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29 December 2012

An Experiment with PC-BSD on the Thinkpad X220

Not going to buy it anyway, you know

Background: There are some things that you know you're not going to switch to, but still you want to try. For myself, I know that I like the command line. I switched to OpenBSD from the Mac (ok, I still do some things on the Mac, e.g. full scale image editing), after deciding that I spend all my time on the command line anyway. I now use cwm and tmux. Still I wanted to give PC-BSD a try. For one thing, my laptop's hardware is supported very well in OpenBSD, but it's not supported perfectly. Maybe FreeBSD could improve on that, and the easiest way to find out (without having to digg into FreeBSD's config world) would be PC-BSD. And then, I just like to tinker with this stuff...


So I went and downloaded a PC-BSD image (9.1). Or rather: I tried, because the torrent would just sit there and look at me with lonely eyes. After a bit of searching it turns out that the project's torrent servers are out of order. OK, this kind of stuff happens. So I grabbed it off an ftp mirror, dd'ed it to a USB stick and there we go. I had prepared an external disk, with one big OpenBSD partition (need some more backup space) and a smaller, but still comfy FreeBSD partition.

Then I came to where the funky graphical installer lets you select the disk. That was scary. I have two internal disks in this laptop, both of which hold OS data. Sure I have backups, but if an install would wipe one of those disks, it still would mean a hassle and a lot of lost time. There are a few indications that help choosing the disks: Luckily the two internal disks were labelled with the manufacturer info... or at least with some parts of the manufacturer info. Instead of "Hitachi" and "Kingston", there was "itachi" and "ingston". I wonder how they missed such an "in your face" bug, but at least it let me exclude those disks.

Next options were to choose between the USB stick with the installer and the USB disk, which was the desired target for the install. Here I was a bit confused: The disk sizes used (in Megabytes) didn't look really familiar. The FreeBSD partition I had prepared was nowhere to be seen. At one point I thought it's the USB stick, but that is smaller. The installer showed the full disk size (in the "use whole disk" option) and it also listed the OpenBSD partition. In the end, since I had no data on the OpenBSD partition, I chose to use the whole USB disk for now (which means PC-BSD will get deleted faster, since I want that disk space). Did I mention it was scary? In fact I stopped the installer and rebooted into OpenBSD to check the disk sizes.

Once the install started, the blinkenlights and the buzz of the drive reassured me that indeed the right drive was being used. I was thinking a lot if the curses based disk format/select procedure in the OpenBSD installer is any better. I guess it can be pretty scary too, but a.) it forces you to read up on what you do and b.) it does not claim to be newbie-friendly. When I installed OpenBSD on the mSata SSD while having data on the spinning disk, I was a bit worried to chose the wrong drive, but being able to see the manufacturer info helped there. Having had some years of experience with the OpenBSD installer makes me a biased reporter in this respect though.

The actual install went through reasonable fast (USB 2 isn't so fast). Then came up two more problems, which I sometimes couldn't tell apart: For one thing, PC-BSD does not seem to know how to power down this laptop. After telling it to shut down, it just sits there with a black screen, I suppose it's halted. For a second thing: On OpenBSD there is a problem to switch off X and then you can't get back to a console, you just hang there with a black screen. Looks like FreeBSD has the same problem here. So it took several tries to get past the stage where the installer showed me which video driver it had detected (Intel) and if I want to go with it. After it got stuck on that for the first time, I was almost going to abandon the try.

Then I played around with it a bit more, asking for a different video driver (vesa gave a funny color screen and got stuck, wtf) and another with the Intel driver selected manually and finallyy got it one more stage further, where I was asked to select the time zone and set up a user. At the end of that, again a black screen. Another round of force rebooting and I got to a working system. I guess it had taken me 6-8 reboots or so, sometimes it looked like the video went bust, sometimes it looked like the installer tried to restart. The good thing is that the system didn't run any fsck, so restarting wasn't any slower than normal. I don't know, but maybe that is a result of ZFS.

So now I had a running system. Clicking around, it looked kind of ok. The LXDE desktop I had chosen looked and worked a bit like Windows, "Start-Menu" and all. Sound didn't work until I selected another sound device (from a graphical menu), but that wasn't hard to find. Installing Firefox with the graphical app installer was childs play, these are the kind of things that less technical users of the system will adore. Using Firefox I went to Youtube to try out some videos. That worked really well, both in the embedded video and in full screen the video didn't stutter and played flawlessly. I would say the new Intel video driver in FreeBSD 9.1 is really doing a good job there. This really is an improvement to what I get with the same machine on OpenBSD.

