Moving to Sabayon Linux 3.4: 1 week of fooling around

by Rick Jelliffe

I've took a day off to install Sabayon Linux 3.4. It has taken me a week to get it right, with many false steps. My initial verdict: simple things are simple and work out-of-the-box, hard things are hard and require a separate internet connection to do research. The unfortunate thing is that you have no idea what is simple and hard until after the event...this has all the hallmarks of being a distribution made by gamers with superfast internet connections and superfast machines, and this caused me a lot of grief and wasted time.

Pros:

  • very nice desktop (KDE with modern 3D effects if your card supports it);

  • very good out-of-the-box capabilities especially for support for different media types in Firefox and lots of drivers; this was my first experience of changing the video card on a working Linux system and having the thing work correctly after.

  • very good for people who want quite a large full featured distribution and have no internet access (it takes about 10 meg installed from a DVD!);

  • very good for old UNIXy types like me who want su and want to recompile the kernel;

  • works well with modest hardware: my PC is 8 years old for example: during the week, I upgraded my RAM to 512Meg, and typically don't go even get into swapping when running Eclipse, Firefox and Thunderbird.


Cons:

  • It didn't recognize my ATI card correctly, so I had to install in text mode and fix things up by hand. So much for out-of-the-box.

  • It didn't recognize my LG screen with 1440x900 resolution.

  • When I replaced the ATI with a new NVIDIA card, it recognized this, but the default nv driver did not provide 3D. (I had played with them on another machine: Beryl/Compiz are pretty attractive.) So I am using just the 2D desktop.

  • I downloaded the driver that NVIDIA provides, and found that there were three different web pages with different methods for installing it. I wish people would bother to write which distribution of Sabayon (or Gentoo even) they were writing about. Anyway, I couldn't get any of these methods to work. One involved recompiling the kernel, which then wouldn't run. I ran a repair install from the DVD, and (next day) I had a running Linux again, but I've ditched the nvidia driver for the generic nv driver. 2D will have to do.

  • Poor desktop admin tools compared to other distributions to help you connect into local LANs not using dynamic addresses; for example, I could not find anywhere in a graphical tool to set the DNS server location.

  • Attempting to connect up to a printer was a disaster. Its nice automatic search tool locate our Ricoh 2035, and let
    me select the drivers for it, but then told me that it did not have these drivers in fact.

  • Sabayon uses a package manager called emerge however it is not a RPM-alike, it works very differently. It downloads patches, then recompiles the application. I made the mistake of doing this for Thunderbird, and it took over 5 hours (8 hours? 24 hours? who knows, I was long asleep).



Monday



I've previously used Mandrake Linux, then switched to Mint Linux for months ago: Mint has a lot going for it, but I never got around to configuring it happily to what I wanted, and the Upgrade Button Debacle was a bad start.

So a DVD of Sabayon was available in a newsagent, and looked interesting. I don't think I've used a Gentoo-based Linux before. Sabayon is big: it complained that my 12 gig disk might not be big enough: very different to Mint's dainty footprint. Saboyon comes with a lot of drivers built-in: one of the attractions being that will be, I hope less downloading and configuration.

I'd tried the DVD-boot on my laptop so I knew the DVD worked. On the laptop, the Beryl/Compiz windowing worked: lots of effects and translucency and vibrating windows. Fun but useless. Sabayon is very much aimed at gamers, I think, but that was a plus for me: I was tired that in Mint there were several media types that would not run in Firefox: I am too busy to track down download things.

Booting from the DVD on my desktop machine, the first thing that became clear was that it incorrectly detected my network card. I have a decade old ATI Rage Turbo Pro, which has worked fine on other Linuxes until now. The web gave the answer immediately: edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf to use the ati driver.

Next, my screen was not correct. Fair enough: it is a LG wide screen that prefers 1440x900. Again, the web got the answer very fast. Type gtf 1440 900 60 to give the correct modeline entry for /etc/X11/xorg.conf (and make sure there are no other screen resolutions at the same depth that are larger in either horizontal or vertical axes.) Great.

