Celebrating 20 Years of Using Linux & Switching to Devuan

Bloody hell, Murdoch!” has it really been that long? Well, the date on the the purple CD below confirms it…

Testing Devuan ASCII as a replacement for Mint 17.3. With a visit from the first Linux Distro CD I ever used!


Where does the time go, eh?!

For the past few days I have been running my desktop off of one the cute little 80GB Toshiba 5400RPM laptop drives that came inside one of the Dell Inspiron 1501 laptops we bought back in 2007. It was what I had on hand in SATA format and quite surprisingly, it’s actually not that bad – Devuan 2.0 boots faster on it than Slackware 14.2 did off my older SSD. Silly Slackware lol… Anyhow, after accidentally deleting the wrong partition or drive more than a couple of times over the years, I am playing it safe with my change of distros this time. Dotting the i’s, testing the drivers, software, and so on, before diving into the format/reinstall of my Linux SSD.

Having used and liked PCLinuxOS for a year or so a few years back, I gave an XFCE spin of it a whirl and was happy to see that the AMD drivers finally worked for my GCN 1.0 / Pitcarin based R9 270. However, the garbage that is PulseAudio was still there crapping up the system, screwing up recordings using Audacity, so I decided to move onto Devuan in my 20 year anniversary “distro hopping”.

Devuan = (Debian – SystemD) * DarkPurpy Goodness

Turns out, Devuan XFCE installs PulseAudio too and indeed it had the exact same issues as PCLinuxOS (binary signal drops and noise every 0.64 seconds while recording from my TV tuner RCA inputs and other PA related crap…), so out it and it’s stupid problems went! Ah, the sweet relief of GNU/Linux un-stupefied… As with any “plain Debian” installation, many things require manual configuration as compared to Mint, but that’s fine. With Devuan I don’t mind, because I’ll only need to do it once and forget about it until security updates cease in 2023, much as I have done with Mint 17.3, whose security updates will cease early next year.

I have very much enjoyed using Mint 17.3 XFCE! In fact, were it not for the need to keep up to date with security patches, I would be content to keep using it on my desktop until the hardware plumb stops working. With GNU/Linux, this system feels like a super computer and really, for the few games I play in Windows, it’s perfectly fine. So switching from the old software packages in the Ubuntu 14 repo that I enjoy using to slightly newer versions of those software packages in Debian 9 repos, is great. “Change for the sake of change” isn’t my thing.

Stability + Simplicity + Familiarity = Efficiency = Happiness

That’s what GNU/Linux means to me.

It wasn’t always that way, especially in the years between when I discovered Linux and when I started using Libranet Linux (a Debian based distro from North Vancouver, Canada). Prior to those days, the primary function Linux (and the BSDs) served in my life was to gobble up my Interwebs, blank CD/DVDs, and “free time”, while I installed and configured like, twelve bazillion distros. I liked to use the desktop for many things over doing those same thing in Windows, but given my habit of playing Windows based games, I was often too lazy to reboot just to browse the web with Opera in Linux. I could, after all, just browse the internet using Opera for Windows. Anyway, it wasn’t until about Ubuntu 8.04 that GNU/Linux really displaced Windows as my primary operating system. By then drivers and software had finally gotten to the point where everything I wanted to do (other than play Windows based games) actually worked properly. Before then… ggrrr there always something that pissed me off when I ran Linux. Still is when I use Slackware! lol…

All picking on Slackware aside, I really do owe a hell of a lot of “good times” in my life to Patrick and the Slackware gang. Being the second distro I used after trying RedHat on that purple CD (which I bought in a real brick and mortar store back in 1998 folks!), Slackware taught me how to install, configure, and use GNU/Linux in a way that was both fun and useful. I remember using Basic Linux, a floppy disk disto based on Slackware 7, to turn my 486 Compaq LTE/25 into a cool “electric paper machine” that I used to write on. I remember loving the KDE 3.5 desktop that I used with some version of Slackware for a year or so… I loved Slackware up until I got married, had kids, and decided that I wanted to spend more time using the system rather than dicking around with the system. Hence my use of Ubuntu and later Mint, with some Debian 7 and PCLinuxOS sprinkled in there for stability and delicious flavors. Anyway, as much as I do enjoy going “full nerd” with Slackware, at this point in my life Slackware requires more effort to build than I want to put into it. C’est live, n’es pas!

