Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ubuntu 12.04: The Good. The Bad. The (Not So?) Ugly.

Hello friends!

I recently upgraded by home PC from Ubuntu 10.04 to Ubuntu 12.04. I decided to make a hardware change as well, specifically, upgrading my primary hard drive from a 320GB SATA to a 2TB SATA.

Now, I didn't actually "upgrade" the 10.04 to Ubuntu 12.04 in place, I installed a fresh copy of Ubuntu 12.04 on the 2TB drive and manually migrated my programs, settings and files over to the new system. I personally like to start with fresh installs when possible, and given all the custom modifications I had made to my system, I feared an upgrade would cause more problems then it was worth (if you've had a different experience, let us know).

I didn't take the choice of upgrading to Ubuntu 12.04 lightly. I knew I would have to upgrade 10.04 sooner or later, only having a year 10.04 support left, and didn't want to let it go until the last minute. Having heard a lot of dislike between versions 10.10, 11.04, and 11.10 (the Unity UI for example), I seriously considered switching to another distribution such as Linux Mint.

In the end, I decided to give Ubuntu 12.04 a try. From looking at the screen shots and reading the design philosophy, I decided Unity was worth a try. Even if I didn't like it, I knew I could always install another desktop on top, like classic GNOME, Cinnamon, or GNOME 3, without having to switch distros.

So far, I'm happy with what I see, and think I'll be sticking around with Ubuntu, at least for now. The future is always open though!

The Good

Off the bat, a lot of 12.04, including the GUI, impressed me. Install and format process was very fast, even on the 2TB drive. I haven't tried setting up a dual boot system (Linux only) but that has been extremely easy since at least 9.10 so assuming it's been kept up to date with newer versions of other OS's, I don't imagine much of an issue.

Nvidia Binary Drivers

Nvidia Binary Drivers were detected and installed out of the box, no configuration needed. This gave me access to 3D acceleration and advanced multi-display configuration - a must have for a HTPC. I did use the Hardware Drivers option to upgrade to the "bleeding edge" drivers, though rather this was necessary or not, I'm not sure.

HDMI Audio Support

Remember this post? Thanks to an updated ALSA, HDMI Audio worked out of the box too. They also fixed the under-enumeration problem present in 10.04. I immediately had a (single) HDMI audio option in the Sound Devices that I could select and move back and forth seemlessly, no fuss. Success!

New MythTV & HVR1600 support

Since one of the main purposes of the my machine is to use as a HTPC and DVR, I installed MythTV straight from the repositories, and no issues setting up my card. Just don't forget to add you cx18.conf file to /etc/modprobe.d :)

Webcam Support

In 10.04 I was never quite able to get my Webcam and my HVR1600 working together. In 12.04, they seem to both work happily, though I haven't tried unplugging the webcam yet (that may still cause some issues to be aware of)

Improved Third Party Software

Firefox and Thunderbird are installed by default. Maybe you don't like them, but I do. Skype works fairly well and is easily installable. The Ubuntu Software Center is really nice, so far I haven't had any need to use another package manager (though I may need to at some point).

The Bad


I never got USB3.0 working reliably on 10.04, and 12.04 doesn't seem to have improved much. Although the Linux kernel officially supports USB3.0, I'm guessing the there is something amiss with the drivers for my specific chipset (the 3.0 ports are build into the motherboard). I am certain the ports, cords and external hard drive are all USB3.0, but I've never gotten any more then a sustained 60 MB/sec (480Mb/sec, USB2.0) transfer speeds when connected to the USB3.0 ports. Worse, I get sporadic "unmounting" of the USB drive when connected over 3.0, and cannot remount without restarting the computer. I realize this is likely the fault of a driver, or missing kernel module (and less Ubuntu), but it's still irritating. Hopefully I can figure out the bottle neck and start getting reliable USB 3.0 support.


So basically, YouTube videos have a blueish tint. Yep, you heard me right. Apparently, this is a bug in Flash,  but since Adobe has officially discontinued Flash for Linux, with 11.2 being the last version, it is unlikely the bug will be fixed. Now, there are workarounds, the easiest being to disable hardware acceleration,  but come on, something like this shouldn't be necessary as now I have to drive my CPU hotter. 

Another bizarre issue with Flash if you are using dual desktops: Full screen sometimes only appears on your *primary* display, even if the originating window was on the second. Now, I didn't have this problem with YouTube (full screen was on the correct display), but I did have this problem with sites that used their own custom player based on Flash, such as video from the sites of TV Networks. I found a work around for this using gDevilspie (see this thread). But this only addressed the *position* of the window, *not* the size. so unless the two displays were running at the resolution, the full screen was cropped and I could only see the top-left portion. My only work around of this (for now) is to run both displays at the same resolution. 

