Dubbed ‘Linux for Humans’, Ubuntu has a lot to live up to, especially when comparing it to Windows. As the popular saying goes ‘In a world without fences and walls, who needs Gates and Windows?’, Linux has been the popular alternative to Microsoft’s dominating Windows operating system. Unfortunately, Linux, although it has many different distributions and flavours, was really hard for a computer ‘newbie’ or long time Windows users to get familiar with because with something as big as a complete operating system change, there are bound to be major differences in how everything is controlled and works in general when compared between them. This major difference is what have driven many users away from Linux. With Ubuntu in the lineup, things have gotten a lot better in the Linux community. In this article, I detail a little about Ubuntu in general along with my experience with the operating system having used it for about a month now. Written by a long time Windows fan, I’ll try to detail the pro’s and con’s of using Ubuntu. There will be comparisons made to Windows since it is the operating system that dominates the world today. You can be sure that I’ve written this article without any bias towards either operating system whatsoever. I’m just writing everything as I see it.
In order to understand Ubuntu, it’s best to learn a little about how this operating system came to be. Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu in 2004, initially invested almost $10 million of his own money to fund the Ubuntu Project. One of the main goals of Ubuntu is to allow anyone and everyone to use the operating system no matter where they are in the world and no matter what language they speak. This is made possible due to Ubuntu being free of charge (as with most Linux distro’s) and available in many different languages. What makes Ubuntu even more attractive is how a lot of people claim it to be as one of the most user friendly Linux distribution out there and believe me, there are certainly a lot out! With Ubuntu and open source software in general, it’s never just a set-it-and-forget-it ordeal. A big part of Ubuntu relies on users around the world to constantly improve it. Because unlike Windows where the underlying code to the operating system itself is tightly locked and sealed away by Microsoft, users can’t just dig in and begin changing the base code. With Ubuntu and many other open source software, that underlying code is available for anyone to see and tinker with (assuming you know what you are doing). This in turn allows the community (rather than the big evil corporations as some see it as) to constantly improve the software in general. Therefore, a large part of Ubuntu relies on the community. Everyone is urged to participate in the effort. Even if you don’t know how to write a single line of code, you can still help out by teaching other beginners on how to use Ubuntu or by answering questions other users may have on a particular problem that you just so happen to have solved in the past. No matter how small you may think the contribution may be, just by participating yourself can be seen as big help to the Ubuntu community in general and that is what matters the most.The Linux/Unix origin can be traced back way farther than Ubuntu. Ubuntu is just a different distribution of Linux. Talking about the roots of Linux/Unix is beyond the scope of this article. Therefore as always, Google is your best friend if you want to learn more about its origin.
Learning a New Operating System
There are some things that I want to point out to any of you that want to make a switch in operating system. A lot of friends have asked me if they should switch over to a different operating system (more times to a Mac than to Linux) and I always shake my head knowing that I’m going to have to repeat myself everytime. Personally, I rarely recommend one operating system over the other. Everything is based on personal preferences and that is why I usually need a lot of time going over everything with that individual. Basically, I can go over some of the more important details you need to be aware of whenever switching to something new. Whether it be to Ubuntu or to a Mac, there are what I label ‘consequences’ and ‘questions’ that you need to be aware of.
- Are you prepared to learn a whole new operating system? This is usually one of the first question I ask. It still surprises me that many people who ask me for advice on this issue believe that they can just ‘wing it’ and learn everything as they go (it could also be due to their laziness). True, that method can work for a lot of people but by switching to a new operating system, I’m assuming that you want to get the most out of it. If not, why make the switch in the first place? I usually suggest the user buy a beginner’s guide book (even the ‘For Dummies’ edition will suffice) and read it over to get a feel for the new operating system before making the plunge. If not, they can also just look around on the Internet and find other similar guides to read over. Ubuntuguide.org is a excellent place to dig for this information. Basically, anything to get the user to familiarize, even if just a little, with the new operating system can help a lot.