Moving on… Thus far the only issues I have found using Devuan 2.0.0 ASCII are…

  • MTP from my Galaxy S8 is slow as hell and required adding Caja (the MATE file manager) to XFCE to magically kick FUSE into action (works in Thunar now too, even though it didn’t add any MTP related deps…).
  • Mozilla are still jerks. Thanks, I’d rather use Chrome + ALSA than Firefox + PulseAudio.
  • RocketTux gets some funky screen tearing in the top row of tiles, even with compositing enabled. At least it’s not all web pages – screen tearing is a HUGE part of why I won’t use the open source AMD/Ati video drivers.

That’s all I have noticed so far in my pre-switch testing. I hesitate to call this switch away from Mint 17.3 an “upgrade”, because there just isn’t anything I feel I need to “upgrade” to. As far as desktop computing goes, Mint 17.3 XFCE (and the amazing world of GNU software!!) really nailed it. Devuan 2 with XFCE simply carries on hammering it home.

So, thank you – Thank you to everyone who has and who continues to give their time, their effort, their mind, to GNU/Linux.

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Benchmarking My FX-8320 with Core3 and TrinityCore in VirtualBox

One of the biggest disappoints I have had when it comes to computers was buying an early version of the Intel Core2 Quad Q8200, because Intel disabled their hardware virtualization support (VT-d) on it, as part of their arbitrary and consumer-unfriendly pricing scheme. That was back in 2008 and at $185, it was the best new CPU I could afford at the time. Certainly, it was better than the Pentium DualCore I was using!

When it came time to upgrade, I spent a long time researching all of my options for new hardware, so that I could not only get the best performance for my dollar, but so I could have access to all the features and functionality of a desktop. I really wanted to get into using virtual machines for something truly useful… something like modding a SWGEmu server (Core3)! I also wanted to get better performance in games, such as Planetside 2 and Guild Wars 2, but that was secondary.

This was fall 2013 and at that time, hands down the best deal was the AMD FX-8320 if you could catch on sale for $135 CAD or so (with the FX-6300 being the next best for the same price). Absolutely, a Core i7 3770 (non-K, because VT-d is was disabled on the K version…) would have been way better, but it was also $340 – $370 CAD, which was basically my whole upgrade budget. Obviously I couldn’t buy a CPU without a motherboard and RAM, so I waited until the FX-8320 went on sale and bought it. I’ve been nothing but pleased with it since – seriously, it’s a super computer!

I reused my Silverstone Heatsink/Fan tower, which is enough to keep the cpu around 45C while compiling with all 8 threads natively using gcc in Linux. It’s stock speed is 3.5GHz and it turbos up to 4.0GHz. I’ve played around with over clocking on it and it is most happy when sitting at 4.0GHz with turbo and power management options disabled. In Windows, it sits at 4GHz all the time and Linux it down clocks to 1.8GHz while idle. Letting it down clock in Windows causes noticeable performance issues while playing games and while compiling in a virtual machine, but Linux seems fine either way.

Usually I have a single VM open using VirtualBox, where I work using the Xfce desktop environment in my Debian 8 Linux guest, inside my Windows 10 host. This gives me the best of both worlds – all the GNU software I love, functioning pretty much the same as running it on the hardware directly, and all the Windows software I use (mostly DirectX based games) can take full advantage of my AMD R9 270 video card. As much as I appreciate the WINE project, honestly, Windows games work way better in Windows. A lot of GNU software on the other hand seems to work just fine in a virtual machine, which is awesome.

I like using VMs, because they are their own self contained systems that can share files with the host system and with each other, without messing each other up. For instance, while I could build TrinityCore directly in Windows and get a decent performance boost while compiling, it would also mean I would need to have a MySQL database running in the background too and… I don’t want that running all the time. Yes, I could put just the MySQL DB in a VM, but… you know what, I prefer working in Linux anyway, so it’s just better to have the whole thing as one self contained “work environment”. So that’s what I have, a VM for Legend of Hondo, a VM for helping with the Tarkin 2.0 server, and a VM for Solozeroth (TrinityCore). And some other ones, such as old timey Slackware, just because!

Anyhow, with all that background out of the way, here is what compiling Core3 and TrinityCore looks like on my machine!

