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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Posted in Apple/Mac,Reviews/tests,Technology |

30 Comments

  • Jeff says:

    I ran the Live CD version of Ubuntu 6.5 (I think) and liked it a lot but when I tried to install it, it didn't work because my keyboard and mouse were bluetooth and there was some hacking that needed to be done to get it to work and, well, that's kind of hard to do without a keyboard an mouse so I set the project aside and have yet to pick it up again.

    I really liked the UI, though, and it was a huge change from Linux distros that I'd tried a few years ago. This one worked with no configuration necessary (aside from the BT problems). I'll have to pick it up again soon and give it another shot.

  • I worked with Ubuntu/Kubntu some years ago where the hype just got started. Was very impressed how accessible they made the best Linux Distribution for not so tech-savvy users! It just works great and looks nice.

    Installation became a lot easier since they integrated it into the Live CD wich makes it so comfortable to install it. Just put it in, click INSTALL, answer 5 questions and in the meanwhile use Firefox to surf the web or Gaim to communicate with your buddys :)

    For visual effects, AIXGL with COMPIZ worked great for me. Lot's of effects, just like Beryl. Beryl just would not work on my ATI card… Those effects are all nice and good but while working, it's just very confusing. I believe that Apple has made a great job with their effects in MacOS X which seem very soft and don't seem to bother the user.

    What kept me from switching entirely to Linux for my workspace is the look of it. I might just be too used to Windows that I have a hard time to switch :) – Even though I prepare myself to buy a MacBook today!!! :)

  • OJ says:

    Nice post Rob. I used Dapper a little while ago, and had quite a few issues getting it working the way I'd like on my AMD64 machine, and wireless was extremely flaky (yes, I wanted to have a full 64-bit OS). It didn't quite work for me so I resorted back to Windows x64. It's now time again to give Ubuntu another whirl, so Fiesty will be taken for a test run in the next few days :)

    Cheers.

  • Nice post, Robert! I've recently installed it myself and like it a lot, although I'm not entirely comfortable with it yet.

    For instance; I have installed Eclipse with PHPEclipse without problems, after which I setup a localhost through XAMPP.

    Changing Eclipse's workspace to XAMPP's htdocs folder screwed it all up, for some reason and Eclipse will not start up anymore. And that's the main reason why I'm not using Ubuntu full-time; on Windows or Mac OSX, I know where to search for Program Files or the Applications folder and browse through the application's configuration files in order to make some manual changes and hack Eclipse into working again, but on Ubuntu, well, I'm lost.

    I've ordered a book on Amazon, just to study it a bit more and gradually become more comfortable with the OS.

    Oh, and Beryl looks great by the way, I'm definitely going to give that a try :-D

  • Andreas says:

    Its nice to see linux on desktop geting mature. Ubuntu is really sweet.

  • I just love my MacBook Pro + OS X too much to even consider it … but if you can get Ubuntu to run Eve online + Ventrilo, then I can certainly see it as a replacement on my old windows boxen.

  • Ced-le-pingouin says:

    I've been using Ubuntu for a few months now, and I don't think I'll look back any time soon…

    (and thus I won't be forced to throw away hundreds of euros to buy Vista)

    At first I just wanted to test a modern and user-friendly Linux for my desktop. And since I had just set up a new server running Debian (first time for me), and liked it a lot (the package system is really great), I chose Ubuntu.

    It had been a while since I had touched anything multimedia under Linux, so I had a hard time in the beginning, especially with XOrg configuration, sound servers, gfx drivers, wifi cards and the like, but now it's ok.

    I now have replacements for nearly all software I used under Windows… Except OOo is crashing like crazy. That is really bugging me.

    Beryl eye-candy is a nice extra, and as you said, once the wow-factor is over, you find the cube and some features/shortcuts can also be really useful in everyday use.

    For Windows software, I think Virtual Box works fantastically well, so I can still use Photoshop and MS Office (but I'm learning Gimp :) ).

