I finally got off Windows again.
It seems like every time I buy a new laptop, Windows is all that really works right on it for a while, and then I find a place to hop off.
Well, Debian 11 is that place for my Lenovo Thinkbook 15 ITL Gen2 (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). This laptop is a monster, and Lenovo got a lot of hardware into it cheaply, but they do cut corners in a lot of scary places.
Like that BIOS update that killed Windows 10 a few months ago.
While Lenovo says this laptop has Ubuntu “Certification”, they don’t support it. In fact, they apparently tell people on Lenovo Forums looking for help to “reinstall Windows”. Hard pass.
I managed to figure out why Ubuntu can apparently see the NVME SSD on this laptop and most other Linux distributions (including Debian 11) can’t.
It turns out that Lenovo is still putting Intel’s “VMD” on laptops. I looked for what in the hell this actually is, and Intel goes on and on about how it’s a “feature” to hide the hardware from the OS which would seem to indicate that it is mostly useful on servers, so when I evaluated Debian and came to the conclusion that everything worked okay, I did a few last steps, including installing one more BIOS update from within Windows. Hoping that it would clean up the mess of warnings that are in seemingly everyone’s system logs if they boot Linux, and which spew a nice bunch of crap about failing to reserve ACPI devices and bogus ACPI AML tables. Alas, it did not.
FWIW, according to at least one Ubuntu developer, they’re an eyesore, but apparently harmless.
Turning off VMD (server article, but after using the NOVO button to get into the BIOS, same deal) managed to make the system log complaints about having access denied go away, which is nice since many people complained that they couldn’t actually boot their computer into Linux until disabling this, even though the installer ran okay.
I also disabled Secure Boot, which has never secured any Linux computer. In fact, about all it ever has done for us is put Microsoft at the “root of trust” and I’d rather trust a hungry bear with a steak in my back pocket than Microsoft.
Oh, and if anyone from the FSF is reading this, feel free to tell Stallman that they can give a Free Software Award to me next time. I haven’t written any Free Software programs, sure, but I also haven’t done anything to sabotage your movement in ways you might never recover from, like Microsoft employee Miguel de Icaza and uEFI “Secure Boot” troll and overall pervert Matthew Garrett have. While you were pinning a medal on Garrett, you also had a page blasting this Security Theater as “Restricted Boots”.
This horrible fake security scheme called Secure Boot has even malfunctioned and caused Linux distros to be impossible to boot before due to the “dbx” being updated by one, and then making it impossible to boot another. So whether you can boot depends on what the last OS you booted was. Great design, I’ll tell you what! Turning it off ensures that it cannot cause a problem.
I’m not sure which part this rigmarole pissed off Bitlocker, because I disabled VMD and “Secure” Boot at the same time, but it demanded my recovery key at that point, which was fine, because that was about the time I held in the power button to force the computer to turn off and then held in the NOVO button to boot off the Debian installer and blow this Windows popsicle stand.
I took the default options in the Calamares installer on the Live CD with “non-Free” device firmware, and rebooted, and EVERYTHING WORKED. Nice!
It was a lot of work to get away from Windows. In the Legacy BIOS days, it was usually just reboot with a CD (then a USB stick) in the drive and tell Linux to take over the computer, but that was then and this is now, and OEMs help Microsoft to keep this Windows garbage on your computer. They may not ultimately stop you, but they can turn it into a process, and then wave “WSL” around like that’s any kind of a solution.
People who have been around Linux for a while know it’s fast and it almost never crashes. It’s also not a corporate toilet full of advertisements on your desktop, like Windows 10 is.
Plus, with Windows 10, there’s spyware, and Bitlocker makes your drive so remarkably fragile that anything can cause data loss if Bitlocker gets messed up, and that’s quite easy to do. Even an official BIOS update from Lenovo did it to me once, after all. (I’m not the only one. Lenovo’s pretend support people can’t even give a straight answer on why this could happen.)
Another nuisance along the way was the first time I booted into Debian’s live environment to evaluate it, my WiFi worked, and then when I rebooted to Windows 10, and back into Debian, it stopped showing up. It turns out that Windows “Fast Startup” leaves the WiFi in a weird state, and I had to figure out how to turn off Fast Startup (oddly, it required hibernation to be on before it would expose this setting!!!) and turn the computer off and on without it and then reboot into Debian. WiFi has worked fine ever since then.
