Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Solaris Developer Express on Acer Laptop

I've been keen to try Sun's Solaris Developer Express (SXDE) for a while now. They'll ship you the DVD free-of-charge, so there's no reason not to give it a spin.  I'm waiting to get 1/08 (this year's first drop), so I installed 9/07.  You can read a short review of the 9/07 release here.

I made a partition for it on my Acer TravelMate 5720 (using Acronis Disk Director, which I can recommend), rebooted with the DVD in the drive, and followed my nose.  It was very straightforward, and once into the main part of the install process I was able to leave it chuntering away while I got on with other things.

Eventually, a reboot (without the DVD in the drive of course) and the first pleasant surprise was that the Grub bootloader had correctly detected the other two OS on this machine (Vista and XP), and I was able to boot into all three without a problem.  Full marks for that (and a sigh of relief).  However, once into SXDE I discovered a few annoying issues: hardware support (predictably enough) plus strange behaviour from the wireless network software.  Below is what I found, plus some pointers which I hope may help others in the same situation.

By default, SXDE uses something called Network AutoMagic (nwam) which supposedly detects wireless networks and gives you the opportunity to connect to them.  Well, it certainly detected my wireless network, but stubbornly refused to connect me to it.  It prompted (correctly) for the wireless network ID (not broadcast) and the WPA password, appeared to accept both, but didn't connect or give me an error message.  Every few minutes, the nwam dialog popped up again, but repeated attempts made no difference.  The documentation for nwam is quite poor and not helped by the fact that some URLs in Sun's online documentation seem to point to the wrong place.  The OpenSolaris project pages were probably the most helpful.  I tried stopping/starting the service and playing with the parameters, but this issue remains unresolved, and is very annoying.

Worse still, the NetLink BCM5787M Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express device (i.e. fixed-wire ethernet) also didn't appear to work, which meant no connectivity whatsoever!  Not a great position to be in.  But, there is hope - keep reading.

The other hardware issues were less irritating: the Texas Instruments 5-in-1 multimedia card reader has no Solaris driver (I don't really care), the audio controller (Intel 82801H) chipset is supposed to have a bundled driver but it doesn't work, and the Intel Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller is also supposed to have a bundled driver but isn't reported. 

For anyone else doing this, I strongly suggest running Sun's excellent Device Detection Tool, a free (web-start) download which will give you a detailed report of what hardware you have, and whether there is a Solaris / SXDE driver for it.  This gave me hints on where to look for the missing drivers, and told me exactly what hardware I actually have in this laptop - very useful.

This tool pointed me directly to the page on the Broadcom site where I can download the Ethernet drivers for my hardware.  Pretty good, but when you get there, you discover the following message: "Note: Broadcom does not offer UnixWare, SCO and Solaris drivers
for NetLink Ethernet controllers."  Not good.  But it may be I can use the Linux driver.  When I get time, I will return to this and post my experiences here.

Lastly, a note on aesthetics.  Solaris uses Gnome by default, which is OK rather than outstanding in any way.  But colours and fit/finish on the desktop are very good indeed: in my opinion, Solaris looks great in every way, except for font rendering.  There is a font-smoothing facility (in preferences) but this just doesn't approach the quality of Microsoft's ClearType implementation in Windows.  For me, font rendering is a big deal - I hate to look at ugly fonts or blurry, smeary characters.  I suppose this may be because Solaris is using a down-level video driver, because it doesn't support the Intel Mobile chipset on this laptop.  Get the font rendering right, and I'd be happy to sit in front of Solaris all day.

As soon as I have a network connection, I'll continue evaluating Solaris and post my findings here.

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