I've come to the age where my time is more valuable than my money, and I don't have time to do all the things I would like to do. One of those things is to install time and again new Linux distributions on new computers. The only problem with this situation is that it is surprisingly difficult to buy computers with Linux pre-installed, especially laptops. For laptops this service would be particularly valuably, since support for different laptops currently varies quite much, so I would be willing to pay a premium for the expertise of actually getting a laptop that works well with Linux. And mind you, I need one with a Finnish keyboard, so EmperorLinux did not really fit this problem that well.
But some months ago I discovered LinuxComp.net, a Finnish web shop where you can do just that: Order laptops with Linux preinstalled. Actually Jukka Hellen has roots in Pietarsaari like me, so my Dad first read about his little business in the local newspaper.
Since my dad had been talking about buying a laptop for several months, and consulting me on the issue on not having it come with Windows anymore, it was up to me to research LinuxComp. In short: It was one of the most delightful computer experiences I've had in a long way. It turns out Jukka is doing this out of a personal passion, as a service to the community so to speak, and this shows in the customer experience.
To start with, we exchanged several emails about my needs. He only had ATI and NVidia laptops available, but from my research I knew that Intel is currently the most Open Source friendly hardware. In less than 24 hours he had put up some models with Intel graphics cards too. Could I have Kubuntu instead of Ubuntu (yes, though Jukka was subtly pushing Gnome to the very end :-), could he also install Acrobat, Flash (and some other Automatix stuff I'm not going to mention here ;-) (yes), could he configure the sweet 3D effects (yes, but in the end he had not done it, I personally don't know the maturity of this stuff, so I had left him the power to decide this).
There was only one drawback Jukka was lamenting about. The laptops come with WindowsXP on a second partition. Despite such monopolistic actions being totally criminal in the EU, it has been impossible for Jukka to get hold of laptops without a Windows license forced on you. I mean, you can buy a laptop without Windows, but the manufacturers actually make it more expensive than to by one with Windows. In our case it was ok, I thought it would be an ok escape route if my parents would have any troubles with Kubuntu, and in any case they'll need it for Nokia PC-Suite and some GPS apps I'm sure are bound to be Windows only.
Initially the thought was that I'll order the laptop to me, then do the final configurations before handing it over to my parents. But after these emails with Jukka I decided to do a bold test: I told dad the parameters we had agreed on and he placed the order to be delivered directly to himself. This was also to be a test of the maturity of both Kubuntu and LinuxComp. If a regular dad can buy a Linux-computer on his own, then we are pretty much there with world domination!
The laptop arrives, wlan is a problem
Jukka handled the delivery swiftly, with a personal contact with my dad all the time, assuring that he would help if he had any questions when the computer arrives. And he had done a very nice job. Kubuntu was installed and the other stuff I was asking for. I believe he had hand picked Firefox on the Kicker launch bar instead of Konqueror, thank you for that too. As a nice final thouch https://www.linux-tuki.fi/svenska was set as homepage, just to assure the new Kubuntu user that in case of problems he would not be alone, help is even available in his own mother thongue. (Swedish, the same Finnish minority language Linus himself belongs to btw.)
Had my dad just inserted the network cable into the ADSL modem, the laptop would have DHCP-found the right settings and everything would have just worked. But since this was a laptop, we wanted to use WLAN. According to Jukkas mail, WLAN had been tested to work.
The only problem was, the laptop has a button to turn of all radio (handy when you travel on airplanes). According to the HP manual this turns off bluetooth, but in our experience it also turn off wlan. Since my dad was not going to use bluetooth right now, he obviously switched it off. And of course he couldn't get out on the internet after that!
