Monday, August 28, 2006

Finally switched, and it was worth it

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I finally decided that I'd had enough of Windows. Random crashes, software bloat, non-open source, WGA, security issues that never seem to be fully solved, etcetera ad nauseam have long annoyed and frustrated me, though the bloat and security issues pretty much peg my frustration meter.

Since I decided to get away from WinXP, I basically had two other choices: get a Mac or install one of the many distributions of Linux. I don't have the money for a Mac; if I did, I'd probably be blogging somewhere somewhat more stable, albeit not free. Besides, I can't stand those condescending "Mac vs. PC" commercials that are playing all the time on TV. Also, I like cheaply building and cheaply upgrading my computers; I hate stock "anything." As for Linux. . . Well, first, let me very quickly answer the question "Why Linux?" It's fast, it's stable, it's not Microsoft, it's free, and it's far, far more secure. Yeah, that's about as quick of an explanation you're going to get right now, but you geeks out there shouldn't get mad at me; this isn't supposed to be a technical discussion/analysis. So that decision was a pretty easy one, really, but it did beg the question: Which distro of Linux to use? After all, they're numerous, varied, and without actually installing most of them, a user doesn't really know if a particular distribution is right for them.

I've played with various flavors of Linux in the past, notably Gentoo, Knoppix, and Fedora. For one reason or another, I found them all lacking in one way or another. I like playing with software and customizing OS's, but not THAT much. . . I still wanted to quickly, easily, and relatively painlessly install and use an OS and I don't want to spend hours customizing one feature. After doing some research (Distrowatch,,, places like that), I found Ubuntu. I have to say, I was intrigued, especially since it's # 1 on Distrowatch's "Hits per day" meter. The Ubuntu folks seem to pride themselves on ease-of-use and ease-of-install, while remaining secure, stable and easily customizable. Plus there is a fairly large and active community on their forums, which is a great help to n00bs like myself. In fact, the forums really swayed my decision, as I was able to read some great install tips and find the best software to use when the OS is installed. So my decision was made: I'd be trying out Ubuntu.

The Ubuntu .iso image (which you burn to a CD and use to install the OS) is actually for a LiveCD, which allows you to use Ubuntu within Windows, just to find out whether you like it or not. And I did like it. I liked it a lot. The pre-installed software was more-or-less what I wanted (I already use OpenOffice, so I was quite happy to see that it comes with the OS), the desktop and menubars were well organized, etc. So I decided to make the plunge and actually install Ubuntu. So I set the computer to boot off the CD and went to work. . . of which there really wasn't much. I wanted a dual-boot machine, since I want to keep WinXP for the occasions that require Windows-only software, and also for games, as I still play Counter-Strike: Source on occasion.* I also wanted one of my hard-drives readable/writeable from both Ubuntu and WinXP, mostly because of a rather large collection of mp3's (yes, Genie, they're all legal. . . really, they are), so I had to take a little more time configuring my disks than someone without those concerns might have. I won't bore you with the details of disk partitions and file system choices, but it really didn't take that long to get everything installed and set up; maybe an hour and a half total, including reinstalling WinXP, which I had to do because of the particular storage scheme I wanted.

So I've now lived and worked with Ubuntu for a couple-three weeks, and I have to say, it's pretty sweet. It automatically detected almost all my hardware, including peripherals like a webcam, printer, etc. The update/new program install software (Synaptic Package Manager) is remarkably easy to use; browse for a program that you want or need, click a button, enter your password, wait a minute, and it's done. The file system takes very little time to get used to (substitute the "Home" folder for the "My Documents" folder in your mind and you'll be ok), the OS seems faster and certainly takes up less room, though on the particular desktop machine I installed Ubuntu on, that's a negligible gain; it's a fairly powerful machine with tons of HDD storage. There are a few nit picky things I find lacking compared to WinXp, such as a media player as comprehensive and easy to use or WMP10 or iTunes, but the Linux substitutes will do.**

Overall, I was very impressed. . . impressed enough to delete XP off of my laptop and install Ubuntu there as well. Now I'm sold. It was even easier to install Ubuntu on the laptop than it was on the desktop (no dual boot) and only took about 30 minutes, plus another 15 minutes to research how to install drivers for my WifFi card and to do so, as some WiFi card manufacturers don't have any drivers for Linux and the community has to figure out how to make them. Still though, getting WiFi up and running didn't take much time at all. Now this particular laptop is a hand-me-down IBM Thinkpad T20 with only a 192MB of RAM and a rather weak PIII processor. It's somewhat outdated and definitely sluggish when running WinXP and all the anti-virus and anti-malware software that's required in this day and age. The sluggishness is almost gone after installing Ubuntu. Startup time with XP clocked in at a painfully slow 5+ minutes. With Ubuntu it takes 1 minute and 45 seconds. Out of a 20 gig HDD, XP took up almost 12 gigs, not including any software or files. Ubuntu takes up 2.6 gigs, including all software and files. Is this old workhorse of a laptop a spanking-fast, code-crunching, uber-framerate monster machine now? God no, but Ubuntu sure breathed some new life into the old girl.

Obviously, I'm pretty happy with Ubuntu, but does that mean I see it as the be-all end-all of OS's for replacing Everyman's Windows XP? No. User-familiarity issues aside, it's not quite there yet. There's still some tweaking one has to do to Linux to get it up to speed, though not nearly as much as what it took just a few years ago, or even one year ago. There are some programs and Windows-clone programs that need some work or need to be created, and there are still some hardware issues that, though there are work-arounds, still may be daunting to Joe Sixpack PC User out there. As Linux popularity increases though (and it is), more hardware and software companies will support their products being used on Linux boxes.

Is Ubuntu ready to replace my mom's WinXP? Oh my God, no! Just the thought of trying to teach her Linux sends shivers down my spine; but then she's neither interested nor does she care about how or why a PC works, so there's no failing on her part. On the other hand, Ubuntu has definitely brought Linux to the point that someone who knows how to install Windows can now install and use Linux without getting confused and frustrated, although they might need a little help from the community. If you have even a modicum of interest in getting away from the ongoing Microsoft/Windows XP hegemony, I highly recommend exploring some of the links above and giving Ubuntu a try.

Just remember folks, make a back-up of all your files before you play around.

And make 2 back-ups if you're using Windows.

*Yes, I know about the Wine program (among others) that allows you to use Windows apps within Linux; I haven't played CS:S in awhile, so I haven't tried it out yet.
**I admit it, I like Windows Media Player 10. With the right codec pack(s), it can play just about any type of media file, and I kinda like the way the library is set up.

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