Sunday, December 03, 2006

Every so often I will think about taking another look at Linux. Usually the pattern is that I install it, play with it, and then uninstall it after a week when I need a Windows application or realise that, actually, Linux is kind of ugly and not that nice, or get fed up of having a simple task like sticking a CD into the drive made complicated. It has been a few years since I last tried it and I have been seeing frequent references to a new, easy to use distribution called Ubuntu. This itself still was not really enough to convince me but then I read that Mac users were making the switch. Maybe Linux is finally ready to be a desktop replacement that you can enjoy using instead of putting up with. I wanted to find out.

I downloaded the iso to burn it to a cd. You boot from the cd and the operating system starts so you have an opportunity to try it and see if it works before you commit yourself to installing. It seemed to work fine on my Acer 5500 laptop apart from a lack of correct screen resolutions and I liked the look of it. The default theme is orange which makes it really stand out from pretty much every other operating system out there. I admit I do like it but, if I get bored of it this is Linux and it is a simple job to changed pretty much every aspect of how it looks.

I lacked the courage to actually install it on my laptop as I was concerned about losing XP. Fortunately my work PC, which was pretty much not working due to the number of viruses on the school network, had a couple of very large, empty partitions and I decided to give it a go on that. After playing with it and using it for work pretty much full-time Nanowrimo came along and I needed to use the rather rubbish computer the school provided for my apartment. Because of the difficulty it has with XP I decided to give Ubuntu a try on that too. For the whole month of November, then, I have been almost exclusively using Ubuntu and for the first time I did not miss Windows at all. I decided to take the plunge and install it on my laptop.

All three installations have gone without any major problems. There is some great online documentation for helping fix up some of the little issues with Ubuntu hot off the cd and tools like Easy Ubuntu made the work of getting MP3 working, installing Skype and getting the correct video drivers very easy. I also decided to give Beryl a try. Beryl is a kind of extra layer for the UI which makes windows transparent, or wobble when you move them, and generally look like a very modern, Vista-like operating system. It can be a bit flaky and crash (it is still in development) at times but it does look really good, once some of the more extreme effects have been turned off.

I've also found applications to match everything I need and want to do with my laptop. Amarok is an excellent music player with some really good features, like lyric look-up and a feature that downloads all the missing album covers for you. Picasa is available for Linux too so I get to keep my favourite photo organiser. Stellarium is a really good-looking star map program and Democracy TV looks really interesting, offering easy downloads from various channels, You Tube search and download and the ability to add torrents. Open Office and Abiword are decent replacements for Microsoft Office, although they are not quite as good (and I miss the ribbon) but they do everything that I need them to do. I spend most of my time in Google Docs now anyway - pretty much all of my novel was written in it. The only thing I can't do is play the latest games, but I got out of the habit of doing that a long time ago.

So, is it all it's cracked up to be, a Linux for the masses? Well, not quite. It is very usable once it has been set up. Installing applications is easy, and free, but some things do still require a trip to the console to run commands. There's no mp3 support on a fresh install and, although it's easy to sort things like this out using Easy Ubuntu or a guide it is an extra burden. I would say, though, that once it is all set up then it is easy to use (And, to be honest, how many people can really set up Windows themselves, easily, getting it all right? At least with Ubuntu you also end up with all the software the average user needs already installed. Except for mp3.) I will keep using it and now feel I have pretty much made the switch. Of course I'll still need to use MS Windows for development and the odd thing that I can't do with Linux (update my horribly proprietary Sony mp3 player or play Rome:Total War) but I feel comfortable with Ubuntu now and plan on sticking with it for a while. Hasta la victoria siempre.


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