HP's fault more than Linux's. We cleared it up after I had spent some time with the computer, handily I was home for Christmas one week after the laptop had arrived. But I must say, WLAN is one area where Linux still lags behind Windows XP in ease of use. I know this is just about to be solved, but with current Kubuntu you sitll have to know a little bit what you are doing. Kubuntu came installed with KWlan and I think Jukka had turned it on, or it is in the taskbar by default. I might had screwed something up before I realised WLAN was completely turned off, but in any case, once it was back on I couldn't get on the net with KWlan. So I removed that and tried KNetworkManager, which is supposed to be the solution to this problem in the next Kubuntu. KNetworkManager certainly has the right user interface and logic for this task (on par and perhaps even better than Windows) but in our current Kubuntu it did not work. (It gets stuck in 28%, I'm sure I could find out why, but the whole point of this excercise was to not look at the command line, text file configurations, and definitely not source code :-) Then there was this program called Wireless Assistant which does the right thing, shows a list of available networks, and with that we got out on the net. The only problem is that Wireless Assistant doesn't save its settings or run in the background, so you'd have to manually start it every time.
So eventually I used the Kubuntu System Settings application to configer wlan. The reason I didn't do it before is that it doesn't provide a list of available networks, and since I didn't remember the name of my parents network (it is "linksys" I last used it 1 year ago, I remember now) I was stuck. I guess there was also some ASCII/HEX setting for the passphrase that I had to change to get it working. Wireless Assistant did all this automatically, I only provided the passphrase. There is a target for other configuration apps to reach.
So here is one thing on the wishlist of Linux usability: make KNetworkManager work out of the box, and whatever other tools are provided should be at least as good as it is (ie, provide a list of available networks and click-through configuration).
Once WLAN was working I did do some other small fixes too, in particular I remember installing the Synaptics package to turn of the tapping feature on the touchpad that is the mouse of the laptop. Come to think of it, since the installation program should recognize being installed on a laptop, I would have expected things like this to be installed by default. I've heard that the next Kubuntu release is focusing on laptop usability, so maybe this is another small thing that will fix itself by April.
Praising Kubuntu System Settings and Adept
Other than that we were really satisfied. Kubuntu really pleases the eye. The login screen pleases the eye. The startup splash pleases the eye. Even though it looks dull in screenshots, even the desktop background graphic pleases my eye! I especially like the mouse cursors from the kubuntu-human theme, they are incredibly cute. When I first considered Kubuntu almost a year ago, I was worried it would not be up to the same standard as Ubuntu, since all the paid for artists work only on Ubuntu. But now that I've seen Kubuntu on my own eyes, it is the nicest Linux-distro I've used. (Which excludes all Gnome distributions for other reasons, though I don't like that cartoonish look of Gnome either.) The overall feel is very snappy and both my brother and father were amazed that you could just shut down the computer and then turn it back on and booting would take less than a minute. (Because with Windows you boot for a minute, the F-Secure makes the computer unusable for another 2-5 minutes.)
And I was even ok with the sudo concept Ubuntu is making us use. That was one thing I was sure I was going to hate. I guess I must have been in a Christmas mood or something?
My personal gripe in Linux distributions has always been the graphical system configuration applications. I am a long time Mandrake user, and that was truly a part where this otherwise (once) great distribution sucked. I mean I have seen (much) worse, but the DrakeConf tools would always ooze of amateurish perl-hacks. And they would take 30 secs to start, I never understood why but I always thought it was because Mandrake used GTK in a desktop that by default was KDE. Surprised was I then when I abandoned Mandriva for OpenSuse last spring and realised that the much praised YaST starts even slower and is just as stupid, even though it was done by Qt hackers. (On this topic, I think Red Hat has had the best config apps I've seen before this, but as a KDE user and also for other reasons I never used that distribution myself.)
I was therefore really surprised to see that Kubuntu gets this one right too. I mean it is one thing to make a distribution that is a repackaging of Ubuntu that is a repackaging of Debian: You pick some packages, customize the menu and have a nice background. But to actually be the first distribution ever to provide a sensible graphical configuration package, Congratulations to Jonathan Ridell and all the Kubuntu volunteers out there! Kubuntu System Settings rocks in usability!!!
