Sunday, June 29, 2008

How I got over the hurdles to migrate from XP to Kubuntu 8.04

Why installed Kubuntu?

Short answer: I planned to plugin my XP hard disk on a new computer, but it didn't work. At the same time I had always been thinking about the idea of switching to Linux as my home major desktop one day, as I mainly do Java development and writing (OpenOffice) at home. Why KDE instead of Gnome? I always like KDE.

Long answer: My original computer hardware failed to boot. As I have an existing retail copy of XP, so I ordered a Dell computer without an OS (N-series. BTW, the N-series are not available on their Hong Kong web site, you have to contact a salesperson using the instant-messaging to get a custom quotation. BTW, the salesperson was very efficient & helpful. Do not try to contact pre-sales using emails. I got no reply at all). On arrival I found that it has only the SATA interface, so I couldn't put my existing IDE hard disk with XP nor my existing CDRW drive into it and thus it couldn't boot. The only way to install an OS on it immediately was PXE. I don't know if XP can be installed like that, but I had done it with Ubuntu at work.

Network install

So I set up a TFTP & DHCP server on my brother's XP computer to start a network install of Ubuntu according to this article. It was easy and took less than 10 minutes in setup. I had to enable PXE in BIOS (by default it was disabled).

Do NOT use Kubuntu 64bit nor KDE4

At first I chose to install Kubuntu 64bit and KDE4. But later reinstalled using Kubuntu 32 and KDE 3.5.

64bit is not going to speed up anything as my computer has 2G (64bit is good only if >4G & you have programs using 64bit pointers, otherwise you're just wasting the memory by storing 32bit points in 64bit cell). In addition, 64bit versions of the software just aren't as stable as 32bit ones. For example, 64bit OpenOffice can't find the JRE.

KDE4 is unstable as hell. A lot of crashes in here and there in all KDE applications (adept, network manager, user manager, etc). Help indexing doesn't work. Network manager failed to connect and crashed. Some software requires user interaction during install such as agreeing to the JDK license, but adept will not show you that so you are left wondering why the progress is stuck at a certain point. Even if you tell it to show you the details, somehow the text interface is not working. When editing user accounts in the user manager, it sets the uid of users to 0 (root)!

Don't think that KDE3.5 is old. It is very modern, powerful, beautiful and rock solid. Never had a single crash.  For me it can do everything that Windows can do in terms of a desktop environment.

Making the keypad work like Windows

I am used to the arrow keys in the keypad. In Kubuntu, they also work. But if the Shift key is pressed, they will input digits. To make them act as shift-arrow, I had to enable an option in the "regional & language" GUI (NOT the keyboard GUI!) that says "Shift with numeric keys works as in MS Windows" on the "Xkb Options" tab.

Ugly font in Firefox

You'll see ugly font in many web pages in Firefox. This is because the use of the helvetica font. Ubuntu maps it to the nimbus font using fontconfig. However, the nimbus font looks good in printing but ugly on screen. The easy solution is to turn on auto hinting for the fonts and sub pixel anti-aliasing (I don't know exactly what they mean though). To set it for each user, it can be done in the GUI. To set it for the whole system, I manipulated the symlinks in /etc/fonts/conf.d. I added 10-antialias.conf, 10-hinting-full.conf and 10-sub-pixel-rgb.conf from the /etc/fonts/conf.avail folder.

MS core fonts

I have OpenOffice documents using the Arial and courier fonts. They look completely different in Kubuntu due to the lack of such fonts. The best way to fix this problem is to install the MS core fonts. Just google and you'll find the details.

Making English the default locale for me

To allow my family members to use the computer, I chose Chinese as the system wide default language (LANG and LANGUAGE). For myself, I want English. This can be done easily using the KDE GUI (regional & language). However, it doesn't modify LANG (I don't know where it changes) and only works for KDE applications. Gnome applications such as Firefox & OpenOffice look at LANG and still display their UI in Chinese. To fix the problem, I had to modify .xsessionrc:

export LANG=en_US.UTF-8
export LANGUAGE=en

Inputing Chinese in the English locale

Even though I use mainly the English in my work, I still need to input Chinese from time to time. By default the en locale uses xim which doesn't work with Chinese. I had to configure it to use scim. This is managed by the "alternatives" mechanism in Ubuntu:

update-alternatives --config xinput-all_ALL

Using the Chinese version of KDE for family members

My family members will need the Chinese version of KDE. This can be done by choosing Chinese in the KDE GUI. However, Chinese will be unavailable for selection until you install some packages:

aptitude install kde-i18n-zhtw

Installing the Flash player

You need to install the flashplugin-nonfree package.

Enabling CPU frequency scaling

To save energy, basically I followed this article. I enabled CPU frequency scaling in the BIOS and add acpi_cpufreq to /etc/modules. I don't need th put any of the governor into the modules file though. By default the governor is "ondemand" which should be good for most people.

Directory tree in the file manager

I really wanted to get back the Windows explorer style file manager: the directory tree on the left hand side. Konqueror has this function: a view profile named "File Management". To launch it with this profile, create a shortcut with command line:

kfmclient openProfile filemanagement

MIT Scratch

I've been using MIT Scratch to teach my niece programming. Even though it is written in squeak and squeak is available for Ubuntu, it won't run due to the missing ALSA sound plugin. The easiest way to fix it is to run it in wine.


My dad was running two Chinese chess games in XP. Only one of them runs in wine (in the process I needed to download DLLs such as the VB runtime or MSVC runtime. Just google for them). I can't find any good Chinese chess games that can run on Linux (including Java).

My mom wants to play MahJong. I found a flash MahJong game that runs fine in Firefox.

Web authoring

I was using Nvu in XP. In Kubuntu, I installed Quanta plus. It works quite well.

Online backup

I was using Mozy which has worked very well. Because it has no Linux client, I am going to switch to spideroak. Don't know if it works or not yet.

Ctrl-F11 in Eclipse doesn't work

I am used to pressing Ctrl-F11 in Eclipse to re-run the last program. In Kubuntu it doesn't work because it is the shortcut to switch to the 11th virtual desktop. To fix it, go into the keyboard GUI and choose the "shortcut sequences" and set the shortcut to none.


Overall I find that Kubuntu needs a few critical tweaks before it is useable by end users, in particular, in the CJK market. Such tweaks are not very well documented and take quite some serious research efforts, even for an experienced Linux/Ubuntu server administrator. However, once it is tweaked, it is fast, rock solid, powerful and cool. Some applications may be unavailable (eg, games, Mozy) and limited in capabilities.