The great Linux experiment suffered a bit of a setback today.
I'd planned to install a nice new Linux distribution and spend the next four to six weeks using it as my standard desktop system, so as to establish whether a nice, shiny KDE 3-based system was for me. The problem is, I've now tried two different distributions (Mandrake 8.1 and SuSE 8.1 Personal) and they've both suffered an identical problem. I can get a graphical login and the KDE desktop will appear – albeit slowly, since I'm running on a P-166 with just 64MB of RAM, but that's to be expected. Then I open a window to look at some files, and that works OK: I can go up and down through the directory tree as normal. I can open up the KDE Control Centre, and that works OK too.
Then I try to move or resize a window, and the entire desktop freezes solid, with the image of the window in its original posting and the position I dragged it to. I can still move the mouse, but even the clock in the taskbar-equivalent has stopped ticking, and I could dance on the keyboard for all the good it does for me to get a reaction from the system. I can leave the system alone for ten minutes, but although there's occasional hard disk activity there's no sign of any actual movement. The system will stay up quite happily if I don't start X at login and stay in console mode, but whilst that's going to be handy for debugging purposes it's not much of a solution. Neat and uncluttered as Lynx is, it's not the web browser I want to use every day.
If the system sprang into life after a bit of hard disk activity, I'd put it down to the lack of RAM causing the system to hammer the swap file. If the mouse was frozen along with the desktop, I'd assume that the problem was with the display drivers (which, according to the installation routine, are the correct ones for my rather old Matrox MGA card). When I last had a serious play with Linux a good eighteen months ago (SuSE 7 point something) I didn't suffer this sort of problem, and I haven't changed the hardware since. I need to do a bit more research, but it strikes me that the biggest change that's likely to be relevant to a problem like this is the move from XFree86 3 to XFree 4 as the X Window implementation for current Linux distributions. As XFree86 4 added all sorts of desirable extras, this is rather worrying. Of course, it could turn out that the problem lies elsewhere. But I did try booting into Windowmaker rather than KDE and hit the same problem, which bodes ill for using any graphical environment under Linux on this hardware.
Ultimately I'm only trying to get Linux running on my current, reasonably well-sorted, Windows 95 (OSR2)-based PC in order to experiment for a bit before moving to new hardware, so not being able to get Linux to run isn't a show-stopper. It does however emphasise the extent to which installing Linux on a PC can be a lottery. Given time and patience I'll identify the source of the problem, and I'll figure out what has to be done to fix it. Given enough time and research. The real question is, do I really want to risk hitting a similar problem with my next PC? Is it going to be simpler to buy an iMac and get a complete hardware/software package rather than take a path which may require a lot more work on my part?
I'm not giving up on the Linux installation yet, but I could do without this sort of hassle.