In 2016, I filed an antitrust complaint in Illinois against Microsoft and Lenovo for just outright blocking Linux installs with what Intel is now calling VMD apparently (which has no use really on a linux laptop, but apparently forces Windows to load some other driver that has a power management policy). They had been making it impossible for the user to switch out of this mode, and now they do let you switch out of it. There’s a hill to climb over. They don’t want to let you leave. But you can.
What about Debian itself?
I like it so far. It’s definitely come a long way in the past 10 years. I remember it being very difficult to set up. In fact, so did Linus Torvalds, and that’s why he never revisited it, and I’d say you’re missing a real gem if you don’t give Debian 11 a look. Especially considering that Windows continues to spiral into an even bigger mess than we thought possible (Windows “11” is just every problem you hated already about 10, and more, with less compatibility and more spyware.) every time there’s a release and there’s hardly anyone to cover it except paid shills at ZDNet oohing and ahhing over default wallpapers.
Coming from a mostly Fedora/Enterprise Linux background over the past couple of decades, Debian has always felt sort of weird to me. It never got around to doing the usrmove, for example, so binaries are still arranged all over the place and you just kind of have to figure that out, and the administration tools are different. Apt has certainly gotten a lot better. I had noticed this when I was using the Debian subsystem in a Chromebook.
While Canonical is still trying to dump this Snap garbage on your front door, now with Firefox as a snap, so Mozilla can also dump trash on you directly, Debian is at least staying true to its roots and preferring its own repositories with its own packages, and I feel like this is likely to contribute to the overall security and stability of the system.
In fact, the only other places I’ve been to in order to get software are Flathub (Flatpak format), an AppImage for the Gemini browser LaGrange, and WineHQ to get the Wine Development releases, so I can run some Windows software too.
Snap is just not the right answer for Linux packaging for numerous reasons, and while Flatpak certainly shares some of the problems, it’s just much better designed, and many Linux distributions have tossed Snap as basically unmaintainable and half-broken on anything that’s not Ubuntu. And to the extent that these packaging formats let distribution developers concentrate on their core OS, they’re a good thing.
Too often, pretty much all Canonical has done with a Snap is take someone’s (often Microsoft’s) crappy Electron apps and put them in these gargantuan packages, and I just don’t think that’s ever going to put the dialog where it needs to be. As an aside, even with non-efficient software bundles, the amount of space you get back for not having to deal with Windows hiding its true disk space cost, still puts your head above water on the disk space front.
With Windows, truly no SSD is truly big enough for it, and Microsoft doesn’t care. Hell, their partners sold devices that immediately couldn’t update because they ran out of space, and that was with 64 GB. I got a 512 GB model in both my laptops and before you know it, it’s all gone if you use Windows 10. Linux just really isn’t all that big. Even today, it’s not. Because it’s not written by people who don’t care and just want to push new hardware and new licenses.
Flatpak is very easy to set up, and add Flathub to, and it gets around some pesky Debian packaging policies, and gains you access to new software, including some that they would never package. And a definite upside is that there’s no risk of adding a foreign DEB package repo and having it clobber a system file, which deb-multimedia does.
Before RPM Fusion came along for Fedora, there were similar warnings about adding external repos and if they broke your system, you got to keep both pieces. While RPM Fusion goes to great lengths not to clobber anything on Fedora, deb-multimedia hasn’t, and that can and does cause you more problems than conveniences when you try to upgrade packages later. (FWIW, WineHQ is recommended in the official Debian Wiki, so I felt more confident getting updated copies of Wine.)
Do I have a few non-Free packages? I’m typing this from Vivaldi on Debian. Why? I like it better than what’s happened to Firefox, and I can delete some bookmarks and change the search engine. It even has a spiffy new email client. Nobody has ever _stopped_ you from putting proprietary software on a Linux distribution if it’s what you want to do, but never have I seen what’s going on today at Canonical and Fedora (under IBM) where they just dump it all on top of you like you shouldn’t even consider what the alternatives are.
