23May

Switching from Gentoo to Mint questions my commitment to technical expertise.

Posted by Elf Sternberg as chat, Linux

I bought a new laptop recently, a Lenovo Yoga.  It’s the top-of-the line current generation: 13.3″ touchscreen, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, quad-core Intel i7 CPU.  Buying it was a fun moment: after shopping around the various retailers, I discovered that the cheapest ones available were from The Microsoft Store.  So I drove over there, walked in, and asked for the laptop.  The salesman was professional, but he kept trying to (a) upsell me on Office and a customer service package, both of which I repeatedly said I didn’t want, and (b) reassure me time and again that I would enjoy Windows 8 on a laptop with a touchscreen.  Finally, after I had paid for it, he handed it to me and said, “Enjoy Windows 8.”

“Not for long,” I told him.

I got it home and decided that I was going to forgo the Gentoo song & dance.  I will miss Gentoo, but only a little.  Instead, I installed the “user-friendliest” of all Linux distro, Linux Mint.  Mint is even better than Ubuntu in a lot of ways, with its nice mix of high-end, “your mom can use it” window managers as well as the Gnome 2.0 maintenance branch known as Mate.  I installed Mate, then rehacked the core manager to give me wrap-around keyboard navigation of the multi-desktop handler.  (This is a feature that I first encountered in Solaris Motif, and am absolutely confuzzled as to why Metacity, the Gnome/Mate window manager, doesn’t support it.)

Installing Mint was a bit of a dance: first, you have to tell Windows you want to use “Legacy mode.”  This unlocks the security features designed to prevent you from installing anything over the base OS.  That’s painful enough, but then I put in the Mint USB stick and everything went smoothly– until I needed wireless.  The wireless for this laptop isn’t stable yet; I had to install a third-party driver from Github, but there was enough of an environment on the USB stick to support doing so, and then I had wireless.

Mint Just Works.  Suspend to disk, automatic media detection, the camera, the sound.  There are a few bugs related to the laptop being so new– brightness DOWN works from the keyboard, brightness UP doesn’t.  There’s a menu option to control brightness, so it’s not a fatal problem.   Most of the problems relate to Yoga’s famous “tablet mode”: The touchscreen isn’t in Grails yet so gesture support isn’t there.  I can find in the kernel the endpoints for the motion sensors and gyroscope, but there are no drivers to interpret the signals coming from those hardware components yet, so they don’t emit anything.  Screen rotation 180° works fine for movie-watching mode, but 90° in either direction and the touchscreen doesn’t track correctly with finger touches.  The system emits the same signal for “transition to/from tablet mode”, so it’s not possible (yet) to detect which mode you’re in.  The Windows key in tablet mode is mapped to the same one on the keyboard, so remapping it for other purposes in tablet mode depends on my being able to detect tablet mode.

But those are challenges, not merely problems.

Still, choosing Mint over Gentoo feels like I’m giving up something.  Some deep understanding of how all the parts are put together.  I found myself chasing down new runlevel operations and other things most people aren’t concerned with, and solving them, so I’m not hopelessly lost.  But if I’m deep-diving into writing a new Linux kernel driver to get at the gyroscope and new Grails packages for the touchscreen, pushing aside my understanding of all those other components feels a little disloyal to the tradition of difficult programming from which I come.

Still, as a writing tool, this machine is unbeatable.  Instant-on and six hours of battery life are nothing to complain about.

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