    A happy Ubuntu user.

  • Mei says:

    I installed Ubuntu 6.10 a few months ago, and forgot about it. Recently I decided to set up a developement server and went back.

    Everything worked great, installing apache 2, php5 and mysql took about 5 minutes; and I dived into development.

    However the text editor that I used, BlueFish 1.0.x crashed once, which I found strange, and I had to reboot. Then about 5 days ago, it crashed again, and now I've been unable boot properly ("root files are read only", or something).

    I've googled briefly (not much time now to fix it) and I think that bluefish is to blame.

    Anyway, I'm gutted as I may have lost some work, and I rave about open source and Ubuntu to all and sundry, so its a bit embarassing.

  • Jens Meiert says:

    … tried Ubuntu a few months ago and had more or less severe problems in getting IDEA (which requires some Java stuff installed) running; the same problem applied to the OpenSUSE distribution I tested as well. Might be an edge problem, but if something does not (or "not really") work with package managers and stuff, things are getting "interesting".

    While most Linux distributions have become much easier to install, use, and maintain, they are still too "geeky" anyway. [...] Also, all of them require more thorough usability testing, and be it in order to become "independent" – at least KDE, for example, looks like a weird mix of Mac OS and Windows (e.g. Mac OS style system prefs vs. Windows style taskbar).

    Well, my 2 cents ;)

  • David Rodger says:

    I reveal that I'm something of a Linux newbie by admitting that I run Suse. But the nice thing is that Suse keeps up-to-date with PHP releases (well, almost… currently 5.2.2).

    Damned if I can find that info about Ubuntu! Any ideas?

    P.S. The comment preview is painfully slow (about 1 character per second on Suse 10.2/Fiirefox 2.0).

  • Yeah I have installed Ubuntu on my machine at home and have found it an absolute pleasure to work with. Not sure if I will ever pay for an operating system again.

  • Nice post. Got me really exited about giving Ubuntu a try but so far I've not been successful : /. After booting up from CD and waiting through the load sequence my monitor signals are lost and even so I hear a sound indicating the OS has booted I can't see a thing. Got the suggestion in IRC to try the alternate cd install and I'll eventually do that, but it certainly killed much of my expectation in terms of a system that works out of the box directly.

    Anyway thanks for the post and I hope I'll get the OS up and running in the next couple of days.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Thanks for your comments! I'm glad to see that so many were interested in this!

    My general tip to those who have tried older versions of Ubuntu and encountered problems is to download Feisty Fawn and give it a try. Many previous problems seem to have been solved.

    Jeff,

    Not sure, but hopefully it's better in Feisty Fawn. Perhaps BluetoothSetup helps too.

    Georges,

    Well, not sure I'd want it to look like Windows myself, but you can Make Ubuntu Feisty Fawn look like Windows (Vista style).

    OJ,

    Hopefully it works better with Feisty Fawn then. Haven't tried 64-bit myself.

    Harmen,

    I can relate to the fear of not knowing where to fix things (I feel it myself all the time :-)). But luckily, there are a lot of great guides online, so searching Google might help you find your answers.

    However, someone is waiting for a reply from you. :-)

    Andreas,

    It is indeed! :-)

    Morgan,

    Maybe this thread about EVE on Linux is something for you.

    Ced-le-pingouin,

    Good to hear! I think once one gets settled with it, you will indeed get happy. It's just, as always, a small transition phase to get through.

    Mei,

    Hmmm. I haven't tried Bluefish a lot, so I can't really help you. Can it be some kind of access rights problems on the file, i.e. that you need to be root user to view/edit them?

    Jens,

    Well, personally I think Ubuntu has done a great job at getting away from being geeky. That being said, of course there's still job to do.

    Personally, I prefer GNOME over KDE, but as always different operating systems affect how others look, so sometimes the resulting is a bit divided.

    David,

    I'm sure that that can be done with Ubuntu, but I just don't know how (unless you manually create cron jobs etc).