Host System
AMD FX-8320 (Locked at 4.0GHz with Turbo disabled)
8GB DDR3 2133 RAM (2x 4GB)
SK Hynix SL300 250GB SATA3 SSD
Windows 10 64Bit Build 15063.138
VirtualBox 5.1.20

Core3 Environment
Debian 8.5
Linux kernel 3.16.0-4-amd64
GCC 4.9.2
Core3 (SWGEmu) 2016.10.06

TrinityCore Environment
Debian 8.7
Linux kernel 3.16.0-4-amd64
GCC 4.9.2
TrinityCore 3.3.5 2017.04.22
A chart goes here...
As you can see there, TrinityCore takes a hell of a lot longer to compile from scratch that Core3! It also uses more RAM on average and has a much higher peak RAM usage as well. Apart from that, both projects appear to scale similarly when they have access to more threads.

I should note that the 8 cores on my FX-8320, as far as gcc compiling goes, are indeed a 8 physical pieces of hardware handling one job each, unlike an Intel i7, which would be 4 physical pieces of hardware doing two jobs each. For floating point math operations, my FX-8320 only has 4 physical lumps of hardware that can only handle 4 jobs, unlike an Intel i7, which could handle 8 floating point math jobs. Thankfully the gcc compiler uses the “integer units”, of which I have 8! So with that said, if you have an FX processor and you’re working with gcc, you can safely ignore the warning in VirtualBox about assigning more CPU cores than you really have – crank it to the max and make sure you have enough RAM!

My problem is, 8GB of RAM isn’t really enough for compiling with 8 cores AND running the game in the host system. So, I tend to leave the VMs at 6 cores with 3.5GB RAM, which leaves plenty of RAM for working in both the host and the guest (running the server while playing the game, for instance – which works great btw!). Yes, that does mean that the computer takes long to compile, but nice part is that much of the time I don’t need recompile the entire projects. So in reality, most of the time the difference is more like shaving off 10 seconds from a 40 second compilation, which isn’t worth worry about.

Knocking 10 minutes off that 30 minute compile of TrinityCore might be worth the 30 seconds it takes to shutdown, move the RAM slider, and boot up though. Unless it’s lunch time or “AFK for hours on end, because distractions!” time…

On a related note, I have been thinking lately that it would be interesting to see how this compares to compiling on the same setup using a new AMD Ryzen processor or a recent Intel i5 or i7 processor. I’ve read several benchmarks/reviews, including this Linux gcc compiling related test on XDA, and it’s safe to say that yup, when you spend more money, you get a better processor!

Unfortunately, for the $135 CAD that I spent for my FX-8320 3.5 years ago, it’s still the best option for my work load in its price range. I was hoping the new 4 core, 8 thread Ryzen R5 1400 would be priced around $165 CAD, but it’s $225. The 8 core FX-8300 (a slightly lower clocked, but still fully unlocked, FX-8320) at $145 is only $15 more than the 6 core FX-6300 and honestly it’s a steal for Linux programming and VM work (which is basically the best case scenario for the Bulldozer/Piledriver based CPUs, as their 8 real hardware ALUs are great, but their 4 real hardware FPUs, slow cache, and crowded input pipeline are not so hot for stuff like playing games, music encoding, and some photo editing tools).

It’s kind of a bummer that today I can’t spend less to effectively double my performance, as I did when I made the jump to the $135 CAD FX-8320 from the $185 Core2 Q8200. I was overjoyed back then when my compile times in Rescue Girlies (based on Supertux 0.3.3, an SDL based project) were literally cut in half. That’s my kinda upgrade! Yeah, so anyway, I won’t be upgrading any time soon, because it doesn’t make sense to shell out $295 for the 6 core, 12 thread Ryzen R5 1600 (plus motherboard and RAM) that will almost double my performance. That kind of money would be better spent elsewhere, for all the difference it would actually make in my life! 🙂

When it comes time to upgrade, I am hoping that AMD will have a nice 4 core, 8 thread APU with 512 shaders for around $165. I don’t play any new games and an APU like that would give me a 15% to 25% boost in performance, while dramatically reducing the power usage of my desktop. Yes, it would have half the shaders of my R9 270, so I would probably have to dial back the graphics settings a bit but meh, my old eyes are getting blurry anyway! So we’ll see what 2018 or 2019 brings. Hopefully we’ll get some micro-ATX motherboards with 4GB GDDR6 Video RAM for the APUs, because that would be cool!

