Return to Linux

I suppose that it was inevitable from my ill-fated Win-2-Lin project at the end of last year, but I had to give Linux another chance. If for nothing else, to see if I could get XGL working with all of the groovy special effects.

The distribution of choice this time around is Ubuntu. After SUSE 9.1 failed to work well with sound, and cause some grief with the PDA, I thought I would take an alternative route. Derek seems sold on Ubuntu now, so I thought ‘why not’?

Downloading the ISO from the Ubuntu website was relatively painless. For some reason the downloads seemed slower than a jar of Marmite superglued to the hard-shoulder of a motorway from the UK mirrors, so I downloaded from France. After experiencing the ‘we’ve got everything in the world’ mentally of the DVD distros of Linux, I was surprised that the standard distributions were only on CD. How could a distribution possibly work from a CD and compare to the larger distros? (Debian users knowingly snigger here)

Booting the CD up on the system was painless. It’s nice to have a working ‘try before you buy’ concept. The idea of ‘this is what you’re about to install’ is appealing for any user. Especially if they are considering a migration.

Installation ran through onto a SATA drive without incident. The questions were kept to a minimum which I thought was a good idea. One thing that perplexed me with SUSE and Mandrake before was the sheer volume of software lists that you were expected to wade through before installing. None of that here. Some regional settings, and a question asking what filesystem to use (defaulting to ext), and a hard drive.

The impressive part was that installation took around 15 – 20 minutes in total. I have never had an O/S install that quickly on a system recently. I’m told that Vista’s install time is comparable, but the last install of that was BETA 2, which took around an hour.

First thing was first. Where’s the ‘Start’ button! It’s an application button at the top. That’s nice. I must admit, I spent a couple of minutes just clicking around to be happy where everything was. I’ve never used the Gnome desktop before, so I made the most of it. Inital thoughts left me impressed. The windows looked pretty and the system ran quick. Boot up and login was lean. But I had stumbled into a few issues.

  • My Logitech MX5000 Desktop was not detected by Ubuntu on startup. Everytime I boot into the system, I have to re-seat the USB Bluetooth receiver. This is annoying considering I can even use the keyboard in BIOS with no issues
  • Once again, my maximum resolution was unavailable. I have a monitor that supports 1600×1200 and that’s what I want to use Damnit! At this point I was stuck on 1280×768.

So, on I went. The Application menu was a piece of art. A few menus with some choice programs. Having the Add/Remove option in the main Application menu is a stroke of genius. It is the most obvious place you’d go if you are a novice user. And this is where the Debian system comes into it’s own. The Add/Remove tool is built on Apt-Get. Something that I was forced to use the command line for in SUSE. Let me explain this for Windows users.

Apt-get is a kind of automatic update for software. Except rather than being tied to a proprietary system (in Windows it’s likely you have MS Update. Adobe wants to update Reader. Flash wants to update itself somewhere else and so forth…), apt-get ties all of the open-source software together in repositories. These repositories keep track of the latest software. The great thing that comes from this is:

  1. When software is installed using Add / Remove, it is downloaded from the Internet and it is most likely the latest, stable version
  2. Any piece of software is then identified as needing updates when apt-get is ran

I ‘think’ that apt-get is scheduled in Ubuntu, as after installation from the CD, there where some initial updates to download. If so, that’s great! What is also good is that the Add/Remove feature is searchable in a simple manner, so user’s don’t have to trudge through many programs. It would have been nice if the search could be scaled down though. There is nothing to separate the description and the title. Searching for a remote desktop client to connect to Windows threw up all-sorts of results.

Fixing the screen resolution should have been simple, but this is my big gripe with Ubuntu. There is no core System Control Panel of any kind. There are some system tools in the System menu, and granted, they do cover some crucial things (mouse and keyboard for one), but the whole premise of Linux for human beings in my mind is that using the terminal should be almost completely unnecessary.

I did have to dip into the terminal to install the XGL features. All I can say is “Wow!” There are clearly still some basic issues, but if there are any Vista or Mac users feeling smug about the 3D interface – don’t be. Linux’s 3D engine is amazing.

Nevermind the pretty windows effects: Translucency, exposé-style scaling. The windows ‘wobble’ when you move them. They can latch onto other windows and stretch/squish as you push them together / push them apart.

