Linux has certainly come a long way in the handling of hardware (and it helps that all the hardware on this machine is ancient). Ubuntu recognized and configured both my sound card and my PCMCIA wifi card (yes, the machine is old enough not to have integrated wifi).
But at the first attempt to run Xorg (the windowing system), the resolution was stuck at 800x600 -- Ubuntu apparently failed to recognize the laptop's video driver. The screen's full res is 1024x768, and this is the kind of machine where smaller resolutions are not stretched to the full screen, so I feel like I'm staring at a postage stamp in a sea of blackness.
A little research found that the problem might be solved by running a configuration tool (displayconfig-gtk) and manually specifying the driver. Apparently this was fine for Ubuntu 8.04, but the tool was dropped from 8.10. Here we read:
As Xorg has improved this past year, an unfortunate side effect of these improvements is that it has rendered several design assumptions in displayconfig-gtk obsolete. So, starting with Hardy we are no longer putting displayconfig-gtk forth as a primary configuration tool, and are putting our development focus into the Screen Resolution applet. As a result, we do not plan to fix this ...
So my only recourse is to find and manually change the Xorg configuration files. Thanks, Ubuntu, for a couple of hours of my life that I'll never get back, which may or may not solve the problem.
The whole thing reminds me why I stopped using Linux in the first place, and makes me want to hug my Macbook.