Into Ubuntu

Over the years I’ve run a number of Linux distros and I’ve watched them evolve. For the last couple of years, I’ve been purely Microsoft on my home computers. When that errant nvraid driver update killed Vista (and I still can’t find my install CD and license key), I decided it was time to see what has changed in the OSS landscape.

So after managing to get my data away from the RAIDed disks, I fired up the system with a freshly burned copy of Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn). It proceeded to load a LiveCD version using Gnome as the GUI. The boot was pretty quick and the hardware detection worked wonderfully (with one exception, covered later in this article). I was presented with a plain desktop that had everything you would want to see for a basic home user: web browser, email reader, OpenOffice, and a way to browse files. Sure there is more than that, but these are the things that most people are going to be looking for right off the bat. Music players and games and video editors usually come in second to these staples.

The only icon on the desktop is one labeled Install. So I open it. Thus begins a simple 7-step wizard, most of which can be ignored unless you want to use a language other than English. There is nothing complex about the information asked for and the partition tool has a fully automatic option which I imagine most Joe Suburban users would pick. If you can click a radio button and type a user name and password, you can install this system.

After you’ve completed the wizard, you just sit back for about 15-20 minutes and click Finish. The software unloads itself, ejects the CD, then requests that you press Enter to reboot. That’s it. No compiling. No editing .config files. No choosing kernel options. You reboot into the fully functional Ubuntu system. From here you can either start using it as your everyday OS or you can jump into the Add/Remove option under Applications and install some new software. I would suggest at least adding the Restricted Use package, otherwise you’ll find some irritating deficiencies such as no MP3 playback. I understand the necessity for the separation and the reason it isn’t part of the base install…lawyers…but I would like to see future releases mention this a little better up front. I managed to find the fix pretty easily with the power of Google.

Of course, with any system there are bound to be some problems. Mine was the Creative X-fi Platinum sound card. This card is completely different from previous cards. In other words, the Linux sound systems (ALSA and OSS) cannot use the device. Creative has yet to offer any technical information to open-source developers so they can write drivers. They claim there will be a closed source driver out this year in beta for Linux, but the release has already been pushed back once so I won’t hold my breath. Fortunately, I have AC’97 audio built into the motherboard, so I just turned it on and voila…I have music.

Now, why would anyone want to get out of Windows and jump over to Ubuntu or another Linux distribution? That answer will vary from person to person. Me? I like a number of applications that would cost me hundreds, probably thousands, of dollars under Windows but cost nothing but the time to download and install under Linux. One of my personal favorites is Bluetooth OBEX support through the file manager. It’s nice to open the equivalent of My Computer and browse over to my RAZR to copy photos, ringtones, wallpapers back and forth with a simple drag-and-drop. Or how about using GTKPod to update my iPod since I can move files both ways? Granted, you lose the iTunes store ability…but I only bought one song and that was the result of a free song on a bottle cap from one of my Dews.

Software updates work much like Windows Automatic Updates. You get a notification in the panel equivalent of the System Tray (next to the clock). You click on it. You tell it to install the updates. Done. Yes, there is the occasional update that will ask for a reboot, such as kernel updates. But by and large, most updates will take place on the fly with no restart necessary. This is one of the joys of a modular system. If the module is updated, just reload the module into memory.

I have to admit that a large part of my decision to jump over to Linux for a while is Beryl/Compiz Fusion. I like eye candy, especially if some of it actually makes work easier. So I’ve been playing with Beryl and the Emerald theme manager and I have to say that the cube is fun even though I usually flip between desktops with the scroll wheel or keyboard shortcut. Regardless, I give kudos to the developers for putting some truly useful and time-saving modules into this package. I’d forgotten what a wonderful thing it is to have multiple desktops when you’re used to running 8-15 apps at a time.

So far, I have nothing but praise for what the people over at Ubuntu have done for the OSS community. With just a little more polish in spots like driver support (from anal-retentive hardware manufacturers), I would say that Linux has finally gotten ready to enter the true desktop market for the masses. Yes, I know…a lot of geeks have been running Linux as a desktop for years…but I’m referring to Joe Suburban and his grandmother. Until there is acceptance from the not-tech-savvy, Linux will never be a player in the home desktop area.