: CHECK, Start videos in fullscreen : depends on your preference, and Disable screensaver: CHECK!!!! I find that "Draw video using slices" is NOT a good idea for this particular chip. I do not use software video equalizer either.

Now click on Audio, and the output driver should be alsa (1.1 - HDA ATI SB). This just works better for more video formats than plain alsa, I don't know why but it does. Click on AC3/DTS pass-through S/PDIF, if your speaker system supports it, and of course Channels by default for me is 6 (5.1 Surround). I left everything else unmodified. Global volume is fine by me. I do not need Synchonization or normalization.

Now click on the Performance header on the left. I allow frame drop, but I don't allow hard frame drop because I want to know if the player is having trouble with high def files, when I do get around to experimenting with them--possibly at such a time as I buy a new monitor that supports 'em. Threads for decoding I set at 4, although our apu only has 2 cores, somehow I get the feeling that 4 threads is okay. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but it works for me so far. Loop filter (H.264): Enabled. Coreavc is not installed and I don't worry about it. On Windows I use something called MPC-HC as a video player in conjunction with LAV Splitters and that allows the ASUS E350M1-M to handle 720p, but Coreavc is apparently an alternative solution for many users. I don't have it.

In ATI's Catalyst Controller, I did set all the options with a bias towards Quality over Performance, since I am dealing with stan-def anyways and that is not quite so taxing to the processor. In order to playback higher def, it may be necessary to dial down Catalyst. I do believe it is necessary to activate Catalyst's anti-tearing option, because otherwise tearing will be an issue with some files.

So far I have verified that this method of configuration works well on Linux Mint (Mate) 64-bit with the ASUS E350M1-M in conjunction with S/PDIF to a 5.1 surround sound system (Creative Labs) with DTS and Dolby Digital support, to play several different files of type .mkv, .avi and .mp4. All speakers appear to be outputting sound and the picture is excellent without hesitation, sync problems or tearing.

Summary - Linux Mint 13 Mate 64-bit works great for me as an htpc OS and I have no reason to switch any another OS at this time. Crucial is the fact that it supports > 2tb drives unlike Windows XP, and it supports the drive with less difficulty even than Win7. I have yet to master the advanced methods of refining the OS as I had with Windows, but maybe things will come to me over time. On my "to-do" list is to organize the drive a bit better and have Windows shares show up on File Manager. Now they are invisible, and I am able to access the Linux shares from my Windows computers, but not the Windows shares from my Linux computer. I also like that it boots faster than Windows XP, in about 25 - 30 seconds from the time the BIOS hands over control to Grub (announced with a beep!! due to a little mod I made in the grub config).

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