I have spent the better part of the past two weeks in dereliction of my usual daily use of Windows XP in favour of better familiarizing myself with Ubuntu 8 specifically as well as Linux in general. Overall it’s a positive experience, but as per prior experience has had its share of issues.
The first thing to note is a subjective “feature” per se that I haven’t tested, but in general I seem to have found that Ubuntu is relatively easy on the CPU compared to XP. Everything is quite snappy, though this is partially attributed to the fact that I am running without visual effects.
Perhaps related, web browsing is very responsive, with Firefox running far better than in Windows. Unfortunately the text rendering in my Windows favourite of Opera is poor, and overall isn’t nearly as polished, making Firefox my lead choice, which has never been the case in Windows. I have two main complaints, however; one is that scrolling isn’t as responsive on some sites, particularly on The VG Press forums, unfortunately, and the other is that flash implementations are clearly not as polished.
My favourite little function in Windows is one I got the idea from Linux, which is using the run box to open programs. I’d set a shortcuts folder in the PATH variable and put shortcuts in that folder, such that I could press WINDOWSKEY+R and enter “firefox” and up comes Firefox. Well, in Ubuntu I’ve mapped the Windows key to open the run box, and installed programs are available there by default. Unfortuntely I haven’t found a way to create my own run commands as yet.
It also wouldn’t be a Linux desktop experience without some driver troubles. My Sandisk Sansa was a fight to get working, but eventually I did manage to find the lsusb command which for whatever reason automatically mounted the device whereas prior it wouldn’t detect. An unresolved issue was with my printer which just wasn’t going to cooperate at all. Lastly–and this is more of a problem with my PC than with Ubuntu–is that recording audio wasn’t initially functional and required the installation of kmix; this is due to the fact that Sigmatel and Dell decided to gimp the soundcard functionality.
The important thing here, though, is that the system works. Ubuntu is a distribution focused on creating a user-friendly desktop package, and it’s just about there. It comes built-in with Firefox, OpenOffice, Evolution (Outlook equivalent), Pidgin (instant messenger), Brasero (disc burning), GIMP and more that can take care of the average users’ needs.
What is the trick though, and a potential dealbreaker is the handling of new software. A significant methodological difference in GNU/Linux from Windows is the use of a package manager. How a package manager works is that there are software repositories that have a selection of software to choose from that populates the package manager’s list of programs. From that, you can select what to install. Of course, there are other ways to install software, including installers (Ubuntu is derived from Debian, so it uses .deb files for installation) or compiling the source code, which is usually in C.
As a heavy computer user, this system can be very convenient. At any point, I can just run a command and have my program, just as I did shortly prior to writing this, I installed Lynx as easily as running sudo apt-get install lynx. Even with compiling source code (which is a pain) it has the advantage of being able to easily make edits to the program.
The problem is that the goal of Ubuntu is to breach the mainstream market, for which the current set-up is not well designed. Ask the average person what a package manager is and you’ll get a blank stare. Similarly, command-line is an immediate killer. And a perhaps unavoidable issue is that installers need to be tailored to the OS and there are a lot of versions of Linux.
Lastly, a somewhat ironic issue has been that I’ve found the system relatively unstable compared to what I’ve been used to in XP. While, as I mentioned, the system is very responsive, I have managed to freeze the Ubuntu equivalent of Explorer on a few different occasions and have had to restart to resolve it (though I wouldn’t count out a better way to fix it).
As time progresses, Ubuntu slowly manages to become more and more a potential mainstream breakthrough. It’s still not there, but enough hassle has been worked out that for light beginner users I would seriously recommend it. For someone who just needs Internet access with some e-mail, maybe a little music, Ubuntu’s got it well covered and you don’t have to worry about them trying to download Antivirus 2009.
So what about me? I’ve still got some work to do. As yet I haven’t gotten around to setting up a programming environment, but I wholly intend to. I do still have to settle on an editor; unfortunately Notepad++ is not available in Ubuntu, so without running WINE or adapting the source code, it’s time to learn a new editor. It’ll likely never be the case that I’ll have abandoned Windows as it’ll likely never be the case that Windows application development will be abandoned.
There’s still the chance that Ubuntu or perhaps another distribution could take over the vast majority of my time, but for most users, I don’t think it’s worth the effort just yet.