The Penguin Plunge: Part 1 - The Install

Something terrible and wonderful happened to me yesterday. I woke up early and set about the process of backing up a few recent files to my external hard drive in preparation for the new build. As I was sitting there, watching the file transfer progress, a curious thing occurred: my PC locked up — big time. The classic CTRL+ALT+DEL combo produced no results, so after a few moments, I did a hard reset. What did I see when my BIOS loaded up? No hard drives were recognized!

I’m not sure if the raid controller failed, or if one of the disks went kaput (in Raid 0, data is striped across both disks — if one drive dies, you loose everything), but rather than cry out in desperation and despair, I chuckled to myself. I had almost all of my data backed up from a week previous, and the new computer components were scheduled to be delivered that afternoon! I’m not sure if I’m the luckiest S.O.B. on the planet or if I have unwittingly tapped into some sort of hidden psychic ability, but it was a purely ironic happening. After a good laugh, I spent the next 30 minutes or so disassembling the PC and cleaning the chassis to make a nice cozy home for the new parts. Read on to see how the component and dual-boot install turned out…

It’s Alive!!!

Newegg is the best. I ordered the parts on Monday afternoon and they were ready and waiting when I returned home from work on Wednesday afternoon. The installation of the components went swimmingly. I was a little uncertain about the RAM installation since I was used to seeing dual-channel modules installed side-by-side, but the new Asus motherboard alternated the channel DIMM slots. At least I hope I got that right (seems to work!). Other than that, the only real problem encountered was the fact that the Antec power supply only had 1 of the mini 4-pin floppy drive connectors, and I needed one for the floppy drive and one for the front I/O panel of the returning Audigy 2 ZS sound card. The motherboard has onboard sound (it may even be equivalent or superior to the Audigy, but I haven’t taken the time to research it), but I wanted to keep the front IO panel and I couldn’t really think of a good reason (other than tradition) to keep the floppy drive — especially since you can just as easily boot from CD or USB these days. So, the floppy went the way of the dodo.

I was impressed with the heatsink/fan combo that came with the Phenom II X4. It’s a good size and doesn’t look bad at all with nice copper tubing going this way and that. I typically opt for a third-party hs/f but I think this stock unit will do just fine for my purposes (I don’t plan to overclock, anyhow). It was a cinch to install, though I was a little wary of the flimsy lock-down piece. It held up fine, though and attached very securely on top of the CPU.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 5770 video card was a steal at $114 and I speculate it’s identical to the XFX model, but when I opened the box I knew why the Sapphire card was $20 cheaper. It came with almost nothing (in the past, with Sapphire or otherwise, I’ve always received a ton of extra software, games, plugs and cables, etc.) aside from a very cheap looking VGA-DVI converter, a molex-to-6-pin PCI-E power connector, and a “manual” which states (and I am barely paraphrasing here), “1. Install Card, 2. Install Drivers,” in 17 languages no less. That’s it. I didn’t really need anything other than the card, but it was still a bit underwhelming.

In the end, I’m quite pleased with all of the components I selected, and best of all I didn’t blow the budget. Not a single problem out of any of the new parts thus far (granted, it’s only been a few days — knock on wood). I did discover, belatedly, that the motherboard does indeed have an IDE connector, though it wasn’t listed in the specs. I probably didn’t have to order a new SATA DVD-RW drive after all, but it’s not worth the effort to send it back for a measly $20. I kinda wished I had known, though, and I might have put that money towards some new case fans (they run fine, but after 6 years, you never know when they might crap out), but I can always swap those down the road if necessary.

Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

As I mentioned, I sprung for a copy of Windows 7 Home 64-bit, despite the purpose of this experiment being to run Linux as the primary OS. My main motivation for doing so was to play a few Windows-only game titles if I ever find the spare time. Seeing as Windows likes to overwrite any existing boot manager (without your permissions, no less), you pretty much have to install Windows first, or spend some time hacking the Master Boot Record if you install it after another OS. So, it was the first to go into the machine.