    Felix,

    I can say that all my installs, mentioned in the post, were made through the alternate CD. Reason for that is that my Dell seemed to have some problem with the Live CD, so I took that route and since then everything has been working out just fine.

  • Robert: Cool that you can confirm the alternate cd to produce different results. Will certainly give it a try in the next couple of days.

    My setup isn't exactly typical either. I run dual screens with an odd resolution (1680×1050) and my Gfx card (Radeon X1650) isn't officially supported either so far (which I hope will change soon). So hopefuly the alternate cd will get basic VGA going for me ; ).

  • Last fall I got so fed up with my copy of Windows at home. I use OS X daily at work, and just annoys me more and more. I decided to start using Ubuntu. I used Dapper and I have to say that I was really impressed. The user experience was just plain amazing compared to other versions of Linux I've used in the past.

    I did have some small problems (mostly video card drivers and odd things). I'll have to try the newest version to see if they have improved things.

    Although I was really impressed with Ubuntu, there was one thing that just killed me. I couldn't stand the fonts. I felt like they all looked really bad. After working on OS X all the time, this was just a naggy little detail that I couldn't live with.

    Despite my issues with the fonts, I really do hope that Ubuntu continues to improve. I think they are really hitting on an important market. There is nothing bad to be said about competition.

  • David Rodger says:

    What I meant was that, before I installed Suse 10, 10.1 and 10.2, I was able to find out which version of various packages each one had. I can't find out what versions Ubuntu has from its web site, but I have noticed that a number of the folks at PHP Melbourne Users' Group have Ubuntu with PHP5.1.6.

  • @Robert: ay caramba :D I did not expect to see any replies to that thread anymore! Thanks so much for notifying me, and what a funny coincidence you found it. :)

  • Gini says:

    I'm a complete clutz when it comes to computers, but I got Ubuntu 6.06 to run on my old HP laptop and decided to try 7.04 on my ancient Toshiba laptop. Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) was an easier install and runs great with lots of free applications that work great and are more or less totally compatible with Windows versions! Bye bye Windows!

  • Micke says:

    Great article, Robert!

    I switched to Ubuntu late 2004 when the distro was still small and relatively unknown. I'm delighted to see how it has become more and more popular and indeed more and more outstanding!

    I used it at my previous job as a Web Developer, but now I'm unfortunately forced to run a 6 year old outdated OS which is slow, buggy, unsecure, ugly and non-intiutive. Most of you probably have forgotten about it, since it belongs to a past generation of OS's, but it's called "Windows XP".. Does bring back memories, huh? ;)

  • Ubuntu's been ruling my old PC at my parents house and you are right, it's just dandy! :)

    I also tried to sneek Ubuntu onto my parents machine once, but that didn't go as well as I'd hoped, so they're back on Windows again. Maybe I should give it a go with Feisty. I'm looking forward to reading about your results with your mom. :)

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Felix,

    Ah, I see. Well, good luck! :-)

    Alissa,

    Thanks for sharing! I can relate to the font thing, but at least for me, it's more of a disturbance than a show-stopper. That being said, I do hope the future will look brighter in this area… :-)

    David,

    Ok, I see. Not sure why it isn't there on their web site.

    Harmen,

    Ah, Google is amazing! :-)

    Gini,

    That's great to hear!

    Micke,

    Thanks! And if it's any comfort, there are still a number of companies where the employees are forced to use Windows 2000…:-)

    Fredrik,

    Ah, they caught you! :-)

    I'll let you know how it goes with mom, and I wish you luck with you and your parents. :-)

  • Kilgorsky says:

    I installed Ubuntu when I got tired of using pirated software. This OS has everything I need, love it

  • I'm a happy Ubuntu user as well. In fact, all my three computers run GNU/Linux on them. At work I run openSUSE, at home Ubuntu and on my older laptop – Debian.

    What I really love about the Ubuntu (and GNU/Linux in regular) is the freedom, and the fact that there's always friendly people around to help you whenever you're stuck. Also, being able to effect which way applications I use every day are developed by contributing feels so great.

