Title photo
frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Tue, 31 Dec 2013

When life hands you lemons, go back to Debian

Update on Jan. 16, 2014: Since I originally wrote this post, I succeeded in installing Catalyst with AMD's script in Fedora and buying myself a whole lot of time with that distribution. I also tried Debian Wheezy with live media containing nonfree firmware, and that is looking even better than Jessie if I don't want/need an EFI-friendly installer. My original plan was to stick with Fedora until the Debian Jessie freeze and then make the move (sometime late this year). But if Wheezy works out, I'd want to go to it sooner rather than later and avoid Jessie for as long as possible (or until suspend/resume somehow returns to my neglected AMD APU chip.

Update on Feb. 4, 2014: I have suspend/resume working in Fedora 20 with the fglrx/Catalyst driver, and I'm very confident that the same technique I used to get it working there will also work in Debian Jessie, so that means if I do want to run Debian in the near future, I can get working fglrx video, working suspend/resume and EFI booting with Testing/Jessie and don't need to use Wheezy unless I absolutely want to. The only thing that makes me nervous about installing Jessie now is the uncertainty over which init system Debian will end up with -- both in the Jessie and Jessie+1 cycles. But since I have everything but printing to my crappy HP USB printer working in Fedora, it's likely that I'll stick with it for the near (and maybe farther) future.

To keep a short story short, the maintainer of the proprietary AMD Catalyst (aka fglrx) driver for the Fedora-focused RPM Fusion repository doesn't want to do it anymore.

And he made this decision not before the release of Fedora 20 with lots of notice -- and not after with lots of notice BUT PRETTY MUCH DURING THE RELEASE with no notice.

That means my Fedora 19-to-20 upgrade left me without Catalyst. And that means much poorer video performance, higher heat and more fan noise for my newish AMD APU chip -- the Trinity series A4-4300M model with AMD Radeon HD 7420g graphics.

And while the open-source Radeon driver has gotten a whole lot better in the 3.12 Linux kernel, the Catalyst driver is much, much better for this hardware.

I already mentioned the slow video. I can barely run GNOME 3 with the open driver, and THIS LAPTOP ISN'T EVEN A YEAR OLD.


So do I wait for someone else to pick up the Catalyst/fglrx driver in RPM Fusion?

Don't tell me to stop whining and maintain the package myself. Catalyst/fglrx is too damn complicated for someone who isn't already really good at packaging video drivers for Linux. I'm open to packaging applications for whatever distribution I happen to be using, but there's very little chance of me successfully packaging something that I can't even figure out how to install from upstream. (Update: I tried and failed on Jan. 3). I can't be the only person in this AMD-laptop-filled world who is missing Catalyst in Fedora.

I could also bolt to another distribution, one that recognizes that some people either want or need a proprietary video driver. Luckily Ubuntu and all of its derivatives, as well as Debian itself, fit/fill this bill.

Since I spend most of my time in Xfce, I've been thinking about Xubuntu and Debian.

My fairly new hardware needs kernels and drivers that are newer than what the stable Debian Wheezy release has to offer. So I burned a Debian Jessie/Testing CD, pulled my Fedora drive, put in a 320 GB test drive and loaded it up.

Due to time constraints, I didn't do an encrypted installation, but I did install Debian Jessie and added the firmware-linux-nonfree, fglrx-driver, amd64-microcode and firmware-realtek packages.

Under Debian Jessie, the laptop is running great. The CPU is cool. The video is as good as it gets.

In all fairness, I went for Fedora earlier this year because it was the only Linux distribution that I could successfully set up to dual-boot with Windows 8. Maybe Xubuntu/Ubuntu can do this now on my HP Pavilion g6-2210uslaptop's funky EFI bios setup. For all I know, Debian's latest Jessie installer can do this too.

I'm not terribly concerned because I'm going to set this up as a single-boot, Linux-only system.

I doubt anything's going to happen to return the Catalyst/fglrx driver to RPM Fusion. And I'm NOT going to install it directly from AMD because that's just inviting pain. (Update: Since the original writing I have tried and failed with AMD's installer.)

If Catalyst did return to Fedora in packaged form, I'd stick with it. But in all likelihood, I'll be running something else as soon as I resign myself to replicating in a new installation all the little things I have set up in Fedora.

Later: Going through the entire setup that gets me from initial installation to where I am now isn't something I'm excited to do. And even though Debian Jessie ran better than I thought it could, I want to audition Xubuntu before I make any final decisions.

Barring this disappearing-driver incident, Fedora has been remarkably trouble-free. In my recent experience, it's closer to Xubuntu/Ubuntu than it is to Debian in terms of little things not being broken. If I leave Fedora, I'll miss that.

I'm still holding out hope for some sanity from other users of Fedora, one of whom might pick up Catalyst and package it for the rest of us. I like 'freedom,' but I also like my hardware to work. Maybe the 3.13 kernel will make a difference. I know the Catalyst driver would help. There's freedom, and then there's the freedom to use the software I want and have a choice in the matter.

Even later: With the promise of better Radeon graphics performance in the 3.13 Linux kernel, as mentioned by Phoronix, I will wait for that kernel to move to my Fedora 20 system before I abandon this distribution.

Two weeks later: A Debian Live tryout of Wheezy (yes, Wheezy) with nonfree firmware went very well. I'm sure I've done this before, but it's worth noting that suspend/resume worked with the exception of the optical drive being dead upon resume (which is in no way a deal-breaker).

The thing about the Wheezy installer vs. Jessie is that the Wheezy installer doesn't do EFI, and Jessie does. But suspend/resume beats EFI.