Friday, December 11, 2009

Ubuntu 9.10: The Ubiquitous Universal Ultimate Uber Ubuntu review

The internet has been flooded with windows 7 reviews recently; even if you are not using it by now, if you haven't tried the RC earlier, you will still know what 7 can and cant do and how it stacks up against Vista and XP. Writing yet Another 7 Review would be pointless. However, XP and Vista are not the only alternatives to 7, so I thought it would be much more interesting to explore how 7 compares to a lesser known alternative: Ubuntu Linux.

Freedom and choice
Linux is all about freedom and choice. Windows users are used to neither, at least when it comes to their OS. Their freedom is greatly restricted by what Microsoft licenses and policies impose on them, and their choice, for the most part, is limited to selecting a basic, premium or ultimate version; a choice which mostly affects the price. Often you do not even have that choice as windows comes preinstalled on your computer, and you're basically left choosing the wallpaper.

The contrast with Linux couldn't possibly be greater. Distrowatch lists over 300 different Linux distributions, and thats not even half of them. Most distributions also offer different versions, for instance Ubuntu, besides offering desktop and server versions, also has a Netbook Remix and a MID edition for small screens and portable touchscreen devices. Like most distributions, Ubuntu offers a choice between KDE, GNOME and Xfce as desktop environments (respectively named Kubuntu, Ubuntu and Xubuntu). Then there are derivatives tailored for specific users, like Edubuntu for schools. Mythbuntu for HTPCs and PVR. Ubuntu Studio for low latency audio editing and multimedia creation. Eeebuntu, fluxbuntu, Goobuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Christian Edition, Ubuntu Satanic Edition (no Im not kidding) and dozens of others, and that's just the Ubuntu family. You also have Ubuntu forks, that is, independent distributions based on Ubuntu, like Linux Mint, Sabayon, CrunchBang, ... The list is endless and I haven't even mentioned any of the other main Linux distributions like OpenSuse, Fedora, Debian, Mandriva, Gentoo or Slackware.

Someone new to the Linux world is bound to be overwhelmed and confused. I know windows users that have trouble determining which windows version is appropriate for them, how could anyone manage to find an appropriate Linux distribution out of several hundreds ?

Most mainstream Linux distributions are more similar to each other as they are similar to windows, so in a way it doesn't matter too much which one you pick. The most visible difference is determined by your choice of desktop environment (usually KDE or GNOME), but those are relatively consistent between distro's. To help you find a distro you could have a look at distro-watch and read about the most common distro's. Or you can have one recommended to you using some online wizard, but if you really don't know where to start, then the regular Ubuntu desktop version would be a good first choice.

Ubuntu 9.10 (the number refers to year and month of release) is the latest version of what currently is the most popular Linux distribution for the desktop, and arguably the best supported one. Do not worry too much about chosing the right variant, if you want to try KDE instead of the default GNOME, you can simply add KDE later, effectively giving you Kubuntu as well. If you want to try the Netbook Remix interface, you can just install it on top of a regular Ubuntu with a few mouseclicks, just like you can install all packages from Ubuntu studio or Edubuntu. So its not that crucial what you start with, Ubuntu is flexible and its easy to customise after an initial installation.

In this article we will examine some of the pro's and contra's of Ubuntu compared to Windows 7, but most of those arguments will apply equally to other Linux distributions as well.

As you probably know, Ubuntu, like nearly all Linux distro's, is free. Free referring both to the price and the fact you are free to use the software in any way you want to, to run it, look at the code, even modify the software and redistribute it. You can install and reinstall it on as many machines as you want, there is no activation hassle or any limitation really. Its your software. You are even free to sell Ubuntu if you wanted to.

To obtain Ubuntu, you just download it from the net, or you can request a free CD to be shipped to your home; you don't even have to pay for the medium or the shipping. Its almost too good to be true, its free as in free beer. Just like the vast majority of software written for Linux.

Windows 7 is neither open, nor free. Depending on the version, it will set you back somewhere between €100 and €300, even if it is bundled with a computer and the cost is hidden in the overall price tag. If you lose or scratch your disc, or if your machine doesn't come with one and you need one later, you might have to spend another €25 just to obtain a copy of the software you already own. Your license might be limited to a single specific machine and you may even not be allowed to run your own OS in a virtual machine. Did I mention (re-)activation and WGA pains?

Most software written for windows is also closed source, commercial software, and if you add the cost of MS Office, a commercial antivirus, and some popular software like Photoshop or Premiere, you can easily end up spending more on software than hardware. Then again, most of the opensource software available for Linux has been ported to windows as well, therefore nothing prevents you from combining Windows with free software like Firefox, Open office, Gimp and a free virus scanner.