Now that I knew the screen would be OK, I installed the OS and, after installing, edited the /etc/X11/xorg.conf to be correct. I configured the networking and started to play with Firefox, which comes as part of the distro. All up, this had taken 5 hours, but only 2 hours that required my attention: the install from the DVD is a long period.

But oh dear, Firefox was clunky and the graphics stuck. Hmmm, probably time for a new card. Go home and eat up the leftover 60/65 eggs and caviar and rocket from Monday's dinner. I decided to install a new graphics card, which daunted me a bit, because I have never liked altering the hardware of linux boxes: on old UNIX systems it was always a breeze: just recompile the kernel. But I hoped the Sabayon Out-Of-The-Box approach would make things OK.

Playing around with the utilities that look like they should connect or browse to the SMB network here, no luck either. So after a little more than 8 hours, I have a computer with internet connections, but no working update or other networking: it is just a matter of configuration I am sure, but it is taking more time than I thought. I kind of subscribe to the school that it is not a bad thing to gain the skills to have a working system, however, this is probably the 10th different flavour of UNIX I have installed over the years and it still doesn't work.

Tuesday



I plugged in an NVidia GeForce and booted, and miracle of miracles it saw it, and everything came up fine. Great! Actually, there is a new error message at boot time and I did have to edit the xorg.conf but no grief. The nv driver is built in: there is also a newer nvdia driver that is supposed to be more snappy, but I only want to do things I have to. The graphics are now much better: there is still some problem on large pages with lots of embedded video, such as www.matrixsynth.com, with sluggishness and even hanging. It may be the slower network connection here. But at least all the videos do come up now.

However, on the down side, there is no sign of the 3D-isms: the Compiz panel says that it requires something called dbus, and who knows where it is or how to make it run? More study needed.

Playing with Sabayon, I was most relieved to see that su is available, unlike Mint. Great.

Gentoo defaults to dynamic IP allocation, which we don't use. The various tools let me configure the Ethernet OK, but they did not provide anyway to actually turn on the ethernet automaticaly at boot time. Gentoo is way behind Mint and Mandrake there. The solution ended up being the command line rc-update add net.eth0 default, it seems.

Wednesday



There was a nice printer interface, including control of CUPS ACLs. Too much for my requirements. The discovery mechanism found one of the three printers, and let me select the Ricoh 2035 driver, and then asked me which flavour I wanted (foomatic, postcripts, etc). However, then it told me that no such driver existed. Grrr, so much for out of the box. I'll leave printers for another day.

Next, I wanted to do email. One reason for moving from Mint was to give me an excuse to move back to Thunderbird. When I moved to Evolution I had a substantial increase in spam getting through, and I there were quite a few features I couldn't figure out how to access. Oh, no Thunderbird out of the box.

Fair enough, this will give a chance to try out the package manager: so what is it? Looking around the desktop, there is absolutely no indication what to do for upgrades and updates. Mint is way ahead. Eventually, I found that Gentoo uses a command called emerge and provides a tool called portato. So I tried emerge on the command line.

A website had advised emerge mozilla-thunderbird. Oh dear, it kept looking for some mirror site in Korea that would not respond to FTP. Some more web browsing, and I decide to add to the line SYNC "rsync://rsync.au.gentoo.org/gentoo-portage" to the file /etc/make.conf. No difference: I suspect it may be to do with updating index files not locating mirrors. Oops cut and pasted the wrong thing. I'll rebuild the index with emerge --sync: this looks promising—it looks at a local (Australian) site like I'd expect. Perhaps the problem was that the index files were out-of-date and emerge was trying to download removed versions of patches and files?

An hour of downloads and indexing later, and emerge advises me to update portage. Ok emerge portage. An hour later (including a reload, rebuild and reinstall of bash for some reason) it finishes. Oh, and then it advises me to synchronize the index again. An hour later (maybe les) and that finishes. Oh, except that I need to move some files into /etc by hand, for security reasons. Actually, I don't mind this, it is nice to have the chance to feel in control, and diff shows only trivial differences.

