January 21, 2005

My workstation OS: Ubuntu

Author: Daniel Bartholomew

I've found a Linux distribution that meets my criteria for an ideal system. Ubuntu Linux is fast. It has simple software updating and installation through Debian's Synaptic package manager. All of my removable media works automagically. It detected all of my hardware. And above all, it has a simple, clean, elegant interface that I love.

I've been using Linux since 1997. Over the years I've tried various versions of Slackware, Red Hat, Mandrake, Caldera, Knoppix, Mepis, PCLinuxOS, Gentoo, SUSE, Fedora, and Debian. All of them had good points, but all of them left me wanting something -- not necessarily something better, but something more suited to the way I work.

For example, I really liked one distro, but it uses KDE, which does not have a clean, uncluttered interface. I liked another, but it had problems with my USB flash drive. I liked a third, but it was sluggish on my system. (I know -- if speed is my top priority, I can compile my own kernel. I've done it, but I'm not comfortable doing it.) And the list goes on.

Enter Ubuntu

While the interface, and the fact that the distribution is built on top of Debian, were two things that first attracted me to Ubuntu, several other factors are keeping it on my hard drive. One is the excellent community that sprang up, almost overnight, when the distribution beta was first made available.

There is the main ubuntu-users mailing list, along with several other specialized lists, a growing wiki filled with how-tos and FAQs, and an official forum, plus a getting started guide written by an enthusiastic user. These resources have given me more than enough help to get over the few problems I have had.

Another likable thing about Ubuntu is that Canonical, Ltd., the sponsor of the distribution, is committed to keeping the distribution free, in both senses of the word. On the "free beer" side, the Ubuntu website states that "Ubuntu will always be free of charge." And on the freedom side, the developers do not include any proprietary software in the default install. I appreciate their commitment to FLOSS, and that their commitment is tempered with a touch of pragmatism -- some popular binary-only drivers for video cards, modems, etc., are available via Synaptic in a special restricted repository.

In my office I don't need a server or server applications (for the most part), so the Ubuntu distribution, designed for a desktop machine, is tailored to my needs. Ubuntu either turns off or simply doesn't include server applications, such as Apache and MySQL, in the default install. The selection of general applications is also limited. There is generally one application for each purpose, be it word processing (OpenOffice.org), chatting (Gaim), email (Evolution), or music (Rhythmbox). Compilers and other development tools are also not installed by default. With Synaptic you can add them if you need them, but for home or business users who simply want to write letters, surf the Web, and balance their checkbooks, extra tools and utilities that add nothing but complexity and confusion are thankfully absent. For the applications I use that are not included with Ubuntu, Gramps and GnuCash in particular, a simple trip to Synaptic had them installed in just a couple of mouse clicks.

In the end, the thing that keeps Ubuntu on my hard drive is that it gets out of my way when I'm working. Most of what I do every day involves text -- either plain text, PHP or HTML documents, or formatted word processor documents. When I'm in the middle of writing something, either code or prose, I want to focus on that, and nothing else. Overly cluttered menu bars like those in KDE just distract me. The clean, simple, uncluttered GNOME interface that Ubuntu gives me is perfect. It's there with the functionality and power I need, when I need it, and it gets out of my way when I don't.

In spite of being one of the newer distributions, Ubuntu is well on its way to being one of the major ones. You could call it a child prodigy, but I prefer to think of it as a good idea whose time has come.

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