getting to know Ubuntu…

…or, a tale of Geeky Goodness…

A few weeks ago, the primary hard drive in my main home computer — a generic custom-built PC running Windows XP -— started giving me signs that it was not long for this world: nasty grinding sounds while writing data, occasional failures to boot, and similar wonky behavior. Armed with a new Lacie DVD-RW drive, I backed up several years’ worth of data to DVD and started clean, reinstalling Windows onto a new 120 GB Seagate Barracuda hard drive.

Now, I’ve grown a little tired of Windows of late — using Mac OS X a bit at work and home has been a good experience. The user interface is gorgeous, everything is easy to use, and it’s very stable — a program will hang on occasion, but I’ve still never experienced a full system crash. (To be fair, that’s been a very rare occurrence for me since Windows XP came out, but overall XP seems to have far more single-app or multiple-app crashes, which can still cause lost time and extreme profanity).

So I’ve got my eye on a nice PowerMac G4 that my team at work isn’t using. Assuming I can buy it used off my employer for a good enough price, I’d like to make that my main computer here at home. It’ll take another week or so before I find out if that’s really possible, so in the meantime I thought I’d play around with alternatives to Microsoft or Apple operating systems.

Enter Ubuntu, billing itself at “Linux for Human Beings.” I’d heard about Ubuntu not long ago on WordPress developer Matt Mullenweg‘s site, and while I was vaguely familar with Linux and what it was being used out there for, I was surprised to learn that there are Linux distributions out there with such a strong focus on the average desktop user whose primary computing interest is standard stuff like e-mail, web access, word processing, managing digital photo and music collections, and so on.

I’m generally handy with computers — probably a good deal more handy than I am with fixing other stuff around the house — but hadn’t had any experience with anything remotely similar to this, so installing new operating system that I’d never used before sounded fun but more than a little daunting.

And now, as I sit here typing this in Mozilla Firefox on my PC running Ubuntu, I’m pretty impressed at how easy they made it. I downloaded the full installer CD data (in Windows), burned it to disk, and dove right in. I had no trouble installing the OS on a blank partition on my hard drive (which I’d set up when reinstalling Windows just in case I felt like trying this kind of experiment). A few parts of the installation program could be better worded, (for instance, the section on the computer’s hardware clock was pretty confusing) but overall it was a dirt-simple process. It even automatically created a boot menu so I can choose which OS to use when starting up the computer — a really cool feature, since that’s the part I was most apprehensive about rigging up.

I’m pretty pleased with it now that it’s up and running. Gnome is the desktop environment software, and it’s pretty easy to grasp for anyone who’s used Windows or OS X. I have one major problem with it: the default top menus are “Applications,” “Places,” and “System,” but the Applications menu includes a “System Tools” submenu. I’d like to see those moved under the main System menu; I keep going to the wrong place for system-oriented operations. I can probably reconfigure that on my own after getting to know the Gnome menu and panel systems a little better, but I think the default setup could improve.

Of course, the intriguing thing is that if I decide I don’t like Gnome I don’t have to ditch Linux altogether — I can just try another desktop environment like KDE, which is supported by Ubuntu as the default desktop in their alternate distribution, Kubuntu. If you like, you can easily install both desktop programs on one machine and try them both out.

Other thoughts and things to note:

  • Ubuntu ships with Firefox as the default web browser, which made it that much more comfortable to adopt. I didn’t try the included Evolution mail client because I use Gmail for my personal mail and I’m hooked on Mozilla Thunderbird for mailing list subscriptions.
  • It also includes OpenOffice by default, an open-source office software package that I’ve read a lot about lately. I haven’t dug in to explore it too much yet except once by accident: I was checking mail and clicked on an MS Word document that someone had sent me, and OpenOffice seamlessly opened it up. I’m sure there are probably some compatibilty glitches with complex MS Office documents, but this was an encouraging first look.
  • All the settings are easily accessible under System –> Preferences, and it’s much more user-friendly than Windows XP’s Out-Of-Control Panel ™, although it’s still not as intuitive and convenient as OS X’s System Preferences menu.
  • Ubuntu can compete with OS X on ease of system updates/upgrades. The system’s Update Manager is very similar to Apple’s excellent Software Update app. A week after I installed Ubuntu, they released version 5.10 (Ubuntu is on a regular six-month upgrade schedule, which is amazing when you compare it to Windows’ release cycle). I had the system and all the software upgraded in minutes with no hassles. I don’t think it even required a reboot. And you can’t beat the price — 100% free, now and always.
  • There’s no Linux driver available for my printer/scanner/copier, the Lexmark X75. It really, really sucks to be enjoying Ubuntu so much and have to reboot into Windows just to print out the grocery list. Get to work, Lexmark, or get added to my revenge list ;^)

It remains to be seen if I’ll get that G4 I have my eye on, but if I don’t, Ubuntu is becoming a pretty strong contender for my main OS. Congratulations to all the developers who’ve worked so hard to make this such an impressive product.

folks before you had this to say:

  1. Justin


    You think they have that for my Apple IIe?

  2. Rob


    I can’t believe you read that whole post. My own wife told me it was so boring she nearly slipped into a coma reading it.

  3. Justin

    What can I say? Geek attracts geek.

  4. Brian

    Hey haven’t been around here in a while. Looks quite different =). Good to hear you’re looking for a Mac. I myself got a hold of a brand new 17 inch PowerBook just this past Thursday.

    After a few days of playing around, my PCs at work and home have started to seem antiquated. =)

    Maybe you could help me out: I’m now looking for a way to maintain my PC workflow using some sort of automated upload function. On the PC I use WinSCP to monitor a directory tree for modified files. When they are modified, they automatically get uploaded to the SFTP server. The key is that it’s not something I need to hit a button to initiate, and it’s not just simply comparing modiied dates from the remote to the local directory.

    I’ve looked at Transmit and Fetch, but I don’t think they do this exact thing. I’m now investigating rsync, wondering if setting a cron job to run rsync every second would be too much overhead. I’m sure there’s multiple ways of doing it, maybe with AppleScript?

    I’m also not ruling out doing a quick Cocoa app that I can launch and save Sessions that are just sets of different folders that I want synced local to remote. Would be an interesting foray into XCode.

  5. Pete

    I too am looking for Windows alternatives…I got lead on a used Powerbook that I may buy tonight. After a couple long weekends trying to manage memory for Protools on a PC and then using a mac and having no problems, I’m just about ready to begin the transition. It always seems like a bad time to buy a mac though, with new technology (Intel) coming down the pipe but I figure that I can switch my desktop machine later if I like it.

got something to say about that?

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