Linux Webcam Frustrations

I’ve always been very pro-Linux. I started out using one of the first versions of Slackware Linux many, many years ago. I remember having a stack of 20+ floppies that made up the install media. Pretty much everything had to be compiled from scratch, and I don’t recall there being any package manager. Just download the source for something you wanted, download and compiled all dependencies and off you go. I remember (fondly or not) having to recompile gcc, and several hour compile runs to get a single driver compiled into the kernel.

Things are different now, or rather they’re supposed to be. There’s alot of blog posts and such that talk about how Linux is ready for the normal Windows user. Mostly, I would agree, but I have a story here, about Amarok and a webcam.

Now just a little background on me. I’ve been a system and network administrator professionally for over 13 years. Most of the system administration in the early days was on BSDi servers. I converted these to Linux (Slackware) as soon as I could convince the owners of the ISP I was working for that it would benefit us in the longrun.

These days, I almost exclusively use Centos 5 for any servers I manage. For workstations (when it makes the most sense to use Linux), I’m very partial to Ubuntu. I’ve used Linux Mint (based on Ubuntu) a bit in the past as well and thought it was a good distribution.

I recently brought a server home, after virtualizing it, and wanted to turn it into a media machine. I have past experience with MythTV, and various other media packages, but I didn’t want to go that route this time. What I need is pretty simple: Amarok, Zoneminder w/ webcam, and eventually full video codec support. Pretty simple? I thought it was going to be, but boy was I wrong. Below I’ll outline the distributions I tried, and the pain I had with each:

Ubuntu 9.10 – I figured I’d start with the latest version of Ubuntu. The install is super easy, and it’s a really nice looking distribution. Amarok installation, and MP3 support (after doing a quick google search), was very easy. This distribution comes with Amarok 2.2.x, and it was neat using the webUI script to easily create a web interface for controlling Amarok. Then I got to the webcam portion. I have a Logitech Quickcam Chat that I bought at Walmart. I imagine, since Walmart sells them, that a lot of people have this same webcam, as well as the other lower end Logitech models. I know the drivers are being hacked together, but I figured since so many people have these, that drivers would be readily available. They aren’t. In fact, the last time these webcams worked was in Ubuntu 8.04 (see notes below). I spent hours recompiling drivers, and doing google searches, only to find out that many others are having the same trouble. It’s apparently something to do with a change made to the gspca drivers. Oddly enough, noone seems to have a fix except “buy another new webcam”. So, to be clear, this was previously supported, but now it’s not and noone seems to know why. I have an older Logitech Quickcam here as well which also doesn’t work. After many kernel and driver recompiles I gave up.

Ubuntu 9.04 – Same problem as with Ubuntu 9.10. There seems to be no fix, nor any real explanation why the support was broken.

Linux Mint 8 – I didn’t expect much, since Mint is based off of Ubuntu, but figured I’d give it a try. Really slick GUI, but I was disappointed to find the same issue as with Ubuntu 9.10. Like I said, I pretty much expected this since it’s based off Ubuntu. I didn’t bother with the kernel and driver recompiles, since I’d basically already done that. Amarok and MP3 support worked straight out of the box, with no extra fiddling needed.

Centos 5 – I figured, what the hell, might as well give it a try at least. Centos is really a server oriented distribution, tho, so I really didn’t have much hope of getting things working. First up in Amarok. It’s not included in the default yum repositories. I ended up adding the EPEL repository and used that to install Amarok. Getting MP3 support, however, is another story and I wasn’t able to do it in the hour I fiddled with it. According to several google searches, I’m not the only person who has been asking this question, with very few answers (and none of which worked for me). The problem is that the xine extracodecs package is not available in the EPEL repository, nor the main Centos repositories. I eventually gave up, since this system wasn’t exactly supposed to be brain surgery. I gave the webcam a try, but I didn’t feel like downloading and manually installing cam applications, and it didn’t detect it anyways. So, Centos is a huge winner in the server realm, but in the workstation area it’s just not worth the hassle.

Ubuntu 8.04 – Finally I decided to go back to a distribution that I knew worked. Where Amarok was easy to get going, and I knew the webcam was supported. Version 8.04 is a solid release, don’t get me wrong, but there have been 2 major releases since then. Updates are promised through 2011, but as time goes on less and less software will be updated. I spend enough time compiling and managing systems at work, I don’t want to do it at home as well. Unfortunately 8.04 only has Amarok 1.x available, but it’s fairly easy to get up and running with MP3 support. Zoneminder is as easy as installing it via apt-get install zoneminder, copying /etc/zm/apache.conf to /etc/apache2/conf.d/zm.conf and restarting apache. The webcam is supported out of the box and there’s no additional issues that I’ve found with either. The only thing is, this has a limited shelf life, and in many areas I’m stuck with older application versions, unless I want to fiddle and compile them myself (which I don’t). At any rate, this is a winner for now.

I know it’s silly to judge a distribution based on support for a specific webcam, and that’s really not what I’m doing here. I have a couple of simple and specific needs that I figured would be easy to meet, and was surprised at how much of a hassle it was. Even with my advanced knowledge, I ended up being frustrated, so it doesn’t bode well for the Windows user who wants to just play some music and get on webcam with someone.

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