A fist full of distros…

Spoiler alert: I don’t think this is the most compelling blog post you’ll ever read, but it’s part of the story and I think it needs to be here. Feel free to skim along and look at the links, and ignore the rest. It won’t hurt my feelings.

About a week after LobsterCon I began a process that would last for several months – the search for the perfect Linux distro for my needs. It started with a dual boot setup with Linux Mint on my funky Lenovo T61 laptop. At the time I was not completely ready to abandon the Windows install, as there were several programs I felt I could not do without: JT65-HF, and all my contest logging programs. Mint seemed very friendly, and I was able to install Wine and get a JT65-HF program working, but I was still for the most part scrolling past Mint in the boot selections and running back to Windows. Mint seemed almost too polished. It runs beautifully on the T61, but I would have to search around for ham radio apps to install. For the time being, I just let it sit while other things held my attention.

Around the end of October, I decided to resume the push toward a Linux environment for the shack, and sent a note to Pete at LHSPodcast asking his opinion on a good ham radio distro. He replied with several suggestions, but the most appealing was HamOS.

KD0BJT Richard, host of the LowSWR podcast, and his son developed this distro. It it targeted very specifically to the ham operator, and most any radio-oriented software that you can imagine is already installed.

It is available in a “live CD” install, and I gave it a try on my candidate machines. Since the T61 already had a Mint 15/Win XP setup, I tried to running from the live USB drive, with mixed results. The biggest problem was not finding drivers for the wi-fi card on the laptop, and since I didn’t intend to install it there permanently I didn’t pursue the issue.

My other machine is a Dell Optiplex 210L tower. The tower is a single 3Ghz Celeron processor, with only 512Mb ram – it was never a stellar performer. I seem to recall we got it as a premium for opening a bank account — we would have been better off with the toaster.

On the tower I went straight to a full install. Well HamOS looked cool, but it suffered from a weird problem: I could not get any audio out! This distro is famous for an audio CW message that plays during start up, but not for me. I fiddled with the audio settings for bit, got nothing. A ham radio machine that cannot produce any audio out is of limited usefulness, and so I decided to try something else. I think I also ran into some update manager problems that I couldn’t figure out at the time.

[I revisited HamOs again just recently and had success this time, see the details below.]

During the HamOS period I was also diligently listening to old episodes of the LHSPodcast, and happened to hear an episode where subject of discussion was CrunchBang Linux.  This sounded very appealing to me: a distro with a very minimal desktop would be ideal on an old, slow clunker of a machine like the tower. One more live CD, and I played with CrunchBang on both boxes, and actually installed it on the tower.

At this point I should mention that this all would have gone a lot faster if I was actually using an install CD, but I am infatuated with the idea of Linux on a USB stick. The CrunchBang download page actually contains a link for an little open source utility for copying an .iso file to a USB drive that runs under Windows. [Note: an .iso file is a file that is an exact image of a CD, that can be copied directly to CD, or in some cases a USB drive.]

CrunchBang looked great running live from the USB stick, but I was absolutely unable to install from that source. All kinds of weird stuff happened when I tried. I also tried the USB install on a machine I have at work, and it failed resolutely in a completely different way from the tower attempts. Finally I broke down and made a CD, and was successful installing on tower… but after playing with it for a while I decided that while the concept of this nearly console-like desktop was very appealing, in reality it didn’t work so well for me, and I wandered off to look for something else.

My next distro attempts were with Linux Lite – a really nice, trimmed down distro with simple lightweight desktop, again targeting older less powerful machines. Again live CD’s, and again an install on the tower. This one was looking pretty good, although I suffered some setbacks [subject of a later post] and a few re-installs before getting everything running. This one looked good enough to start thinking about pressing the tower into service as my permanent ham shack machine.

Now this is why you shouldn’t wait around to write these posts: there was some reason why I decided not to keep Linux Lite on the tower, and I can’t now recall what it was. It looked good, and ran reasonably well as I recall, but I wound up not keeping it, and putting down a copy of Mint 15, even though you could see Mint straining a bit. I know I installed Wine, and loaded the Windows JT65 program I use, and discovered that the tower couldn’t decode the incoming messages in the time allotted before the next transmit window. It all seemed kind of moot, so I put the desktop aside, and concentrated on the T61.

On the T61, Mint 15 is running fine, as is Wine and even the JT65 program. I am sticking with Mint on that machine, and find that I am using it more now as my general purpose laptop, as the T61 still has a battery. My aging MacBook had the battery go bad a few months ago, and the cost of a replacement didn’t seem cost effective for a machine that old.

So finally, back to the tower and HamOS… It bothered me that I had so much trouble with the installation, and on a recent rainy weekend I decided to give it another try. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot more distro installation experience now, but everything went okay. Here’s what was different this time:

  • I installed from a CD, not the USB stick. Shouldn’t matter, but…
  • The sound problem was unbelievably dumb operator error on my part. I guess I’m used to laptops, having not had a tower for years, but I forgot there are no speakers in the tower. No speakers, no sound, hmm… I hang my head in shame.
  • The problem with update manager was a reference to two out of date software sources, which once removed from the apt config file, ceased to cause trouble. Package manager and update manager worked fine after that.
  • I found and installed drivers for the Atheros USB wi-fi device I use with the tower, and the wi-fi is working fine.

So the machine is not quite fast enough for JT65, but it is running everything else okay, with only a little swapping going on. I have ordered 2Gb of RAM for the tower, which should help things run a little better.

The HamOS distro contains such a very comprehensive selection of ham software that I am using it for logging and other less demanding digital modes on HF, and liking it very much. The lxde desktop runs smoothly on the tower. I was also impressed that Chromium comes installed with a huge number of ham radio links included, very interesting stuff.

I am now happy with the current setups, and am settling down to start to enjoy actually using my two Linux machines. For the time being, I am giving up my new hobby of installing Linuxes.

de N2HTT

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1 Response to A fist full of distros…

  1. Pingback: Conky Pi. | 73, de N2HTT

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