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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

Ubuntu - Linux for human beings

On the first of this month version 6.06 LTS of Ubuntu was released. I’ve been using the beta of Ubuntu 6.06 for about a month now and have been impressed enough to make it my default operating system. No, really.

I’ve played with other distributions of Linux before, most notably SUSE and Fedora. The initial lure with each was the sexy interface, but both distros failed to do the job for me. I’m competent with Windows, and I’m competent with a variety of computing concepts - but I’m not one of those people that jump to the command line over a nice GUI when given the option. Where Fedora and SUSE fell over for me was that I simply couldn’t use them beyond their initial configuration. They were too complicated, requiring the use of the Terminal more often than not (think DOS prompt) - I am not comfortable with poking around typing commands at my computer. I want to point and click and have things just work. Which is where Ubuntu stepped up to the challenge and did a very good job. Not perfect, but more than good enough for me to feel comfortable. In fact there’s only one thing keeping Windows installed on my computer at all - Photoshop.

What Ubuntu’s got

By default, as soon as you install the operating system, you have a complete Office package by way of Open Office 2, which is perfectly usable even if it isn’t all that pretty. With that you get a Database, Word Processor, Spreadsheet and PowerPoint equivalent. There’s a version of OO available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, which is very important to me. One of the huge advantages of Open Source Cross Platform projects is that they do not tie you to one Operating System. If I want to switch back to Windows later, I can. If I want to switch to OSX then I can - and in each case I’ll have an application that I’m used to and that will work as I expect, with all my old files.

By default you also get music management software (Rhythmbox, an ‘almost’ iTunes), graphics creation and editing software (The GIMP), Firefox 1.5 as your web browser, Evolution as your mail client, and a few other useful applications.

What Ubuntu’s got - but not by default

Ubuntu, like Firefox, is free, as in price and concept. Unfortunately this means it doesn’t come with a number of critical things by default, such as MP3 or DVD video support. That’s because those sort of things are subject to copyright or licensing fees. It doesn’t support Windows Audio (WMA) or Windows Video (WMV) by default either - but there are a number of ways of getting all these things to work, the easiest being to download a small application called Easy Ubuntu, which sorts all of that out for you. If you’re feeling a little more brave and also want to start getting to grips with the way Linux works, you can follow the very simple guide to enabling restricted formats in Ubuntu.

What Ubuntu hasn’t got

In a word - Photoshop. While The GIMP seems very comprehensive and powerful, it is simply too counter-intuitive and messy for anyone who’s used to Photoshop, and lacks a few key features in comparison. If you can make do with an older version of Photoshop you can run Photoshop 7 with CrossOver Office. I’m hoping Adobe CS3 will have a Linux native version - after all, a recent survey of 10,000 people by Novell showed that Photoshop is the most wanted port to Linux

My experiences with Ubuntu

The ‘not so good’ stuff

My mini-adventure started out with Ubuntu 5, which is considerably less friendly than the new Ubuntu 6. I found it extremely difficult to get hardware accelerated 3D working with Ubuntu 5, but once I got it working, it has stayed working even after upgrading. I still can’t get dual monitor support, though I am sure Ubuntu will work with two monitor - it just doesn’t yet have an easy ‘point and click’ way of getting them to work. I can’t rip music to AAC format (the one iPods use), even though AAC is not a proprietary format. I can however play AAC encoded music.

The good stuff

Installing new software is a snap. The whole thing works a lot like a souped-up Windows Update. You go into the Synaptic Package Manager, and browse a huge list of applications - if you want to install one, you just tick the box and then click ‘Apply changes’. The programs get downloaded and installed for you, and that really is it. Nothing more to do. Keeping you entire system and all programs up-to-date is even easier - Ubuntu does it all for you. I often find a new message bubble when I log in telling me there are a number of updates to a whole bunch of programs I have installed. I just take a look at the overview of updates and then click OK. Job done.

Ubuntu is pretty. By which I mean it’s the best looking OS I’ve ever seen, and that includes OSX. If you want to get a little experimental you can beautify it even more by using XGL and Compiz - which makes the entire desktop 3D accelerated, in much the same way that Windows Vista will be.

Because I used Mozilla Thunderbird on Windows, and I’m using it on Ubuntu too, transferring all my mail to Ubuntu was as simple as copying my mail folder and pasting it into the right Ubuntu folder. Nothing more needed doing.

amaroK - forget iTunes, amaroK is superior by far, in my opinion. It organises your music better, and it does more things in a more useful way. For example, you can see the lyrics to whatever you are listening to, or read the wikipedia entry for the band or composer you are currently listening to - which is hella interesting. OK, amaroK is pretty ugly and cluttered compared with most other Ubuntu applications, but that’s because it’s for KDE and not GNOME - I’m sure it’ll get prettified sooner or later.

