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Joys and woes of BSD on Sharp PC-MC24

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Sometimes the only thing preventing me from selling a used PC as a complete system, instead of a collection of parts, is the lack of a transferable Windows license. With that in mind, I decided to see what the world of free operating systems has to offer in 2010.

Most people have heard of Linux, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. I had a bad time with Solaris in the past, between unsupported network cards and getting stuck in a software update dependency cycle, so that was out. I considered OpenSolaris, but like Solaris, it’s really aimed at the server end of things.

Many people have heard of FreeBSD, more so since it became the core of Mac OS in 2001. What I hadn’t heard of before last week was PC-BSD. It’s a flavor of FreeBSD aimed specifically at the PC desktop. I downloaded the DVD image for PC-BSD 8.0, which took all day on our 1.5Mbit DSL connection. After checking the MD5 signature, burning and verifying the image, I slid it into the Sharp’s DVD drive.

Wouldn’t boot. Somehow when they designed the PC-MC24, Sharp contrived to enable booting from a CD but not from a DVD[1]. OK, download the ‘boot only’ CD image, burn and verify, and start a network install. Of course, it took all day again because it’s downloading the entire install again. Finally I had it installed, but no matter what I tried, the machine would always hang after the display configuration screen.

I figured maybe the install was bad, so I ran it again (overnight this time). Same result. I booted in single-user mode after enabling verbose logging. Unfortunately the logs were nowhere to be found. I tried everything I could think of but nothing worked.

As a last-ditch effort I downloaded the previous version (7.1.1). I almost cried when it worked right out of the box. It even detected the video card and wireless network card correctly on the first attempt, which is more than I can say for Windows XP. Within minutes I was downloading Firefox and OpenOffice. I still don’t know what the issue is with version 8, but I’m having fun exploring version 7.

[1] Correction: I found out later that the DVD was bad, even though it had verified as good during the burn process. The Sharp will boot just fine from DVD.

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