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

March 14, 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! ]


  1. RuthDeB on 2007-03-14 08:38:52 wrote: Wow! Sounds like you’re pretty happy overall w/ your switch.. I’ll be looking for the next couple installments, of course. (Do let us know if you get mathmap running..) :-D

  2. Dino on 2007-03-14 08:41:47 wrote: You are slowly pushing me in the Linux direction, at least for my backup PC. Photoshop is too important to me to give up. I had tried Linux 5 years ago, and couldn’t get network drivers, so it lasted one night. It may be time to try again. Thanks for posting this play-by-play. If I make the shift, I am sure your trials will help alleviate mine.

  3. Shooting the Kids (Chris) on 2007-03-14 13:06:31 wrote: I hope you picked up Automatix to fill in the extras you need after an Edgy install. Also - you’re absolutely right that passwords between Samba (Windows file sharing) and the main system should be sync’d to begin with. What’s the point of “enabling” sharing if you know it’s not going to work? About my Wacom tablet - I’m using Feisty at the moment and loving it, but I notice that if I’m drawing and drag out of the window GIMP closes off without an error. Really weird behavior. Are you seeing the same thing with Edgy?

  4. liquidat on 2007-03-14 15:19:32 wrote: About the dual monitor stuff of your system: X.Org 7.3 will put an end to such problems: it will be able to easy configure displays at runtime (hotplug) without the need to edit any config files or to restart X. This will be due to massive improvements and enhancements of RandR version 1.2 which will be released together with X.Org 7.3 However, the question will be if the graphic drivers will support it - I don’t really know if the proprietary ATI or Nvidia drivers will support that feature, but the free drivers included in X.Org will support it.

  5. Griffin3 on 2007-03-15 07:32:10 wrote: The newer version (feisty 7.04) also installs the nvidia and ati drivers by default, which would knock another item off of your checklist. Depending on what sort of work you do, you may find some programming really requires Windows. I have had smashing good luck running Win2000 in a virtualizer called “Parallels” on my otherwise Ubuntu desktop (Authorware programming, ugh). The product is $50, but works smashingly well, is supporting most USB devices now, bridging networking, and having a shared folder so you can send your work back and forth using sane, secure linux tools. Just my 2c, Glenn

  6. Mikkel on 2007-03-15 09:03:18 wrote: The problem with the Linux and Windows passwords is that they use different encryption to store the passwords. And the encryption is one way - in other words, there is no easy way to get the plain text password from the encrypted version. Once you have Windows file sharing (SAMBA) installed, the passwords should stay in synce. Mikkel

  7. Liam McDermott on 2007-03-15 09:32:46 wrote: What version of Ubuntu are you using? It seemed to Dapper; if so, you’re going to love Feisty when it comes out. Earlier a reader recommended Automatix, please refrain from using it as it can horribly break your system when you try to upgrade. EasyUbuntu covers all the needed Automatix functionality, but is far more civilized! Welcome to the GNU/Linux community! :)

  8. JayMonster on 2007-03-16 09:34:41 wrote: Nothing here really surprised me, except for your comment about the bootup/login/wait sequence. When XP came out, it was touted as “faster Boot Times” but as you note, it really isn’t… it is just more of the loading occurs AFTER login instead of before. Most of the “PC” type magazines also agreed how “wonderful” this “faster” loading was, and I thought I was the only person that saw that this was actually counter-productive. I have to admit though, I have also not been a big fan of the “Live CD” either as their performance can be a bit lackluster. What I did on my system is use Microsoft Virtual PC (formerly Connectix) which is now free to create a virtual machine and install into that. I look forward to hearing how the rest of the test goes. I haven’t sold myself on any particular flavor of Linux as of yet.

  9. Mattwho on 2007-03-20 12:32:36 wrote: I eagerly await the next segment as you have pushed me over the edge and I am now dual booting XP and ubuntu. I don’t have the pleasure of using my home computer as much as my office computer as you do so it will take me much longer to discover the pros and cons. Thanks for all the great articles!

  10. Kussh Singh on 2007-03-30 03:48:49 wrote: I have used linux for some time now –maybe since 2004. Had access to unix in college and then had tried redhat suselinux etc afterwards but really switched to linux after i came across ubuntu –i think I have tried badger, dapper and now edgy (since almost dec 2004). But have found kanotix better and much much faster. Had tried puppy knoppix and damn small linux too but I find kanotix to be the best yet. Been using kanotix since jan 2007 and ubuntu doesn’t even come close to it in speed and features. Maybe now I need to try the other flavors and see which are similar or better than even kanotix.

  11. flagrantdisregard » Blog Archive » A year with Linux on the desktop on 2007-11-16 10:13:13 wrote: […] I wrote about the surprises of that switch (both happy and vexing) in a four-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) in […]

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