The ‘just different’ stuff

Ubuntu is a lot more secure than Windows, and the way Ubuntu deals with files and permissions tripped me up at first. You can’t delete or edit ‘critical’ files and settings. You have to log yourself in as a ‘Super User’ in the Terminal in order to do anything like that. Which is good because it protects you from accidents, and from hackery and other nasty shenanigans. But it’s something to get your head around, and can feel confusing and restrictive until you are used to it. Especially as it means moving away from a point-and-click environment for a brief while.

The file structure is different. You don’t get ‘c:\’ and the like. The first time I saw it I was wondering where the hell my hard drives had gone!

Why I’m sticking with Ubuntu as my default Operating System

I have all of my most used and loved programs from Windows available on Linux/Ubuntu - Thunderbird, Firefox, jEdit, and Open Office. These are programs that I am already familiar with, and that work brilliantly. They also work on any Operating System. The only application missing from the list is Photoshop.

For the few programs I would like, but aren’t on my ‘critical list’, there are easy to use equivalents. My music collection, had I wished, could have simply been copied and pasted into Ubuntu from iTunes. In the end I decided now was a good time to encode all of my CDs in a non-lossy format, so I’ve started recording them all in FLAC instead. amaroK is better than iTunes for everything I’ve tried in it, including podcast management. gFTP, the default FTP client, is simple but useable and stable as a rock - it’s not CuteFTP, but it will do.

I like the Open Source concept as a whole, and I want to support it, if only by using it. Anyone who has used Firefox should be able to guess at what Ubuntu might be like. Advanced, powerful, easy to use, but perhaps a little different than what you are used to, with a couple of minor quirks along the way. Ubuntu gets a new release every six months too, so it’s always at the cutting edge. I like the fact that Ubuntu (the Operating System) is inspired by Ubuntu (the African philosophy).

Finding out more about Ubuntu

As long as this article is, it doesn’t cover all that much - but if it’s piqued your interest there are plenty of ways to find out more. Firstly, and probably most effectively, there are three videos of Ubuntu that you could watch:

  1. Ubuntu Install video
  2. Ubuntu Intro video
  3. Ubuntu XGL video

Then you could read up a little more on the official Ubuntu website, and after that you could always try it. You can download Ubuntu and write it to a CD, which you can pop into your PC before you turn it on, and then you can actually try the entire OS - without making any changes to your computer or Hard Disk. If you decide you like it you can then install it from the same CD.


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  1. Matthew J. Ward posted 2hrs, 52min, 5sec after the entry and said:

    Thats a tad weird Matt…. I've been looking at Ubuntu for a while now also, after trying other distros, it is more user friendly for sure… I must say that when you get used to using the console/terminal it is actually really nice to use…Well at least for myself! Things such as configuring IPCONFIG etc is implemented correctly rather than the Microsofts way of doing it…

    I could also rant on about various other benefits but i think your entry says most of it….

    I tend to run the various distros in a VMWare machine, just to get the feel of it…And it's also possible I hear to run OSX86 in it too, or on your PC if you would wish to do so… obviously doing that would be illegal and is only in THEORY smiley icon: wink

    It is also nice to see that OSX is moving to support X86 architecture, meaning that your Joe Bloggs could hopefully in the future buy Apples OS off the shelf to install on his Standard PC….

    There is a lot to be said for the OpenSource GPL linux distros! And now with Ubuntu they are friendly enough for 'average' users to start playing with

  2. MWF posted 16hrs, 47min, 58sec after the entry and said:

    Interesting. I will certainly be trying this, I hear the ladies can't resist a Linux man.

  3. Matt Wilcox posted 21hrs, 41min, 16sec after the entry and said:

    Yeah, the whole 'learning a new operating system' thing feels a little scary at first, but thinking back it's not really any more of less difficult to learn than Windows was, and there's a heck of a lot of documentation on the web if you need it.

    I've never tried VMWare, or virtualisation in general, so I can't comment. The new Live CD can store session data on a removable flash drive if you want - which is genius. You can then have persistent sessions and set-ups even without installing Ubuntu onto your Hard Disk. Very clever.

    I don't think OSX will make it to the PC for a good few years, if ever. While it makes perfect sense to me, it would seem that the head honchos at Apple 'think different'.

