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Monday, July 11, 2011

Ubuntu 11.04, vade retro


Recently release Ubuntu 11.04 introduces a new, supposedly state-of-the-art, interface called Unity.

So in this article I'll not talk about the system in general (it's just another Linux) but about the severe problems and headaches it can cause, and Unity.

The future? Not yet, thanks.

Some years ago, Intel created a new firmware (that little thing that makes you computer power up, test itself, and load an operating system) for their high-end Itanium servers called EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface). They pretended the whole thing to catch up and substitute how PCs were made, but it simply didn't. However EFI specifications were made public so anyone could create their own implementation.

On June 6, 2005, Apple announced the migration to Intel processors, launching on January 10, 2006 the firsts Intel Macintosh. To the surprise of everyone, they used EFI instead of Apple's usual firmware, Open Firmware (I'll make an article about major firmwares, don't worry).

PCs by the way, used a firmware called BIOS, a monolithic unmanageable piece of code coming from 1981. As of today in 2011, only a few PC manufacturers have started migrating to EFI (now called UEFI and independent of Intel).

VirtualBox and VMWare also include their own EFI implementations, mostly to virtualize Mac OS X Server.

But EFI support is not only scarce on the PC manufacturers, but also on the software side.

Only Windows Vista SP1 and Windows 7 of 64 bit are able to run on EFI flawlessly. Linux support should be considered alpha at best. Of course, this is only on PCs, on Macintosh Windows requires a newer version of the EFI firmware than provided by Apple and will simply not boot (also Apple's EFI is unable to read Windows' installation disc filesystems so it's unable to load them), and Linux...

Ok, what happens with Linux and EFI on Macintosh computers? It bricks your computer. Ok, not so, but almost.

For some strange reason you can (and I did with this Ubuntu) install Linux using EFI, flawlessly, until you reboot. Then your screen will remain black, your LED will blink 9 times and a long beep will make you cry in fear.

For some strange reason I'm pretty sure you don't want to experiment, the Ubuntu Linux installer (maybe all, just don't use Linux + EFI + Macintosh) messes with EFI in such a way that makes it want to update continuously. In most case, after 3rd or 4th try (force shutdown, power up), it will boot (by default will try to boot Ubuntu, I hope you still have a Mac OS X partition). Then you MUST boot on Mac OS X, download the lastest firmware update appropiate for your model from Apple's Support, check your system profiler for your current Boot ROM Version and then choose:

a) If your firmware is lower than the lastest available one, just, update it following Apple instructions.

b) If your firmware is the same than the lastest available one, download it, use Pacifist to force installing the firmware updater and then use the following command line:

sudo bless -mount / -firmware /Applications/Utilities/MacBook\ Pro\ EFI\ Firmware\

b...) Then continue with a normal firmware upgrade (check Apple Support for instructions), and it will solve the problem. If you made any single step of this bad, it will brick your computer for ever.

By the way, on VirtualBox using EFI, Ubuntu install flawlessly but messes in some way also with EFI making it show the EFI Shell at every boot (manually trying to boot Ubuntu results in brown screen forever).

So, Macintosh users, use BootCamp, VirtualBox users, don't enable EFI, PC users be happy, most probably you won't have EFI at all.

Buuuuut, surprise surprise! Ubuntu disc is so badly made that when trying to use BootCamp or under BIOS emulation on an EFI PC, it won't simply not boot, and you'll have to download an alternate, quite hidden, version of Ubuntu called "+mac", that includes only BIOS bootloader and not the EFI one at all.

Not being for the sake of the review, at this point, I would have simply burnt (with a Zippo lighter) all the Ubuntu discs.

Ubuntu1104 3

The installation

Ubuntu installation remains the same as in previous versions, a boring step by step gray and brown, decide almost nothing, installation.

By default and unless using advanced options (decide some more things, but not much) it will use the ext4 filesystem, so if you remember my article comparing all Linux filesystems you will want to enter advanced options and change that as soon as possible.

The installation kernel is UNSTABLE (not by the name of the branch, but really not stable at all) and will start getting hard disk errors when NONE exists. Indeed, the installation crashed and the kernel showed sector errors while running inside VirtualBox, a thing absolutely impossible because virtual disks never have sector errors!!!

I needed three tries to successfully install it on a real PC (plus the tries on VirtualBox and on my MacBook Pro).

Ubuntu1104 2


So what's Unity? Unity is a state-of-the-art new interface that simplify tasks to the users. Ok, Mac users forget that statement, Unity is simply a Dock with Stacks and the application's menu bar on top, as you've been seeing on Mac OS X long time ago.

Unity introduces a fast access bar at the left with most common applications and menus, that's, a Dock.

Menus when clicked open to show an attached icon view of its contents, that's, Stacks.

When you open an application, the menu is shown on the top of the screen, instead of on the application's window.

See this:


Similar isn't it? Yeah, ok, that's Mac OS X's Dock and the Applications folder opened as a stack. They just copied it and called it "new". Please, next time you copy at least don't say it's state-of-the-art, thanks in advance.

There are sayings there and then that Unity needs 3D, false, the above screenshot was taken using 2D only.

Ubuntu1104 1

Hardware unSupport

Linux is famous for supporting almost all hardware than Windows does, without installing separate drivers, but sometime later.

However this Ubuntu version cannot apply to that.

First of all, the already commented "brick my EFI hardware" issue.

Next, while it detected my iPhone 4 (that thing with japanese characters), it was unable to do anything with it, showing that cryptic error no one understands.

My Android phone, was simply invisible. No option to do anything with it (no sync, no ADB, nothing).

And finally, when I finished the tests and shut it down, both network cards (Realtek 8169, as most integrated ones) just stopped working. Trying to boot other non-Linux systems, using the diagnostic in BIOS, plugging and unplugging the cables, nothing. Finally after letting the capacitors drain out (unplug every cable) and resetting the switch, they returned to live.


Usually I don't recommend users what operating system to install or not, that's a matter of preferences or needs, but in this case I'll make an exception.

DON'T INSTALL UBUNTU 11.04. It's not just buggy, it will crash, it may break your hardware, and sooner or later it will see a sector error where none is, provoking you lose of data and time searching for an inexistent faulty hardware.

This release denotes hurry, too much hurry, it's not tested throughly, Unity is not appealing enough, offers no reason to update, and will make you have more headaches than any computer is worth.

Wait until Ubuntu 11.10 that should be released shortly (October?) and just forget that 11.04 ever existed at all.