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Four weeks with Ubuntu Linux on the desktop. Part 2: Down the rabbit hole.

March 14th, 2007

[ On January 30th I installed Ubuntu Linux and decided to give it a serious try. Read Part 1 for an introduction including my reasons for doing this. ]

If you’ve never installed a modern Linux distribution and you’re worried about how difficult it will be because you’ve heard awful stories about the process, let me assure you that it is as easy as pie. Easier, probably, now that I think about trying to actually make a pie.

Before I go on I should mention what kind of computer user I am. This is important because the kind of computer user you are will affect your ability to switch to Linux.

I’m an enthusiast. A hobbyist. I am very demanding. I’ve been using computers since I was about ten years old. As a freelance developer, my daily bread is won through the use of a computer. I sometimes spend sixteen hours a day at the keyboard. A good chunk of that is work but a lot is also hobby-related and recreational.

I’ve found that the more demanding you are of your computer, the harder it might be to switch. This is because hardcore users like myself have extremely (often tediously) specific requirements about the software we use and we use it much more frequently. A casual user probably doesn’t care (or even notice!) many of the things that I require. To put it another way, if most people think of their computers as a family sedan, I think of mine as a Formula 1 race car. When the suspension isn’t dialed in perfectly, I notice and it affects me.

If Ubuntu and I were dating, I’d be her high-maintenance boyfriend.

Interestingly, this shows that the notion that Linux is only for highly technical computer geeks is a myth. The opposite is more likely to be true.

Ubuntu Linux comes on what is commonly referred to as a Live CD. A Live CD is a bootable CD that loads a complete and fully functional operating system without actually installing or changing anything on your hard drive. You put the CD in, turn on your computer, and in a couple of minutes—*poof!*—you’re using Linux. If you don’t like it or you were just experimenting, take out the CD, switch the power off and on again, and you’re back to your old system. It really is as simple as that.

Live CDs are an ingenius way of packaging software. With the Ubuntu Linux CD (which you can download from their web site and burn in your very own CD drive for free), you can try out a fully functional Ubuntu system, verify that it has correctly detected all of your hardware, play around with any of the pre-installed applications like Open Office, browse the Internet, and a lot more—all before you install anything. Everyone should try a Live CD no matter what you might think of switching.

And if you decide you do want to install it? Just double-click the install icon on the desktop and it walks you through the process in just a few clicks.

Installing software, even operating systems, on home computer systems should by now be a complete non-event. It should be taken for granted that it will work. So why am I even mentioning it? Because Ubuntu should be recognized and congratulated for fulfilling that promise better than any other system I’ve ever used. Period.

Once my new system booted for the first time I checked to make sure everything was in working order. Hard drives? Check. CD ROM? Check. Sound? Check. I turned on my scanner and I could scan. Setting up my printer was almost identical to the process I use in Windows and just as easy. The network was already active and I could browse the Internet. Everything was working.

Overall, hardware support is very, very good. Your computer will boot on the first try, all your hard drives will be detected, you’ll be able to burn and rip CDs, and your monitor will come up in the correct resolution. But I had two hardware problems. The first minor problem was that the available driver for my positively ancient Canon S520 wasn’t an exact match. If you have a more modern/popular printer, you’ll probably be fine. In actual usage, it doesn’t seem to matter as I can print fine.

The other problem was setting up dual monitors. Dual monitor configuration is, unfortunately, a dark art. Just like Windows, it required installing the correct drivers for my video card first (which in Ubuntu was actually easier than it was in Windows). Unlike Windows, there was no point and click tool for configuring the monitors. I spent a couple of hours wading through conflicting documentation and trying various configuration files until I found a method that worked.