    One thing I have been giving serious consideration to is getting a MacBook, and tripple booting it, as you can run Windows, OSX and Ubuntu on the one notebook. Which, for a cross-browser-concious web developer, is one very cool thing. Especially as you can get them running simultaneously on the one machine…

  4. steve lam posted 21hrs, 47min, 17sec after the entry and said:

    how odd! i actually installed ubuntu a few days ago all the while stumbling across this blog a few days before that.

    for me, a few not-so-good things were:

    wireless support -

    although there are a handful of wireless usb adapters/pcmcia/cards that do in fact 'just work' with an out-of-the-box ubuntu installation, i found that both of my wireless systems needed a relatively great deal of configuring before they would work. one was a d-link usb wireless adapter and the other was an smc wireless card.

    installing these two adapters was just so tedious (basically typing endlessly in 'terminal') i almost came to the point where i nearly gave up on ubuntu itself. a computer without internet for me is pretty much useless. i kept scouring ubuntu forums and such for several methods on how to get my wireless to work. some of them just completely messed things up or would apply certain settings that i had no idea how to undo. i had to re-install ubuntu twice! in the end i stuck with it and got things working but i couldnt imagine most other people having the patience or time to do so.

    not a huge problem but annoying nonetheless:

    changing the font colour on your ubuntu desktop! i sifted through each and every menu trying to find the simple option of changing the font color from the default white to something else. i generally use very light coloured desktop wallpaper and the default white font did not work at all. some more 'terminal' work ensued and i finally got that 'fixed' as well.

    windows software equivalents:

    the openoffice suite is pretty amazing. i actually use it on my windows installation anyway. GIMP on the other hand i just dont think i can wrap myself around a new editing program. i am too used to holding down spacebar and navigating around an image in photoshop. in gimp, this keyboard shortcut actually moves a layer around? it didnt seem to make sense to me.

    i also cant seem to find a suitable replacement for dreamweaver. i tried quanta plus and it was just awkward and for some reason really slow in preview mode.

    ahh well! my linux installation does indeed look beautiful. but theres no way i can be productive on it at all without investing a large amount of time re-learning some programs. i find myself doing regular things like browsing the net in linux but when i have work to do i end up having to reboot back into windows.

    some native ports i would like to see:

    the entire macromedia 8 suite
    photoshop/illustrator cs2

    thats basically it! if the above were ported over i would definitely have no reason to stick with windows.

  5. Matthew J Ward posted 22hrs, 29min, 17sec after the entry and said:

    Indeed it is a shame that the Apple people are shying away from it! Seems stupid as there products audience would be huge… But while they can tie people into there Mac hardware just to run OSX will make them some good profit…

    VMWare is a far superior virtual enviroment to the Ms's Virtual PC product… It will support any OS to date including OSX*, linux and indeed windows (including vista betas) and is what i use to setup virtaul network enviroments such as multiple domain active directory forests etc… Meaning i can run up to 8 machines on my high powered rig….So essentially I boot into windows and then start a Virtual Machine for whichever OS I want to have a look at or configure….. Snapshots can be taken of a clean OS install and then reverted to at a later stage…And the machines can have full access to pretty much any hardware on your machine, including NIC, Audio, Wireless, USB etc… They can be created to use a virtual disk drive, meaning that they do not have to have a spare hard disk or even a partition. They work from a single file from the hard disk. The possibilities are endless. And saves all that messing around formating your disk and possibly having GRUB or the windows bootloader mess things up for you.. Then once you are happy you can then create a ghost image of the os and ghost it to your HDD.

    From a techs vue this product is a real god send!

    For example you could create a website, and host it on one of your VMWare machines or your host machine and then have multiple OS's and Browsers that can be opened individually or all at once (Memory Dependent)

    Mr Chris, it is definatley worth a play with!

    Have a quick look at the link if you like!


  6. Matt Wilcox posted 23hrs, 25min, 58sec after the entry and said:

    I must admit, I didn't properly understand Virtualization until you said that. Edgy Eft (the next version of Ubuntu) is slated to be getting virtualization by way of Xen (as well as a few other very sexy things):


    I don't know how good Xen is apart from their claims on the website, but the concept is pretty awesome. Your screen shot is also pretty good at explaining how useful virtualization might be.

    Getting one of those dual-core MacBooks, slapping in a couple of gigs of RAM, and using virtualization is seeming more and more like a feasable solution. Especially if I get an external TFT to hook it into for design work (as nice as MacBooks are, that screen is too small and reflective for designing on).

  7. Matthew Wilcox posted 3 days, 0hrs, 38mins after the entry and said:

    @steve lam

    Those are some fair warnings. My wireless worked fine, but that's because I use two WAP points and a router/hub, so there was nothing for Ubuntu to configure. A colleague of mine had all sorts of trouble getting Ubuntu 5 to work with the WiFi on his iBook, but he's managed to get Ubuntu 6 working fine on it:

    He even got XGL and Compiz working on the iBook:

    I can't really help you on the Dreamweaver front I'm afraid. It's been years since I used a WYSIWIG editor, so I've not bothered looking for an equivalent on Linux. Looking through Synaptic though, there's Quanta for KDE, and Screem from GNOME. Bluefish too:

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