Ubuntu Linux: an increasingly popular Debian-based distro

Screenshot of Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) after ...

Image via Wikipedia

The idea behind Ubuntu Linux is to produce a stable, user-friendly OS that appeals to both professional and private users, whether they are new to Linux or experienced geeks. Yes, but is it?

Getting hold of a copy of Ubuntu is dead easy. If some enthusiastic acquaintance hasn’t already handed you a CD-ROM to cries of “You really ought to give this a try!”, then you can download a CD-ROM image to burn yourself.

The CD-ROM is in fact a Live CD, which means you can give the basic system a good testing without touching your hard disk: just boot’n’go. Once you’ve decided to stick with Ubuntu, the same CD-ROM is used to start installation.

Ubuntu started out as yet another branch on the Debian tree, the idea being to keep up with the half-yearly updates of the Gnome window manager. Gnome is one of the major Linux GUIs, or window managers, and is the default for Debian. Being distributed as a Live CD may well have helped uptake, and the distro has become hugely popular. So when I wanted to install Linux on one of my older computers and Debian, my previous fave rave, decided not to recognise my Ati Radeon video card, I filed for divorce and opted for Ubuntu Edgy Edge. Yes, the versions have bloody silly, alliterative names

Installing Ubuntu

During installation, you are given the choice between the desktop and server versions. Pick whichever corresponds to the principal utilisation of the computer, as in any case you’ll still be able to install the other type of software later, if needed.

I have now been using Ubuntu desktop, recently upgraded to Feisty Fawn, for some time on a PC with an AMD 1,6 GHz processor, 512Mb RAM and an ATi Radeon 9200. The system is indeed very stable and the installation process went very smoothly. The video card was recognised instantly. Creating the main user account is also extremely easy and the result is a secure administrator account, a pleasant change from Windows I must say.

System configuration is also easy: in most cases the default values suffice, and when a genuine decision has to be made the information is clear and precise.

However, you must have a wired network connection and broadband Internet access, as most of the system and applications will be downloaded for installation. As with any OS, including commercial, WiFi has to be installed afterwards, and in any case wireless is neither fast enough nor reliable enough for the transfer of very large amounts of data.

One of the reasons I appreciate Debian is the package (=software) management system, APT. Ubuntu also uses APT, although the repositories are different, since Ubuntu is no longer 100% Debian compatible. The APT repositories hold a huge selection of software: applications, utilities, games. All can be downloaded with a couple of mouse clicks and the admin password ( I did say it was securised) using Synaptic (or kpackage, if you prefer to use the rival GUI: KDE). Practically all are free software; that which isn’t is clearly marked as such.

There are hundreds of apps, many worthy of interest. A further advantage of using the official APT repositories (or their local mirrors) is that they are guaranteed from of spyware and other nasties – not that such things are particularly prevalent for Linux.

Using Ubuntu

A nice clean, easy installation is fine, but what’s it like to use? I had no trouble getting used to the interface, as it’s well designed and uncomplicated. Finding and installing drivers for my WiFi card was barely more complicated than installing it under Windows, with the additional step of installing ndiswrapper. For my printer, it was a bit more complicated, being a Canon – a company that doesn’t support Linux. A quiet €30 invested in Turboprint and fancy colour printing was once again at my fingertips. Now, I mostly use my computer for WP and similar office work, plus web-related stuff like this site, so there are a fair amount of things I’ve yet to test, admittedly stuff that’s more Linux-general than Ubuntu-specific.

Anyway, as a whole I find Ubuntu fast and intuitive. It’s fully useable as soon as the base installation is complete, with Openoffice.org, Firefox etc. already installed, which means you can take time to get used to the interface before you start mucking around installing extra stuff.

Email is dead easy. Ubuntu provides Evolution (an Outlook clone) as default, or you can opt for the latest version of Thunderbird if you prefer. As with recent versions of Windows, there’s an account transfer tool which helps you move all your data onto your nice new system.

Firefox is without doubt the connoisseurs’ choice (along with Opera) when it comes to surfing the web, and once again it’s the latest version installed by default. The only practical difference I could find between the Windows and Linux versions of this browse is that the Linux version doesn’t seem to have any plugins for listening to midi sound files. That said, so far I’ve only come across a single site where this was noticeable and it in no way detracted from the usability of the site itself.

Office stuff: well, there’s Openoffice.org, innit? Installed by default, although you can always go for the Gnome office suite, or KOffice if you swap the Gnome window manager for KDE.

As for more fancy activities, such as making music, graphics, desktop publishing, website development, astronomy, maths, electronics, running a web/database/mail server, or just chat online and watch videos, the choice of applications is huge and all a couple of mouse clicks away. Now you know why I appreciate APT.

There are plenty of documentation and help files, all installed by default, and there’s plenty more available on-line, including advice to beginners as well as the seasoned geek, all clearly and carefully explained with ne’er an RTFM in sight. Cries of ’hallelujah!’ all round.

Just one little complaint though: the Samba client isn’t installed by default, which means the Ubuntu system isn’t automatically integrated into a Windows network. Nor would my Netgear router show it as connected, even though there was no problem using DHCP and connecting to the Internet. Admittedly this is Netgear’s fault, but it’s still a pity, especially since the installation of a Samba client could be easily included in the base installation procedure, along with the host name and the NT domain name.

Nevertheless, I am quite happy with my Ubuntu system, in fact I have been using it almost exclusively for some time, despite having theoretically more powerful Windows machines available (i.e. before deduction of power sucked up by the OS). I am also very pleased with the technical support. Ubuntu stays.

Postscript
Now up to Lucid Lynx, my only serious grouch was about WiFi problems which turned out to be due to a crappy router (don’t buy Netgear DG814). And would you believe a Linux box with Samba is the only sensible way you can transfer files from an XP-formatted hard disk to a brand new Windows installation?

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