So, here’s my review of Ubuntu Linux.
In terms of ease of use, not bad – I wasn’t asked lots of complicated questions or asked to pick confusingly-named packages off a list. But unlike the other distros I’ve tried before (RedHat, SuSE and Mandrake), it’s not graphical. The whole thing is text-based right up until you log in to use the system for the first time. You also can’t use the mouse during the install.
One major usability problem, in my mind, was when I ran out of disk space towards the end of the installation. The installer did not warn me that this would happen, or that low disk space would even be a problem, but when I did run out, it threw me into Aptitude, a console-based package manager, which is one of the most confusing and user-unfriendly apps I’ve seen. Thankfully, the second time around I didn’t have to see this.
Its partitioning manager during install also left a bit to be desired. While it supported basic functions, it didn’t allow me to resize partitions. I had to cancel the install and then use Qtparte in Knoppix to achieve the disk layout I wanted. That said, it had an option to automatically configure the unpartitioned space which was very useful.
Look and feel
Ubuntu is very… erm… brown. Which compared to Windows XP’s blue and green and the Mac’s white and silver is very boring and dull. It does look a little more polished than other themes I’ve seen before, and you can change the theme quite easily, though not to anything as nice as XP’s Luna or Mac’s Carbon.
Unlike other distros, you don’t get a choice of desktops – it’s GNOME or nothing. This is arguably a good move; while it’s great to have choice, if you know nothing about the choices it’s probably best just to have one option. GNOME’s major advantage over KDE is that it is simpler and more welcoming to newbies, so it was probably the best choice here.
What I didn’t like was the provision of 2 taskbars – one at the top and one at the bottom. Even on a 1024×768 screen this does take up a lot of screen real estate. Mac OS X, with its bar and dock, and Windows, with its single taskbar, do this better in my opinion.
There was also the button arangement in dialogs, which confused the hell out of me. In Windows, the buttons are centrally-aligned, with the default option usually on the left. In GNOME, they’re aligned to the right with the default on the far right. Maybe I’m just used to the Windows method but it did get a little frustrating. Firefox also tries to be GNOME-like, so instead of Tools > Options (like in Windows) you have Edit > Preferences – again, a little thing but it still confused me.
Samba isn’t included by default but it’s easily installed using the Synaptic Package Manager. It seemed to work well – I was able to browse my housemates’ computer as easily as in Windows. The Network configuration applet is very straightforward and shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone with a basic knowledge of networking to use. Ubuntu also puts a wireless strength meter in the top-right of the screen for Wifi users, though annoyingly this also appears by default even if you don’t have a wireless-capable machine.
There was no mention of a firewall, so I have no idea if one is included or not. I know it isn’t Windows but I’d still like the protection of one.
Hardware support was good – graphics, ethernet, sound and what have you all seem to work fine. It also had no problems with my USB floppy drive or my iPod – on plugging them in they were automatically mounted and appeared on my desktop. My wireless card, which is based on the Atmel chipset, wasn’t recognised, nor was there an option to install the drivers which are open source anyway. Knoppix and SuSE both supported the card and provided drivers.
Software-wise Ubuntu is good, offering a good selection of programs out of the box. Web browsing is via Firefox, email from Evolution, along with OpenOffice.org with a GNOME-compatible theme, which does make it look rather dull but it least it matches in better with the OS. There’s also the GiMP, XChat, Gaim and some games. Optional installs include Thunderbird and the Mozilla Suite.
Unfortunately much of this software is outdated. Firefox is a post-0.9.3 release incorporating some changes from 1.0 Preview Release, Thunderbird is at 0.8, OpenOffice.org is at 1.1.2 and Gaim is 1.0.0. Furthermore, these are the latest versions available from the package manager – anything more recent and you have to download it and install it yourself. Not good.
One of the really frustrating things was customising the Applications menu, or rather my inability to find out how to customise it. It would be nice as I’d have liked to have added Firefox and Thunderbird 1.0 to it after downloading them.
The music player – Rhythmbox – also came without an MP3 decoder. Now I know there are issues surrounding MP3 decoding and licensing, but at least tell me how I can get one, rather than throw an error message.
There was also no FTP client installed by default, however gFTP was available through the list of packages.
All in all, there were quite a few things to like about Ubuntu, but it’s not the Windows-killer I was hoping it to be. I’m sure it will improve over time though.