- Software and hardware support should be another big concern. One of the biggest advantage to using Windows is due to its support for a humongous range of hardware. Because Windows is the most used operating system in the world, you can bet that hardware vendors will have driver support for that operating system. When you switch to Ubuntu, the same can’t be said. The good news is that as long as your hardware is not ancient artifact, there is still a really good chance that it will work. Obviously, you will need to do research to confirm it or just connect it and see what happens. The easiest place to see if that new printer you have (or will buy) is supported under Linux is to simply visit the hardware manufacturer’s support website and see if they have a Linux driver for it. If that doesn’t yield any results, than your next bet is to Google it (‘hardware name + Ubuntu’ is a good search term to use). Chances are high that another person also have the same hardware as you and have documented a solution to make it work under Ubuntu. If not, then you’re just going to have to take a gamble that the hardware will work with a generic driver Ubuntu gives it. The bad news is that some features might not be available for you to use. For example, neither I or Ubuntu could find a driver for my Canon MP530 AIO printer. However, by using the Canon MP500 driver instead, the printer worked.
Besides hardware, you’ll also have to worry about software compatibility. Programs designed to run under Windows (and only on Windows) obviously won’t work under Linux. Therefore, you’ll usually have to resort to finding a software alternative. Good news is that chances of you finding a alternative is high. If there is a really important program you use under Windows and you can’t find any alternative for it (or one that doesn’t offer similar features and capabilities you need most), you’ll have to think about either using WINE or a virtual machine.
- Compatibility between different operating systems is another issue to think about. Remember, Microsoft Windows dominates the world whether you like it or not and so there is a good chance that your colleagues, friends, and family members will be using one as well. The problem here is that if you decide to switch over to Linux/Ubuntu, you’re basically being the oddball of the group (unless of course everyone else you know is also using the same operating system) and with that comes consequences. Files and documents you create under Ubuntu might not be compatible under Windows and vice-versa. Therefore, sharing files between your friends might prove to be a hassle. This scenario is pretty rare now days but it is still something you should be aware of.
My Ubuntu Experience
I have used Ubuntu for a really short amount of time in the past but I have given up on it due to how I didn’t really have a need to use a different operating system. Fast forward to the present and I still don’t as I love Windows 7. However, I decided to give Ubuntu another shot. In the past, I’ve only given it its own virtual machine but this time, I’ve gone all out and gave it its own partition for a dual-boot. This way, Ubuntu can better utilize my Lenovo R61′s hardware.
This is not a Ubuntu operating system review but more of a pro’s and con’s. I’ve been using Windows since Windows 3.1 and so I want to just detail some of the good and bad things I’ve noticed when using Ubuntu as my main operating system for about month.
Pros (in no particular order)
- Simple Installation. Ubuntu is very install-friendly and idiot proof. Of course, you’ll still need to learn what a hard drive partition is an whatnot but the bottom line is that it’s very simple. Answer a couple of questions, click a few buttons and it will do all the work, very similar to Windows 7. Actually, if you really want to try Linux but don’t want to create virtual machines, you can use the Wubi installer to install Ubuntu onto your machine. Wubi will install Ubuntu just like any other type of software and when it is done, you’ll have a nice dual boot entry when you start your computer in which you can then boot into Ubuntu. If you decide you no longer want the operating system, simply uninstall the entire operating system as if it was just another software! No need to mess with messy partitions/reformatting and the likes!
- Stability and Speed. Ubuntu on my Lenovo laptop feels rock solid and is very responsive. For the entire month of constant usage, never once have it crashed or froze on me. In fact, the only problem I had throughout the entire time was one frozen installation window. Even at that, the window froze only after it finished with the installation routine! Streaming videos to my PS3 via the PS3 Media Server was once again rock solid. In Windows 7, it crashed a couple of times due to no particular reason. Also, none of my other applications crashed as well under Ubuntu. Very impressive!
- Customization. It feels as if the entire Ubuntu operating system is customizable. From the window buttons, the window border color, the icons, fonts, and menu placement is up for you to play with. Windows 7 does have themes as well but wallpaper rotation, window transparency and color can hardly be called a theme after seeing what Ubuntu has to offer. Sure you can install third party utilities to change the look of Windows but Ubuntu can do that by default. If you want special effects, Ubuntu got you covered as well. A utility called CompizConfig allows you to customize special animations pertaining to windows and your desktop. This is what a Linux geek will usually show you first when you ask them what’s so good with the operating system!
- All-In-One Package. Right out of the box, Ubuntu is configured to go for most casual users. There are many applications installed by default that picks up right where you left off in Windows. For example, for email you got Evolution, for music you got Rhythmbox, movies and videos you got the Totem Movie Player, GIMP for your graphic editing needs, Firefox for browsing the web, the Open Office suite for your productivity needs, and a bunch of games to kill time. This means that as soon as you get Ubuntu up and running, you’re good to go.
