Category Archives: Ubuntu

Ubuntu and Nvidia Mysteries

Having tried to install the proprietary Nvidia drivers several times and always ending up with a black screen and various difficulties trying to return the X server and Unity to a functional state, I was somewhat surprised when I clicked on the nvidia-352 radio button in the Proprietary Drivers (or whatever it is called now) tab in the Repositories window in Synaptic Package Manager, and rebooted right into a functional Nvidia session.

I’ve been struggling with this ever since I upgraded to 15.10. Everything I’ve read amounted to basically the same fix: purge any leftover Nvidia drivers, reinstall and reconfigure X. There’s been no mention of this, anywhere. Can somebody please explain to me what happened?

4k Screen and Other Linux Woes

I’ve had my gorgeous 4k screen replaced twice since August, both times because of dead pixels. It’s what they call a premium screen, so apparently one dead pixel is enough. Still, that sort of thing will happen and I’m not terribly upset.

Far worse is the mediocre support for 4k screens in Linux. The new Ubuntu version, 15.10, is a prime example. For example, there’s a Unity bug where the display scaling setting is not respected when drawing the mouse pointer over Unity components, shrinking it to its original, unscaled HiDPI size. Forcing the scaling of the pointer had to be done in 15.04, too, by adding Xcursor*size: 48 last in /etc/X11/Xresources/x11common, but in 15.10, it’s no longer enough. Unity has to be reloaded before the pointer size is on par with the rest of the desktop.

There are also GUI components and other software that still ignore the scaling altogether: the scroll bars are ridiculously thin, and, of course, most Java components, from toolbars to radio buttons and menus, remain tiny. I’m not a software developer so I don’t know what is required to handle something like that properly, but what I do know is that it all works in Windows 10 and it all works in OS X.

To make matters worse, Ubuntu 15.10 upgrades the kernel to 4.2. This would normally be a good thing, but apparently there has been some small change in the kernel that breaks the Nvidia Optimus support: the Nvidia DKMS build fails, stating that the kernel is not supported.

So here I am, making do with the Nouveau drivers while waiting for updates, and reloading Unity after every reboot. I much prefer Linux to the alternatives, but I am a bit disappointed. I went from being a dist-upgrade junkie running Debian Unstable to a vanilla Ubuntu user because the bleeding edge sometimes bleeds a bit too much and I simply wanted to run Linux as my production environment using recent hardware.

I’m not giving up, though; a Windows session is enough to remind me why.

The Downsides of a 4k Screen

Having spent time using my shiny new Dell in a professional setting, I am now discovering the downsides of the fabulous 4k screen when running Ubuntu.

  • Ubuntu 15.04 is sort of ready for HiDpi, but there are some glaring problems that require attention, from the incredible shrinking popups to minuscule mouse pointers in some contexts.
  • Worth a special mention are the scroll bars and some of the LibreOffice controls, both of which are tiny by default. The former is fixable by reverting to “classic” mode but I have not been able to solve the latter yet.
  • Checkboxes are no fun either. They remain tiny, despite my best efforts.
  • Most Java apps have issues with UI scaling. The toolbars in particular are a pain.
  • Hooking up a projector for a presentation will mess things up after disconnecting it. See any of the above, plus some additional problems having to do with drastically resized app windows.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret buying the Dell. I just wish Linux would catch up more quickly.


I reverted back to Ubuntu after testing Mint 17.2 and deciding that while it looks good, I actually do prefer Unity these days. I really thought I would stick with Mint, you know.

New Laptop, New Linux Distro

Having returned to running my own company, I decided it was time to retire my 5-yo MacBook Pro and get something modern to run Linux in. After careful consideration I decided on a Dell Precision M3800 since it’s actually being sold by Dell with Ubuntu 14.04 pre-installed. The M3800 is thin and light, in spite of the 15.6″ screen, robustly built and includes a 4k screen. Simply put, it is gorgeous.

I didn’t order the Ubuntu version, though, partly since I actually need Windows every now and then, but mostly because there’s the “free” Windows 10 upgrade once it becomes available, and I’m curious. Instead, I added a second hard disk for the Linux install. The extra disk can be fitted if opting for a smaller battery, and the installation didn’t void the warranty, since Dell actually accepts that people will want to tinker with their machines (beat that, Apple!).

After careful consideration, a few live USB sticks and one test install of Ubuntu, I have now set up Linux Mint 17.2 as my primary OS. It handles the HiDPI 4k screen beautifully, except for some older apps with hard-coded font sizes and such (shame on you, Skype!) and most Java-based programmes I have tried so far. oXygen is pretty much the only Java app I really need, so for now I’ve doubled every font size in the preferences, which makes oXygen usable. The toolbars are still tiny, but I am now able to work.

All in all, I’m really pleased.

New Distro, Part Two

After a couple of days of Kubuntu, my curiosity took the upper hand and I decided to install the Unity desktop along KDE.

It’s an interesting GUI, I have to admit, but I remain unconvinced. The search-oriented task bar thingy to the left is an odd bird, for example. It is as if Canonical were mixing their desktop metaphors. There must be a task bar because everyone’s got one, but it seems as if they’ve gone out of their way to ensure it is different. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing yet.

Worse is that the global menus do not work–as many others have pointed out, on a large screen the menus will simply be too far off from the programme window itself. I know, OS X does this also, but the difference, the crucial difference, is that the menus and their behaviour are consistent on a Mac, something they can never be on Linux.

