There are many people who have reviewed this distro, some more thoroughly than others. This is my personal experience, written over several days when I’ve had time. Hopefully you’ll find it useful.
The installer for Ubuntu is text-based. I mean, come on, this is 2006 people. Why is such a major part of the operating system not using a GUI? Other distros, like Mandriva and SuSE have managed this for 4 years or more, and it makes the experience far less intimidating.
Other than that, I’d say Ubuntu’s installer isn’t too bad. Not too many awkward questions and the attached explanations had a high level of detail. However, quite why I need to see the names of all the packages being installed is beyond me – half of them mean nothing even to me, never mind a novice user. Okay, so it shows the system is doing something but do I really need to know that the system is configuring hotplug? Do I even know, or for that matter care, what hotplug is? (Yes, I personally know what it is and do care about it, but this is for the sake of argument.) Why not walk me through what I can do with Ubuntu once it’s installed, like during the Windows installation or that of other Linux distros.
The installer is also quite slow – it took about nearly hour on a 2.2Ghz Celeron Mobile with 512MB RAM.
Starting up is now rather more graphical than before, which is a welcome change – now, instead of just seeing lots of meaningless text, we have meaningless text but with a pretty graphic on top. It’s an improvement but quite why I need to see the meaningless text at all is beyond me – why not hide it away and then show it when I press a key or when there’s an error like in other distros?
Grub was installed to let me boot between Linux and Windows, which worked fine – I’ve had problems here in the past so this was welcome. My only complaint is that the boot menu that Ubuntu ships with is very boring and text-based – some graphics would be nice 🙂 .
Running for the first time
Very soon after start-up I was told there were updates to install. This was handled pretty well, though it warned me that quite a lot of the updates couldn’t be trusted, or something, and may damage my system. I allowed them, but why does this happen?
Other than that, the update process was quick and painless. In fact, it hid all the nerdy terminal stuff away unless you expanded the dialog box – this is how the bootup process should be, too!
Firefox and Thunderbird
Ubuntu is nice because it doesn’t confuse you with options. You don’t get 20 different web browsers and 5 different email clients all installed by default, you just get Firefox and Evolution, which is how it should be. They’re both excellent programs, though I personally prefer Thunderbird to Evolution, so I wanted to remove Evolution and install Thunderbird.
Doing the latter is pretty easy, thanks to the Synaptic Package Manager, which in Ubuntu 5.10 has acquired a simplified mode which makes installing programs far easier – no complicated package names to find, just actual applications. Thunderbird is under Internet, followed by ‘More Programs’ as Ubuntu only shows the most popular by default. To install it, tick it, and then click Apply, and job’s a good ‘un.
Unfortunately, you’ll be installing Thunderbird 1.0.7. It’s the latest stable version but not as good as the 1.5 release candidates, in my opinion. Worse still, you’ll be stuck with Firefox 1.0.7, even though 1.5 has been stable for 4 weeks now – there’s no new package available and the ‘check for updates’ feature in the program has been disabled. I’ve even heard that Firefox 1.5 won’t be released for Ubuntu 5.10 due to dependency issues – we’ll have to wait for the next Ubuntu release or install it manually ourselves. Considering how easy it is to install and upgrade on Mac OS X and Windows I personally find this unacceptable.
Removing Evolution is more difficult – it has dependencies, apparently, which you need to use Advanced mode to work with. I gave up on the basis that it would be too much effort.
The media player with Ubuntu is called Rhythm Box, and it’s a poor man’s iTunes, I suppose. It does the basic playing of music, but not much else. Alas, it’s rather crippled because, by default, it only supports open and patent-free formats. So if your music collection consists of AAC or MP3 files, then you’re out of luck since unfortunately Ubuntu’s developers seem to have their heads jammed up their arses here. Sorry, but not being able to play MP3s really is not good enough, bearing in mind that most people’s music collection is in this format. In fact, RhythmBox’s help file specifically states that it is an MP3 player.
It is rectified by going into Advanced mode in Synaptic Package Manager, going to Settings and the Repositories, and adding the community repository, then selecting ‘Libraries (Universe)’ and enabling ‘gstreamer0.8-mad’ (or ‘gstreamer0.8-plugins’ for other formats as well, though not AAC). Of course, no mention of this is made in the manuals as far as I can tell, nor does RhythmnBox tell you to do it.
This release has OpenOffice.org 2.0.0 – not quite the latest, but not bad. Seems to work okay and it hasn’t had any major features crippled. It also has Gnome-esque toolbar buttons which allow it to match in with the operating system better which is nice too.
