February 1, 2005

My desktop OS: Ubuntu

Author: Donald Emmack

A few months ago I selected Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger) as the new operating system on the Acer TravelMate T290LMI notebook I use at home and for work. In past years I tried other Linux distributions and always returned to Windows. Now I'm sticking with Ubuntu, but I haven't been able to give up Windows altogether yet.

I began thinking about switching to Linux when I looked into buying the latest releases of software for my new business. Most of the applications I use are for word processing, spreadsheets, and the Internet, but the cost to upgrade my old version of Microsoft Office was beyond my budget for software. I also have a copy of Quickbooks 99, but Intuit no longer supports this version for payroll or updates.

Ubuntu installation was simple, with nearly flawless hardware recognition. The touchpad on my notebook worked, but the default driver didn't support its scroll feature as it did in Windows -- not a big problem for me. Soon, I was using my wireless network, downloading new applications with Synaptic, and restoring my backed up files. The speed of installation was noteworthy for business users who hate wasting time searching for special drivers or rummaging through forums for answers.

Ubuntu's pre-installed GNOME applications were suitable for my needs. OpenOffice.org allowed me to manipulate all my Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files without any difficulty. It lacks some of the extra features of the commercial competition, but I didn't suffer at all in my early use. Switching from Quickbooks to GnuCash was more difficult. GnuCash has fewer familiar features than Quickbooks, but free software fits into my budget nicely.

A few days after installing Breezy I decided to test Codeweavers' Crossover Office, Wine, and Qemu to see if any of them would let me make occasional use of Windows applications. My mainstream business applications, such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, worked nearly as well as they did with Windows XP. Since I was happy with the core GNOME packages there was no need for me to keep Crossover Office or Qemu. I left Wine on my computer for any time I needed to install a Windows application.

For the first month Breezy met my computing needs, and users from the support community responded quickly to my questions; but my satisfaction soon began to dwindle. Occasionally I was unable to get important information on the Internet without a proper Firefox plugin. Breezy does not include Macromedia Flash Player, Sun Java, and certain other software in the core distribution because of licensing problems. After a quick look on the Internet I found the proper instructions for Debian's APT tool to install the missing packages and plugins. Another issue is that you can't play DVD movies with the core installation, though following a few simple steps will enable you to install libdvdcss2 and achieve proper playback. The Ubuntu Wiki does a good job describing these problems. Instructions to fix these issues include the use of a terminal window and the installation of some additional packages. I suppose you could use Synaptic as well, but all the instructions are for the command line, which can be painful for a novice Linux user. I use my notebook for work, not entertainment, so I don't have much interest in fixing these annoyances. I just would prefer to have my notebook perform at least as easily as it did with Windows XP.

By far, the most time I invested was in syncing a Pocket PC with Evolution. After installing Multisync and SynCE I wrote a small bash script to automate the connection with my Pocket PC. For nearly a week I backed up my data on CompactFlash just in case synchronization failed or task and calendar entries began multiplying on the Pocket PC and notebook, but that proved unnecessary. I finished tinkering with synchronization when I realized my data transfers were mostly successful and I read that OpenSync was developing rapidly.

Most of these problems don't get in my way of my using my notebook effectively and I have found the helpfulness of the user community a great benefit. They provide enough support for me to keep Breezy as my primary OS. Every time I need to look for an answer I find clues that are relevant to my problem in the user forums, and the official Wiki pages update rapidly with clear instructions to answer many questions.

Even with Ubuntu Breezy's benefits, I can't let Windows go entirely. I still need XP for vertical-market Windows-specific software such as EduTrack for school administration and Calyx for loan origination, and occasionally an interface for using my Nokia cell phone as a tethered modem. Keeping Windows XP on my hard disk bothers me, and I would prefer to make a clean break from the Windows world. However, neither OS gives me everything I want. I could stay on XP, use OpenOffice.org and my legacy Windows specific software, but I would need to shell out a few hundred bucks for a Quickbooks upgrade. Or I could press on with Breezy using GnuCash for my bookkeeping but I wouldn't be able to run EduTrack or Calyx. I decided to avoid full-time Windows use and join ranks with people who dual-boot. When I save up enough coin to buy VMware Workstation, I'll stop dual booting and run XP in a virtual machine under Linux so I don't have to restart the machine to use Windows apps.

Until then, I'm proud to use Ubuntu Breezy for most of my computing. Sometime, I may even get to help someone else by answering a question about a problem they are having.


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