It’s Laptop Upgrade Time! HP Chromebook 14 G4 (2016) vs. Dell Inspiron 1501 (2006)

Back in 2007 my wife and I purchased a pair of Dell Inspiron 1501 laptops for $450 CAD each. They came with 1.8GHz single core AMD Sempron processors and 1GB of RAM, running Windows Vista Home Basic. Through the years I upgraded them to 1.8GHz dual core AMD Turion processors (for $13 total via ebay!) and 3GB RAM. At one point I had a 32GB solid state drive in mine, running Linux and it was really quite excellent for everything other than playing 3D games. However, as time passed by it became increasingly uncomfortable to deal with the two major downsides of this laptop:

  1. It had to be plugged into the power adapter all the time, because it could only get about 8 minutes of battery life.
  2. It ran hot as hell!

Honestly, other than that it still is an excellent machine for everyday computing (my daughter uses it with Linux Mint 17.3 at her desk), as it’s able to browse the web, play videos (Netflix, Youtube, etc), play basic games, and do some photo editing and document creation without any noticeable slow downs. The hardware requirements for basic computing haven’t really changed much in the last decade.

And that’s where Chromebooks and their low power Intel processors come in – they have all the computing power of a 2006 era dual core processor (and more) at a fraction of the power consumption. The end result is that today we can buy a small, light laptop that can plug away at basic computing tasks for 5+ hours on battery, while producing so little heat that it doesn’t even need a fan. In fact, if you exclude electrons, photons, and the hinge on the screen, my Chromebook doesn’t have any moving parts at all… And the Chromebooks are even inexpensive too, much like the Dell Inspiron series of laptops.

If you’ve read my article about the Canadian bilingual keyboard, you will understand why I wanted to buy a $399 Acer Chromebook 14, but I ended up buying this $349 HP Chromebook 14 G4 instead. Quite simply, I was able to walk into our local Bestbuy and purchase the HP with the standard US keyboard (the only non-Apple laptop they had with a US keyboard by the way), where as the Acer wasn’t available locally and I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from online retailers as to which keyboard it had. So for $50 less, no shipping charges, and the peace of mind that I won’t have to return it and start all over (due to having the wrong keyboard), I figured I could live with the lower end HP Chromebook 14. And, I can.

The Acer Chromebook 14 has a quad core processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB storage, and a 1080p IPS screen in an all metal chassis where as the HP Chromebook 14 G4 has a dual core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage, and a 720p TN screen in a plastic chassis which has a metal keyboard area. Clearly, the Acer is a way better machine for only $50 more, but I just didn’t want the head ache of having to deal with returns due to the keyboard. If you’re in the USA or you’re in Canada and you don’t care about what keyboard you get, I recommend the Acer over the HP.

Comparing the HP Chromebook 14 running Google ChromeOS to the Dell Inspiron running Linux Mint 17.3 is interesting, because there are a number of things that Linux can do which ChromeOS cannot. If I had to choose between one of them to be my only computer, I would choose that old Dell in a heart beat, because point blank: It can do more and it can do it better. However, I am not stuck in that situation, because I have a full desktop Linux machine that I can rely on to accomplish things which ChromeOS can not. When you exclude an array of niche activities and focus on the day to day computing that most of us actually do, then it becomes a lot easier to compare a Chromebook to a Linux laptop.

Browsing the web, watching videos, writing, using Skype video or text chat, listening to music, sharing pictures and video, doing simple picture editing (crop, color, etc), email, making documents and spreadsheets, and playing simple games such as solitaire or web based games like Bejeweled, are what I consider “day to day computing”.

Both the old Dell and the new HP can do all those things, with the difference being that the HP can do them for roughly 8 hours on a single charge, while weighing less and producing an unnoticeable amount of heat.

That’s the big take away here. Sure there are many other things one could consider and absolutely, there are many things a normal Linux laptop can do that a Chromebook can’t, but most of those things aren’t really part of the use-case for a Chromebook anyway; You don’t buy a Chromebook to do 3D CAD work just as sure as you don’t buy a toaster to make coffee. The use-case for a Chromebook then is essentially same as any other low-end laptop, with the only real difference being some of the software you use.

When it comes to the differences in software, let’s have a look at word processing. In Windows, documents and spreadsheets are most often made using Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, but many people and organizations also use Open Office or Libre Office. In Linux, most people create documents using Libre Office or other open source software, such as Abiword and Gnumeric. In ChromeOS, one can use Google Docs for online and offline document and spreadsheet creation. Chromebooks can also use Microsoft’s online document tools as well as several offline document editors that can be found in the ChromeOS store (often for free and without ads). All of this software is more powerful and easier to use than the WordPerfect 5.1 that I grew up with and it’s all more than capable of meeting the average human being’s personal computing needs. You just have to take the time to learn and get used to the software for your platform. After that, it’s all productivity baby! Well, if you’ve managed not to wander off to Netflix that is…

Taking a look at the physical differences between the Dell 1501 and the HP 14 G4, it’s easy to see which is the more comfortable machine to use on one’s lap.

