Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mint Upgrade Woes

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I upgraded a laptop from Linux Mint 17.3 ("Rebecca") to 18.0 ("Sarah") with minimal difficulties. My laptop serves as a guinea pig for these things. Once I'm sure things work fine on the laptop, I'll consider upgrading my desktop as well.

A few days ago I finally undertook the desktop upgrade. By this time the current Mint version was 18.1 ("Serena"). I was expecting a smooth ride, because I forgot one key difference between laptop and desktop: the desktop has an NVIDIA display card. I can't believe I forgot to take that into account, because I've written before about problems with NVIDIA hardware drivers.

Shortening (somewhat) a long and painful story, the initial upgrade left the system with an unusable display, forcing me to do a fresh install of 18.1 from CD (which, among other things, removed a whole lot of packages that will need to be reinstalled). Even after that, the display was an adventure.

The initial installation gave me a choice between the open-source Nouveau driver and version 304.132 of the NVIDIA "legacy" driver. This is the same version that previously caused major headaches. Last time it cause a black screen. This time, presumably due to updates in some system modules, I actually got the background for my desktop (with the Mint logo) and ... something. At first it showed only the upper left corner of my desktop, but after assorted uninstall/reinstall/desperately-try-something machinations, I got to the point where it showed the entire desktop ... except the start button and bottom panel. Oh, and windows did not have the maximize/minimize/close controls, some windows could be dragged while others could not, I don't think I could resize windows, and for some reason the menu button in Firefox didn't work. Other than that, things were peachy. I tried using the sgfxi script to change driver versions, but there was no joy to be had. Of the subset of listed versions that I tried (there were too many to mess with every one), the older ones were allegedly incompatible with one of the libraries (Xorg, I think) and the newer ones had the same problems (or were incompatible).

So I decided to stick with the Nouveau drivers, which install with Mint and are the default choice. Their behavior was also a bit odd. Depending on where I was coming from (fresh install, switching from NVIDIA to Nouveau, something else), they might recognize my 1920x1080 Samsung monitor correctly or they might think that my only monitor was a laptop display (limited to 640x480 resolution). The latter resulted in a butt-ugly and more or less unusable result. Eventually I got Nouveau working at 1920x1080 and thought I was good to go. In fact, I almost was.

The one deal-breaker with Nouveau came when I clicked links in email messages (using Thunderbird) to open them in the Firefox browser. Seemingly randomly, about 3/4 or so would work, but occasionally one would lock the system solid (no response to keyboard or mouse) with a corrupted display ("white blizzard"). The only recourse was power off/power on. Google searches suggested changing a couple of settings in Firefox regarding hardware acceleration. One setting no longer exists; I toggled the other, but it did no good.

I put up with that for a day or so before deciding that, absent any cure, I would have to find a way to use the NVIDIA driver. It occurred to me that the things it was screwing up (window controls, desktop panel, menu button ...) were things under the purview of the window manager (which was Cinnamon). So I installed MATE alongside Cinnamon and switched to it. Sure enough, I got back the main menu and bottom panel, window controls and so forth. It's been stable for a few days now (with no freezes from clicking links in email messages), so I think I've confirmed my thesis that the legacy NVIDIA driver does not get along with Cinnamon, at least on my machine.

Bottom line: anyone who's getting screen freezes using an NVIDIA driver with Mint and Cinnamon might want to consider trying an alternate desktop environment.

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