Troubleshooting tips for Linux users

Troubleshooting tips for the 5 most common Linux issues

Learn how to tackle the most common challenges Linux desktop users encounter.

Troubleshooting tips for the 5 most common Linux issues
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Opensource.com

Although Linux installs and operates as expected for most users, inevitably some users will run into problems. For my final article in The Queue column for the year, I thought it would be interesting to summarize the most common technical Linux issues people ran into in 2016. I posted the question to LinuxQuestions.org and on social media, and I analyzed LQ posting patterns. Here are the results.

1. Wifi drivers (especially Broadcom chips)

Generally speaking, wifi drivers—and Broadcom cards in particular—continue to be one of the most problematic technical issues facing Linux. There were hundreds of posts about this topic on LQ alone in 2016, and myriad more elsewhere. Dozens of Broadcom wireless cards are available, and detailed instructions for getting them to work with each distribution is far too involved for a single article, but the basic troubleshooting steps are the same:

  • ascertain exactly which Broadcom card you have by using lspci to find out the PCI ID,
  • determine whether the distribution you use supports that card,
  • and if it does, identify the proper way to get the card working.

For example, if you have a 14e4:4315 PCI ID and are using Ubuntu, then you know the BCM4312 card is supported by installing the firmware-b43-installer package. The other option you have is to research the wifi card before your purchase to ensure it's fully supported by your distribution of choice out of the box.

2. Printer drivers (especially Canon and Lexmark)

Printers also continue to be problematic, with Canon and Lexmark repeatedly cited for being an issue. If you're purchasing a new printer, research compatibility before you buy. But if you are migrating from another operating system, that may not be an option. If you are doing research, the OpenPrinting database and the official support channel for your distribution are the two best places to start. Note that you should ensure all functionality of a device is fully compatible, especially if it's a multifunction product. One common complaint with Canon printers is that the drivers are often only available on non-English and sometimes obscure sites.

If you're purchasing a new printer, research compatibility before you buy.

3. Video

Video is a nuanced topic, as simple straightforward video works extremely well out of the box on Linux. Where the issues pop up are video accelerators/​acceleration; the latest video cards and newest technologies, such as NVIDIA Optimus and ATI dynamic GPU switching; installation and stability of proprietary drivers; efficient power management; and reliable suspend and resume. If you're not a gamer, do not need high-end graphics for another reason, and are not on a laptop, then you probably don't have to worry about this. If you're looking for a new laptop, be sure to research compatibility before your purchase. If you're a gamer or need the highest-end graphics, you'll need to know exactly what your requirements are and start your research there. Luckily, the situation here is improving and, Wayland teething issues aside, the situation should be quite a bit better in 2017.

4. Audio

Once again, for simple setups, audio has been easy to configure and reliable under Linux for a while. As soon as you get into professional production, echo cancellation, audio routing, unified mixing, and other complex setups, however, it can go south pretty quickly. My suggestion is to use one of the dedicated audio-related distributions if you need high-end real-time audio.

5. Installation

With a category this all-encompassing, it's almost guaranteed to be high volume. That said, I don't know that it's fair to say Linux has wide-spread installation issues. The vast majority of installs go as expected. The sheer variety of hardware that Linux supports, and nearly infinite combinations of hardware on which Linux installs are attempted, inevitably lead to edge cases here and there. Keep in mind that end users rarely install other operating systems, such as Mac OS and Windows, as they come pre-installed on new devices.

The vast majority of installs go as expected.

Future looks bright

Other issues that were mentioned frequently include Bluetooth, suspend/resume, HiDPI, and touchscreens. You may see a pattern forming here—most of the issues noted in this article focus on desktop use cases. When you think about it, that makes sense. With Linux desktop adoption being relatively low, the result is that less testing and resources go into finding and fixing related issues. As desktop usage increases, you can anticipate these areas improving.

On that note, I thought it would be nice to end with a mention of one area that used to pop up frequently as a problem area for Linux, and very rarely does these days: fonts. Only a few short years ago, getting high-quality antialiased fonts were the exception. With modern distribution releases, it has become the rule.

What technical Linux issues did you find most common in 2016? Let me know about them in the comments.

18 Comments

dboth

Excellent article, Jeremy. Thanks.

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bcotton

I've had a few kernel-ish issues crop up on my laptop, but I've been attributing it to failing hardware. My big pain in 2016 was emoji support.

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jeremy-garcia

I don't use a ton of emoji myself, but have you tried EmojiOne?
https://github.com/eosrei/emojione-color-font

--jeremy

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bcotton

I have a font installed that will render them, my issue is figuring out how to type them. I found instructions in KDE once, as I recall, but didn't take notes and have subsequently been unable to find instructions. Oh well, it keeps me in check, I suppose.

