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.

Moving a Windows 7 VM from VirtualBox to VMware Player

Seeing how well Windows 8 was running in an VMware Player virtual machine and that was without installing VMware Tools in the guest operating system, I was reminded about how sluggish my Windows 7 VirtualBox VM had become. Therefore, I decided to try a migration of the VM from VirtualBox to VMware. My hope was that it was as easy as exporting to an OVA file (File > Export Appliance… in VirtualBox) and importing that into VMware (File > Open a VM in Player). However, even selecting OVF compatibility was insufficient for achieving this and the size of the virtual disks meant that the export took a while to run as well. The solution was to create a new VM in VirtualBox from the OVA file and use the newly created VMDK files with VMware. That worked successfully and I now have a speedier more responsive Windows 7 VM for my pains.

Access to host directories needed reinstatement using a combination of the VMware Shared Folders feature and updating drive mappings in Windows 7 itself to use what appear to it like network drives in the Shared Folders directory on the \\vmware-host domain. For that to work, VMware Tools needed to be installed in the guest OS (go to Virtual Machine > Install VMware Tools to make available a virtual CD from which the installation can be done) as I discovered when trying the same thing with my Windows 8 VM, where I dare not instate VMware Tools due to their causing trouble when I last attempted it.

Moving virtual machine software brought about its side effects though. Software like Windows 7 detects that it’s on different hardware so reactivation can be needed. Windows 7 reactivation was a painless online affair but it wasn’t the same for Photoshop CS5. That meant that I needed help from Adobe’s technical support people top get past the number of PC’s for which the software already had been activated. In hindsight, deactivation should have been done prior to the move but that’s a lesson that I know well now. Technical support sorted my predicament politely and efficiently while reinforcing the aforementioned learning point. Moving virtual machine platform is very like moving from one PC to the next and it hadn’t clicked with me quite how real those virtual machines can be when it comes to software licencing.

Apart from that and figuring out how to do the it, the move went smoothly. An upgrade to the graphics driver on the host system and getting Windows 7 to recheck the capabilities of the virtual machine even gained me a fuller Aero experience than I had before then. Full screen operation is quite reasonable too (the CTRL + ALT + ENTER activates and deactivates it) and photo editing now feels less boxed in too.

Installing VMware Player 4.04 on Linux Mint 13

Curiosity about the Release Preview of Windows 8 saw me running into bother when trying to see what it’s like in a VirtualBox VM. While doing some investigations on the web, I saw VMware Player being suggested as an alternative. Before discovering VirtualBox, I did have a licence for VMware Workstation and was interested in seeing what Player would have to offer. The, it was limited to running virtual machines that were created using Workstation. Now, it can create and manage them itself and without any need to pay for the tool either. Registration on VMware’s website is a must for downloading it though but that’s no monetary cost.

One I had downloaded Player from the website, I needed to install it on my machine. There are Linux and Windows versions and it was the former that I needed and there are 32-bit and 64-bit variants so you need to know what your system is running. With the file downloaded, you need to set it as executable and the following command should do the trick once you are in the right directory:

chmod +x VMware-Player-4.0.4-744019.i386.bundle

Then, it needs execution as a superuser. With sudo access for my user account, it was a matter of issuing the following command and working through the installation screens to instate the Player software on the system:

sudo ./VMware-Player-4.0.4-744019.i386.bundle

Those screens proved easy for me to follow so life would have been good if that were all that was needed to get Player working on my PC. Having Linux Mint 13 means that the kernel is of the 3,2 stock and that means using a patch to finish off the Player installation because the required VMware kernel modules seem to silently fail to compile during the installation process. This only manifests itself when you attempt to start Player afterwards to find a module installation screen appear. That wouldn’t be an issue of itself were it not for the compilation failure of the vmnet module and subsequent inability to start VMware services on the machine. There is a prompt to peer into the log file for the operation and that is a little uninformative for the non-specialist.

Rummaging around the web brought me to the requisite patch and it will work for Player 4.0.3 and Workstation 8.0.2 by default. Doing some tweaking allowed me to make it work for Player 4.04 too. My first step was to extract the contents of the tarball to /tmp where I could edit patch-modules_3.2.0.sh. Line 8 was changed to the following:

plreqver=4.0.4

With the amendment saved, it was time to execute the shell script as a superuser having made it executable before hand. This can be accomplished using the following command:

chmod +x patch-modules_3.2.0.sh && sudo ./patch-modules_3.2.0.sh

With that completed successfully, VMware Player ran as it should. An installation of Windows 8 into a new VM ran very smoothly and I was impressed with performance and responsiveness of the operating system within a Player VM. There are a few caveats though. First, it doesn’t run at all well with VMware Tools so it’s best to leave them uninstalled and it doesn’t seem to need them either; it was possible to set the resolution to the same as my screen and use the CTRL+ALT+ENTER shortcut to drop in and out of full screen mode anyway. Second, the unattended Windows installation wasn’t the way forward for setting up the VM but it was no big deal to have that experiment thwarted. The feature remains an interesting one though.

With Windows 8 running so well in Player, I was reminded of the sluggish nature of my Windows 7 VM and an issue with a Fedora 17 one too. The result was that I migrated the Windows 7 VM from VirtualBox to VMware and all is so much more responsive. Getting it there took not a little tinkering so that’s a story for another entry. On the basis of my experiences so far, I reckon that VMware Player will remain useful to me for a little while yet. Resolving the installation difficulty was worth that extra effort.

Adding workspaces to Windows

One of the nice things about working with Linux/UNIX is that you can organise your open applications so that they are open in different workspaces or virtual desktops. When I return to working on Windows, having everything open on the same desktop is something that I find less tidy. However, there is an open source application that adds virtual desktops to Windows and very useful it is too.

It is called VirtuaWin and it adds an icon to the taskbar for switching between workspaces when it is running; there might be a bit of tweaking to be done for it to stay visible all of the time though. You can have it as a startup application in the same way that you have your security software and I have been using it smoothly on both Windows XP and Windows 7 running in VirtualBox virtual machines. Insofar as I have seen it, you can have as many workspaces as you want and switching from one to another is achievable using keyboard shortcuts. Using CTRL, ALT and one of the arrow keys does it for me but you can set up your own. All in all, it’s a small download that brings a little sense of Windows desktop computing.

Upgrading to Fedora 13

After having a spin of Fedora’s latest in a Virtualbox virtual machine on my main home PC, I decided to upgrade my Fedora box. First, I needed to battle imperfect Internet speeds to get an ISO image that I could burn to a DVD. Once that was in place, I rebooted the Fedora machine using the DVD and chose the upgrade option to avoid bringing a major upheaval upon myself. You need the full DVD for this because only a full installation is available from Live ISO images and CD’s.

All was graphical easiness and I got back into Fedora again without a hitch. Along with other bits and pieces, MySQL, PHP and Apache are working as before. If there was any glitch, it was with Netbeans 6.8 because the upgrade from the previous version didn’t seem to be a complete as hoped. However, it was nothing that an update of the open source variant of Java and Netbeans itself couldn’t resolve. There may have been untidy poking around before the solution was found but all has been well since then.