New experiment time!

For about half a week now, I’ve been performing a bit of an experiment with my main computing environment. This has been triggered by my frustrations with macOS Catalina - it’s no secret that Catalina isn’t perhaps as well baked as it should have been, and my complaints with it aren’t new. There came a point where I just got tired of dealing with it not remembering that I had extra monitors, or getting all sorts of chewed up because of.. reasons (never really could figure that one out), or the admittedly small boot volume in it being damned near full all the time. I finally got fed up with it and decided to do two things: reimage the damned thing (which I honestly should have done to begin with - never trust the base image in the box) and switch up the environment some.

With that in mind, I took the silly Linux/Windows desktop I’d built up and began looking at what it’d take to push it into full-time use. The answer to that question was “not much”: most of the stack I use nowadays really works just as well on Linux as it does anywhere else, and I’d really just need to find a way to hook my screens into it. (If you’ll recall, this is a Pentium Gold-base system on a pretty entry-level H310 chipset board - integrated graphics here, and the board itself only has VGA and HDMI video outputs.) A bit of looking and some quick education on video cards pointed me in the direction of an AMD (weird) Radeon RX 570 GPU, and one in particular with 3x DisplayPort 1.4 outputs on it, so I grabbed that. For good measure, and certainly not because it was really necessary, I also opted to upgrade the storage to 500GB of M.2 SSD (it was on sale). I figured that, worst case scenario, this would mean I’d have a decent enough gaming PC to work with if the experiment failed. I do have a pretty long list of things in Steam and such that I either haven’t played or couldn’t play because of a lack of Mac support.

The SSD and video card came in on a Saturday and I went ahead and got everything installed and configured. And, of course, I started out by testing it out with some games. Intel has certainly come a long, long way from the i810 chipset video, and even the cut-down stuff in the Pentium Gold CPUs is pretty decent (especially for the older games I tend to like to play), but that RX 570 is so, so much faster.

After a lot of cultivating was done - Farming Simulator ‘19 is surprisingly fun - I went ahead with the core of the thing and got Xubuntu installed and going on the machine. That went pretty well, outside of some issues that were more caused by my router being dumb intermittently, and I got my normal stack installed and all that. Xubuntu got the Radeon configured and set up fine and it’s humming along nicely with my ridiculous mouse and the two 4K displays I’ve got for the main system. I’ve got my SSH and other access set up and working and have deployed some code and all that. So far, so good, and I’ve been able to be pretty productive on the system without it being too weird. There are very much some differences between macOS and Xfce on Linux but a lot of my work revolves around using PhpStorm, Sublime Text, Chrome, and a terminal, so all of that generally works just fine.

There are, of course, a few quibbles.

  • The ATI–er, I mean, AMD Radeon Linux drivers don’t work with non-LTS Ubuntu. Sensible but I’m running 19 so I’m out of luck for the “real” drivers. Game support is even less on Linux than on macOS - far better than I can remember it ever being but still not great - so that’s not a big deal; the 2D performance on this thing is performant to the point of it not mattering.
  • GRUB still can’t figure out that I have a Windows installation. I didn’t reinstall it - it’s on a separate disk - but the standard install nonsense didn’t pick it up. The workaround is just to hit F8 to get a boot menu and force it into Windows when I need that, which kinda sucks, but whatever.
  • There are oddities with the screensaver on Xubuntu. Something something compositing, something something xfce4, I dunno, sometimes I come back and the screensaver can’t figure out that it actually needs to stop and give me a login prompt. I can go in and switch to another text console, log in, and kill the screensaver, but that obviously sucks. (Although, yeah, text console is really graphics now and so text console at 4k res with a 9x16 font is like watching the Matrix in real life. I would totally screw with a DESQview-type grid-based text windowing interface for a while if there were decent tools to do my stuff there.) I’ve got xscreensaver installed now and we’ll see if that works out better but I’m not holding my breath.
  • Mail clients are terrible. I’m spoiled, though; I really actually do like Outlook now. Mailspring comes closest but it doesn’t support calendaring and real Exchange server environments so I can’t get my University mail. (Yes, there’s IMAP/POP as an option in Mailspring. No, I can’t use it. And neither should you.) The other option seems to be Thunderbird, which hey guys remember Netscape 3? It works well enough but meh. I’m sticking with Mailspring for now but I may be looking for something else in the near future.

The one of these that’s really a big deal is the screensaver - one reasonably expects that to, yano, actually work, and to be able to get back into your machine when you’ve wandered off. Perhaps moving to regular xscreensaver over xfce4’s one will help. And, there’s little things that macOS does (and the tight integration that Apple can provide when you’re all-in on the ecosystem) that I miss. I never turn my phone off now because if I do it’s just that much more of a pain to talk to people. Unlocking my computer via my Watch is neat (even if I can only do that at home for now). The keys are in the wrong damned place now and I miss having Alfred and less shitty access to my Apple Music library. These (other than screensaver stupidity of course) are all fairly minor and ultimately I can get my stuff done without really noticing that I’m on a Linux system.

That said, I’m half of a week into it, during a week in which I’m not being particularly productive, so we’ll see what happens when I get back into gear and do stuff. But, who knows - this might just be the wave of the future for me. It’s been a really, really, really long time since I’ve actually wanted to and enjoyed using Linux on the desktop.

Oh - and that Pentium Gold CPU? Perfectly acceptable. I honestly can’t tell that much of a difference between it (2-core, 4-thread, 3.7GHz nominal speed, 9th gen Coffee Lake architecture) over the Core i5 in the laptop (4-core, 4-thread, 1.4GHz nominal speed, 8th gen Coffee Lake). Yes, they’re cut from the same cloth, but the Pentium chips slot under the Core i3 CPUs and the difference between 8th gen and 9th gen aren’t much. But, I have to say, this thing flies.

Some More Information For Y'all

Hi, I'm James. Some people call me 'murgee'.

I'm a web developer, general computer nerd, and music geek based in Memphis, TN.

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