Windows is Dead (almost). Long Live Free & Open Source Software, i.e. Ubuntu


My wife’s PC was the last bastion of proprietary software hell remaining in our home (and we have quite a few PCs). 2 days ago, Helen explained that she’d been having a nightmare with Windows. You’d start to login and immediately it would log you out again! Nice. And there was no easy way to prevent it. “Safe Mode” did the same thing. Very helpful – not. Googling threw up a lot of people with the same experience and some rather dodgy sounding workarounds to rectify the situation.

Helen has had a dual boot setup for a while, has been getting used to the nuances of Ubuntu and the Gnome desktop and is now fairly comfortable with it. So, rather than trying to fix an inherently broken OS we decided to make the switch. There was one caveat however; iTunes. Her work is a franchised music therapy business for elderly and disabled residential care homes. She uses a big iPod and iTunes to manage her many playlists etc., and all the music is in Apple’s lossless proprietary format. (I know, but I didn’t have an opportunity to suggest an alternative at the time…)

To make the move to Ubuntu as painless as possible I bought some more RAM and a 320GB HDD from Scan Computers to give her some more space and also just in case I ended up needing to do a fresh Windows install for a dual-boot setup. But my plan was to first of all attempt to use VirtualBox for the iTunes requirement. Unfortunately Wine didn’t seem like a viable option at this time.

After what seems like far too much effort, the iTunes Library is now hosted on our home server so it can be backed up easily. A VirtualBox (the closed source PUEL edition for USB passthrough) VM is running a fresh new install of XP and only iTunes, and it connects via a Samba share (Windows is configured to re-connect the network drive (Z:) on startup) to the music library.

The iTunes library was a complete PITA to move. There are lots of how tos and such like on the web but when it boils down to it, you need to check, very carefully, the structure in the iTunes Library.xml file so it matches the new location of the music itself. What didn’t help me was discovering, after several failed attempts, that iTunes at some stage in the past, had decided to create two complete “Compilation” and “Podcasts” directory structures, each with mostly different content, but some of it overlapping.

Essentially, the process is something like this:

  • Backup the whole library!
  • Create the new library location and copy in the data
  • Delete the *.itl files from the root of the iTunes library
  • Examine the iTunes Library.xml file and use a good editor/comparison tool to alter all the paths so they point to the correct locations in your new library structure
  • Fire up iTunes, edit the Music Library location to where the new one lives
  • Under the File menu (IIRC) you choose “import library” and point it at your modified iTunes Library.xml file
  • Cross your fingers, toes and anything else 😉

Judicious use of that great comparison tool Meld and my eyeballs meant that finally I managed to restructure the library so it was consistent and not duplicated. I think that had it not been like this, my experience would not have been so bad or so lengthy, but iTunes will leave always a very nasty taste in my mouth. Also, had Windows not completely barfed (again) I would have been able to use the already installed iTunes app and move the library using it’s own built in tools (as this is apparently possible according to the interweb).

Probably the next step will be to introduce Helen to Songbird (or similar) and see if we can migrate the library, playlists and music across to that. I’ll do some playing on my own before suggesting it though. Small steps to catchy monkey I think.

VirtualBox 3.02 seems to be really good though. The USB pass through and auto-filtering is just brilliant (so Ubuntu doesn’t alert when you plug in the iPod when the VM is running; it goes straight through to the Windows VM). It does seem to take quite a long time for the whole Windows/iTunes thing to settle down after I’ve plugged the iPod in but it might be just because it’s a big 120G iPod anyway… But it isn’t a major issue.

So, although Windows isn’t completely dead in our household, it is certainly on its very last legs. And good riddance to it to.

Build your own PC.

That didn’t take long.

Following my first post on this last week, all the bits duly arrived on Saturday morning. I was expecting the delivery to be on Friday, but for some reason SCAN had a problem “picking” the case which meant shipping slipped by a day. I phoned to see what was up and they apologised and said they’d ship using a Saturday am delivery without me even having to ask.

Fortunately, the weather was so dire over the weekend that I had plenty of time to get on with the assembly. Just to give you an idea, I guess the whole build (hardware only) from start to finish took about 3 or maybe 4 hours at most and I wasn’t rushing.

If you want to do a build, first of all, don’t scrabble about on the floor (especially if it is carpet) or somewhere where you will have to move or be frequently disturbed. I commandeered the dining room for the weekend, it’s a decent size table and there’s plenty of space and the light is OK.

So, here’s the pile of bits I purchased (you can click on any of the images to see a bigger picture) sitting on the table:

Pile of Bits

Not a huge pile – you can see the case at the back, the motherboard to the left at the back, the PSU is in the box with the big yellow 520 written on it and in front of that is the box with the processor in it.

