Author: Michael Reed
To save money, I cobbled together a computer for my mother out of cast-offs left over from my own upgrades. She doesn’t need a cutting-edge computer because she’s not a power user, but she does need a reliable machine to run a few basic applications and to access the Internet. I moved my mother from Windows to Ubuntu Linux, and the experience was a surprisingly smooth one.
The machine I gave her sports a 2.2GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 512MB of RAM, and Nvidia MX440 graphics card with 64MB of RAM. It’s not a cutting-edge gaming rig, but it’s an adequate machine for her needs, which include email, Web browsing, music and video playback, photo management, and word processing.
The challenge was to not only build a working system, but also to maintain consistency with her old system. This meant migrating her data across, finding comparable equivalents for all of her Windows applications, and adjusting the desktop layout to one that was similar to that of Windows.
I began by installing Ubuntu as her operating system. Although I’m a KDE man, I chose a GNOME-based distro because GNOME targets non-expert and business users. Ubuntu tries to make the install process as straightforward as possible, but I had to remove support for IPv6 and reinstate IPv4 to complete the process.
To make sure that my mother would be dealing with user interface concepts that she was already familiar with, I had to rearrange the Ubuntu desktop a little. I started by removing the panel from across the top of the screen. I then added a launch and shutdown menu in the bottom left corner, followed by some application quick-launch icons, a task switcher, and finally, a control panel and clock area. I also added attractive CPU and network monitors, which automatically configured themselves.
The Nautilus file manager looks a bit bland to me, but offers an intuitive user interface. File management is something that I’m trying to move my mum away from in general, but at times, it is unavoidable. The instant previews in Nautilus thumbnails went down well with her, although thumbnailing can be a bit slow in folders that have hundreds of images in them.
For instant search, I removed Tracker Search and installed Google Desktop Search in an attempt to balance features and performance and provide the boon of an already familiar interface.
Email and web access
Having settled on Thunderbird as the email application, I transferred all of my mum’s Outlook Express messages into a form that could be used in Ubuntu. Closed, proprietary software works against the user here, as the format that Outlook Express uses to store its files is not well understood by third parties. The solution involved first installing Mozilla Thunderbird onto Windows. Thunderbird, when run from within Windows, can access Outlook Express mail files. Once set in motion, the import procedure took about half an hour to complete. Rebooting into Ubuntu, I located Thunderbird’s mail files and replaced them with the files from the Windows version. Once transferred, everything worked beautifully in Thunderbird.
Thanks to some of my mother’s friends, she gets a lot of spam. The built-in spam-handling features of Thunderbird have been a godsend. The junk mail filter is accurate, and because it’s part of the Thunderbird GUI, it’s convenient to use.
Ubuntu comes with Firefox, which my mum was already using on Windows. Firefox runs well under Ubuntu.
Media management and word processing
When I migrated mum, I wanted to get her away from directly managing her files. For the non-expert, an index of content, along with modern concepts such as tagging, can be easier to use than the hierarchical file system.
F-Spot is Ubuntu’s default photo management utility. Its user interface is a success because, within a few minutes of loading up the software, my mother was talking about the stories behind her photographs. In other words, she was soon interacting with her content rather than being concerned with the mechanics of the software.
A problem did crop up however: after a couple of days, F-Spot refused to show photos in full-screen mode. This turned out to be due to a clash between Compiz and F-Spot, and I resolved it disabling the option “legacy fullscreen workarounds” in the Compiz settings manager. Both Ubuntu and F-Spot developers are aware of this problem.
One feature I failed to find under Ubuntu is a facility to check for duplicate files. When backing up my mother’s photos, I had maintained some redundancy. In the end, I used a command-line utility called fdupes to locate and delete the duplicates.
On Windows, my mother had been using Winamp. I was keen to get her onto something oriented around a music database, such as Rhythmbox, rather than force her to rely on manual file management.
One problem with Rhythmbox is that its import music feature doesn’t copy files to a new location. Instead, it remembers where they are. I consider this to be an example of inconsistent functionality, as all of the default GNOME applications should work in the same way, if at all possible. As a result of this issue and the fact that the old FAT32 Windows partitions are password-protected by default, after a reboot, music began to gradually disappear from the database. When I manually copied the files across to the Linux partition and then imported them into Rhythmbox, things worked as expected.
Rhythmbox has a clean interface and my mum is starting to readjust to a database-driven music system. Another success.
From time to time, my mother needs to write a letter. Although Ubuntu comes with OpenOffice.org, I installed the Abiword word processor for her. AbiWord launches much more quickly and gives her all of the basic word processing facilities.
I worried that, as Ubuntu 7.10 is a recent release, it might seem slow compared to Windows on the same hardware. I’m happy to report that the speed ranges from acceptable to extremely good, although first-time application launching is slower than I would have liked. An additional gigabyte of RAM will be the next upgrade for this machine.
Somewhat surprisingly, even on a fairly modest computer such as this one, 3-D Compiz desktop effects don’t have much of an impact upon performance.
The GNOME approach to crafting the user experience shines here. Instead of loads of flashy, superficially impressive effects, the default settings tend toward the typical GNOME reserve. At first, one might not even notice that 3-D effects have been enabled. But upon continued use, you begin to notice that menus smoothly fade into place and that windows have drop shadows and swish out of view. These default settings enhance what was already there without getting in the way. As a result, with maternal approval, I’ve left 3-D effects switched on.
What went wrong?
Ubuntu still has a few rough edges that, armed with some previous Linux experience, I was able to bumble my way through, but which might have blocked a novice. While some of these problems, which for a typical Linux enthusiast would amount to a temporary frustration and 10 minutes spent in a search engine, might be insurmountable to the average computer user.
I know that improving the handling of screen configuration is high on Canonical’s to-do list. During boot-up and shutdown, Ubuntu selected a screen mode that resulted in the monitor shutting off. I’ve been able to resolve this by editing some GRUB configuration files.
Once inside X, the GNOME screen configuration utility reports, erroneously, that the monitor is operating at a refresh rate of 57Hz.
During start-up, the system occasionally likes to do a check of its filesystem. Unfortunately, during the check, the screen is blank, apart from a flashing cursor in the in corner. There should be some indication of what’s going on, as it looks as though the computer has crashed during start-up. A novice might be tempted to reset the machine, which would result in another apparent crash.
So, is Ubuntu Linux ready for this type of installation? Yes, provided they have someone with some Linux expertise at hand to help them.
I overestimated the difficulties that switching over to Linux would cause. I had planned to occasionally boot mum into the new Ubuntu setup for the first couple of weeks, gradually building up the amount of time she spent in Ubuntu. However, the transition to Linux was so problem-free that we both agreed that I should make the new system the default after the first two days.
My mother likes her new setup, but I don’t think she understands how big a change her computer has been through. This is partly the result of my effort to maintain a layout that was comparable to her old one.
I’ve been impressed by GNOME, but I won’t be switching over to it myself. I want KDE’s elaborate features and I’m not intimidated by the sometimes complex set of options it offers.
This little project has been a success. Having proved what I already knew, I now feel even more angry when I notice the familiar Windows interface running on a reception desk or in an office — particularly in the case of nonprofit and government organisations who are spending someone else’s money.