Hopefully with Flash for Linux discontinued, Canonical (or someone out there) will do the right thing and take over the reigns of support Flash going into the future. Even if you wish Flash would just die, pretending it's already dead is not the solution to a good user experience.


LIRC is a great program, unless your card just happens to not be supported. This isn't LIRC's fault, it tries its best, but for legal reasons there are certain remote they just can't support. Getting LIRC to work for my HVR1600 card was a *huge* pain on 10.04, requiring me to build a custom kernel module. I did eventually get it, but if memory serves, it took several months.

Unfortunately, my card *still* isn't supported in the newest version of LIRC with 12.04. Likely, it never will. On 10.04, I was able to build the kernel module thanks to the lirc-modules-source package and a very nice Fedora user, but it wasn't fun. Unfortunately, it appears lirc-modules-source is not available for 12.04! So until it is, I can't update the patch for 12.04, nor build my kernel module or use my IR Blaster/Receiver.

UPDATE!  I *have* gotten LIRC for my HVR1600 card working on 12.04! Without too much difficulty. I happened across a pre-complied version of the necessary module, lirc_zilog, here inside of a DEB file (32 and 64-bit versions available). I'll post a more comprehensive tutorial as soon as I have a spare moment :).

The (Not So?) Ugly


Hey, I like it. Been using it for a few weeks now and I find it pretty fluid and easy to use. The HUD feature is very cool. Now, now, I know what you are thinking...that damn Unity bar is glued to the left side!!! While I agree that, in principle, this was a poor choice on the part of the Unity developers, you have to remember that Unity is just one desktop environment. You aren't forced to use it, and there are even forks out there (or could fire one up yourself) to get it on the bottom if it's really important to you. Or use an alternative like Cairo dock, or another desktop environment. So it's not really a reason to abandon the distribution altogether, at least IMHO. And if you give it try, you might just like it too. While I do hope they add an supported option to move it in the future, for now I can deal.

X-Session Weirdness

In Ubuntu 10.04, I ran GNOME on two separate X-sessions, one of the PC display, and one of the TV display. I liked this better then running a single display on both, since applications seemed to handle it better (e.g. full screen Flash), even though it meant you couldn't move windows between displays (no biggie to me).

When I enabled dual X-sessions (with the Nvidia-config tool) in 12.04, I was very confused. On one display was the normal Ubuntu desktop, but on the other was just a pure white background with a "X" for a cursor. Obviously 12.04/Unity wasn't designed to handle dual X-sessions this way.

So, I flipped over to Twinview, to see if I could configure that the way I wanted. To my vast surprise, I found two separate desktops (complete with Launcher and top menu bar) just as if I was using dual X-sessions! But now, I had the ability to move windows between desktops. Pretty cool, considering I had been expecting something similar to way Windows handles extended displays, just making a blank window space on the other monitor, but no separate task bar.

So it seems like they tried to take the best of dual X-sessions and the best of Twinview (extended desktop) and munge them together (as a new form of Twinview). And honestly, it works pretty well, except for two problems I've found so far:

1) The "Flash" full screen issue I mentioned above
2) Applications don't quite "understand" it.

What I mean by #2 is that I'm used to being able to launch an X program on either GUI from the command line simply by setting the "DISPLAY" environment variable. Well, in 12.04 no such luck, the DISPLAY environment variable has the same value (0) regardless of what display you are on. So now, launching applications based on the X-session is a little trickier than it used to be - not a good thing. For the most part, applications do work correctly if you launch them on the correct display, but I haven't yet figured out how to launch an application on a specific display from the command line. Unfortunately, MythTV was one of the applications that didn't quite behave, it was showing up on the primary display regardless of what display I launched it from. No good - I need Myth on my secondary (TV) display. Thankfully I found an option in the MythTV appearance settings which allowed me to choose between display "0" and "1". Setting to 1 put it on the TV display....just as if I had set the environment variable. So there is some support similar to the old methods, but it appears to be application specific.

But sometimes (like when I'm running mythbackend), I *do* want it on the primary display. I used to have separate scripts that I could run for which display I wanted to appear on...but even trying to use the "--display" option on the mythfrontend command line, it goes to whatever display I set it to in the options. So, I have a workaround for now (setting the display option in the settings), but this is irritating...having a way to move it on the command line would be much preferred.

It's only been a few weeks, but so far I like what I see in 12.04 and find it a worthy successor to 10.04 (I usually skip non-LTS versions...due to the work involved with upgrading). So I'll be sticking with Ubuntu for now, and hope others out there enjoy it as well.

Have a great day!

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