- Open Source Software. Ubuntu has a really cool feature that I use often. The Synaptic Package Manager is your one stop shop for finding and installing free Ubuntu applications. Because there are so many different applications in the Linux world, it can be hard trying to locate them. With the Synaptic Package Manager, it’s totally simplified. Simply start it up, search or browse for the software of choice, mark it for installation and that’s it! With this one simple utility, you now have access to the entire Linux package universe and trust me, there are a lot! And remember, you don’t have to worry about any licensing issues! You literally can spend days and days just trying out all the different cool stuff the Linux universe has to offer.
You know, sometimes it amazes me at how ignorant some people can be. I know ignorant might be a harsh word to use but I really can’t seem to think of another word. Commercial software cost money, obviously a lot of people know that in the back of their minds. What I mean is that a lot of times when fixing computers for individuals, I would stumble upon some users that would ask me to please install back all of their software after the reformat. So of course, I’m ready to comply. I would ask for the software installation CDs and DVDs. As you can guess, I usually get the big deer-in-the-headlight eyes in response. Most of their software being used prior to that point had mostly all been pirated versions installed by other ‘computer technicians’. These software usually include the Microsoft Office suite, Adobe Photoshop, DVD authoring tools, music editing programs and antivirus software. I would then have to suggest using free alternatives because I sure as heck won’t install those commercial software for them! Here is where the ignorant part comes in. I would ask why they wanted so dearly to stick with those popular commercial software. Their answers usually come in the form of them being ‘popular’ and that it can do everything. So then I ask what they usually do in Adobe Photoshop, which costs about $700. I literally shake my head when they all tell me that they would use it to resize or crop their photos and to get rid of the red-eye effect. So I basically told them they were using about $5 worth of the $700 program. I would then proceed to introduce them to GIMP, which is a free photo editing alternative which can do all of that as well. When asked again why they specifically need the entire Microsoft Office suite, I get a similar response in that all they needed to do was open up documents sent by their peers and friends. Open them! That’s it! I would then proceed to tell them about Open Office which can do all of that as well. As you can guess, my words usually go unnoticed and they would just kindly tell me to ‘forget’ the whole thing which would usually tell me that they would contact their other ‘friendly’ technician to get the job done the first moment I step out their door. The main lesson to be learned here is that you don’t necessarily always have to use commercial software (pirated or not). You can save a ton of money (and I mean a lot) by choosing free alternatives, which Ubuntu is full of. They might not look as pretty but they sure as heck can get the job done. Why is that concept so hard to grasp for so many individuals?
- Security. Linux is more secure than Windows. That is a fact and not an opinion no matter how hard hardcore Windows users will defend their system. Many of the world’s most dangerous malware are targeted at Windows systems. This is mainly due to its popularity. Why spend time writing viruses and malware to target a much smaller user-base such as Ubuntu? However, that doesn’t automatically mean that security takes a back seat where Linux is concerned. Remember, many people contribute to the Ubuntu project and when a vulnerability is discovered, the community can issue a patch to fix it up much sooner than Microsoft can for Windows. This means that Ubuntu users are better and faster protected since they do not have to wait until the head honcho of a major company to decide when to release the patches.
Cons (in no particular order)
- Slight Complexity. For the most part, Ubuntu is pretty easy to use. If you’re familiar with Windows, Ubuntu will feel right at home after you’ve used it for a good week or two. There are many similarities between the two that you’ll quickly notice but there are also many differences. For the most part, Ubuntu will work fine. However, when something doesn’t work, you best be prepared to spend a lot of time on Google. For example, one of the first things I did under Firefox was to create back my Grooveshark Prism app. However, the shortcut didn’t immediately work like in Windows. Opening the app would immediately open a new instance of Firefox with the default homepage displayed. After searching for about five or so minutes, I found out that you actually need to alter the command of the Prism app to display “//usr/bin/xulrunner”. Once done so, my Grooveshark loaded up perfectly. This is obviously a small problem but it is still a hassle none the less and other users might not have the patience to find a fix. Another similar problem I had was with a wallpaper changing application called Desktop Drapes. I wanted to have the application start up upon logon but it never did. After a long time of conducting searches, I found out I had to manually edit the configuration file to delay the boot time of the application by 10 seconds before it would correctly start when I log in to the system. Also, after the installation of some programs, it sometimes can be difficult locating and starting the program! Sometimes, the program will not appear in the Applications menu but in the System menu instead and vice-versa. Othertimes, it could be that the program is started from the terminal (equivalent to the Windows command prompt). If it’s the latter, you’ll have to know what to type in the terminal to actually start it up and more often than not, you wouldn’t know it. This will often lead you back to Google to search for the answer.