I always reboot regularly during installs, because it lets you zero in on problem stages; while the system is down I take the opportunity to upgrade my RAM from 370Meg to a massive 512Meg! Running the OS plus a busy Firefox only takes about 350Meg RAM with no use of swap, but it would do no harm to have a few Gig sometime in the new year, I suppose. <fogey>Of course, I remember getting an extra 2Meg of RAM for my AT&T UnixPC, bringing it up to the extravagant 4Meg: streaming systems are wonderful at requiring small RAM resources.</fogey>

So it reboots fine, and I try emerge mozilla-thunderbird again. This time, it all is good. Except, it clearly isn't downloading and installing Thunderbird: it is compiling it...surely this cannot be right! I am torn between thinking "Oh no Installation will never end!" and thinking "Recompilation, great! No crashes because my system doesn't match the developer's idea" but really this is so far from being plain-folks-friendly that it seems hard to accept. Surely I am giving the wrong command-line option to emerge? I certainly won't be using it to get Eclipse (if Eclipse is available) :-)

(Update: I think I should have used emerge mozilla-thunderbird-bin to get the binary distribution.)

...It is now three hours later and Thunderbird is still compiling. I downloaded and installed Eclipse Europa in about 2 minutes. It didn't start at first, because of some problem with the Java 1.6, so I changed the symbolic link in /etc/java-config-2/current-system-vm to link to the JDK 1.5. At least they are all built-in: no need to download, which is something.

Friday


I decide to try to load the NVIDIA drivers. What a complete waste of time. Up until now, the information on the WWW has been first rate and Google has suggested info well. But for these drivers, it is all crap. I check that my kernel has the options it is supposed to: yes all good. But the driver fails. Finally I go the whole hog and recompile the kernel, following the most elaborate of the instructions. Now the box won't even reboot.

Luckily the intall from the DVD has an option to reinstall but keep foreign files, so I don't have to go through the eclipse drama again. But it is another overnight operation.

Sunday


So it boots again, and I can reconfigure it for the card and screen, and Eclipse and Thunderbird are still installed. Hoorah. A few little complications again, it is quite confused about the networking settings, so I need to do them again too. Sigh... but 1 week is too long. And actually Thunderbird has stopped working, so I have to reinstall it (just the binary again.)

So...


With that off my chest, I should say that I am much more positive about Sabayon than I was about Mint, at this stage. But both of them required no less configuration effort than Mandrake required, just in different things. It is unfair to judge a gamer's distribution on office interoperabity grounds, I suppose, but not super unfair. I took a lot of extra time, but that is partly me exploring how the thing is put together, and it is not Sabayon's fault as a distro that an external driver caused grief: I wonder whether it wasn't provided built-in for a good reason?

On the positive side, Sabayon definitely impressed me in my card-switching adventure and in the range of codecs available for Firefox. And it feels more mainstream UNIX. (And I now definitely prefer the KDE desktop to the GNOME, it seems.) But while it is no out-of-the-box, it seems that (apart from the emerge problem) the kinds of things I have to study and configure by hand are the kinds of things I expect to have to: it is not nearly as good as I wanted, but I don't have an out-of-control, situation-hopeless feeling. Linux Situation Normal: SNAFU.

The final install takes up 10 gig of diskspace, and takes many more hours than the "half hour" that the Sabayon website promises. It suffers from the same problem as Mint and presumably some other Linuxes: the developers have no idea that users might not have superfast connections or plenty of spare time, or that users might be interested in time estimates of how long an operation might take to complete before embarking on it. But it certainly took the auto from the matic to get emerge working.