Here are some other initial impressions I had during my setup phase:

  • Ubuntu comes with a software installation/management/update system called Synaptic that is a dream come true. It makes finding, installing, updating, and removing software easier than anything available on Windows. Taken together with a free software library consisting of tens of thousands of applications and it easily qualifies as Ubuntu’s killer app. I’ll write more about this sublime resource in the next installment.
  • Font rendering is very good but I didn’t like the sub-pixel rendering option on my LCD so I turned it off in the control panel (the equivalent of Windows Clear Type which I also don’t particularly like). There’s a font smoothing hack but I didn’t notice much of a difference. It did seem to have a little trouble when some fonts were rendered at very small sizes (can anyone say Web 2.0?) but that I think had more to do with the quality of the fonts in question than anything else.
  • There’s a bug in the included version of Firefox that causes the “Restore session” dialog to popup every. Time. I started. It. But there is an easy workaround: disable the popup.
  • I copied over my Subversion repository from a Windows drive to the Linux drive and did a checkout and it worked perfectly. Yay, Subversion.
  • For some reason, all of the sound devices were turned down to zero in the mixer. No sound, no microphone, etc. It took a while for me to find the mixer (there’s that switching “friction” I’ve been talking about), enable all of the inputs I have, and then turn up and adjust the gain on all the inputs I care about. It might be because I’ve got a sound card with 5.1 surround. *shrug*
  • Skype works great. The only “problem” I had was that it took me a while to figure out how to get it to start automatically when I login.
  • All of my Firefox plugins still work. That’s as expected but it’s still cool.
  • Installing Apache and MySql were no more of a chore than they were to install on Windows. The experience was different, of course, but it wasn’t any tougher.
  • Ubuntu doesn’t install a bunch of stuff you might expect because of licensing issues. MP3 ripping and playback, NVIDIA device drivers, and proprietary video codecs all need to be installed separately. It’s very easy to do, it’s just an extra step if you need that stuff.
  • Installing NVIDIA drivers was easy but incomplete. I installed the drivers and rebooted and nothing. You have to also run a tool to get it to modify your settings to enable it (xconf).
  • Adobe provides an installer with the version 9 Flash plugin which is really swell of them. Now they just need to release Photoshop for Linux and they’ll be the coolest kids on the block.
  • Sharing the printer with my wife’s XP machine was another story. It’s straightforward but a little ridiculous.
  • Boot time is about the same. Windows XP actually gets you to the login screen faster than Ubuntu but after I login I then have to wait again while services and background apps start up. Ubuntu seems to do all of that nonsense up front so when I login I’m just logged in and there’s no additional wait. I like that approach better since I can just do something else for 60 seconds and come back when it’s ready instead of having to wait twice. The Ubuntu way is more civilized.
  • Setting up file sharing for my wife’s Windows laptop was a mixed bag. Right-clicking a folder and clicking Share folder worked as expected—to a point. Ubuntu installed the appropriate file-sharing stuff, shared the folder, and declared success. I tried accessing the share from the laptop and was asked for a username and password and my Ubuntu login didn’t work. After some digging, I discovered that passwords for Windows file sharing are stored separately from Ubuntu login passwords, presumably for security reasons. I just wish the installer had told me about it.
  • Installing my Wacom drawing tablet required an easy driver install followed by a not so easy edit of a configuration file. Installing hardware sometimes seems to peter out at the last step. Linux needs just a little more *oomph* in some of the hardware installers.

So far, Ubuntu has been a terrific experience. Most of the minor issues I had are the types of problems new users commonly have with computers in general (How do I adjust the sound? How do I get apps to start automatically when I login? And so on.). Getting to a functional and aesthetically pleasing desktop environment is essential and Ubuntu handled that critical first step with ease. The more I use it, the more my old Windows habits fade, and the easier it becomes.

In the next installment, I plan to write a little more about some applications—specifically, new apps that I found to replace apps I had been using in Windows that didn’t have a Linux version and the delightful and sometimes disappointing surprises in that arena. And I’ll wrap up the series in part 4 with conclusions, I’ll tell you where I ended up, and share some final thoughts about switching.

[ Continue to Part 3: Oh my God—it’s full of stars! ]