October 13, 2004

Review: Should you do Ubuntu?

Author: Aditya Nag

Ubuntu Linux is a new Debian-based distro sponsored by Canonical Ltd. I spent a week using Ubuntu and came away impressed, despite some of its obvious teething pains.

Ubuntu is a purely GNOME-based distro. The release that I used, the whimsically named Warty Warthog 4.10, ships with GNOME 2.8 and kernel 2.6.8.1 and includes a host of popular application packages:

  • Office package: OpenOffice.org 1.1.2
  • Web browser: Mozilla Firefox 1.0 Preview Release
  • Email: Evolution Groupware Suite 2.0
  • Graphics: The GIMP 2.0
  • Movie player: Totem 0.99.15.1
  • Music player: Rhythmbox 0.8.5
  • Instant messenger: Gaim
  • IRC client: Xchat

I downloaded the single ISO image, burned it, and rebooted. Ubuntu uses a text-based installer, similar to but simpler than a Debian installation and easy enough to use. If you have installed a Linux distro before, you should be able to install Ubuntu.

On my system, installing the bootloader caused a few problems. I have one SATA and one IDE hard drive. I use the SATA disk as my primary, and I wanted the bootloader code to be installed onto its master boot record. Ubuntu had different ideas, though. No matter what I tried, it simply refused to install onto the SATA drive. Every time, it would write the bootloader code onto the IDE drive. I Googled and found that others with similar configurations have had the same problem. I finally yanked the IDE drive out of my system, after which Ubuntu finally installed onto the SATA disk. I have installed Mandrakelinux 10.0, SUSE 9.1, Slackware 10, and Fedora Core 2 on exactly the same system without ever having this problem; I don't see why Ubuntu should not work as seamlessly as these distros.

After getting past this hurdle, I proceeded with the install. I had to create a user, choose whether to upgrade packages from the Internet, and set up my X configuration. After this the installer unpacked a lot of things, and then immediately booted to the login prompt.

Ubuntu offers an exceptionally clean interface. There are no icons on the desktop, and the wallpaper is very subdued. Ubuntu's menus are small and easy to navigate, and don't confuse the user by providing a lot of options for the same task. There is only one Web browser, one office suite, and so on, an approach that works rather well.

I began by starting up Synaptic, a graphical interface to apt, the Debian package management system. And here is where I found that there is no root user in Ubuntu! You do any root-related tasks using sudo. It works transparently to the user, though I admit in the beginning I was a little foxed when it asked me to enter a password. Being used to Red Hat, SUSE, and Mandrake, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what the root password was, since Ubuntu never asked for one during the install. To be fair, the password prompt asked me for my password, but I am conditioned to put a root password in, so I didn't even read that. But this is a decent choice on the part of the Ubuntu developers, since the root user does tend to mess things up when it's used by a novice.

After I figured this out, I updated my system. It was a very large update, more than 200MB, which shows that the pace of Ubuntu development is very rapid. Three days after doing the first upgrade, when I did another one, I had to download 40MB.

The next thing I downloaded was the Nvidia drivers for my video card. Ubuntu automatically picked my preferred resolution, 1600x1200 at 85Hz.

After this, I downloaded and set up Java. This required the usual creation of a symbolic link. I followed the instructions on the Java download site, and managed to get it working smoothly.

Ubuntu Desktop -- click to enlarge

Once I had these essentials, I started using the system, and found Ubuntu feels much snappier than SUSE 9.1 or Mandrakelinux 10.0. The interface is clean and easy on the eyes. It wasn't colorful like SUSE or Mandrake, but somehow calm and peaceful. The whole system seemed like it was ready for anything I could throw at it.

To someone coming from SUSE or Mandrake, Ubuntu would feel positively spartan in terms of included software. The essentials are there, but one thing I missed a lot was a decent CD-burning application. Nautilus can write CDs, but when I wanted to add files to an existing multisession CD, I couldn't find a way of doing it. I missed K3b. So I fired up Synaptic, typed in K3b in the search box, and after a 24MB download, I had K3b up and running. It crashed a few times, but by and large it worked well, though I had to run it from a terminal using sudo or it would start complaining about not having root privileges.

I use my computer for Web browsing, word processing, listening to music, and watching movies and TV. My preferred browser, Firefox 1.0 PR, was pre-installed and the default. In the multimedia department, the music tools were OK. Rhythmbox, a capable application, is the default MP3 player, but I prefer Xmms. I downloaded it through Synaptic but I couldn't get it to work.

I had problems playing movies as well. Totem is the default player, but when I tried to play any of my Divx movies it kept crashing and giving me errors. I finally downloaded Xine through Synaptic, and it worked perfectly. Funnily enough, after I downloaded Xine, Totem started working as well -- possibly it was a codec issue.

OpenOffice.org also gave me some trouble. After I updated my system, the spell checker did not work, for some unknown reason.

I kept running up against this first release nature of Ubuntu. For instance, sometimes Firefox would randomly just disappear. I do not know whether this is a Firefox problem or a Ubuntu problem, but since it never happened to me in SUSE or Mandrake or even (gasp!) Windows, I suspect it's Ubuntu. Another thing that worked intermittently was the network browsing. Traversing Windows workgroups worked perfectly sometimes, and other times it refused to work. This problem happened randomly, and I was unable to figure out why. Also, Ubuntu neglected to add my NTFS partition to fstab; I had to add it manually.

The best part of Ubuntu for me was undoubtedly Synaptic. Debian has loads of software packaged, and you can use other repositories of your choice, but I never felt the need to go beyond what Ubuntu provided.

GNOME is a pleasure to use. I have always been a KDE fan, and used to view GNOME with a slightly jaundiced eye. After using GNOME on Ubuntu, I began to understand what the GNOME fans mean when they say that GNOME is just ... GNOME. The interface is really clean, and the configuration options are understandable and far from overwhelming, unlike KDE. KDE still has many pros, and since I am a long-time KDE user, I can quickly do stuff that takes me time to figure out in GNOME. That said, Ubuntu has done an excellent job with GNOME. The system feels responsive and clean. Things seem to blend together very well, and the entire interface seems well thought-out.

After using Ubuntu for a week, I must say that, though Ubuntu has its share of problems and teething troubles, it did impress me. It was easy to do most of what I do on a daily basis with it. I came away from it with the impression that Ubuntu is here to stay.

I would not recommend using this release as your sole operating system, because of its problems with Windows networking, multimedia, and installations. That said, if you like trying out new distros, do try this one. Ubuntu has taken a different path from most other distros, and if it continues in this manner, it will be a force to reckon with.

Category:

  • Linux
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