August 17th, 2007
Something I often hear from people that talk about Linux on the desktop is this: people want to be able to go to the store, buy hardware, and be confident that it will Just Work.
I would like to point out that things are rarely this simple on Windows. And, in fact, things are often simpler on Linux these days.
Here’s the example that prompted this post.
I have a computer that’s about 4 years old. It’s my main desktop machine at home. It was still fast enough for me, but has been developing all sorts of weird behaviors. Certain USB ports stopped working altogether a few months ago. Then it started hanging during POST whenever I’d try to reboot — but would still boot OK about 80% of the time after a power cycle. Then it started randomly losing contact with my USB mouse until a reboot. And the last straw was when the display started randomly going out. I’ve told everyone that my machine has cancer and is slowly dying.
The case is a pretty nice full tower — solid and sturdy. I have an 160GB IDE drive in it. So I figured I will upgrade the motherboard, CPU, RAM, and add a 500GB SATA drive since they’re so cheap these days and I’m running out of space. I’d also have to buy a new video card since my old one was AGP and the new motherboard only has PCI Express for video. So about $700 later from Newegg (I got a Core 2 Duo E6750), the parts arrived.
I spent some time installing it all. The motherboard had only one IDE channel, and I didn’t have any IDE cable long enough to connect both the IDE hard disk and the optical drive, so I popped in an old Maxtor/Promise PCI Ultra133 controller I had sitting around to use with the DVD burner.
Now, to recap, the hardware that the OS would see as new/different is: CPU, RAM, IDE controller, SATA controller, Promise IDE controller, integrated NIC, sound, video.
Then the magic smoke test.
I turned on the machine. Grub appeared. Linux started booting.
Even though I had switched from the default Debian “supports everything” kernel to a K7 kernel, it still booted.
And every single piece of hardware was supported immediately. There was no “add new hardware” wizard that popped up, no “I’ve found new hardware” boxes. It just worked, silently, with no need to tell me anything or have me click on anything.
Only one piece required configuration: the NIC, thanks to some udev design flaws (it got renamed from eth0 to eth1 by udev). That took 20 seconds. Debian saw the IDE HDD, the SATA drive, the Promise controller, the DVD burner, the video card, the sound, and it all worked automatically. And Debian is not even a distro that occurs to a lot of people when they think of great hardware support.
Now let’s turn to Windows.
The Windows Nightmare
I have a legal copy of Windows XP Home that was preinstalled on the machine when I got it. I resized its partition down to about 20GB so that I could use 140GB for Linux. I use it rarely, primarily for gaming, and I’ve bought about 3 games in the last 4 years. I usually disconnect the network when I boot to Windows, though I do keep it current with updates.
I did some research on what Windows was going to do when I replace the hardware. The general consensus from people on the ‘net is that you can’t just replace a motherboard and expect everything to be happy. There were generally three different approaches suggested: 1) don’t even try, just reinstall; 2) do a rescue install after you move over; and 3) use sysprep. The rescue install has to be done by booting from an XP install CD, then picking a rescue install option somewhere. It will overwrite your installed Windows with the version from the CD. That means that I’d have to re-apply SP2, though bits of it that didn’t get overwritten would still be on the hard disk, and who knows what would happen to the registry.
Option #3 was to download sysprep (must have the Genuine Disadvantage ActiveX to get the free download from MS). Sysprep is designed to be used just prior to taking an image with ghost for replication. It removes the hardware-specific config (but not the drivers), as well as the product key, from the machine, but otherwise leaves it untouched. On the next boot, you get the “Welcome to XP” wizard.
One other strike against #2 is that Compaq “helpfully” didn’t ship any install CDs with the machine. Under Windows, they did have a “create rescue CD” tool, which burned 7 CDs for me. But they are full Compaq-specific CDs, not one of them an XP CD, *AND* they check on boot to see if you’re using the same Compaq motherboard, and exit if not. Highly useless.
So I went with sysprep. Before my new hardware even arrived, I downloaded the Windows drivers for all of it. I burned them to a CD, and installed as many as I could on the system in advance. About half of them refused to install since the new hardware wasn’t there yet. I then took a raw image of the partition with dd, just in case. Finally, right before I swapped the hardware, I ran sysprep and let it shut down the machine.
So after the new hardware was installed came the adventure.
Windows booted to the “welcome to XP” thingy. The video, keyboard, mouse, and IDE HDD worked. That’s about it.
I went through the “welcome to XP wizard”. But the network didn’t work yet, so I couldn’t activate it. So I popped my handy driver CD in the drive. But what’s this? Windows doesn’t recognize the DVD drive because it doesn’t have drivers for this Promise controller that came out in, what, 2001? Sigh. Downloaded the drivers with the imac, copy them to a CF card, plug the USB CF reader into Windows.
While I was doing that, about 6 “found new hardware” dialogs got queued up. Not one of them could actually find a driver for my hardware, but that didn’t prevent Windows from making me click through them all.
So, install Promise driver from CF card, reboot. Click through new hardware dialogs again. Install network driver, reboot, click through dialogs. Install sound driver. Install Intel “chipset” driver, click through dialogs. Reboot. Install SATA driver. Reboot.
So the hardware appears to all be working by this point, though I have a Creative volume control (from the old hardware) and a Realtek one in the tray. Minor annoyance to deal with later.
Now I have to re-activate XP. I dutifully key in the magic string from the sticker on my case. Surprise surprise, the Internet-based activation fails because my hardware is different. So I have to call the 800 number. I have to read in 7 blocks of 6 digits, one block at a time. Then I answer some questions: have I activated Windows before, have I changed hardware, was the old hardware defective (yes, yes, and yes). Then I get 7 blocks of 6 digits read to me. Finally Windows is activated. PHEW! Why they couldn’t ask those questions with the online tool is beyond me.
Anyhow. Linux took me 20 seconds to get working. Windows, about 2 hours, plus another 2 hours for prep and research.
I did zero prep for Linux. I made one config change (GUI users could have just configured their machine to use eth1).
Other cool Linux HW features
Say you buy a new printer and want to get it set up. On Windows, you insert the CD, let it install 200MB of print drivers plus ads plus crap plus add something to your taskbar plus who knows what else. Probably reboot. Then the printer might actually print.
On Debian, you plug in the printer to the USB port. You type printconf. 5 seconds later, your printer works.
I have been unpleasantly surprised lately by just how difficult hardware support in Windows really is, especially since everyone keeps saying how good it is. It’s not good. Debian’s is better, in my opinion.