Ah, Linux. The operating system that all love to hate has taken big strides into the home of the average consumer in the past few years, with many distributions used on early versions of many netbooks. We even did a ‘week with Linux‘ series of posts ourselves back in February of this year.
Despite these advancements, however, there are still some major hoops that users must jump through to reach the same levels of productivity as one comes to expect from a mainstream operating system, such as Windows 7 or Mac OS X. What is it, therefore, that Linux is still missing? What can’t it quite get right? Let’s take a look at an example of mine, and we’ll figure it out.
I recently installed Ubuntu 10.10, Maverick Meerkat, on to my home theatre PC as a replacement for Windows 7. Why? I’m not quite sure, I was bored of Windows 7 after using it for over a year, and fancied something a little different. Besides, I was curious about the new version of Ubuntu and wanted to check it out.
So how did it go? Well it’s clear that many distributions have made themselves a lot more user friendly recently. Ubuntu is an especially good example of this, with new features in recent versions such as the software centre appearing to make life easier for the new user. Behind the scenes though, things don’t just tick quite like they do with Windows.
Upon installation, I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that Ubuntu suggested I install third party NVIDIA drivers because they are not packaged with the operating system by default, as they are not open source. Naturally, I obliged. Feeling quite confident about my latest bash with the Tux, I proceeded to install Boxee media centre software, the software that I wanted to use to make my home theatre PC, well, a home theatre PC. Again, no problems. So far so good!
Obviously a HTPC isn’t much of a machine without media to be played, so I eagerly connected two external hard drives to the computer via USB 2.0 (if you’re interested, they’re both 2TB drives, NTFS formatted. Turns out I’m somewhat of an enthusiast when it comes to TV and movies), after renaming much of the media files on the drives to make life easy for Boxee. See, I’m a nice guy really!
Anyway, getting back to Boxee. The software itself did everything it needed to do without a hitch. Found 129 movies without me clicking a button, recognised every episode of every TV show I had, life seemed to be going well. Or at least until I tried to play one of the movies.
The vast majority of my content is in high definition. I have over 100 movies that I have ripped from my Blu-Ray collection in 1080p quality (if you’re wondering how to do this yourself, check out our look at MakeMKV, it’s a great piece of software for Windows, Linux and OS X), and the rest are DVD quality from my collection of DVD’s. Using Windows, Boxee had no problems playing my content for me out of the box. No tweaks, no extra drivers, nothing. Just 1080p and full surround sound. Bliss.
Then came playback in Ubuntu 10.10. Uh-oh. I quite skeptically decided to play Star Trek 2, which happens to be one of those 1080p movies I mentioned just before. The video played for around half a second before stopping. And starting. And stopping. And starting. You get the idea, and the audio was about 3 seconds ahead as well. Clearly, the movie was unwatchable, so I did some digging in the Ubuntu and Boxee forums.
Turns out, I just need to change the way Boxee decodes my video and plays it. No problem, a few clicks and I’ll try again. Nothing. You see, the problem wasn’t just a setting, it was a missing Unix API that, surprise surprise, isn’t packaged with Ubuntu by default. A quick search reveals instructions for installing this API, “libvdpau”, on to my machine.
In about 30 minutes, I had gotten the video to play relatively free of any problems, so I sat down with my bucket of popcorn and kilogram bar of chocolate, ready to watch the goddamned movie already! Hang on, there’s nothing coming out of my rear speakers, or my centre speaker for that matter. A quick look at my AV receiver shows me that there’s no Dolby Digital, no DTS, just plain old 2.0 audio. Shit.
Eventually, I got everything working. Now, when I say ‘eventually’, I mean two hours down the line. I was ready to throw the damn thing out the window, and it’s a good job that I value Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan too much to do such a thing.
The message here is simple: if you’re a nerd on a mission, you will be able to get where you want to be with Linux. It may take a while for beginners, but with the help of Google (or Bing if you’re that way inclined, I’ll try not to judge) and a few Linux forums, you’ll figure it out. If you’re an average Joe who’s never stepped outside of Windows, the odds are you never will step outside of Windows, at least not until it becomes a whole lot simpler to do something like watch a movie on your computer.
And that, dear readers, is why Linux is still in a vast minority against Windows and Mac OS X, and will be for quite some time.