Ubuntu for experts

People have been banging on about Linux is ready for the mainstream ever since the term fanboy was invented, and to be perfectly honest, it’s been nowhere near beating Windows or OS X for the “out of the box” experience.

However, recently Ubuntu has been getting a lot of publicity as the “Human’s Linux”, with many claiming that it’s the first Linux distribution to rival Windows. So I decided to give it a try, and installed it on my spare hard drive, which currently has Windows Vista RC1 on it.

I pooped off onto the Ubuntu download page1 and got the latest version, which was 6.06.

After burning it to a CD, and booting up from it, I was glad to see a colourful and friendly option menu to start up with. This allowed me to try out Ubuntu before I installed (known as a Live CD), albeit at a turtle-like pace. As standard, Ubuntu has a bunch of useful (and open source) software installed, including Firefox, OpenOffice.org and Evolution (although I prefer Thunderbird). More than enough to get you started on the free software bandwagon.

The install system is deceptively easy too, you double click an icon on the desktop named “Install”, and it starts a dialog which asks you some basic questions about your name, password and keyboard layout. Then, it asks if it should automatically partition your hard drive for you, and gives you a nice slider to select how much space the Ubuntu partition should have. Very simple, and much better than the old Windows XP partition interface. So I let it do its own merry thing, and that was the last button click I had to do before it was all setup on my hard disk.

Great I thought, what a simple installation procedure, finally a Linux distribution that can be installed by anyone. On booting up, the GRUB multiboot boot loader didn’t find my Vista install. No problem, the syntax for modifying GRUB’s list of installed operating systems is very simple.

However, disaster struck when Vista failed to boot, giving a rather worrying error of “No valid boot loader found”. I then booted into Ubuntu, and tried and failed to mount the Vista partition, even though Linux is capable of reading NTFS partitions out of the box. The damn installer corrupted my Vista partition!

Fortunately, I had nothing important on that Vista installation, or otherwise I would’ve been screwed. But shrugging off this problem, thinking that Vista would be simple to install again, I then proceeded to install Compiz and XGL, looking to get some crazy effects that you’ve probably seen on some YouTube videos. I followed the tutorials, ran into a couple problems, but some threads on UbuntuForums fixed those. In the end, I restarted and… got a blinking command line.

OK… I managed to reconfigure the X Window system (again from the UbuntuForums), and I tried again, with a completely different tutorial. And the command line welcomes me again after a restart.

It was at this point I thought: “Fuck this shit, why am I bothering with this?”, and switched back to my other hard disk, and back to the welcoming arms of Windows XP.

The same goes for many things about Linux, that I just don’t get. Like, when I use the apt-get command to install applications, where the hell do they get installed? Sometimes they’re in the bin folder, but othertimes I just can’t find them. Why isn’t there support for dual monitors out of the box without me having to mess around? Why doesn’t so many things don’t work without lots and lots of terminal commands?

This, I think, is why Linux isn’t ready for the desktop. In the areas that have been changed to be user friendly, it’s extremely easy to use and well designed, but at its core, it’s still a command line based operating system, and anything slightly advanced (like installing/compiling some of the best open source applications) requires use of the command line, something which I don’t want to do.

Criticisms aside, Ubuntu is actually pretty good. It’s quick, comes with all the essential applications, and I’d be happy to recommend it to someone who has an old computer, and just browses the internet and uses e-mail (although the lack of QuickTime and Flash 9 plugins are worrying). But it still needs a lot more work to be completely user friendly.

  1. Which unfortunately still asks me to select a mirror, and uses confusing acronyms and code names such as LTS and Dapper Drake, when all I want is a big download button.
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