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Greg P

From what I can tell, it seems to be the ends of the newness spectrum that are most problematic, either the very newest hardware (CPUs, GPUs, printers, etc.) or unfortunately older hardware. Considering that Linux used to be the champion of resurrecting old hardware, this is unfortunate, and avoidable. Some if not most of the distro-makers have the resources to hang on to working hardware to sort out these problems before official releases.

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sethkenlon

Happily, I've managed to avoid issues of any sort for the past several years. Game controllers, graphic cards, Wacom tablets, printers, Atheros wi fi cards, and most any peripheral I've needed have either shipped with Linux drivers or there have been drivers readily available.

The pain happens when a friend or a colleague buys something on a whim and then can't get it to work, and so they ask me to help. Hours have been lost to the random impulse purchase of a silly gadget that probably won't even get used for more than four hours.

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Don Watkins

Great article. I continue to enjoy running Linux on Dell laptops even with Broadcom issues which I also ran into on a 4 year old MacBook Pro. I always recommend HP printers and have good luck with them.

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Anmol Wassan

My Ubuntu 16.04 started booting to BusyBox. I remember I did a force shutdown which might have caused trouble. Troubleshooting a hard drive with one or more bad sectors or superblocks is really a pain especially when fsck fails and you can't even access Grub commands.

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Vitaly Belevsky

The title is unfit for this article. While you proclaim to list ways to tackle common Linux problem, you only refer people to research and do their reading elsewhere. A list would include more common commands such as lspci, which you mentioned, that help debug each of your article's issue category.

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jeremy-garcia

Thanks for the feedback. FWIW, the title I submitted was actually a bit different, and more along the lines of "The most common technical Linux issues in 2016".

--jeremy

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Ronen Rozner

I have been using HP printers for a long time because of their Linux support, but recently switched to Canon printers (all-in-one and photo printers). I found the drivers on the European Canon support site. I downloaded RPMs and installed on openSuse. they were easy to install (although it won't be easy for noobs). Compared to the Windows version, they are noticeably slimmed down, but still give me the option to print, scan and control the major variables.

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Remco Siderius

May I suggest to add two more common Linux issues?
- Dealing with file systems that run out of space... (slow boot caused by not emptied /tmp)
- SMB / CIFS networking, especially after fresh install
The good thing is that it can all be solved. Linux fora tend to go for root cause analysis instead of the three R's from Microsoft (retry, reboot, reinstall)

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Eddie G.

My biggest pain in the rear was trying to get Debian 8 to install on an old Lenovo ThinkPad T-420, for some reason it would go through every step and then FAIL at the "Installing Grub2" segment. I tried various versions of the ISO and even went with the bare minimum. And it STILL stopped at the Grub install. Annoying.

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mike chant

i seem to remember that some PCs have some sort of boot sector protection which you might have to turn off in the BIOS - worth checking anyhow.

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Eddie G.

Oh yeah. I tried checking the BIOS and even after turning Secure boot / UEFI OFF it STILL gave me problems. I've long since abandoned Debian, as much as I wanted to make a powerhouse admin laptop out of it, it has too many quirks. Maybe one day they'll figure out a way to have it install as painlessly as openSuSE does, (which I now have on the laptop and am using for administration practice...server-wise. Too bad, it would have made my collection "complete" (I have an iMac that I installed Linux Mint on, with Cinnamon as the desktop, I have a T-430 running Fedora Linux with Gnome, I have another laptop running Ubuntu with Unity, and this T420 running openSuSE) so I'm all done! I might try out a few distros here and there, and already have CEntOS and Scientific Linux running in virtual machines on the iMac...but I'm ok with what I've got. I think one of the BEST features about Linux? Is the fact that I can use hardware from 2011 / 2012 and have no issues whatsoever. And THAT'S the best thing about Linux!...that you can use your current hardware and still get updates forever!...(Or at least until the developers decide to stop working on it!)

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RaveYoda

That wifi tip is really good to know. I honestly forgot the lspci command. Thankfully I'm not a sys admin. Though, were I one I'd bet I'd use it more often.

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czarnajama

On the subject of WiFi cards and laptops, here's one which bit me: the different number of channels available in USA/Canada and Europe. Cards and software originally bought or installed in North America have two or three channels less than than European WiFi cards and routers/hot points. Normally, that's not a problem, but sometimes European routers are set by default to one of the high-numbered channels, and then your North American laptop won't see them. And your hotel won't have the foggiest idea how to change it ... There is no reason in practice to have a hot point set to a high numbered channel, unless it's in a very heavily served WiFi area. There are many tools available to check channels: iwlist is a simple one.

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Brandon P

I recently upgraded my 2005 toshiba u205 from a t2300 32 bit chip to a t7200 for 64 bit functionality. I am now running Fedora 25. The only problem i have with the old hardware aside from a limit of 2048 pixel width between dual monitors is a delay while the system waits for the lcd panel to power on. I am reading this message on the already on lcd. Where would be a good place to look to change this config to remove this wait period?

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