Archive | May 2009

A Nouveau experience

If you read my last post you know I’ve been using Arch to give new life to an old PC. My experience with Arch has been rather positive but it’s not without issues. To be fair, I’m not sure if it’s Arch fault or nVidia’s. That’s right, I’m talking about graphic driver issues. It’s no big news that graphic drivers support in Linux are reasonable at best. The problem lies with closed-source drivers that are always playing catch-up with other OS versions. Nvidia in particular is not the worst and recent devices seem to have reasonably good drivers. But with older cards it’s a different story. I have a Nvidia GeForce2 MX 400, wich is quite old. Nevertheless I don’t see why I need to buy a new one, if I’m not planning to use any special 3D software. The problem is that even 2D rendering is too slow to be usable. And why ?
I don’t know all the details of the story but basically Nvidia doesn’t spend much time supporting old drivers. In my case, I cannot use the most recent drivers with my card, because it’s not supported. I have to use the old 96-xx version. The problem is that with every Xorg update, things change and drivers need to be updated too. Because Nvidia doesn’t spend much time updating 96-xx version, I’m having poorer performance now than I was 2 years ago….with the same card!!
I’m not going to bash Nvidia about this, as I still have hope that it’s a configuration problem (I think I tried every xorg parameter combination).
Nevertheless I had to quit using the Nvidia driver. Simply dragging a window across the screen was too slow. I’m now using Nouveau, the open source initiative to create an open driver for nvidia cards. It’s perfectely stable to me and it works a lot faster than nvidia’s driver. Now, I have aceptable performance (not perfect). I’m pretty sure 2 years ago I had better performance than today with nouveau. But, better nouveau than nothing. I just hope nouveau continues to improve and that nouveau’s developers don’t forget old nvidia cards.

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Testing out Arch Linux

As you may know, I’ve used lots of Linux distros over the years. Right now, I’m testing Arch Linux on an old PC. I’ve been curious about Arch for a long time and now finally I had the opportunity to try it out. Basically, I’m giving new life to an old PC and thus I’m exploring ways to use the most lightweight software possible. That means choosing the right applications and the right distribution. I’m not sure if Arch is the right distribution, but I like it.

So, what is Arch like ?

Arch is a very basic Linux distro, that you can easily customize. It reminds me of Gentoo, although it’s not source-based. Package management is based on tar.gz packages, with full dependency support. What stands out at first is the speed of pacman, the application used to manage software installation. After downloading the packages, installation is very very quick. And it’s as simple to use as apt-get.
So, at first, package management looks like apt-get but with tar.gz instead of debs. But it doesn’t stop there. Then you have the AUR platform, which is the part that resembles Gentoo. The AUR repository holds not the software, but special files (PKGBUILDs) that tell the installer where to get the software from and how to install it. It can be binaries or sources (they look a lot like Gentoo’s ebuilds). This AUR repositories are community-maintained and everyone can contribute with PKGBUILDs. Creating a package is very simple, the PKGBUILD is just a small script and you’ll probably just have to edit some variables. That’s why there’s so many software int the AUR. By using this simple mechanism you ensure that all software on your computer is installed through Arch package management system.

What do you get of an Arch installation ?

Arch installation is done through a text installer, but is quite simple. Installation is quick because there’s not much software to install. The base installation only has core libraries and binaries. There’s not even X. You’ll only get a console prompt, vi and not much more. And this is great, because you can customize it the way you like it and install only what you want. And if you want X, just issue "pacman -S xorg".
It’s not for everyone, but long-time Linux users that like to fiddle with their system will probably like Arch.
Over the next posts I plan to tell you more about my experience with Arch and with building a lightweight system.