I used Windows’ install utility to divvy up my 640GB hard drive into 3 roughly equal chunks. One partition for Windows 7 (make that two partitions since Windows wanted another 100MB chunk of the pie as a restoration drive or some such), one for Linux, and a common storage area. This probably isn’t the ideal setup. I imagine I could get by on 100GB of Windows + game installs, and I’d wager I can set Linux up on 20GB or less, then configure the /home directory to point to the storage partition. For now, I’ll let it ride and if it turns out to be a problem at the end of the semester (or if either OS outlives its usefulness!), I’ll do another clean install and repartition accordingly.

The rest of the Windows 7 install was pretty standard fare. What language do you speak? What time zone do you live in? Turn automatic updates on? — things of that nature. It took exactly 24 minutes, two reboots, and a bit of twiddling my thumbs to get to the desktop. There I sat at a comical 800 × 600 resolution on a 23", 1920 × 1080 native resolution monitor. The first order of business was to install the video card drivers, but before I could do that, I had to install the LAN drivers (so I could hop on the ATI website and get the latest ones), which was a piece of cake with the CD accompanying the motherboard. While I was at it, I installed a few other essential drivers from the CD.

Once the Catalyst drivers were installed, then it was smooth sailing. I was able to customize the desktop to suit my liking and get Chrome (default), FireFox 4, and IE9 all downloaded and running, as well as a free version of Comodo Internet Security.

I don’t have a ton of experience with Windows 7. I’ve been an XP fanboi for quite some time. It was on my old build, and it’s on my work PC. My laptop came pre-installed with Vista 32bit (and 4GB of ram, which it couldn’t fully utilize due to the 32bit OS), which I upgraded to Windows 7 64bit less than a month ago. I hate to admit it, but I like Windows 7. It’s nice and clean and easy (for the most part). All of my peripherals worked immediately — all I had to do was plug in my Canon iP4500 printer, turn it on, and within seconds it was fully installed and ready to go. I like this aspect of the OS, but I’m always wary of these automatic features (how do I know it’s getting the right, best, most current driver?) which don’t always give the user much choice. I suppose that’s where the appeal of Linux comes in.

Ubuntu 11.4 Desktop 64-bit

As I mentioned in the Intro post, the release of “Ubuntu 11.4 ==”Natty Narwhal"== ":http://www.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/whats-new coincided perfectly with the end of the semester, and the beginning of the plans for this experiment. I already had openSUSE on disk with plans of dual-booting my laptop, but in the end, decided I’d go with the current king of Linux for this install, so naturally I downloaded and burned an install CD prior to chopping up the old PC.

I’m committed to trying Ubuntu 11.4 for at least a while. I have some reservations, though, from things I’ve been reading online about Ubuntu’s new desktop shell, Unity (which is replacing GNOME). This being my first real trial period of regular Linux usage, I want the experience to be pure. If Unity in 11.4 isn’t working out for me, I may opt to switch to another distribution, such as openSUSE (which I conveniently already have on disk) or Linux Mint (which is an Ubuntu derivative, but still supports GNOME). I think you may also have the choice to revert back to the “Classic” (which implies GNOME) Ubuntu experience in 11.4. We’ll just have to see how it goes. I suppose the desktop environment is only a small piece of the pie as far as reasons to use Linux go, so if Unity sucks, it’s not like you just paid $120 for Windows Vista to find out it sucks — it’s free and you have many options if you don’t like what you see. How cool is that?

So, installing Ubuntu is a mixed experience. I popped the CD in and booted up, then chose to “Try Ubuntu” which lets you explore the LiveCD at your leisure. This is a great feature, because from the LiveCD I am able to browse the internet while Ubuntu is installing — take that, Microsoft. I went ahead and fired up the install and started adding to this post, and was also able to look up help online while the install was going on.