Left: HP Chromebook 14 G4. Right: Dell Inspiron 1501

Both machines are almost the same width, 13.5″ vs. 14″, which is the perfect size for feeling balanced across my legs without having to clench my butt cheeks or otherwise sit uncomfortably. The same cannot be said for an 11″ wide laptop! The depth of the keyboard area is roughly the same and doesn’t feel any different from a practical standpoint.

As you can see from the picture, the mouse configuration is very different, with the Chromebook lacking the physical mouse buttons and opting for a larger touch surface instead. Personally, I prefer the physical buttons of the 1501 and the edge scrolling of the 1501’s touchpad to the totally new paradigm of the Chromebook’s touchpad, but the difference isn’t a deal breaker. Normally, I hate the “tap to click” feature of touchpads (I hate touch screens in general for their lack of accuracy and their annoying habit of activating everything but what I am trying to activate…), however the touchpad on this Chromebook has consistent sensitivity and accurate multi-touch gesture recognition which have made my transition from real buttons to fake ones fairly painless. Technically, the whole of the Chromebook’s touchpad is one giant button, but it’s so stiff that it’s uncomfortable to press it down.

The last major visual difference is the HP’s 16:9 ratio 14″ 1366×768 screen vs. the Dell’s 3:2 15.6″ 1280×800 screen. Given the similarity in resolution and screen quality, the practical difference really comes down to which one is easier to look at. I think for reading, the 3:2 ratio 15.6″ screen wins for being just a little taller and allowing one’s eyes to focus on the top half of the screen without having to look down, where on the 16:9 screen one would be looking squarely at the top bezel. On the other hand, the 16:9 ratio screen is better suited for video and many websites. So for the screen, it’s a toss up as to which is better, because it really depends on what you’re doing and how you happen to be sitting while doing it.

Weight and comfort wise, the HP Chromebook 14 is hands down way, way nicer to use than the Dell Inspiron 1501, but that’s what a decade of technological progress does for ya! The HP’s battery is smaller, lighter, and cooler, especially when charging. Same goes for the CPU/GPU. The heat difference is such that the Dell can get really uncomfortable after a short time using it, where as the HP remains comfortable for hours, because it only gets a little warm on the bottom. The Dell weighs 7 pounds where as the HP weighs roughly half as much, at just 3.74 pounds – I can’t say enough how silly and fun the HP feels to carry compared to the Dell… I literally giggle a little when I pull the Chromebook out my old laptop carrying bag!

Finally, the typing experience on the two laptops is similar, but definitely not the same. I believe they both have scissor switches, but Dell has bouncy raised key caps where as the HP has flat, solid feeling key caps. I’ve typed a lot on the Dell over the years and I have always found it to be a pleasant experience… it just had a natural feel to it when the keys were pressed down. The HP Chromebook on the other hand has a definitive “hard” feeling to it, such that when you press a key it clicks down and stops moving abruptly. I wouldn’t say that the difference in feeling is bad nor do I think that typing frequently on the HP will be a lesser experience, I’m just saying that typing on the HP is indeed a different tactile experience than typing on the Dell.

So with all that said, I’m really happy with my new laptop and I expect I will be for another several years. If you’re out there still hanging on to an ancient laptop for your day to day computing like I was and you’re feeling it might be time to look for an affordable replacement, I recommend taking a look at some Chromebooks.

One more thing… 

On a related note, there are low priced Windows laptops to on the market that are worth consideration for every day computing. They use similar low-powered Intel and AMD processors and they also deliver long battery life in truly portable chassis. However, if you go the Windows route (and you don’t plan on formatting Windows to install Linux), make sure not to purchase anything with less than 64GB of storage space. Some of the Windows laptops only have 32GB, which will only leave you with 5-6GB of storage for your files and extra programs after Windows updates. Chrome OS running my Chromebook with only 16GB of storage has more than 8GB of free space, but such is the power of Linux (upon which ChromeOS is built). Most offline ChromeOS programs are less than 50MB, which is crazy tiny compared to many Windows programs too, so that limited storage space goes a lot farther on a Chromebook. Even a full installation of Linux Mint 17.3 XFCE edition, with a whack of optional programs installed, only uses about 10GB, so you can easily get by with only 32GB of storage on a Linux machine (16GB would probably be annoyingly small though).