Hardware support was pretty good – sound, video and network all working fine. Mounting of removable devices was also much better than I’ve experienced in the past – I plugged my USB floppy drive in and as soon as I inserted a floppy disk it was mounted on the desktop and opened in Nautilus. A similar thing happened with my card reader when I inserted an SD card, and since it had a lot of JPEG images on it I was even asked if I wanted to import them.
It also detected my wireless card, which is a nice change. Unfortunately Ubuntu does not appear to support WPA without additional drivers so I couldn’t actually get it to connect to our network, but it could at least find it with the help of the Wifi Radar program I installed from Synaptic.
It was able to cope with both a USB mouse and also the trackpad built in to my laptop, and support the two interchangeably – again, I’ve previously had problems here, namely that it would only use one of the two.
General software availability
Though Synaptic did have a lot of software available in it, I found that a number of titles, as well as those already installed, weren’t the latest versions, nor were more up-to-date releases available as updates. The kernel is 2.6.12 – 2.6.13 was available when Ubuntu was launched and there’s no way of updating to 2.6.14 (we’ll discount 2.6.15 as it’s been out less than a week). VLC is at version 0.8.2. I’ve already mentioned Firefox and Thunderbird as other examples.
I’ve touched on this before – Linux distros, and Ubuntu especially, tend to put emphasis on updates coming from the distro vendor and not the vendor of the actual software. To quote Asa Dotzler:
The current Linux systems take the application vendor, a powerful tool for building user trust and confidence on the Linux desktop, and pull it out of the picture almost entirely.
Since my experience has been with Windows and Mac OS X, I’m not used to this approach. I like the fact that, potentially, Synaptic can keep all software on the system up-to-date (as opposed to Windows Update only updating Windows components, for example) but it doesn’t give the user the freedom to download things themselves. Well, okay, that’s not strictly true but less help is given to the user when he/she wants to install something manually – the majority of Linux tools don’t have graphical installers or a simple way to have a program install and appear on the Gnome or KDE menus (or at least not in my experience). What I’m trying to say is that installing programs from the vendor should be as easy as it is on Windows or Mac OS X, and that package managers should also be able to keep installed software up-to-date, if they can.
Compatibility with Windows
My copy of Ubuntu co-exists with a Windows partition. I was able to set partitioning up such that the two could co-exist, though I did have to resort to custom partitioning ooptions as it wanted to wipe my Windows partition by default. This could be because I’ve had Ubuntu on here previously and just installed this over the top though.
In Ubuntu itself, the Windows partition is automatically mounted on the desktop, allowing easy access to your documents. That said, my Windows partition is FAT32 so I have no idea what its NTFS support is like.
Ubuntu was able to browse other computers on the network fine, including my Mac. As it’s based on Gnome, Ubuntu also has a ‘family’ login screen like Windows XP does, where all of the user names are shown in a list. This isn’t, however, enabled by default, so you have usernames and passwords which are not so good ro home computers in my mind.
It’s not possible to play copy-protected DVDs (read: almost all DVDs) out of the box either, and the usual trick of just installing VLC doesn’t work. You need to install another library detailed here, which involves typing out terminal commands – something I’m loathed to do. Furthermore, like with MP3s and AACs earlier, there’s no graceful error message telling you that you can’t play copy-protected DVDs and how you can get around it. Even when following those instructions, I couldn’t get a DVD to play – something to do with “NAV packets”, whatever they are. DVD playback works fine on the same computer with the same drive and same program (VLC) in Windows.
While in fairness no Linux distro does this yet to my knowledge, it would be nice if Ubuntu could look at what I had running in Windows and offer to migrate my documents and settings to similar applications in Linux. It could, for example, see my Trillian accounts and import them into Gaim, or my Firefox settings and passwords, which it could copy over to its local copy of Firefox. One of the things that makes Firefox and Thunderbird great is their ability to import from other clients, reducing the amount of time needed to set up the program to a users’ needs – it would be great if this could be expanded to operating systems too.
Overall I have to admit I have been rather harsh to Ubuntu here. I first installed a Linux distro – Mandrake 8.2 – three and a half years ago, and it’s been good to see that progress is being made as this is much better in some respects. In others, however, even that three and a half year old distro was better – a graphical installer, for example. Ubuntu does do some things better than Windows, but if it’s trying to replace it then it has some way to go. I felt limited by it – it wasn’t letting me upgrade easily to the latest and greatest, or play back all my music – and this makes me frustrated, since it won’t let me do what I want it to do.
My experience with OS X over the past 5 months has shown that Unix can be done right. This, sadly isn’t it. Yet.