Ubuntu – seriously challenging Mac OS x and Windows

It all started last summer. Everyone seemed to be talking about Ubuntu, so naturally I had to try it as well. I installed it, played around with it, and then, somehow, it just went away…

But now I’ve tried it thoroughly, and I like it a lot!

I guess that if you use computers a lot, you either become jaded or you’re constantly on the hunt for new experiences and new kicks. As you might understand by now, I belong to the latter category. Therefore, as of lately, I’ve spent way too many late nights tweaking, testing and fooling around with things, where Ubuntu has been my main interest.

What I like with Ubuntu

Ubuntu, which is a Linux-based operating system, is completely free of charge. Being open-source, there’s an abundance of really top-notch applications that are out there, just for you. And if you’re worried about support, stop: there’s a vast community just waiting to help and aid you, and since more and more have started to use it, the web is full of articles and guides.

A picture of a workspace in Ubuntu

Ubuntu is also ridiculously easy to use, even for someone who aren’t that used to computers, since they broken everything down to the most basic needs, and built from there up. But if hardcore terminal hacking is your thing, there’s plenty of that too.

General interface

The general interface basically consists of a top bar with menus, main workspace, and a bottom bar showing all open programs, workspaces and such.

The menus

A picture of the Ubuntu menus

The interesting part is the menus, which are painstakingly simple. They are divided into three main sections, to easily get an overlook of all you need:

Applications
Applications is all your preferred applications, and also where you can add or remove applications.
Places
Places on your hard drive, external hard drives, network, connect to server-functionality and search.
System
This is where you have all your major preferences and administration settings, together with help information.

Best Add/Remove programs in the business

One thing that is outstanding with Ubuntu, and also a major factor for making it available to less tech-savy people, is the Add/Remove feature. Basically, when you open up Add/Remove, you are presented with a list of applications divided into categories. In this list, you can choose to see only already-installed applications, or applications available to install.

A picture of the Ubuntu Add/Remove applications functionality

It is then up to you to define the list of available applications, from these options:

  • All available applications.
  • All Open Source applications.
  • Supported Ubuntu applications.
  • Third party applications.
  • Installed applications

Then, and this is where the magic begins, you just check/uncheck the checkbox next to each application, and once you’re done you click the Applybutton (or Ok if you want to Apply and then automatically close Add/Remove after). What happens is that it goes online (and/or to an Ubuntu CD if specified in the Preferences) to check for the necessary files, downloads them and installs the application/-s you wanted, and removes the installed applications that you unchecked. Voilà!

No need to go through the registry, no “98345lkfer348.dll might be used by other applications, what should I do with it?”, no hidden preferences files (to my knowledge :-) ). It just can’t get any simpler.

Then, as always, if you want to install something special or do some very specific things, you might have to resort to the terminal. But luckily there are a lot of guides online for that too, so you can almost achieve anything! And for each day, there’s someone working even more on package management and installers, so it gets better and better.

Recommended applications

Mark Pilgrim has put together a great list of recommended applications for people switching to Ubuntu (or Linux, in general). It’s called the Essentials, 2006 edition.

Sidenote

Mark, probably one of the most talented people in the business, made the switch from Apple to Ubuntu about a year ago (and when someone like him does something like that, you should read and listen carefully to the reasons). He then switched (sideways) to Debian, described in One year with Linux.

Eye-candy with Beryl

If you’re a computer geek, you’ve probably seen those jaw-dropping videos, and that is accomplished through the Beryl Project. Although, when you start with Beryl, you’re most likely to go haywire with all the effects, gradually you calm down and then actually have some real usage of some of them.

For me to make it work, I followed the excellent description of how to get Beryl to work in Ubuntu with an ATI graphic card.

Beryl in Ubuntu examples

Here are just some example pictures of working with a desktop cube for your workspaces (virtual desktops). Note the stacking of windows if you have several applications open in the same workspace, and also the see-through capabilities to see applications from behind.

A picture of the Beryl Desktop Cube functionality

A picture of the Beryl Desktop Cube functionality, seen from above

A picture of the Beryl Desktop Cube functionality, with multiple windows in the same workspace

Testing Ubuntu on different platforms

I’ve been testing the latest version, version 7.04 and named Feisty Fawn, which was released April 19, 2007. To be fair, and out of curiosity, I’ve tried it in three different environments:

The main testing has occurred on the “real” install on the two-year old Dell laptop with 1 GB of RAM, an ATI Video card with 128 MB and a somewhat unusual resolution of 1920 * 1200 (on a 15.4-inch display; why can’t Apple offer that?). Previous versions of Ubuntu has had some problems with getting the resolution correct, but this now worked flawlessly for me. Same for wireless access, hibernating and such.

It was also interesting to see that Beryl worked so well with my hardware configuration, since the effects should be pretty intense for any computer out there.

Virtualized environments

It worked well in both Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion, but unfortunately none of those offer 3D video support for Ubuntu yet (only for Windows), so no Beryl eye-candy. I should also say that I’ve liked Parallels from the get-go, but VMware Fusion really walked all over Parallels when running Ubuntu. In Parallels, you can’t see the start-up process (it’s just pitch black for a minuter or so), and when you want to turn Ubuntu off, the same thing happens, so you have no idea if it’s done logging out or not. Fusion just worked, all the way, and felt very competent and stable; and still, Fusion is only a beta so far!

Conclusion

Ubuntu rocks! Really! As of lately, looking at the market, the only interesting operating systems on offer are Unix-based, both in terms of stability and graphical interfaces. Apple probably has the best and smooth design with Mac OS X, but interaction and control-wise, Ubuntu feels a bit snappier and more controllable/adaptable.

Windows Vista (or “same shit, different name” as I like to refer to it as) just doesn’t cut it. Take a look at the hardware needed to render its effects, and its still the least appealing in the market. When using Ubuntu, you somehow get the feeling that this is how Windows should have been, but miserably failed somewhere along the road.

I strongly urge you to try out Ubuntu; you will be pleasantly surprised! After being a Windows-user who got sick of it after almost ten years, I’m mainly a Mac OS X user today. But believe me, I have my eyes on Ubuntu, and if I am to make the switch again, it will probably be in the direction of “Humanity to others”.

Right now, I will give my Dell to my mom (who hates computers) to see how she gets along with it and using Ubuntu. I’ll get back to you on that one (and, please, no “Robert performs experiments on his mom”-kind of comments)… :-)

 

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