Further blurring the cost picture somewhat is the fact that not everything Ubuntu is free; the legal status of the MP3 codec is dubious, and therefore an MP3 codec is not included in Ubuntu by default, as open formats like OGG are preferred anyway. If you do need an MP3 codec, you can download one with just a mouse click, but that may or may not be legal depending where you live and who you chose to believe. A (legal) commercial decoder for MP3 and Microsoft's WMA audio and video codecs will set you back around €18 from Canonical's shop. The same applies to DVD playback, the available Linux players capable of playing encrypted DVDs are potentially illegal (especially in the US). If that bothers you, purchasing a legal PowerDVD license costs you another €37. Lastly, if you need support, there is of course a lot of free community support, mostly through the excellent Ubuntu support forums, but if you insist on having commercial phone/email support from Canonical, you are free to buy a support contract for another €40 -or more, depending what you want exactly.

Still all these costs are entirely optional, and usually unnecessary. You are perfectly able to install and run Ubuntu for the net total price of zero €/$ with no strings attached.

Ubuntu: 10/10
Windows 7: 6,5/10

Live CD and Installation
An Ubuntu cd is not only a way to install the OS, its also a so called Live CD. That means you can boot from the disc to try out the OS without making any changes to your computer, without even installing it. Obviously this has some limitations, but its still impressive to be able to boot a tiny 650 Mb CD and have full functional modern OS that will recognise and enable most, if not all of your hardware, enable you to go online, surf the web, run instant messenger, play your media or do office productivity work - all without touching your harddrive. Using a Live CD you can get a first impression of the OS and to some extent determine hard- and software compatibility.

Ubuntu iso images can also be installed on a USB pendrive, giving the exact same functionality and the added benefits of better performance and being able to write data to the stick, thereby preserving sessions, installed software and documents. A live USB stick opens some interesting possibilities; you can have one on your keychain to always have access to some key documents, Firefox bookmarks, Skype and various tools. You can boot the stick from virtually any pc, which is particularly useful if you ever need to help a friend with a bricked PC or access emails or do some homebanking on a public, untrusted machine which may well be infected with keyloggers or other malware. Just plug in your stick, boot from it and you have your own, secure pc.

A Live CD (or stick) is also very useful to troubleshoot or recover data from machines that no longer boot, have virus infections, or lost passwords. NTFS drives can be read and written to and you can run recovery software like testdisk to recover files from a crashed or accidentally formatted drive. At the same time you can be online on that very same, previously bricked machine to look for help or information on the internet. For these reasons alone, even for Windows users its definitely worth having an Ubuntu Live CD or stick around.

The actual installation of Ubuntu itself is rather easy. Once you booted from the disc or stick, a simple GUI wizard will guide you through the various installation steps and its not harder than installing windows, although it is much more flexible. If you already have windows or another OS installed, Ubuntu will by default propose a "side-by-side", dual boot install, preserving the existing OS, and resizing and creating partitions as needed. Its also not very picky where you install it, any partition on a local or external USB drive is fine. Lastly, a nice touch is that while the OS installs, you can still surf the web, play a game, chat or do some work, since you can launch the installation from the live session, and it just runs like any other application. Installing Ubuntu requires about 5GB disk space minimum and will take about 15 minutes depending on your hardware and depending if you need to resize existing partitions (which can take several hours).

If you do not want to install Ubuntu on its own dedicated partition (or drive), then there is an option called Wubi that lets you install Ubuntu “inside” Windows. You can launch the Wubi installer from within windows and use it to install the new OS to a virtual filesystem in an Ubuntu folder on your existing NTFS or FAT drive. Wubi automatically adds Ubuntu to your windows bootloader, giving you a dual boot ability. This approach is not without its drawbacks however, and I would not recommend using Wubi beyond perhaps a first attempt or if you have very good reasons not to repartition. If you are serious about learning or using Ubuntu, I would strongly recommend you boot from the live cd to do a regular install on a dedicated partition.

Compared to installing Ubuntu, Windows 7's installation seems like something from a previous decade. Its not hard; the hardest part is probably typing in the serial number without mistyping, but its so inflexible and limited. There is not even a way to test the CD/DVD for defects before attempting an install. There is no way to check, copy or recover files already on the hard-drives prior to (re-)installation, no way to test the OS with your hardware or use the CD for anything other than installing really. And while you're installing you can only look at the progress bar, there is not even solitaire to play, much less emails to read. Franky, installing windows 95 was more exciting, at least it gave you something to read.

The installer itself has some other shortcomings: it (predictably?) will not play nice with existing installed operating systems other than Windows; it will wipe a Linux bootloader without asking, and is unable to install if it cant read (what it thinks is) the bootable partition of your system. Those are flaws one could excuse, but not being able to boot and install from a memory stick is an omission that is simply unforgivable. Especially in this age where netbooks without optical drives are so popular. You can not legally install 7 without optical drive, or at least I would not know how to. That's hard to understand for an OS that claims to be ideal for netbooks. Being unable to install windows 7 to an external USB drive is another restriction I can not understand.

That said, if you do have an optical drive and you don't care about installing on external drives, or about multiboot; if all you want to do is install the OS (and you have a dead tree newspaper to read while it installs) then there is not much to complain. Windows 7 installation is easy and fairly fast as well.