Debian, on the other hand, doesn’t ship non-Free software. In fact, they’re so strict that they’re stricter than Fedora _used to be_. Remember, I had to get an unofficial image with proprietary device firmware to get my computer working. The problem with firmware is getting so bad that Debian even tells me my SSD, that it’s installed on, wouldn’t work without some.
But I admire them for having their scruples and sticking to it.
Why would I pick Debian over Ubuntu LTS?
Well, that’s a good question. In my opinion, so far, Debian feels less bloated and more stable than Ubuntu has typically been. I suppose that the argument in Ubuntu’s favor is that they have a paid support model more like Red Hat’s and are now offering 5 additional years of security patches-only after the first 5 years ends on an LTS. That might be useful in a business context, but then again most businesses don’t need support. Hell, even the US government (high energy physics labs and NASA) were using Red Hat Enterprise Linux clones because it was cheaper to build their own operating system from source RPMs than to pay Red Hat. So for many business people, it’s a moot point. Then, as anyone can tell you, after about 4-5 years on a Long Term Linux distro, things have fallen so far behind that any hope of running modern software basically goes out the window.
So Canonical can release marketing blurbs about how that extra 5 years of security support is free to home users, but I guarantee that none of you will be able to stand it, although it’s at least better than what happens to Windows users (when isn’t it?) where Microsoft may go on for 15 years putting out security updates, but it makes sure you can’t get the ones it still makes because that’s a source of extra blood from corporate types who built an unsupportable mess and are now trapped on Windows XP or 7 or whatever.
Debian does support the last stable release for quite some time after the new stable one goes out, and after 4-5 years most of you are going to want something new. So I’d call it even, honestly. And, some consultants can support you for a price if incidents arise with Debian in a corporate environment that your IT department can’t figure out. For home users, you might ask in the IRC channels.
Another big difference with Ubuntu, is that Debian strives to be a more “universal” operating system. That is, that it’s ported to architectures other than the x86 PC, although it runs on that as well. Ubuntu gave up on this a long time ago and never supported as many of these systems as Debian did in the first place. If you have odd computers laying around, chances are many of them can run Debian that can’t run Ubuntu, so if you “standardize” on Ubuntu, you may figure out that you can’t run it on your hobbyist, specialist, or even non-x86 server/mainframe stuff later and your Ubuntu skills don’t mean much. (Even if the two are somewhat similar due to Ubuntu’s reliance on Debian as an upstream.)
Moreover, Canonical went on trying to make profits off of desktop users and then had huge layoffs when it finally gave up, so the experience between the Debian and Ubuntu desktops aren’t as much of a chasm as they used to be, when Ubuntu was investing in its own desktop technologies and hoped to be a smartphone OS.
Since Debian isn’t trying to make a profit, it’s just trying to make users happy, the desktop spins are never part of some “corporate agenda” where they create problems for, say, KDE, over some crackpot API that they’ve bolted onto GNOME. And since Debian isn’t horrible about hanging onto many bad quality patches that are never going upstream, the stability is better and the experience is more like the upstream author intended.
Finally, there’s just an “ick” factor with Canonical, for me, lately. Whenever I go to their website, it’s less about Ubuntu and what it can do for me, and more logos of “Cloud” computers and Microsoft deals, and whitepapers that go into buzzword overtime. Debian doesn’t do that. Although nothing can stop one from spinning it up in a VM “in the cloud”, and it wouldn’t be Free Software if they tried to stop you, someone who evaluated Ubuntu in a Microsoft Azure VM started getting sales calls from a Canonical employee shortly after.
In short, most of you can probably toss either one on your computer as a daily driver, and it may work out okay in either event, at least as long as Canonical exists….Microsoft partnerships never end well for the victim who was foolish enough to sign one.
(See every Microsoft deal ever, from IBM OS/2 to Linspire and Xandros, to Novell…..Even SCO thought they’d get the better of them, and where are they now?)
But if you really want your computer to be yours and not at odds with you, you want to try Debian.
Is installing Debian “easy”?
