By December 7, 2009

DrFaulken vs Ubuntu 9.10 Remix + KeePass

My Asus Eee 701 netbook computer has always been a mixed bag. Yeah, I loved the ultraportability of it, but the default Linux operating system wasn’t compatible with some of the software I used on a regular basis. I created a custom version of Windows XP via nLite and everything was great — until Windows patch after Windows patch overwhelmed the Eee 701’s tiny 4GB solid state hard drive.

I turned back to Linux for a lighter-weight, easier to maintain operating system. I decided to give Ubuntu a try. They had a special version of their operating system called “Netbook Remix,” which offered a scaled down version of their typical OS as well as common drivers and whatnot necessary for the special hardware often found on ultra-portable netbooks.

I fooled around with Ubuntu for a week, and had a mixed experience. The installation was super easy, but it was all downhill from there — especially as I attempted to craft the Netbook Remix to my needs instead of the standard options available with Ubuntu. It was a weird perversion of the self-sufficient, do-it-yourself Linux user stereotype: the more I wanted to do it “my way,” the more trouble Ubuntu gave me.

Hope

I use password management tool KeePass on a regular basis. It runs off of Microsoft’s .NET technology platform. When I bought the Eee back in 2007, I did not know it was possible to run a .NET application on Linux. It was the primary reason I went to the tiny version of XP. Come late 2009, and the KeePass Web site makes prominent mention of running in Linux via the Mono project. Mono is an open-source initiative that allows non-Windows devices to run .NET applications. Even better, it was bundled with Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix distribution. I thought I was home free.

Nope

I opened KeePass and only saw icons. There was no text of any kind, not even in the menus. If I were a novice computer user with no knowledge of Linux I may have stopped right there. However, I’ve been using computers all my life and decided to see if I could fix the problem myself.

It turned out that Ubuntu doesn’t ship with certain windows.forms libraries necessary to draw some user interface elements. No problem, right? Download the necessary software and we’ll be good as new. I used the Synaptic package manager (something else a novice Linux user may not be aware of) and attempted to download the library I needed. The search function didn’t work very well: if I typed the full package name the library I needed didn’t show up. I wound up typing “windows.” and searching everything manually.

So, I found what I needed, the Ubuntu package manager grabbed what I needed (and a few dependencies) and then I was off and running. Well, sort of. It turns out that the latest version of Ubuntu has a problem with the Eee 701’s Intel graphics hardware. I needed to install the beta development drivers from Intel in order to get KeePass to display properly.

Unlike the windows.forms package, the Intel graphics drivers weren’t available via the Synaptic package manager. I researched how to enable different code repositories so I could access beta Ubuntu code. That didn’t do much but give me even more options to manually scroll through, as I couldn’t rely on the search to work properly.

Eventually I found instructions on how to compile and install the Intel drivers in Linux — which required a lot of other software not included with the Ubuntu Netbook Remix. More searching of the package manager, more research on how to make and install source code in Linux (the last time I did this was 1999), and more frustration.

After a few days of working on this off and on I finally got the drivers compiled. However, Ubuntu was still using the old ones. More research! It turned out that Ubuntu uses a different install directory than the Intel makefile, and I had to copy the files over.

Which you can’t do with the default Ubuntu user permissions.

Luckily I remembered the role of “root,” the superuser account on Linux. I also remembered the “sudo” command, which lets a regular user account act as root as long as you know the right password. I managed to move the files over.

So! I finally got KeePass working after about four days of working on this problem a few hours a night. Mind you, this only takes literally thirty seconds in Windows, but hey Ubuntu is the Linux desktop for the masses. Next step was to download my password data from a special server I run. I keep my password data on a shared server so I can synchronize it across several computers. I do this via Subversion, an open-source document repository.

Linux has a reputation as a developer’s platform. I figured it would be easy to issue a svn command in the terminal window and get my code, especially after the video driver and UI problems I’d already solved. Unfortunately I was hit with another error — a bug fooled the operating system into thinking there was a lock on the files I wanted.

At this point I gave up. Ubuntu is pitched as being the easiest version of Linux to install and use. All three of my use cases were straight forward: installing a third-party program, updating video drivers, and transfering files via Subversion. All of these things are easily done using modern versions of the Windows or Mac operating systems. The core problem — the graphic user interface framework issue I had — would never even occur under Windows or Mac OSX. Imagine opening a program in either one of those operating systems and only seeing icons. Inconceivable.

The bitter end

Ubuntu might be the easiest version of Linux to use (and it is definitely an improvement over the Xandros fork installed on the Eee 701 by default, or the Suse I used a decade ago), but that doesn’t make it easy to use.

Furthermore, the things that made Ubuntu easier to install and use also make it harder to customize. The Netbook Remix is tailored to do a few things well — and if you stray from that then you’d better be ready for a battle. Compiling the Intel drivers was the most complex thing I did — with cascading requirements and dependencies it took the most research and most of my time. I wound up installing so many X Windows packages I began to wonder if I wasn’t better off installing the full desktop version of Ubuntu.

If you don’t want to install Windows on your netbook, you are probably better off seeing if Mac OSX can be “hackintoshed” onto your hardware. Ubuntu is a definite miss.

Not recommended.

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2 Comments on "DrFaulken vs Ubuntu 9.10 Remix + KeePass"

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  1. DC says:

    Yep. I had utter *hell* getting Ubuntu to work with a custom kernel with RTAI and Ethercat network drivers. Things like ‘dash’ is the default shell, so ‘bash’ shell scripts from 3rd parties don’t run…go check Ubuntu bug launchpad and it’s marked “wontfix” by the devs with some snooty comments about how they’re going to be POSIX compliant even if it breaks their user install scripts from legacy software…sigh.

    OTOH, it works great for a system I built for my non-geek sister…still have to agree: give a miss and go with Fedora instead.

  2. Harsha says:

    I had trouble installing KeePass too. Found your site while I was searching for solutions.

    It wasn’t straight forward but in the end I got it [ http://greysquare.org/blog/2010/03/05/keepass-on-ubuntu/ ] figured out after going through a few forums.

    I guess thats one reason why some people who have too much time like I do give Linux a chance. So that they can tinker around with a lot of stuff.

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