Ubuntu ushers me out of the Windows XP era


— 11:02 PM on July 7, 2011

Well, it finally happened. Windows XP is no longer the primary OS on any of my day-to-day machines. The last holdout was my laptop, a gray-haired but solid HP nc8230 rocking a single-core 1.86GHz Pentium M, 2GB of RAM, and a Mobility Radeon X600 graphics chip. The low-brow specs ruled out my modern OS of choice, Windows 7 Professional. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of dropping $130 for another license. A few months back, I moved my home file and web development server from a 32-bit Windows XP environment to 64-bit Ubuntu 10.10. Still pumped about the success of that project, I decided to give Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" a chance to win my heart as the sole proprietor of the HP's hard drive.

First things first: I need to clear the air. I would classify myself as an advanced Linux n00b. I'm fairly comfortable tossing around terminal commands and editing the odd config file (in gedit), but my neck beard has not yet matured to the point where terminal text editors like vi, vim, or Emacs seem like a good idea. My laptop is used for standard productivity tasks, Internet surfing, and some light scripting with PHP and Python. Simplicity, versatility, and usability are valued over geek-cred, compile-from-source, time-consuming complexity. This post contains some personal observations I've made after stepping outside my Windows comfort zone, but it shouldn't be viewed as a full-on Linux distro review. Consider yourself warned.

I've been casually following the Ubuntu lineage since about the time that 5.10 "Breezy Badger" dropped in 2005. It wasn't until the 10.x releases came along that I felt Ubuntu was finally refined and usable enough to replace Windows for one of my primary PCs. With previous releases, I'd lose hours fiddling with configuration files, fighting graphics drivers, and attempting to install software that wasn't in a default repository. The OS would inevitably blow up and refuse to boot. Before long, Windows would wash back over the hard drive platters, and life would go on. In a ironic twist, Windows XP decided to irreparably blow up this time, giving me the perfect chance to see if Linux could hack the full-time gig.

Installing Natty Narwhal was a cakewalk. Ubuntu has put a lot of work into its installer, which is attractive and about as simple as they come. This has always been one of the easier distributions to set up and get running, and the extra spit-shine shows that the Ubuntu gang is making a concerted effort to woo a more mainstream audience.

After the installer finished doing its thing, there was little more to be done. Since my laptop's hardware is old, bordering on retirement-home age, all the drivers were locked and loaded except for the proprietary fglrx AMD graphics driver. If I had to pick one Linux nemesis, it would be graphics drivers—without question. I've lost more battles trying to get proprietary drivers from Nvidia and AMD working properly than I care to admit. To this day, the thought of modifying an xorg.conf file makes me want to curl up in the fetal position under a desk. My record of failure remained unscathed as I installed the fglrx drivers through the Synaptic Package Manager and promptly lost all 3D acceleration and Compiz effects. Some cursory Googling of the issue seemed to indicate that Mobility Radeon X600 owners were a subhuman species, unworthy of functioning proprietary drivers, so I uninstalled them and went about my business using the default X.Org AMD drivers (which seem to work quite well with this hardware).

Once the drivers were sorted, customizing the rest of my Linux experience was a relatively pain-free affair. My first order of business was to ditch the new Unity theme that is now activated by default in Ubuntu. This theme would be great if I were on a netbook or some other device that views Internet communication as its sole purpose in life. However, for a system oriented toward general productivity (and with a display resolution greater than 1024x600), a dumbed-down interface laden with ginormous icons makes me see red. I promptly restored the standard Ubuntu-skinned Gnome desktop by logging out and selecting "Ubuntu Classic" from the drop-down options at the bottom of the screen. The process was simple enough, but Ubuntu should really ask the users for their preference during the installation process rather than dumping them into giant-icon land by default.

 

The standard Gnome interface is a beautiful thing when pimped out with Ubuntu's custom skin and wallpaper. The UI has more of an OS X vibe than a Windows feel, but it smartly combines elements from both in such a way that users from either side of the aisle should feel comfortable. As a bonus, if something like the positioning of the window close/maximize/minimize button array bothers you, it can easily be changed in the Appearance control panel. If you find yourself longing for an OS X-style dock, any number of free options are available for download in the Software Center. My personal favorite dock app is aptly called Docky. Even for hardened Windows users, Docky provides an unobtrusive, stylish, and useful way to organize and launch one's favorite locations and applications.

While we're on the subject of software, one thing I've always enjoyed about Ubuntu (and other Linux distros) is the ability to use the Software Center and Synaptic Package Manager to search quickly for applications and to install them with the click of a button. These services behave much like Steam or the jillion of other cookie-cutter app stores coming out these days, except the software listed within is generally free. Popular open-source applications like FileZilla, Firefox, Chromium, Wireshark, and GIMP can be installed easily without having to touch the command line. Of course, "sudo apt-get install" still works if you want to fire up the terminal and impress your friends.

The major side-effect of giving up Windows is the unfortunate forfeiture of native access to most games and popular software like Microsoft Office (particularly OneNote) and Adobe's Creative Suite. Most Windows apps can be run inside a virtual machine or a compatibility layer like Wine, but losing native support is detrimental to Linux adoption overall. As much as I respect the incredible effort put into the GIMP project, it's simply not on the same level as Photoshop. The situation is much the same for office suites, as Microsoft's Office 2010 maintains a sizable lead over the free alternatives in terms of both looks and functionality. Fortunately, online offerings like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 are beginning to bridge the platform divide. I'm still anxiously awaiting a decent open-source alternative to OneNote, though. An application called EverNote has gained popularity on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android platforms, but there is no love for the Linux crowd yet. Google Notebook works in a pinch, but it requires an Internet connection and doesn't even come close to OneNote's level of functionality.

When it comes to basic personal communication, Ubuntu has done an admirable job of integrating chat and e-mail features into the OS. The chat client can be configured to work with common services like Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Facebook Chat. Contacts are unified into a single list, and only one notification icon appears at the top of the screen. This is essentially the same functionality that multi-protocol instant messaging clients like Pidgin provide, except that it comes bundled with the OS. The only chat service I use regularly that isn't supported is Skype. A Linux version of the Skype app is available through the Ubuntu Software Center, but it looks like an afterthought compared to the Windows and Mac flavors.

Although I'm still in the early stages of living with Linux, barring a few minor teething issues, things have gone extremely well. Mainstream distributions like Ubuntu appear to be just about ready for prime time, provided the user isn't dependent on proprietary applications or games that only run on other systems. Native Linux applications and web-based software can be somewhat lacking in looks and features, but it's astonishing what $0 will get you these days. That said, I'm not ready to give up Windows totally just yet. I simply have too much invested in games and other software that won't run on Linux without jumping through hoops, and truth be told, I really like Windows 7. Linux is not for everyone, but it's hard to argue with the value and quality modern distros offer. In fact, I've decided to let Ubuntu take root and make a home for itself on my laptop. /end corny Linux puns.

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