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Linux on the desktop

Alastair Grant | Mon 13 Apr 2020

I consider myself a professional Linux user.  In so far as I only use it in professional scenarios, generally around hosting services.  This scenario lends itself to runtime level 3 (i.e. no graphical UI), and I'm happy with that for the most part.

Back in 2007 I mooted about whether Linux was fit for desktop usage, suffering from minor usage irritations.  A lot has changed since then, the competition was largely Windows XP and Vista.  Mac OS has matured into a FreeBSD offering with some extra polish and Microsoft is now running the perpetual Windows 10 experiment.

To say that I only use the console is incorrect, I have a GUI on a remote access server that I occasionally use when I'm remote.  I've got GUIs on things like a Raspberry Pi etc., and some virtual machines run GUIs.  But I've shied away from running it as the main OS on a desktop.  And every now and then, I think I'm not being fair in giving Linux a chance to really take a prime spot.

I installed it on a couple of laptops recently, one running KDE and the other Gnome as their shells.

After a month or two, I'm ready to throw in the towel.  The niggling issues that existed over a decade ago haven't really changed, but our (well certainly my) expectations of what a computer can do have also gone up.

One laptop I configured as a web-cam station, but HDMI support wasn't slick.  I wanted to duplicate the screen, which is possible, but not by default, without resorting to writing your own scripts.  Audio for the system didn't work, and required completely changing the Gnome composing manager to get within a shout of it working anywhere.  I eventually got it to work but I needed to disable the onboard sound each time I booted - I could have probably spent some time understanding the depths of udev, but I gave up and went to Windows 10 in the end (also free, as the laptop came with a Windows 7 OEM license).  And whilst Linux did a better job of supporting drivers out of the box, once Windows 10 had connected up to the Internet, it was all plug and play, and a slick experience.

The other system I was using as workstation for fiddling with home automation and other bits and bobs.  This time running KDE, which I quite enjoyed.  For this one, I felt I opted for full disk encryption - unlike Microsoft's BitLocker, you can't seem to (readily) get a key embedded into TPM, so you have to type the disk password in each time you boot - twice.  Not a slick affair.  But generally it was going ok for a couple of months, until the latest automatic package update killed the boot process, it now just dies flat.  I really cannot remember when I managed to screw up a Windows system to such an extent that it couldn't find the boot information.

Of course, with some time and effort it all this will be recoverable.  And with some time and effort I will be able to customise the system to do exactly as I want.  But I don't have much time, and I'm not really interested in the effort for a desktop.

I was sorely disappointed by the progress of Linux on the desktop.  After 20 years of wondering, I think I'm fairly resigned to it being "not really, just for very, very casual use".  Sure, I'll continue to stick it on "my first computer" builds for browsing the web and watching videos, but anybody with slightly more demanding (or critical) use, it's simply reckless to rely on.  A Bash shell seems the edge of Linux' rock solid reputation.

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