Sunday, June 30, 2013

Making Linux Work on Your PC, Part 1: Installing Linux Mint

Around a year ago, I replaced my aging Asus EEE PC with a Lenovo X230 Thinkpad that I got on a significant student discount. The X230 came with Intel's i5 processor, 8GB of ram, and Windows 7 Home Edition. My early experience with the system had been fairly pleasant, but soon the OS started to not work properly too frequently (I had to do a fresh install five times in the last six months) that I decided that the only long-term solution to my problem would be to shift to Linux: it's free, more stable, and current versions supposedly offer a user experience that rivals Mac OS's.

Linux Mint

Linux today is leap-years ahead of what we had a decade ago. Current incarnations of the OS from projects like Ubuntu are arguably just a couple of steps away from 100% mainstream usability, and initiatives like Linux Mint take things a step further by including important components such as audio and video codecs and useful software out of the box.

To install Linux Mint on your PC, start by looking at the Linux Mint community's hardware database to find out which version is most compatible with your system. For the X230, Linux Mint 14, code-named "Nadia," seems to be the best choice.

Linux Mint comes with different desktop environments that have been developed by independent groups over the years. I've heard good things about the "Cinammon" desktop, so I decided to use it. Once you have decided which flavor of Linux you want to use, download the DVD iso of the installer and burn the file into a DVD installer disk.

You have several alternatives in installing Linux Mint. One is to install it from within Windows as an application (mint4win). To do this, run the DVD while on Windows and install the OS as you would any other Windows software. While this option is more flexible since it's easy to uninstall if you change your mind, you only get to allocate a maximum of 30 GB of hard disk space to Linux.

Another option is to boot from the DVD and install the OS either side-by-side with Windows or to completely assign your hard drive to Linux. Both of these options offer greater hard drive space options and reportedly faster boot and run times. To maintain access to Windows (in case I need it for whatever reason), I decided to install Linux Mint as a second OS.

Fixing the sound bug

One frustrating bug in Nadia is the seeming lack of playback sound after installation. Fortunately, the fix (which comes from the Linux Mint forums) turns out to be quite easy.

  1. First, open Menu > Software Manager. 
  2. Type "alsa" in the search box and make sure that the packages "alsa-base," "alsa-utils," and "alsamixergui:i386" are installed. In my case, I had to install "alsamixergui:i386"
  3. Run "alsamixer" in the terminal. A user interface with colored columns should appear.
  4. Press the right directional key until it takes you to the "Auto-Mute Mode" column, which you should find "Enabled" (this is the cause of the issue). Press up or down to change the value to "Disabled."
  5. Issue fixed. Close the terminal window.
Games, productivity, and other things

At this point, you should be able to use and enjoy your new Linux PC reasonably as it comes with everything you need for communication (the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird email client), productivity (Libre Office suite), and entertainment (VLC video player and the Banshee audio player, with all the codecs that you need). Still, the main reason why most people stick with Windows despite the advantages of Linux, particularly Linux Mint, in terms of price, stability, and more and more, usability, is the lack of games and other software. In Part 2, I'll show that this is not the case anymore, and that today there are very few reasons to stay with Windows.

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