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:
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.