Version 14.0 allows you to move the global menus to their respective windows, which solves the problem but also highlight a less serious one: the top bar, now mostly empty sans a few icons to the right, still takes up space but now provides no real benefit.

On the whole, though, the GUI looks nice, with better graphics than I remember from past Ubuntu versions. It looks like a finished product, something that, say, Debian Testing, doesn’t–the XFCE desktop I briefly tried when deciding ona new distro looks ghastly. I know it’s not supposed to have the bells and whistles of a Plasma desktop, Windows 7 or even Gnome, but my god, the damned thing put me off to an extent I didn’t think possible.

Time for a New Distro

Recently, I upgraded my work laptop with an SSD disk.The laptop, a Lenovo Thinkpad T510, has been pretty reliable but getting a bit long in the tooth. A conventional 2.5″ disk three years old is a cause for concern if used daily, and anyway, SSDs are amazingly fast these days. It’s almost like buying a new computer.

I should also mention the Nvidia Optimus graphics card. It’s basically two cards in one, an Intel graphics chip for the daily stuff that doesn’t require much graphics processing and an Nvidia chip for the stuff that does, the idea being that the OS switches between the two to either save battery or boost performance.

So, anyway, while I simply cloned the Windows partitions from the old disk (using Acronis software), I eventually decided to try a new Linux distro rather than fixing the cloned Debian Sid I’ve been running since 2010 or so. The Debian system was spread out over several partitions, which caused problems when booting the cloned system–apparently UUIDs changed when cloning, crashing the system.

I wanted something Debian-based, of course. Apt-get rules and all that, and Debian is pretty hard to break even if you run an unstable version of it.

First, I tried the new Linux Mint Cinnamon distro (v 17), having heard some very good things about it. The installation went without a hitch and I was soon able to boot into the desktop (what a pretty one, btw) using the open-source Nouveau display drivers. They were OK but not great, so I decided to replace them with Nvidia’s proprietary package and something called nvidia-prime that would allow me to switch between the two graphics chips. This seemed to work well, until I came to work the next morning, placed the laptop into a dock and booted using an external monitor only.

No desktop appeared, just a black screen.

Opening the laptop’s lid, I discovered that the desktop was actually there, after all, but only on the laptop screen. Nvidia Settings, the helper software that allows you to configure the X server and screens, was broken and so I couldn’t use it to configure the monitors. The Cinnamon display settings would only share the desktop between the two screens but not allow me to only use the external monitor.

Changing from the Nvidia chip to the Intel one did not significantly change this, but introduced a new problem: I no longer had the option to change back to Nvidia.

I looked around to see if there were newer Nvidia packages around, or perhaps a newer kernel, since that’s what I would always do in Debian Sid; there would frequently be something in the experimental branch that would help me. Linux Mint, however, while Debian-based, is far from Debian Sid. It is meant to be stable, and anything, um, unstable would have to come from somewhere else entirely.

I found a 3.15 kernel from a Ubuntu branch and installed that, but Linux Mint would then insist that a 3.13 kernel was actually an upgrade, so I gave up and realised Linux Mint wasn’t for me after all.

I then spent the following evening (and night) installing and testing Ubuntu 14.04 in place of Linux Mint, as a Google search suggested nvidia-prime would work out of the box in it. It did, but after a few hours of fooling around with Ubuntu, I realised I truly hated Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.

Discouraged, I wiped Ubuntu from the disk in favour of Debian’s Testing branch, but that didn’t go well. I downloaded an ISO, remembering that Debian’s installer would not support WiFi cards during the install, only to discover that they had a) switched to XFCE from Gnome as their default desktop and, more importantly, b) my WiFi card was still considered bad as it was non-free according to Debian’s rather strict criteria and so the firmware was not on the ISO and I had no wired network hooked up to that laptop.

I could have used the Windows partition or my Macbook Pro to download the missing firmware, of course, but I got annoyed and wiped the disk again, now installing the new Kubuntu 14.04 instead.

Which is where I am now. Kubuntu also handles nvidia-prime out of the box, but it also has the (for me) familiar KDE desktop. It’s not perfect (the system fonts, for example, are ghastly and I have to do something about that very soon) but it’s good enough for now.

Now, you may be tempted to point out that Nvidia Optimus works out of the box there, too, and with more finesse, but if so, you are missing the point.

Linux is fun, and the very fact that there are so many distros out there speaks in its favour. If something in Windows doesn’t work for you, you won’t have a Windows alternative. Well, you have Windows 8, but seriously?

Mobile Sync, Part Three

After (unsuccessfully) banging my head against the wall trying to sync my Ubuntu 10.04 laptop with the Nokia N900, I resorted to the only solution I knew would work.

I wiped out Ubuntu and installed Debian GNU/Linux Sid in its place. Apart from spending a night recovering from a dodgy dist-upgrade, the laptop now works, syncing perfectly with the N900.

Me, I think there is something wrong with Ubuntu 10.04.

Mobile Sync, Part Two

I have an older IBM Thinkpad (a T42p) laptop with Ubuntu Studio installed. In version 9.10, syncevolution worked like a charm. All I had to do was to install, setup the N900 and sync, no problems whatsoever. Then I got brave and upgraded the laptop to Ubuntu 10.04 and syncevolution to the latest version.

Fail to sync.

And mind you, it doesn’t tell me what’s wrong, it just fails. I’ve tried installing older syncevolution packages, resetting bluetooth stuff, sacrificing my firstborn… nothing helps!

If you know what’s wrong, please let me know.