One point of confusion for me right off the bat: partitions. I knew I needed a space to install Ubuntu and a space for a “swap” drive (basically, virtual memory). I also wanted that “storage” drive to share between Windows and Ubuntu. The partitions I made during the Windows 7 install were still there, of course, but I decided to delete the two 200GB partitions I set up and shrink the Linux install down, leaving more room for the shared storage space. I figured 50GB sounded like more than enough room for Ubuntu (the installer only asks for 4GB), so I deleted the those 2 partitions and created a new one for Ubuntu. There, I was not sure what to do: I made the new partition a primary partition, set the mount point to “/”, and just left the file system as “Ext4”. Hopefully that’s good and well. I couldn’t figure out how to create an NTFS partition for the storage space, so I left that for another day. I had read the installer would create a swap drive for me, but when I tried to move forward, it suggested I create one — so I did, another 8GB partition created.

The rest of the install was a piece of cake. Ubuntu did its thing, and I typed up the previous two paragraphs. Now it’s time to reboot and see what happens…

[several days later…] I goofed on my partitioning and ended up redoing it with GParted — which conveniently comes packed with the LiveCD. I mistakenly assumed that Linux could read and write to most any file system, specifically NTFS (which Windows requires), and this later turned into a problem for me. In the end, I wound up with a 100MB Windows “restore” partition, a 200GB Windows 7 partition (probably way too big), a 50GB Linux partition (probably too small), which is split into 42GB install and 8GB swap logical drives, and finally a “storage” partition, which takes up the rest of the 640GB disk and is NTFS files ystem so Windows and Linux can both read it (this didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, but I’ll get to that in a future post).

So, once that was all straight, I had to reinstall Ubuntu. Again, no problems and I’m quickly becoming an expert on installing Linux. Once Ubuntu booted up for the first time, it applied some updates I opted to download during the install, and also suggested I install some “additional drivers” — ATI Catalyst — which I did. I think it does not install these without your consent due to software licensing (Ubuntu only comes packed with “free”, as in freedom, open source software).

Magically, everything worked fine. I was surprised to find that my Canon iP4500 printer was supported and it installed easily. My sound worked (I did have to change one setting to use my Audigy as output rather than the onboard sound, but this was a piece of cake). My mouse worked (though somewhat limitedly — the front/back buttons on the side work, but the scroll up/down buttons above and below the wheel don’t seem to work — I’m sure there is some fix for this but I haven’t explored it yet) . Even my 1TB Western Digital external USB hard drive was auto-mounted and readily available when I plugged it in. Grub worked flawlessly and my Windows 7 install is unharmed — I can boot to either OS easily, and the default is Ubuntu. It was all much smoother than I had hoped — just as it should be.

I went through every item in the System Settings page (accessed through the “power” button menu), which is similar to the Control Panel in Windows, just to familiarize myself with things. Settings seems pretty straightforward and I wasn’t terribly confused at any point. I spent a bit of time in the Appearance window, figuring out what colors and controls I liked best (it’s amazing how easily and quickly you can switch between themes and download new ones online). I was glad to see it was no problem at all to move the window controls (minimize, restore, close) back to the more familiar top-right (by default in Ubuntu, they controls on the top left). And if you’re not comfortable with the edgier Gnome themes, you can easily switch to a Windows 7 or MacOS-styled theme from online with a few clicks. It’s great!

Conclusion

I’m very pleased with how the computer build and dual-boot installation went. It really couldn’t have been smoother or simpler on either end. If I would proffer any advice for those wishing to go the dual-boot route, I would recommend reading up a bit on partitions and file systems and I would use GParted for creating them from the start. Spend some time thinking hard about how you want to divvy up your drive(s) and consider the implications of your choices — especially concerning any shared storage space. Windows and Linux use different file systems (NTFS vs ext4) and this was the primary source of trouble for me in getting things set up the way I had envisioned. I will get into the details of that in my next post: Plunging Pains. Til then!

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