Friday, 3 October 2014

Just Works™

A thought experiment for you, if you'll indulge me:

Imagine two laptops, say:

HP EliteBook 8440p, 8GB RAM, Intel Core i5 2.4GHz, Intel GPU, 2 x 2TB HDD (the second one in the DVD drive bay), running Linux Mint 17 XFCE, fully set up in a fairly complex manner (think NAS boxes, various cloud sync and backup arrangements, the works), and

Acer V3-571G, 8GB RAM, INtel Core i7 2.3GHz, nVidia + INtel GPU, 1 x 1TB hybrid HDD, running freshly installed MS Windows 7, not really set up to do anything interesting but boot up.

Now, imagine you wanted to make the Acer run 2 x 2TB Linux Mint set up in exactly the same way. You don't particularly care about the HP, but it'd be nice if it could run something after you did the dirty deed to Acer.

How would you go about this?

Well, this is exactly what I asked myself last night, equipped with the kit above, a set of screwdrivers, a Linux Mint 17 XFCE bootable thumb drive and not really very much time. The original idea was to make the secondary 2TB HDD, previously used as backup, the primary one on the Acer, put a fresh Mint (see what I did there?) install on it, then restore data from what used to be the primary 2TB drive, which would now occupy the Acer's DVD drive bay. All in all, this should all be done and dusted if not very quickly then reasonably painlessly. I could expect to have a usable, if not 100% configured system by the following morning: an hour or so to install Mint, then the rest of the night to copy close to 1TB of data over, finally an hour or so to configure the system as before. Not ideal, but bearable.

With this plan I set to work and had the hardware swapped around in really no time at all - and that includes reconfiguring DVD drive bay HD holders to fit HP and Acer respectively. This probably took the most time as it involved screwing and unscrewing five unbelievably small screws - by a middle aged man with varifocals which should have been replaced by a new set six months ago.

This last fact was probably and ultimately the cause of my mixing up the 2TB HDDs on the Acer, aided by the fact that they're exact same make and model. In any case I ended up with the original boot drive still being the default boot drive on the Acer.

Still not aware of this, I inserted the USB thumb drive and hit the power button. A few seconds later, lo and behold, I was greeted with Linux Mint logo. No surprised there. I expected as much. What I didn't expect was to see the boot sequence continue in a eerily familiar manner all the way to the point of being greeted with a login screen offering my username and expecting me to just fill in the password. Which I did, still a bit confused as I know I didn't mess with the boot image on the thumb drive.

Having proven to my new (well, OK, second hand new) Acer that I am indeed who I am I was finally greeted with my own, familiar desktop. It was at this point I realised that I have swapped the drives the wrong way (or at least I still thought of it as the wrong way at that point). Watching the rest of the boot process unfold I then realised that not only Mint has booted successfully on the unfamiliar hardware, but that pretty much everything is working as it was supposed to. For all I could figure out - and I have tested everything since - everything works fine and exactly the same with the singular exception of the Sensors taskbar plugin which had to be removed and replaced to the taskbar in order to again correctly display CPU core temperatures (unsurprising as these went from 2 to 4).

And when I say everything, I mean everything: WiFi, Ethernet, NAS, Bluetooth, audio, video, grpahics, the works. All hardware was present and correct and doing what it was supposed to do. Just in case I checked the Mint hardware driver wizard and it of course offered to install nVidia GPU drivers (on HP I used only the default ones for Intel GPU) and also the newer, Broadcom specific, WiFi drivers. Offer accepted and a minute or two later I had both running - and that's without rebooting!

Now, if this is not a WIN for Linux, Mint, and the modern operating systems, I don't know what is. In any case it was a huge win for me as I have managed to accomplish in less than two hours what I fully expected to take best part of two days - even if most of it unattended. Cherry on top was that Mint itself and a couple of other applications actually started working better on the Acer than they did on the HP. None should really be hardware dependent, but hey ho.

Oh, and if you're wondering about the HP and that 1TB HDD with Windows 7 on it they also exceeded expectations, although not nearly to the same extent as the Acer/Mint combination. Yes, Windows happily booted on the HP. However, the screen resolution was chosen wrongly and while it did work it was not optimal for the screen. Then, Windows immediately wanted to install various drivers for various devices... and failed miserably for a couple of them due to the fact it wasn't plugged into the wired LAN and one of the failed ones was the WiFi driver. Or so it seemed at the time, until I realised that Windows didn't even manage to turn on the WiFi module - and I couldn't turn it on manually for it even after rebooting and messing about in the BIOS setup. The audio was also off - sort off. The LED on the laptop was showing it off even if it wasn't and then when I disabled it it wouldn't turn on again.

So, while a valiant attempt, it was really no good in the end - especially if one wanted to sell the HP as a fully working machine it is. Therefore I had to reach for a big hammer, or rather, the Mint USB thumb drive. And, lo and behold, not twenty minutes later the HP was again humming away firing on all cylinders, all devices present and correct - including the best possible screen resolution. And that was with just accepting the defaults during setup. No extra fiddling, no extra drivers, no faffing about. Pleased, I decided to spend another five minutes installing pending OS updates as a courtesy to the prospective buyer (I imagine doing the same for Windows would have taken hours, if my experience of my wife's brand new laptop is anything to go by).

So, there you have it, a Just Works™ (and not a Just So™) story if ever there was one. Also yet another piece of evidence to support my old claim that having switched to Linux entirely has not just given my machines a new lease of life, but have given me more of a life to enjoy, and less of the hair to pull out waiting for, and faffing with Windows.

Case in point: my office where my desktop monster takes more than 15 minutes to fully boot up and be ready to use, and that's not nine months after receiving it brand spanking new. Now, compare this to stable minute or so for Linux, and on a machine that is old, has been set up two years ago, and is frequently left running for weeks on end,

Just Works™.