    One of the greatest downsides with using a GNU/Linux desktop is of course the lack of hardware support, but since more and more companies take interest in GNU/Linux (Dell for example), I'm pretty sure that will change by time.

    Another useful application to get is Automattix which helps you install commonly requested applications easily in Ubuntu.

    Great post, Robert!

  • Matthew says:

    Awesome article! This will be bookmarked, great work!

  • Mitch says:

    I just made the switch over to Ubuntu as well (running a dual-boot with my laptop — HP laptops with 2 hard drives make great dual-boot systems!) I took my laptop to the restaurant I work at, and everyone was just mesmerized by how nice the OS looks. Some of the less techno-savvy people were seriously considering switching from Windows. I still have my Vista for gaming, but once I figure out how to get games into Ubuntu, I may switch fully over.

    Great post!

  • Nomax says:

    Hi there,

    I have an old iBook (~ 450 Mhz) with OS X – is it possible for me to switch to Unbuntu? Any experiences if flash videos are played faster with linux than with OS X?

    Thanks!

    Nomax

  • Kenneth Sundqvist (E says:

    About fonts in Ubuntu.

    Install the package msttcorefonts. Through the Synaptic Package Manager, or by writing "<code>sudo apt-get install msttcorefonts</code>" in a terminal. This will install some typefaces that you'll recognize from Windows, such as Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet MS, and more (including kick-ass, best-typeface-ever, Roberts-secret-second-love-with-whom-he-has-at-least-15-bastard-children, Comic Sans MS!)

    If you need to install other fonts, place the font file in <code>/home/username/.fonts/</code>

    This will make the font file available in the system. Applications might need to be restarted for them to become available or work properly.

    If you want to change the fonts that the system uses (in Ubuntu with GNOME) go to <code>System > Preferences > Font</code> and do your thing there. GNOME might have to be restarted in order for the new settings to look good. (Ctrl+Alt+Backspace to give GNOME a quick restart with having to restart the computer. REMEMBER to SAVE your work though, as this command will kill anything when it restarts.)

    The absolutely best things about Linux is that there is so much freedom, and with every problem there is someone working on it, and sharing the solution. Windows and OS X will never have that, and that's why Linux is my OS of choice (and love.)

  • Max says:

    Greate article Robert. So… how did it go with your mom? :)

  • Ken says:

    Its been about 3 weeks since i installed fiesty fawn on my dell dimmension 9100 desk top and layed down xp home. I'm really fed up with microsoft pushing window vista on users were xp could shine for a long time to come if only they would wake up!

    Ubuntu Fiesty Fawn is just fantastic! Everything went very smooth and quick! I had to pinch myself when i booted into fiesty for the first time and (EVERYTHING) just worked! Pure Heaven!!!!!!!

    No restarts for new software installs, fantastic support on the web, bing bang boom and your done!

    This is the way it should have been all along. The linux world knows what i'm talking about.

    I've found all the expensive programs that windows would use and that i myself use in linux based versions for free….. If this isn't open source i don't know what is.

    Everything has just been rock solid with fantastic security. I just hope that what i've found in the linux world stays pure and true and doesn't find itself in microsofts shoes down the road when ubuntu realy hits prime time.

    Don't know really what else to say about ubuntu except if your looking to try linux, ubuntu should be on the top of your list. Great for the beginner switching from windows. With the few weeks i have under my belt i'm very happy!

  • If I'm not mistaken (happens often), new versions of Ubuntu ship with Compiz installed by default, and it will work even on ATI and NVidia. Not exactly the same as Beryl, but same developers and Beryl is deprecated in favour of Compiz.

    Having said that, I don't think that Kubuntu (the KDE-as-default flavour) comes with Compiz installed by default, just Vanilla Ubuntu.

    And of course, Ubuntu comes with trained, paid, professional support as well. I don't know anybody who's ever used said support, but oh well.

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