A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

Looking at a few Operating Systems

The last few weeks have seen me poking around with a few different operating systems to see how they perform. None of these were particularly in-depth in their nature but brushes with alternatives to what I currently use for much of the time. While I am too sure what exactly has kicked off all of this curiosity, all of the OS’s that I have examined have been of the UNIX/Linux variety. With the inclusion of Unity in the forthcoming Ubuntu “Natty Narwhal” 11.04, I am mindful of the need to be keeping an eye on alternative options should there ever be a need to jump ship. However, a recent brush with an alpha version has reassured me a little. Then there are interesting OS releases too and I recently forgot the Ubuntu password (a silly thing to do, I know) for my Toshiba laptop too so I suppose that a few things are coming together.

It was that latter development that got me looking in amazement at the impressive minimalism of CrunchBang Linux before settling on Lubuntu to see how it did; these were Live CD runs so I tried before I committed to installing. It helped that the latter was based on Ubuntu as its name suggests so I wasted little name in finding my way around the LXDE desktop. By default, everything supplied with the distro is lightweight with Chromium coming in place of Firefox. There’s no sign of OpenOffice.org either with offerings like Abiword coming in its stead. For the sake of familiarity, I started to add the weight of things without reducing the speed of things, it seems. Well, the speedy start-up wasn’t afflicted anyway. Being an Ubuntu clone meant that it didn’t long to add on Firefox using the apt-get command. LibreOffice was downloaded for installation using the dpkg command and it seems much more fleet-footed than its OpenOffice.org counterpart. As if these nefarious actions weren’t enough, I started to poke in the settings to up the number of virtual desktops too. All in all, it never stopped me going against what be termed the intent of the thing. In spite of what Linux User & Developer has had to say, I think the presentation of the LXDE desktop isn’t unpleasant either. In fact, I reckon that I quite like it and the next thing to do is to restore the entry for Windows 7 on the GRUB menu. Well, there’s always somthing that needs doing…

While I may have learned about it after the event, the release of Debian “Squeeze” 6.0 was of interest to me too. Well, I have used it a fair bit in the last few years and retain a soft spot for it. The new release comes on two kernels: GNU/Linux and FreeBSD. Regarding the latter, I did try having a look but it locked up my main home PC when I tried booting it up in a VirtualBox virtual machine. Given that it’s a technical preview anyway, I think it better to leave it mature for a while no matter how fascinating the prospect may be. Or is it VirtualBox 4.x that hasn’t around long enough? Debian’s latest Linux incarnations showed no such inclinations though I found that the CD ISO image that I’d downloaded didn’t give such a complete system when I fired it up after doing the installation. Being someone that knows his way around Linux anyway, it was no problem to add the missing pieces using apt-get though that’d stop it being an option for new users unless the DVD installation yields more complete results. Other than that, it worked well and I lost no time getting to grips with the OS and it’s gained a much fresher feel than version 5.x (“Lenny”). In summary, I look forward to continuing my investigations of the new Debian.

To round up my explorations of different UNIX/Linux operating systems, I have updated my test installations of Ubuntu 11.04. Initial looks at the next Ubuntu release weren’t so encouraging but things are coming along by all accounts. For one thing, Unity can be switched off in favour of the more familiar GNOME desktop that we’ve had for the last few years. The messages that popped up telling you that there’s no 3D graphics support on your machine have been replaced by graceful degradation to the GNOME and that’s no bad thing either. In case it hasn’t been so obvious, I am one of those who needs convincing by the likes of Unity and GNOME Shell so I’ll sit on the fence for a while. After all, there always are alternatives like LXDE if I want to decamp to something else entirely. One of the nice things about Linux is the amount of that we all have; it might be tricky to choose sometimes but it always is good to be able to find a niche somewhere else when someone makes a decision that doesn’t suit you.