March 24, 2019

The Ideal Linux Desktop

What Goes Into a New (or Gently Used) System

  • February 5, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

I confess: leave me alone in your house, and I'll browse through your books. I don't usually have the chutzpah to pry into your desktop and configuration files if you leave your computer unlocked, but the temptation is strong. What seems natural to one user isn't always natural to me, and I've learned a lot when I've been allowed to look around another person's system.

After years of authorized and -- I admit -- the occasional unauthorized but non-tampering snooping, I'm overdue to offer reciprocity. I'm not naive enough to throw open my machine for everyone to examine online, but, over the years, I have developed several pages of hard-earned notes that I follow and revise whenever I buy and set up a new computer.

Since I'm currently mulling buying another computer in the spring, I'm sharing them now. I figure that many other people share my insatiable curiosity, and, like me, can find a benefit or two by seeing how someone else approaches the task of preparing a computer to run with their favorite free operating system.

Selecting hardware and general setup

If I were doing nothing more than writing and web work, I wouldn't buy a new computer. Instead, I'd get a refurbished two or three year old computer from Free Geek Vancouver, saving me cash and making me environmentally responsible while giving me all the computing power I need.

However, I occasionally do graphics work or review software that strains system resources, so I try to have at least one reasonably up to date computer. I always buy a customized workstation from a small specialty store (every major urban center should have a couple) after researching GNU/Linux hardware compatibility. Then, when it's assembled, I take a live CD -- preferably from my distribution of choice -- and test the assembled computer at the store before I take it home. These days, hardware compatibility is less and less of an issue, but, by making this effort, I sidestep any problems that might lessen the joy of a new machine.

Annoyingly, I don't have the same option for a customized machine if I buy a laptop. At least, though, a laptop pre-loaded with GNU/Linux is an option these days. I won't have the instant gratification of picking it up off the shelf, but I can have one if I have the patience to wait a few days.

Whether my next machine is a workstation or a laptop, the major issue for me will be the video card. I want to avoid video drivers that are either free but unable to give me access to a card's full capabilities or else proprietary but buggy and requiring reinstallation with every new kernel. What's more, I'm tired of waiting for the situation to improve. So, next time around, I'm thinking I'll avoid ATI or NVidia cards, and go with an on-board Intel card. If complete and free drivers become available before I buy, I'll rethink.

In the past, I've guiltily included a small Windows partition on my machines, because clients sometimes required me to work on Windows, and I occasionally do comparison articles. However, next time, I don't think I'll bother. Increasingly, I can deliver work that's acceptable to clients without booting Windows, and the older copies of Windows I have floating around should do for any comparison articles. I must say I'm relieved -- both for political reasons and for the extra hard drive space I'll save.

My first step after bring my next computer home will be to partition it, using gParted or some other free partition editor. I'm a long time believer in extensive partitioning, so I will probably have separate partitions for root, /tmp, /usr, /var and /home for increased security and ease of recovery in the event of hard drive failure. The trade off is that I may have to adjust the size of some partitions occasionally, but with gParted that is a straightforward enough operation.

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