The first thing I did was to get the case out the box, take off the side and front panels and then just sort of look at it for a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the layout. I even read the manual too!

The Antec Three HundredThe Antec Three Hundred

Compared to my previous case this one was really nice. Well made, two big fans with speed controllers and lots of room. You can see at the front there are two intake ports where you could install additional 120mm fans if needed although, for my requirements, I very much doubt they will be.

The next stage is to work on the motherboard – taking care about sensitive electronics, keep your handling of the board to a minimum and hold it by the edges when necessary. Here’s the ASrock board I ordered and a close-up of the LGA775 socket for the processor:

ASrock MotherboardASrock Motherboard showing the processor socket

The LGA775 has been around for a few years now, but it is the first time I’ve built one with it. The unusual aspect of it is that the pins are on the mobo rather than on the processor itself. This makes the format of the actual processor quite “dinky”. I was surprised at just how small it was…

Intel 8400 Core2 Duo Especially as this was the single most expensive item of the whole order.

Installing the processor into the socket on the mobo is actually quite straightforward:

There’s a small lever that you un-clip to lift up the cover, then you remove the plastic cap that protects the pins, then gently place the processor in the socket – it has a couple of alignment notches and a marked corner to ensure it will only fit one way round. Finally you just close the cover back down and clamp it shut using the lever and latch. Processor Installed in LGA775 SocketHere you
can see the processor nicely retained in it’s socket.

Generally, the processor packages called “Retail” come with their own standard HSF (Heat Sink and Fan) cooler but these tend to be very cheap, quite noisy and not the most efficient available. There are other processor packages that are called “OEM” and these are usually just the processor on it’s own. I couldn’t find an 8400 in an OEM package so I now have a spare stock Intel HSF (I’ll stick it on eBay probably) but the cost difference is negligeable so I don’t feel agrieved about this.

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 ProBecause of the generally poor performance of the stock HSFs I had ordered a specialised device anyway – the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro – which has been at the top of the reviews for a couple of years and is still there now.

Not the most exciting picture in the world I know but this is what the box looks like.

Freezer 7 installed - incorrectly

The supplied instructions are easy to follow (if you read them properly) and it quite simply clips over the top of the processor. The biggest challenge is making sure you orientate it correctly. Unlike what I did 😉

You should position it so the exhaust from the HSF (On the right side in this photo) is directed to the exhaust case fan. Now I thought I’d done it right but I didn’t actually “offer up” the mobo to the case to check it, but instead relied on the male’s ability to visualise in three dimensions and their oft-mentioned superior “spacial awareness”. It turned out that I was actually 90′ wrong.

This actually brought up an interesting point worth mentioning: TIM (Thermal Interface Material). A thin layer of manufacturer supplied TIM was present on the contact plate of the Freezer 7 Pro and protected by a plastic cap before use. Needing to remove the cooler and re-orientate it however, meant I really should clean the contact area of both the processor and the cooler and use some fresh material. Luckily I had a tube left over from previous builds.

Arctic Cooler 7 installed correctly

Here is the cooler now attached to the processor the right way round and at the front of the picture you can see my little tube of TIM. You only need a small pea-sized amount and it should be spread very thinly and evenly across the whole surface of the contact plate (less than 1mm thick). I used an old business card to spread the paste as you really don’t want to use anything that is sharp or “scratchy”.

Memory installed in appropriate slots

After fitting the processor and cooler, the next thing to do is install the RAM. The manual for your mobo will explain which slots to use and, as with almost all new mobos, DDR(X) RAM should be installed in matched pairs to get the best performance. I used a pair of 1GB DDR2 8500 (1066Mhz) modules from Corsair. They only go in one way round so it is fairly easy to do and quite hard to get wrong.

I’ll continue this write-up in another post shortly, but please feel free to comment if you wish.


Update: Part II is here.

Building your own PC…

My regular desktop computer, Twoflower*, that I use for work and play is dying… 🙁

Twoflower is pretty old now by PC terms and is becoming quite unreliable. I built it about 4 or 5 years ago I guess, although I can’t remember exactly when, and it has been a good workhorse until quite recently. But the time has finally come to move on.

I like building my own PCs and find it can also be a very cost effective way to get exactly the PC you want and, of course, you don’t have to pay the Microsoft Tax either. So, after planning and reading for a couple of months or so, I have just ordered the new bits which will come together to create Lobsang*.