The same goes for Adept, the application used for installing (and unininstalling) new programs. The easy installability of thousands of applications is the strong point of Linux. It is the first thing that total blows a Windows users mind when he first tries out Linux. But for long the command line apt-get was the only program that really rocked in this category. Sure Mandrake's urpmi and later other distribution specific APT-Was-Not-Invented-Here command line tools existed, but out of the graphical ones I've not yet seen a perfect one. Apart from both of them being amateurish and slow, the Mandrake tool was simple but not powerful enough while Suses YaST is the opposite, too complex to use. (I've actually stopped updating my Suse computer because YaST is so unpleasant to use. It seems the next thing that will update this computer is Kubuntu :-)
Adept on the other hand is everything: Fast, good looking, provides all the information you need yet is simple to use. This is it boys and girls, I've been waiting for this for almost 10 years now, and there it was, in my fathers new Christmas laptop!
Ok, so back to wishlists: The only thing missing is to include Adept as an icon in the System Settings window. Yeah, that's where people expect to find it: Installing applications is an administrative task you know. So, get these two wonderful babies integrated, and then we can just all retire and not do programming anymore. (Joke, who wouldn't want to do programming!)
The Gnome apostasy
After a while of enjoying Adept and System Settings, I realised that something was feeling weird. What is it now?
Then I realised: Ooh shock and horror! Look at the images again. The Reset button is to the left and the Apply button is to the right!
Are my darkest fears true? Does the Gnome mafia really rule Kubuntu after all? After looking up Kontact and some other proper KDE apps, I calm down a little. They all have the OK/Apply/Cancle buttons from left to right in the order they should, as they have always been, in the world of sane people!
Now, in Gnome some engineers paid by Sun wrote a document which instructed all hackers to put the Cancel button first and as the default and to do this hard coded. I've heard that later on this actually became configurable in Gnome, but I wouldn't know since this (and spatial browsing) are some good examples why I don't use Gnome. But in KDE anyway, the order of the buttons is user configurable, and the default order is the one sane people have always used. And in any case a developer should not hard code his own order of these buttons, he should stick to the order provided by the framework!
So those people who work on Adept and the System Settings, watch out: You may get your salaries from Gnomish companies, but you should be vigilant every day and watch out lest you become like one of them. [insert creepy background music here]
Some final remarks
One of the final tasks I had to do for my dad was to configure his POP and SMTP mail servers in Kontact. You see those are another thing an average dad will not know how to do, since the last time he did it was several years ago - actually even then it was done for him, I'm not sure he ever configured a mail client.
So we still have some small issues before a dad can buy a computer all on his own and have it usable out of the box. Of course, this is another issue where the problem is not in Linux or Windows, but it is good to remember, that for the average dad there must be an average kid nearby to configure the mail server settings.
Finally, I tried to get my dads and moms usernames listed on the KDM login screen, but even if I'm sure I ticked the right boxes in System Settings, the login screen wouldn't change. You still have to type your username. I also once was missing a shutdown option from the login screen, sometimes you want to do that and it is quite handy. If there is a way to have these features, let me know, as I'm sure I will soon be a Kubuntu user myself.
And a final LinuxComp plug
So to return to my main point of this story: We have reason to celebrate in Finland that you can now order laptops with Linux pre-installed. The experience was great and I certainly recommend LinuxComp.net if you are interested in a Linux computer.
Having used dad as guinea pig, I guess its my turn to order one too. We currently only have one Linux desktop computer which my wife is hogging, and I'm stuck with my work laptop with a forced WindowsXP. It would be nice to have a Linux laptop, the one I have now is kind of embarrasing to me sometimes, lets say when I'm invited to talk in a Linux User Group or something...
After dad ordered his, Jukka has found laptops of brand Zepto, which you can buy without Windows. They even come with a nice design, I think a pink one or the one with a paradise island would be nice for my wife. She has already stated clearly that we'll buy the ones that come without Windows.