Last wednesday I ordered a new laptop. I'll definitely be installing Vista on it, if only for gaming and DirectX 10, but I also plan to use it as an excuse to get to grips with Linux. I've read many accounts of the various distributions of Linux, and they all agree on a few things:
- It's massively more stable than Windows
- There are so few viruses, they're not even worth worrying about
- It's fast
I've used Windows all my life, 3.1 followed by 95, 98, 2000 and now XP, and I'd describe myself as fairly competent at working with it, so this would be a pretty new experience for me. A few years ago I'd installed Fedora Core 4, and I wasn't impressed a great deal; this time I decided to go with Ubuntu. This distribution, from what I've read, seems to be pioneering the realms of user-friendly, especially for those with no experience of Linux - so hopefully it would hopefully be less like jumping in at the deep end. Ubuntu's apparent popularity among those looking for a Linux based alternative to Windows made it seem like an increasingly good place to start. So I did. Why wait for the laptop to arrive? I cleared up some space on my computer's second hard drive, downloaded the latest Ubuntu release, and gave it a go. This is my account of it, as a completely new user.
Ubuntu has surpassed Windows in almost every way when it comes to installing. I booted from the disk, expecting to be greeted with text-based formatting options - instead, I was taken straight away to a fully functioning desktop. I could browse the internet, play tetris, do practically anything, while at the same time running the wizard to install the operating system; I didn't need a SATA driver floppy-disk, a serial number, anything. Installing this system could - quite literally - be done by a child.
The first thing I noticed was, it was fast. Even on a fresh Windows install, my system seems to take an age to boot up, but Ubuntu loaded in the blink of an eye. Once I was on my desktop, I didn't need to wait for the hard drive to stop churning away as it does with XP, before I could even think of opening Firefox. As soon as the desktop appeared, I was free to do anything.
I have a bubble-jet printer, a gamepad, a scanner, a usb keyboard and mouse. And I didn't have to install a driver for one of them. They just worked, straight out of the box. The only driver installation I actually had to enable was newer graphics drivers, in order to use advanced desktop effects - but this was simply a matter of pressing 'continue' when presented with the option, and rebooting. And that was it. No nightmares with unrecognised hardware, no compiling drivers or fumbling around with a terminal; Ubuntu appeared to do everything for me. I have fairly bog-standard peripherals, but I was still pleasantly surprised that it was so easy.
For the average user, Ubuntu appears to come with everything you need straight out of the box. A browser, an office suite, imaging software ... when I did need extra software, it was simply a matter of loading up the synaptic package manager and searching for what I wanted; Ubuntu then proceeded to install it and configure all of its dependencies automatically.
Ubuntu groups all of your programs into categories, rather than just dumping them all in the start menu; you actually initially get a top and bottom bar, which unlike Windows' start menu, are infinitely customisable. One thing which really works well is the multiple desktop feature; with a keypress you can open an entirely new, empty desktop, and quickly switch between them, making it even easier to multitask. One thing I've been playing with from the package manager is Compiz. The built in version is nice enough, giving you some effects and features which become old fairly quickly - but with an update to Compiz-Fusion, you get the works. A multi-faced three dimensional desktop, an alt-tabbing system which cycles you through a dynamic thumbnail of each available window, a seemingly infinite level of zooming-in -- the list is huge, and the fact that you can easily upgrade Compiz with plugins means it can be potentially massive.
During my time using Ubuntu I attempted to use WINE to emulate two windows programs. I had varied results; the first was CPS3, an emulator I use to run Street Fighter III - this worked initially, with some minor resize problems, but later it refused to load, causing Wine to stop responding. The second was Commandos - the original Windows 95 game. In fairness, this refused even to load in XP, with or without compatibility mode, so I expected very little from a Windows emulator - however, it seemed to install and run almost perfectly, the only issue being some slight added speed. Unfortunately, this also seemed to stop working after a few days - without any changes made to Wine. This time, it claimed that it could not find DirectX 5. How I did eventually get Commandos working - and it wasn't under Linux - is a different story.
The only issues I had with Ubuntu were probably caused by my own mistakes. That's one piece of advice I'd give - unless you're sure what you're doing with the terminal, use alternatives wherever possible. I attempted to follow a guide to enable the side-buttons on my mouse, and despite following the directions to the word, ended up in 'low-graphics' mode, which I couldn't even fix with a driver update or re-install. Another problem I've had is with my browser taking me to google.co.uk or bbc.co.uk whatever I attempt to view, until I reboot the machine. I've yet to attempt to solve this one, though, as it's only happened once or twice during the past few days.
I'm definitely going to stick with it. The impression I get is that although it may not be the best OS for gaming - or, the limited retro gaming I've tried so far - it certainly beats Windows in terms of speed, reliability and aesthetics. There seemed to be open source software for everything I needed to do, and I didn't have to compile or manually install once. If you've been avoiding Linux for the 'gurus-only' stereotype, now may be a good time to try a distribution like Ubuntu. It's not perfect quite yet - but it's a damned good alternative to Windows, at any rate.