After constructing the Black Tower and verifying that it began to boot — not burn up — I powered it up, and set about loading it up with software.
As mentioned in the earlier post about this system’s hardware, my intention was to share the system between both my consulting activities and a wide range of hobbies and multimedia projects, so I decided to make it dual-boot between Vista and some version of Linux.
I had heard several reports that Vista might mess up the master boot record and booting sequence of a system that’s already formatted with Linux or setup for dual-booting, so I opted to play it safe and install Vista first and then add Linux later.
Despite various Vista horror stories from the likes of Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and others, Vista installed on the Black Tower with ease. After sliding the DVD into the system and moving through an unexciting installation process, the OS came up and ran just fine.
Following the initial install, I slipped driver CDs for the Black Tower’s Asus PK5C motherboard and Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS PCI-e video card into the system, and ran through their respective driver installations. All went without a hitch.
Vista now occupied 23GB of the Black Tower’s 500GB primary SATA hard drive. To prepare for the Linux install, I used Vista’s disk management (Computer > Manage > Disk Management) tool’s “shrink volume” function to reduce the C: drive by 100GB, resulting in “unallocated space” that Linux would soon occupy. Again, no problem with Vista here.
I’ve been enjoying using pure, unadulterated Debian Linux on my fileserver for a year and on my desktop system for half a year, so my first attempt to get Linux running on the Black Tower was with Debian Etch, the latest “stable” version of the popular, free Linux OS.
I downloaded the iso file for the 32-bit KDE version of Etch from here, burned it onto a CD, and booted up the Black Tower from it.
I quickly ran into a couple of hardware-related problems. First, Etch didn’t automatically recognize the system’s SATA drives. This I solved by going into the PK5C’s BIOS settings and selecting an IDE-compatible mode for the SATA drive interface controller. The next problem was that Etch didn’t recognize the PK5C motherboard’s built-in gigabit-Ethernet LAN controller. To circumvent this, I popped an old 10Mbps PCI Ethernet card into a slot on the motherboard.
After these tweaks, the installation of Etch went smoothly. Etch’s “guided” partition editor recognized the available 100GB of space on the primary hard drive, and used that for its install. The system booted and showed promise. But it wasn’t long before I realized that it was going to be a struggle to get all the required hardware drivers in place.
The X Window System (“X”) wouldn’t start, due to lack of drivers for the Black Tower’s Nvidia graphics controller. After locating, downloading, and installing the required driver, I felt a surge of excitement when the system could run X and was able to display a KDE desktop.
Then, I located and installed a driver for the system’s gigabit-Ethernet controller, and it too worked. By now I was feeling bullish. But soon, when I discovered that audio didn’t work, I decided that it was time to try a more polished Linux distribution on the Black Tower. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could eventually get the system working with Etch — it’s just that I was afraid it would be a continual hassle dealing with driver reinstalls whenever a kernel update came along, given the growing number of unsupported drivers that were ending up on the system.
This is when I tried Ubuntu. One nice thing about Ubuntu — and many other modern Linux distributions — is that you can try the OS on for size, using a “live CD,” without having to install anything permanently on the system. This is a 10-15 minute way to ensure that all the key parts of the system work.
So I downloaded the iso file for the latest x86 32-bit version of Kubuntu version (v7.10, aka “Gutsy Gibbon”), the KDE flavor of Ubuntu, burned a CD, and tried booting the Black Tower from it.
The result was like a dream come true! The video worked. The audio worked. The gigabit Ethernet worked. And, I could reconfigure the BIOS to use AHCI mode for the SATA drives and they worked fine, too.
After using Kubuntu on the Black Tower for two weeks, the only remaining shortcoming I know of is that the system’s “suspend” and “hibernate” functions don’t quite work. It can suspend and resume once or twice — but after that, a further suspend doesn’t actually shut the system off. I’m hoping this ACPI-related fault will be fixed in a future kernel release, but in the mean time I’ll keep searching for a solution. It’s not a terrible problem, though, since the Black Tower’s not a laptop.
The Black Tower’s desktop — Vista, Linux
Below are some screenshots of the Black Tower’s desktop when running Vista and Kubuntu. Incidentally, the Vista screenshots show the Black Tower running Windows Vista Ultimate edition Service Pack 1 (SP1), following its installation last night (note the notation in the lower right-hand corner of the fifth screenshot).
Above: Screenshots showing installation of Vista SP1 and the Black Tower’s Vista desktop — click each to enlarge
Above: Screenshots showing the Black Tower’s Kubuntu desktop — click each to enlarge
Here ends the tale of my construction of the Black Tower…. for now.