Sunday, June 12, 2005

X Windows Can Bite My Shiny Metal Ass

You know, it's been a long time since I had trouble getting X windows to work on a machine. I mean back in the day I would think nothing of fighting with X for days in order to get whatever video card and monitor I happened to have access to working nicely together, but I really thought we were past that point these days.

Apparently not.

You see, last night I decided it was time to actually take the pile of computer hardware that's been sitting in my bedroom since I moved here and make it do something useful. This meant I needed a monitor (since all I've got left after the move is a really crappy one that isn't worth using since it only works at like 1024x768 or something), so I went out to Microcenter and picked one up.

It's really nice too, 20.1 inches, flat panel, 1600x1200 display (since it would be just too damn pathetic if my laptop display was better than my desktop display), etc.

So I got my brand new display home, hauled out my desktop, and started fiddling with it.

9 hours later, I have admitted defeat.

The built in video (some ATI thing) refuses to drive the display at anything more than 1152x864, which while nice, is not nice enough if we're to meet the "at least as good as my fucking laptop" criteria.

Note that under windows it has no trouble doing 1600x1200, but it's not like I ever actually boot this machine into windows, so that's kind of academic.

Ah Ha! I've still got my old Matrox g450 dual head video card, I know that used to work with X windows, I'm sure I can get it working now, I mean it should be easy, I was able to make it do dual head before, and now I'm just asking for one monitor, that's simple by comparison...

Except that for some reason (despite adding all the requisite BusID voodoo to the xorg.conf file) I can't actually get the damn thing to do anything useful with this card. I can boot up in text mode just fine, but as soon as I type 'startx' it just blanks the screen and eventually turns it off. It's not like X can't see the video card, since Xorg -scanpic finds it just fine, but no amount of sacrificial animals appears to be able to convince it to work.

Needless to say, windows also works fine with this card. 1600x1200, millions of colors, etc.

My latest theory is that I'm still running with a rather old BIOS, and since I know an updated BIOS was in theory needed to get the built in video and the video card to work at the same time (which I once wanted to do in order to get a triple headed system running) maybe that would help.

Of course, I can't actually flash the BIOS because to do that you need to boot off a freaking windows 95 boot floppy. I don't have a freaking windows boot floppy, and even if I did I don't have a floppy drive in this machine. Since when do you actually need floppy disks to do something? What year is this again?

So I'd just like someone to explain to me why I shouldn't drive right to the nearest Apple store and buy a fully loaded Mac Mini? I mean I know it'll freaking work, and it'd be a hell of a lot quieter than this thing is...

Maybe later this week, when I'm not quite so pissed at the world, I'll give Linux a try on this machine, maybe it'll have better luck with this monitor/video card combination. I was really hoping to put FreeBSD on this box, since I miss it oh so much, but if X won't run at a reasonable resolution that's kind of a showstopper for me.

Just be thankful I'm leaving the rant about this machine's "fail to actually boot half the time unless you unplug the ATA drive" thing for another day...


  1. 1) Don't use ATI Cards, ever. I haven't had problems with nvidia cards on FreeBSD or Linux :)
    2) If you must use the ATI card, try the ATI binary only driver. It might actually work just fine in high resolutions, if you use their non-free driver.
    2) FreeDOS can be used on most machines to flash their BIOS, and it can boot from a CD-ROM or Network/PXE instead of just Floppies.

  2. See, I'd be happy to not deal with the ATI card, in fact I spent much of the day trying to not deal with the ATI card by using the Matrox card, but I don't have enough of a connection to this machine to justify keeping it limping along by slowly replacing one part after another until it finally dies.
    I mean judging from today's fun it's quite possible that it's on its way to the junkyard anyway, so I'm not very keen on the idea of chucking 100 dollars at it in the form of another video card. I mean even if I fix the video fun I still get to deal with the "I'll boot when I damn well feel like it" fun...
    I will try out the binary ATI driver and the FreeDOS for BIOS flashing though, those sound like reasonable steps that don't involve chucking the think and spending 700 more dollars on toys ;-)

  3. The Mac minis are pretty nice. You plug em in, stick em on a shelf and forget about them. Do your security updates once in a while, and that's about it.

  4. leave it running windows, and seek out a copy of simcity 2000. switch that beautiful new monitor to 640x480 and you will be living the dream, 1994-style!
    or you could get the mini-mac, and bask in the glory of an entire huge display covered with dashboard widgets! there's even one for your company's site. it's work-related! ;)

  5. A PC with a monitor? What a goofy idea!
    As other's have said; get a Mac and get the PC back to running FreeBSD or Linux without a monitor.
    - ask

  6. Just a note about the mini - I find the 2 USB slots *very* limiting... especially since it takes a USB keyboard and a USB mouse... you may find it useful to go wireless for k&m.
    Alternatively, try to get a keyboard with extra USB slots (eg the Apple keyboard but I'm sure there are others - the only downside with the apple keyboard is the shortish cable) and plug the mouse into that. The upside is that my 5 year old dual+2 button logitech trackball works perfectly fine :D
    In retrospect am thinking that I would rather have bought 20" G5 iMac with the wireless keyboard and mouse... for about the same cost as mini + a cinema display.
    (For reasons of packing the computer up and flying internationally with it, the mini wins, but only in my case (esp. since you say you already have a laptop))
    And then you've already just bought a brand new screen anyway... so enjoy your mini! :D

  7. very helpful, thanks!=