I’m not a “gamer” so I don’t need a heavy duty graphics card or excessive cooling, but I do tend to run a lot of apps at the same time and some of them are quite “hungry”: Eclipse, VirtualBox Virtual Machines, Inkscape, Gimp,, Thunderbird & Lightning with as many email accounts and CalDAV calendars as I have, and Firefox with usually a dozen or so tabs open at one time and perhaps further instances of Firefox running too. I’ve also often got a remote X sessions running to a development server as well.

So, it was important to me that I built a PC that is pretty quick, can be expanded easily and will – again – hopefully last me for a good few years.

Here is my shopping list:

Antec Three Hundred Case w/o PSU
520W Corsair HX Series Modular PSU, ATX, EPS12V, whisper quiet, 5 year warranty
Asrock P43R1600Twins, iP43, S 775, PCI-E 2.0 (x16), DDR2/DDR3 1066/1333/800, SATA II, SATA RAID, ATX
Intel Core 2 Duo, E8400, Wolfdale Core, S775, 3.0 GHz, 1333MHz, 6MB Cache, Retail
Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro
2GB (2x1GB) Corsair TwinX DDR2 XMS2 Dominator, PC2-8500 (1066), 240 Pin, Non-ECC Unbuffered, CAS 5
256MB Palit 9500GT, PCI-E 2.0(x16), 1600MHz GDDR3, GPU 550MHz, 32 Cores, HDTV/ D-Sub/ DL DVI-I
320 GB Samsung HD322HJ Spinpoint F1, SATA 300, 7200 rpm, 16MB Cache, 8.9 ms
Samsung TS-H653B/DEBH 20x DVD±R, 8x DVD±DL, DVD+RW x8/-RW x6, x12 DVD-RAM SATA Black OEM

The notable items on here I would say are:

  • Power Supply – It is a really important part of your system. A cheap “no-name” PSU gives you unstable voltages that will lead to operational and reliability problems, crap cabling which restricts airflow, inefficiency so you just waste money making heat and they can be surprisingly noisy. The reviews I read lead me to choose either this Corsair model or a 450W unit from “Be Quiet”.
  • The Asrock Motherboard – This was probably the hardest component to choose. I don’t need a top-end mobo that will overclock like a wild thing, but I did want one that would provide me with a decent platform and will allow some level of growth. This board looked to be just about right and very well priced for an Intel LGA775 board. It supports DDR3 (up to 4GB) as well as DDR2 (up to 8GB) memory and will run any of the latest generation Core2 dual and quad core processors including the most recent 45nm designs.
  • The Processor – I was, until quite recently, going to go for the outstanding Q6600 65nm Quad core chip but having read some more recent reviews it seems as though the newer 45nm designs are much more efficient and yet more powerful. In most review tests, this dual core E8400 outperforms the Q6600 device and has about half the power consumption. There are certain times when 4 cores are better, but seeing as I’ve happily lived with just one up until now I think two will be just fine!
  • No Operating System – I will, of course, be installing a Free and Open Source OS and that will almost certainly be Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04.1. In fact I am planning to have a spare partition or two so I can install other OS’s too.

The rest of the items are nothing too special. I am very fond of Samsung drives and have used them for many years now. They are usually very quiet, fast, reliable and are excellent value. The graphics card is a passively cooled device that will be very fine for Compiz and the minimal other 3D requirements I have. I wanted a new case as my current PC’s case is terrible. It was cheap, looked it too and is really noisy with quite a few 80mm fans churning away constantly. This new Antec Three Hundred case looks much better, has bigger 120mm and 140mm fans (that turn slower and thus make less noise) and has better cable management so air should flow well and is quite capacious so I have room to expand too.

My main source of knowledge for this lot comes from the excellent Custom PC Magazine. Although it is heavily geared toward gamers and high end systems, their no-nonsense reviews and technical features are the best I have come across, and I’ve been reading computer magazines virtually since they first appeared. When Custom PC review a product, if it is crap they really say so. There never seems to be any of the “polite excuses” or bias toward particular suppliers or vendors – unless they make really good gear that is. My only gripes with it are I’d like it to cover more Media and power efficiency topics and feature more Open Source software. Perhaps I should suggest some articles…

For the supplier of the bits, I have gone to Scan Computers. I have used them several times before and have no complaints at all. They have a great reputation for service and they do tend to have the best prices too. Hopefully the bits will be here by the weekend, just in time for my 10th Wedding Anniversary, so how much actually ends up getting assembled before next week remains to be seen…

For this blog, I’ll take some pictures of the bits before, during and after assembly and run through the way I put together a new PC. It isn’t terribly hard and is very satisfying when it’s finished.

Update: I’ve written two articles covering the build process. Part 1 is here.

* All the computers in our house are named after characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. So far I have used: Rincewind, Mort, Binky, Moist, Angua, Twoflower, Gladys and Vimes.