I was flat out floored by how easy it was to install on my PC from the Live Image with the firmware. It was no harder than any other modern distribution. Which is saying something for how much progress has been made in the ten years since I’ve looked at this. Ubuntu once took the initiative in making what was a painful and confusing setup process into something that made it easy to “try before installing” and they once had “sane defaults”. Now that almost everyone has an easy installer, and Ubuntu doesn’t have sane defaults, I see very little that they’re doing that I’d call added value.
In fact, I think the only problem I ran into along the way was trying to make a systemd service for powertop –autotune to run at every boot and optimize my power consumption. The Debian family never did the “usrmove”, so I found that the instructions on Arch Linux’s wiki for making the service were mostly correct, except the path to powertop on Debian is /sbin/powertop.
In fact, the only reason why you need to do more work here, as with most things on Linux where a little spit and polish are needed, is that Linux developers are extremely conservative about applying (in this case) power management optimizations, because some of them can end up causing bizarre corruptions and odd behaviors in some cases on certain hardware, but that’s also true on Windows, and of course Windows just turns them on and _if_ it corrupts anything, well that’s just Windows. Linux defaults to “safe” over absolutely optimizing your power usage. And it’s your choice to optimize or play it safe. How about that? Choice!
Gaming on Linux?
Yeah, sure you betcha! Linux has sort of a traditionally poor reputation for gaming. It’s left over from many years ago before there was official support from Gog, Steam (which even lets you run Windows games through Proton), and when Wine was a lot more hit or miss. In addition, there’s lots of Free and Open Source software games in the Debian or Flathub repos, and all the emulators you can shake a stick at seem to work fine.
(I had to grab a DEB file for Gens-GS that was built on Ubuntu, but it was pretty self-contained and works fine. The Genesis was the best classic console. Change my mind!)
Out of the box, you might need to install a controller driver for certain things. Oddly, the xpad module wasn’t in the default kernel image, but installing xpad and loading it worked out well.
Microsoft Bluetooth Mouse and Apple Airpods? Better on Linux.
All those weird delays with the mouse and the dropout glitches that happened on Windows 10 are gone. Windows and Bluetooth are nastier together.
So, in closing….
It took work, most of which was just getting rid of Windows itself, but it paid off in not having to deal with Windows again.
And with some final thoughts, although I don’t own the other models, the Thinkbook 14 ITL is also “Ubuntu Certified” and mostly seems to be this laptop with a smaller screen, and the AMD models apparently work with Linux too (with different caveats) according to this guy, although with Ryzen being a totally different monster than the Intel Tiger Lake, it appears that you need a newer kernel than what ships in Debian 11 (Linux 5.11 or later) or else your touchpad won’t work.
“I didn’t bother testing the fingerprint scanner with Linux knowing the touchpad barely works.”
Well, the fingerprint scanner is probably the same as mine, and that didn’t work on Tiger Lake either, but who cares? Passwords FTFW!
“For Linux, I would totally not recommend this. Lenovo have no plans to provide any kind of Linux support for the Thinkbooks line (Intel and AMD).”
That’s a little harsh. I mean, Lenovo firmware sucks. Their support people suck. Hell, one of them banned every Comcast IP in Illinois to try to get me to stop talking about their Yoga 900 sabotage on their forums in 2016.
But I got this Tiger Lake i7-1165G7 model with 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB NVME SSD for $900 on a Black Friday sale last year, and while Dell sells systems that COME WITH Ubuntu and the firmware is probably less of a mess, I think I might rather live with some garbage printed on my screen every boot than pay $500 more for an equivalent Dell laptop. Now, if you just want first class stuff, we all know you have to pony up, but I’m a real fly by the seat of my pants kind of guy.
Oh, one last thing before I go. The Yoga 900 ISK2 from late 2016 is still going strong. I ordered a $48 replacement battery off Amazon last year and it runs Debian 11 great. It doesn’t even print garbage to my screen! If you’re unsure of your skillset, you can always pay Micro Center about $100 to do that for you, with a genuine battery. It’s worth it either way.
This stuff just runs and runs on Linux, and with Windows you’re not even supported at all after 3 years apparently. (That’s what Windows 11 gets you.)
Both “11”, but with Windows, it’s what Microsoft dialed the sucktitude up to. I really hope that people get tired of this shit and pick DEBIAN 11 when they mean “I upgraded to 11.” next month.