AlmaLinux 8.4 on my IdeaPad 3 - Decent, with a snag or two

Updated: September 10, 2021

If you recall, several weeks ago, I reviewed AlmaLinux. It was a short article, closely following up on a rather similar endeavor with Rocky Linux. Now, the very reason why I've decided to give these two distros so much focus is the premature EOL of CentOS 8. In the wake of the CentOS announcement, Rocky was born, designed to become a spiritual and material successor of the former - a community-cum-enterprise system with binary compatible to the upstream RHEL releases.

This triggered an avalanche of curiosity on me end, and I started - with some nice recommendations from the readers - exploring other distros in this realm. AlmaLinux is one of such efforts, and it has largely stayed off the radar, although technically, it is supposed to offer the same kind of experience and long-term support. Indeed, my early testing was quite promising. Now, I want to see how Alma is going to behave on my IdeaPad 3, a fairly new test box. It's a modern mid-range 2020 laptop, with AMD processor, Vega 8 graphics, and NVMe storage. Triple boot, with Windows 11 Dev Build in the equation, too. So let's begin.

Teaser

Installation

I booted the 9GB image, no issues. Partitioning - not pretty, as the installer has that anti-ergonomic layout, first seen in Fedora 18, but it worked fine. However, the system did complain about no swap - which simply isn't there from the previous Linux installs on this machine. All the others, so far, auto-configured a swap file on their own. However, this was a warning, not an error.

Much like with Rocky and my previous Alma setup, I chose the Workstation bundle plus extra apps, and some twenty minutes later, the installation was complete. A bit long, but then, the image is also rather large. The boot setup works fine. The other two systems - Windows and Ubuntu - launch without problems.

And then ... problems!

As soon as I logged into the desktop, I encountered a big issue. I wasn't able to connect to the Wireless. More precisely, the Wireless functionality was "there", the drivers were loaded and all that, but the system couldn't turn the device on. The hardware in question is an Atheros QCA6174 card.

Troubleshooting this isn't easy, because you need some Internet connectivity, and that implies a different machine, if you don't have access via Ethernet. After some juggling to and fro, I was able to fix the issue, and regained Wireless connectivity. I will talk about this more in a dedicated tutorial.

Wi-Fi not connected

Now, a mini-rant. This issue is yet another example of middling hardware support in many a distro. While Linux does a pretty decent job of providing a rather generous, generic boot-and-run capability on many platforms, the issues often crop up in various bits and pieces.

For example, a long time ago, my T400 had issues with graphics and mouse. The IdeaPad G50 had issues with the Realtek network card. The ancient Asus eeePC had issues with brightness and fan control. Now, this IdeaPad is another affected kit, with Wireless issues yet again.

Reading around, this isn't a new problem. There are bugzilla reports all over the place, for all sorts of distros, from Gentoo via Ubuntu to the entire Red Hat family, dating back years and years ago. Almost always in these kind of cases, the issues simply go away when the hardware goes away, but they are never truly resolved. Yes, you can argue proprietary stuff, evil, whatnot. That doesn't matter. If a system boots, it should work fine. If it cannot support the hardware in question correctly, it shouldn't just happily boot. It should warn the user, so they can consider other options, or try to find a solution BEFORE they commit the system.

I was a bit dismayed by the Wireless snafu. After all, I do have an intention of trying to create a perfect desktop setup, the way I did with CentOS back in the day, and more recently with Rocky Linux. It's hard to do that when you're blocked on step one. Now, please note that this Atheros problem affects the entire range of RHEL8-compatible systems. But then, these are server distros, so ...

Anyway, rant over. Let's sort the distro.

Customization

I followed my own guides - the usual mix of Gnome, Fedora and CentOS tweaks. Without repeating myself, here's the short list of the stuff that I tried in the first hour or so, after which I could kick back and relax and enjoy the distro.

Nice looks

HD scaling

As I've outlined in my recent Gnome & HD scaling guide, I tried both experimental fractional scaling and font scaling. The IdeaPad's 14-inch screen has 1920x1080px resolution, making things too small to view in the native 100% zoom. Across different systems and distributions, I've tried different scaling levels, to see what sort of results I get. Windows 10 is okay with 100-150%, with Windows 11 working better unzoomed. Various Plasma distros handle 137.5% best - the only desktop environment with proper fractional scaling. With Gnome, I've not found one specific setting that works perfectly. It depends on distro hinting and antialiasing settings, fonts, and whatnot.

Scaling, desktop

With AlmaLinux, I found the 125% zoom factor to work okay, but not in all cases. Lots of applications had blurry fonts as a consequence. On the other hand, font scaling set to 1.25 offered good, crisp, clear results. I decided to use this setup. I didn't need to change the font family. Both Grayscale and RGB hinting seem to offer decent enough results. I do find the lack of consistency troubling - there just isn't one rule for all these different distros that you can always use, with the same expectations and results. Always an adventure.

Software, everyday usage

With the extra repos in place, I was able to grab some fresh applications, like VLC, Steam or GIMP. Very soon, the desktop was looking quite presentable, and quite useful, too. I do like Alma's vivid, happy color scheme. Gnome ain't ugly, and with the right set of necessary ergonomic tweaks in place, it can look and behave the part. It's a shame one has to go to such lengths to getting the very basics enabled.

Apps

MP3 playback

I couldn't connect to NTFS right away - I had to install the necessary libraries. For some reason, Alma glitched at this point, and reported 404 for all the listed mirrors. I then ran dnf upgrade, and things sorted themselves out. Not sure why this occurred. For some reason, the repo indexes went out of sync.

NTFS connectivity

Error: Error downloading packages:
Cannot download Packages/n/ntfsprogs-2017.3.23-11.el8.x86_64.rpm: All mirrors were tried

Performance, responsiveness

The boot sequence isn't the fastest - about 15 seconds. On this machine, this is the high end of the results. The desktop is fast enough. I didn't encounter any slowness, freezes or hangs, which can sometimes happen in the Gnome desktop, especially when you search for apps or documents.

The resource utilization is almost identical to Fedora 33. Memory usage is about 1.4 GB on idle, and the CPU ticks roughly 1.5%. All in all, the numbers align, but my perception is that AlmaLinux is a tad more responsive, especially because the system menu and search render smoothly.

Resources

Battery life

This is where we see some big difference compared to Fedora 33. With light-to-moderate usage and 50% brightness, the laptop reported about 3.5-4 hours of juice. This translates into about 4.5 hours for light usage. Fedora 33 can do some 50% more. Could be all the optimization that went into more recent kernels, and if so, that's great. Now, I need to explore this more, but at the moment, here be where we stand.

Battery life

Conclusion

All in all, my AlmaLinux 8.4 experiment on the IdeaPad 3 went well. Very nice considering this being a relatively new device, with some relatively new hardware in it (not innit, guv), plus the fact AlmaLinux 8 is a conservative server distro with a somewhat older kernel. In that regard, I had a good, fast, stable experience. Solid speed, no errors, pretty looks. Very desktopy, very accessible. Triple boot, no issues and all that.

The Wireless card issue can be a dealbreaker for many, though. Having to customize the system is also a tricky one, ergonomics and all that. But, at the end of the day, I had a very stylish, functional system, and now I can focus on some extra tweaking and testing. Can I call this: How to turn AlmaLinux into a perfect desktop? Well, almost. 'Tis a good, promising start. Now, from a pure usability perspective, this ain't it, but then, this also isn't a desktop per se, which explains my chipper and forgiving attitude. Definitely worth exploring, and stay tuned for more solid fun and nerdology.

Cheers.

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