Ubuntu: 9/10
Windows 7: 7/10

Out of the box experience
Anyone who has ever done a from scratch install of windows knows how much work there is to be done after the initial installation. There are a lot of programs and drivers to be installed and downloaded before the OS actually is usable for most people. Audio, video and wifi drivers, DirectX, updates, .NET frameworks, Adobe Flash, Java, PDF reader, antivirus, an Office suite, an instant messenger, all your favorite utilities, probably a different browser and email client. Compared to XP, Windows 7 does improve in this regard, helped in no small amount by the absence of a gazillion updates and service packs at this time, and thanks to some improved default apps like Windows Mail, but I still spent several hours chasing, downloading drivers, apps and utilities I simply can not do without. All in all, I needed to download well over 500 Mb and spent several hours locating, downloading, installing and configuring it all.

With Ubuntu, the out of the box experience is considerably better. OpenOffice, firefox and a decent email client (evolution) come preinstalled, as well as a multi protocol instant messenger, applications to manage photo albums, a powerful image editor (gimp), a PDF reader, a bittorrent client and a host of other utilities and applications that a fresh windows installation lacks. Basic drivers for all your hardware are probably installed automatically and for some people the default application set will be almost all they need to get started. You'll probably just want to install flash and java which are not included by default because they are not opensource (other, more pragmatic distributions like Linux Mint do include Java and Flash by default, as well as some non-free codecs, including MP3 and libraries to play encrypted DVDs).

A major difference between Ubuntu and Windows lies in how easy it is to find and install missing applications, utilities and drivers. No need to search the web and download and install them one by one from various sites and using the same pointless installation wizards over and over again. In Ubuntu you just go to the Ubuntu software center, you search in a list of applications (currently offering 2000+ free apps), select the ones you want and with just a few mouse-clicks everything is automatically downloaded and installed for you. That includes popular Firefox plug-ins like Adblock, java and flash, as well as nVidia and ATI drivers. You just select them from a list. Who said using Linux was hard?

Ubuntu Software Center

The Ubuntu software center is perhaps the most interesting and valuable applications for Ubuntu and IMHO a key advantage over windows. Its like Apple's App store for the iPhone, except all the software is free. There is the same ease of use, and it lets you find great applications you might never have heard about otherwise. If you dont like the included F-spot photo album manager or you want something more powerful than Movie player, just search by keywords or browse by categories and you will get a nice list of applications you can try and install with a simple mouse-click.

Every application in the software center at this point is free as in gratis (this may and probably will change eventually), is tested with your version of Ubuntu and is guaranteed virus/malware free. All so called “dependencies” are managed for you, so if an application requires some external tools or additional libraries, these will automatically be installed for you. No need to hunt down “.NET 2.x framework” or wonder which update or service pack you need when an app complains it cant find vbrun600.dll. Behind the scenes the package manager takes care of that for you.

As for drivers, Windows 7 does offer a decent set of basic drivers that enable a lot of hardware, but typically you'll still need to visit your manufacturers website to find drivers for your motherboard, printer, scanner, webcam, .. I even needed to download a 60 Mb driver just to properly enable the extra buttons on my mouse!

With Linux, for the most part, either your hardware works out of the box and doesnt need a driver as its already included in the kernel, or it doesn't work, and may well never work. There are exceptions to this rule, for instance for recent nVidia and ATI videocards you will need a “proprietary” driver to enable 3D support, just like in windows. If that is the case, upon your first boot Ubuntu's "hardware drivers" application will prompt you and tell you about these drivers and ask your approval to download and install the appropriate version for you. The same applies to a few wifi cards. For a few devices (e.g. most recent Epson printers and scanners, and a few integrated ethernet controllers) you will need to download a .deb package from the manufacturers website and double click it to install it.

For the most part however, you won't need any extra drivers. Your soundcard probably just works, most webcams are supported out of the box, thousands of printers and scanners work fine without any additional drivers. Bluetooth, wifi, (wired) network cards, RAID controllers, USB audio devices, game controllers etc they all “just work”.

Except, when they dont. If you have the misfortune that your hardware is not supported out of the box or by using a pre-packaged proprietary driver, then you may face a fairly intimidating, complex and time consuming process of finding the appropriate instructions on the web and entering “obscure” commands in a terminal with no guarantee it will ever really work. Geeks may enjoy the ability to compile kernel drivers and modify them to make them work, but someone just trying to get his webcam to work so he can Skype with his family will easily be put off by the complexity, and conclude Linux is just not user-friendly enough. If your hardware is not Linux friendly, then Linux is not very user friendly. As I read in someone's signature on a forum: Linux is very user-friendly, its just picky about its friends. Just remember, you can test this easily even before installing, by just running the liveCD.

Ubuntu: anywhere between 2/10 and 9/10 depending on your hardware
Windows 7: 8/10

Click here for Part 2

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