But 1 week is far too long to be playing around getting an OS installed (OK, it wasn't a fulltime week, I did other things on other systems most of the time...). And I still have to it connect up to our file and print servers. Perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick: instead of thinking of distros as bases which you then customize to get what you want, perhaps I need to think of them as products where you only go beyond the box with severe trepidation. That would be a pretty bad thing. If I had known a week ago about how long it would take, I would have gone with FreeBSD or Solaris, which were my original choices until I was seduced by the shiny box at the newsagent. But I will give it a go, and see what I think.

I should be in a filthy mood from this, but the desktop is so pretty and I feel more like a mountain-climber on top of a mountain.

5 Comments

W^L+
2007-12-02 09:31:26

I have an old desktop computer (Celeron 1.6 GHz, originally 128MB of RAM) that I moved to Mandriva 10.1. It looked great, but was too slow to actually use. It was even slower than the original XP installation.


So I tried Fedora and Unbuntu distros on it. Grub would not boot , no matter what I did. (This is apparently a common issue with older hardware, so I do not understand why these distros don't give you the option of using Lilo instead.) Same for DSL.


Finally, I tried Gentoo. If Gentoo had not worked, I would have installed FreeDOS or FD32 before chucking the whole thing.


Gentoo required a lot of tweaking (using instructions on their site) and quite a long time compiling the system. The three longest times (in descending order) were KDE, Ruby, and GNOME. The final system took about three weeks, including a couple of times where I thought nothing was happening and started over.


Gentoo was immediately faster to use, even before I upgraded the RAM to 640 MB. That desktop is now the print server for the whole house, partially replacing five inkjets and one all-in-one. If you have the knowledge and patience to do so, the roll-your-own approach really does work better and faster.


I should mention that my laptops are running Fedora Core 6 and Ubuntu 7.10, primarily because I did not want to wait for a from-scratch compile. I guess that you really could get yourself a nicely pre-configured Macintosh system for traveling. I've thought about it myself.

Kurt Cagle
2007-12-02 10:51:24
I have OpenSUSE 10.2 on both my home machine and laptop. Overall, I've been very happy with it - the distribution went cleanly and recognized the legacy hardware (again, I had an older ATI card) and in general it took me perhaps a day to get everything configured. It doesn't support certain video out of the box, but the help section includes a wink-wink-nudge-nudge page pointing to a web-page that has information for loading in the content that couldn't legally be put on the Linux distro itself.


I had a somewhat more mixed experience with 10.3; the install was easy, but when one of my kids logged into a new account while another one was active, it discombobulated the X set-up, and thereafter I could only get Linux up in text mode, despite repeat edits to xorg.conf. I was forced to reinstall at that point, and chose to install back down to 10.2.


john
2007-12-05 08:05:29
You probably already know this, but Gentoo linux has traditionally been aimed at the 'hardcore' do it all, compile everything group. It's probably not the best choice to evaluate Linux ease of installation. I don't know what Sabayon has done to smooth this over, but I just don't think it's going to get that smooth! Gentoo Linux appeals to the same kind of person that wants to hotrod their car, and is comfortable running the risk of blowing out a few gaskets since she knows how to fix that already.


If you want a 'just works' try Ubuntu.

Tim
2008-03-26 16:43:08
Glad I'm not the only one struggling with Sabayon !


I've been really happy with Mint KDE CE 4 for a while now, but the pull of portage and bespoke source builds made me try sab' 3.4 mini x86 and then sab' pro 1.1 x86.
I have an ATI RV100 QY Radeon card and I found the only way to get X working was with the driver set to "vesa" (in /etc/X11/xorg.conf).
I did also have some sound problems (works in root but not in user).
I am now working on getting my DVB-T working, but I fear the video render is not worth **** as i'm using vesa, I can't play videos at the moment.


I may do the same as you and invest in a newer video card.



All the best


Tim

Rick Jelliffe
2008-03-26 21:30:58
Tim: I upgraded my PC which came with Vista and I have installed Solaris, after a failed attempt at a Linux. This is at
http://www.oreillynet.com/xml/blog/2008/03/installing_solaris_on_desktop.html