Also I guess that Firefox was using the Flash player that was installed with the system- but I haven't really checked if Youtube used that. For a non-technical user what counts is that Youtube just works. After a while I wanted to turn down the sound a bit. The hardware sound buttons didn't work. The taskbar sound slider didn't work. What worked was the sound slider in Youtube. Ugh. (In OpenBSD the X220's hardware sound buttons just work, but without an on-screen-display feedback.)

The OpenBSD iwn wifi driver for the "Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205" wifi card in this laptop is a bit bad: Basically it works, but I need a really strong signal to connect. We're talking about "access point has to be in the same room" kind of strong signal. A little bit further off and there will be some hassles with disconnects, a bit more and no connection at all. I did not see the FreeBSD version of iwn to improve on that a lot (it didn't connect to the upstairs wifi, where the white macbook with Mac OS X connects perfectly and OpenBSD's iwn on the X220 fails totally), but I didn't experiment more to determine if there is a small improvement.

Frozen screen on trying to suspend the X220 with PC-BSD 9.1

Next hardware check: suspending the laptop. Closing the lid din't have any effect at all. Maybe that has to be set up somewhere (in OpenBSD you have to set it up). So I went to the menu and told the machine to suspend from there. I got a funny screen (see pic) and the machine froze instead of suspending. Same thing for "hibernate" from that menu. With OpenBSD the X220 suspends/resumes works just fine (with one small caveat: after resuming you can't switch to a console from X any more).

Time to round up this short experiment. I powered down the system... oh, in fact, I told it to shut down, then waited a bit to assume that it was done and held the power button till the laptop force shut down.

I have a little theory of mine: Every OS is just a different set of compromises. If a system works for you is determined by which compromises you are willing (or even liking) to take or not. That might be a question of how much Open Source you like your system to be, how much tinker friendly, how much it has to "just work" or "just run the stuff I need". Especially with a laptop, the grade of hardware support is another big source of compromising. Buy a Mac with OSuX and the hardware should interact perfectly with the Software from the same brand (but pay for it and take things like nonreplaceable batteries and ever increasing OS bloat, see what kind of compromises I'm talking about?)

First of all, as expected, PC-BSD is a nice system for someone wanting to work in a real GUI environment, moving around with a mouse and clicking on graphical menues. Not my choice right now, but I knew that much from the start.

As for the hardware: On the plus side, there is a much improved video driver. I'd like to have that, but I can live with the non-accelerated driver in OpenBSD. On the downside, there is no suspend (big outch), the question of why it doesn't power down (only a nuisance), and the non-working sound buttons. I didn't notice a big change with the iwn wifi driver. Looks like in that respect I'm better off with OpenBSD, since my big nuisance there (iwn) didn't improve, while I'd compromise a not-so-important improvement (the video driver) against a big downside (not suspending).

Note to (especially future) readers: If you like PC-BSD, give it a try yourself. By the time you found this blog post (which might be a lot later), there is a good chance that they improved on the hardware support, also you might not have the same exact laptop as me.

Posted by betabug at 21:26 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)
ch athens
Life in Athens (Greece) for a foreigner from the other side of the mountains. And with an interest in digital life and the feeling of change in a big city. Multilingual English - German - Greek.
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Comments
Re: An Experiment with PC-BSD on the Thinkpad X220

Hi,
I installed PCBSD on Thinkpad R61i. Installation was well, except WLAN was tricky but feasible.
But the great problem arose: I mounted a USB stck I am using with ubuntu, full with data .
Mounting worked one time on PCBSD when I was logged as root. I changed a file on the USB.
Then as a normal user remount did not work anymore. Back to root mounting did not work anymore.

Then back to Ubuntu mount of USB did not work anymore ...

Thanks god no important data were stored. FORGET PCBSD, its a danger for your data.

I am using Linux since its beginnings, and PCBSD looks for me like Linux 10 years ago .. .
I will try the next release and continue using Linux.

Posted by: Sindbad at April 17,2013 22:29
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