- Frequent Releases. Unlike Windows, Ubuntu has much more frequent version releases. Whereas Windows will have a new version out every couple of years, Ubuntu will have new versions every six months of so. This can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing due to how new versions should be more secure than the previous release. Also, new features and whatnot will be available in the new edition. It’s a curse if you are one who must have the newest and greatest things in life. With each new version, you’re forced to make a decision of whether to upgrade or not. Also, with each new version, there could also be changes that you wouldn’t have liked. For example when reading a lot of Ubuntu guides online for solutions, I then figured out it doesn’t apply to me because the feature was taken away in my Ubuntu version. Luckily, the good news is that the older version will still be supported for a long while. For example, the latest Ubuntu edition as of right now is version 9.10 Karmic Koala. When a newer version of Ubuntu comes along in the near future, version 9.10 will still be supported until 2011.
- The Music Players Suck. It might be just me but I’ve tried about four different music players in Ubuntu and all produced the same results. In Windows Media Player or Winamp, you specify a folder for your music collection. Your music player’s library would then be filled with music you store inside that folder. Music you played outside of that folder would just be considered a simple playlist, which is not saved. However in Ubuntu, music I play outside of the specified music folder still gets added into the player’s library which is driving me nuts. I’ve tried Rhythmbox, Amarok, Exaile, and Songbird but all have the same results. This isn’t really a con for Ubuntu itself but it’s still a very irritating issue for me.
In the End…
I’m very satisfied with my time working in Ubuntu for the past month or so. I really had to dig hard to find the negative points on the Linux operating system. As far as I’m concerned, they are all manageable and expected. For example, as with moving to something completely new, there will bound to be a learning curve in the beginning. That is why one of the biggest question you have to ask yourself when deciding to move to another operating system is how willing are you to learn something new and whether or not you’ll have the patience to solve problems you’ll stumble across after the migration. From my one month experience with Ubuntu, I can’t really think of something that I could do in Windows but not on this side. Yes it is true that the initial hunting for the software alternative can seem daunting but it’s actually not that difficult. In fact, here is a list of some well known alternatives to get you started! I feel as if you have the slightest idea of how to navigate your way around Windows, there shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when doing the same in Ubuntu.
I’m surprised at how Ubuntu doesn’t have a larger slice of the pie in the operating system market. Maybe it has to do with operating system stereotype? Windows is for the general population, Apple Macs are for the people who wants to be different and look cool while Linux are for the geeks only? I’ve met a fair share of people who actually thought that. Some of you might not notice it but the Mac operating system is actually built from Unix! With the netbook boom, Ubuntu and Linux has more spotlight as netbooks usually come with limited hardware. As mentioned earlier, it doesn’t take much to run Ubuntu so the advantage of installing it on a netbook can yield great results. In fact, Ubuntu actually has a version for you to run on a netbook labeled the Ubuntu Netbook Remix. But again, the problem for Ubuntu is that the netbook sold usually will already have a license for Windows XP or Windows 7. Therefore, Ubuntu will go unnoticed yet again. One of the biggest problem plaguing Linux in general is their lack of promotion. Many veteran users I’m sure would agree with me. Go to your local computer store outlet or favorite computer manufacturer website and see how many of them actually have a big Ubuntu or Linux banner to greet you. While Ubuntu has gained ground with some of the major players (for example, Dell allows you to customize and ship some of their computers with the Ubuntu operating system installed), it just feels as if they aren’t doing much to really promote it. It is understandable because they probably aren’t making that much money in return for every computer sold with the free operating system.
I will still say in the end that Windows 7 is the better of the two as of right now but Ubuntu has really opened up my eyes. It is such a great operating system of choice to install on computers you don’t really want or have the time to manage or maintain. I’ve actually decided to fully convert my room desktop computer to Ubuntu without using Windows as a dual-boot/backup. If you really think about it, many desktop services are moving to the cloud (the Internet) which is usually accessed via your browser. This will lead many people to wonder why would they still want to pay so much of their money to buy a operating system when they can easily use a free one such as Ubuntu and still be able to get all of their work done.