Virtual desktop (one of Unix’s oldest and most useful features) is given a facelift as you find yourself looking at desktops on the surface of a cube that can be rotated with mouse or keyboard. You can run slides of images on the top and bottom and flick with amazing ease. While all this is gong on the applications continue unhindered. It makes Apple’s ‘Spaces’ look like the XP Virtual Desktop Powertoy. And it makes that look like a GCSE computer project gone wrong.

As well as that, every element of the 3D interface is customisable, right down to keyboard and mouse shortcuts. Maybe you want to zoom the cube when it spins? Or be inside the cube instead of outside? Maybe you want the windows to only move when you hold down a key, or create some shortcut keys to access certain system menus. Everything that I could think of was there, and many more that I hadn’t. (Oh, I wondered if there was a Vista-style flip for the windows scaling. There isn’t… yet.)

Installation involved using the terminal (*groan*), but the whole thing was working within 2 hours of starting the installation. That was very nice, although there were bugs that were only resolved through a number of reboots. I also didn’t understand the relationship of Beryl and Emerald. But I got there in the end, and it looks a treat.

A couple of minor problems is that the RDP programs that I have tried flashes and go translucent when connecting with more than 256 colours, and there is no good reason for it from what I can tell. Also, the processor usage of XGL gradually creeps up and starts to upset the system after a number of hours, a log off and on resolves this, but a nuisance nevertheless.

A few other niggles that I’ve had with Ubuntu so far:

  • Due to having no control panel, there is no simple way to set up a multi-monitor configuration. In Windows (2000 onwards), this is easy to set up. Just tell Windows to extend your desktop and drag the screen around to the location. Voila! Linux involves more tinkering with configuration files, which I have yet to work out.
  • The bluetooth thing I mentioned earlier. ARGH!
  • Evolution doesn’t seem to want to connect to my Exchange Server nicely. I’ve had various crashes and have given it up as a bad idea. It’s a pity – as it doesn’t seem like there is any other PIM out there that is like Outlook.
  • Hibernate fails to work. I always think that this is a good test with an O/S, because in principle, hibernation should be simple – but it seems to be wronged often. Ubuntu is no exception. Instead I end up with a locked screen where I must enter my password (which can only be entered after I reconnect the bluetooth dongle).
  • The mouse cursor. Whenever I use any Linux distro, the mouse always seems to not click where the pointer ends on the screen. Also, the mouse always feels less smooth than I’m used to in Windows. I find it frustrating when I’m trying to resize a window and I constantly have to remind myself that the pointer is actually a few pixels away from where I’m aiming, and then the mouse jumps around to make things more difficult.

Hardly the most damning list in the world, is it?

On the plus side:

  • Ubuntu seems to offer some fast booting from ‘ON’ to a usable desktop.
  • The pre-installed applications are of a reasonable high-standard and easy to get gong with.
  • XGL does make the other 3D desktop environments look like the original Star Wars arcade game.
  • Getting and installing software is a breeze thanks to the Add/Remove /apt-get hybrid
  • The restricted admin account is nowhere near as annoying as Microsoft’s UAC in Vista (RC2 at this time)

I suppose that the bottom line is, will I continue to use it?

It’s most likely a ‘yes’. I think that the learning curve is less steep than other previous Linux distros. Also, I’ve always admired Linux from afar, but never felt it could compete against the more refined OSes. I think that if I do persevere, I’ll be running Vista on another drive. My mistake last time was to go ‘all or nothing’ with Linux, and I became frustrated rather than liberated. Migrating to Linux has to be a gentle process, so I’ll have to decide exactly what I expect to do in each environment.

Unfortunately, the killer app that keeps me working with Windows is Office. Outlook is a fantastic PIM, and its integration with Exchange and other MS Apps is second-to-none. Office 2007 is also a giant leap is the direction of a great UI. Word and Excel have such simple yet essential tools – it’s hard to take OpenOffice seriously if you’re a power user.

There are also the classic Linux problems. Inline help and documentation is virtually non-existant in a contextual manner. There is still a heavy reliance on the terminal. This may sound odd. But when I’m supporting users, they usually don’t know how to open the command prompt in Windows. Why should they have to in Linux?

What would be great to see is XGL working ‘out-of-the-box’, a control panel, slightly better hardware support (although it is pretty good now), and CHM-style help as standard, rather than users having to search WIKIs for the answers.

You show me a Linux that does this, and I’ll admit it’s ready to take on the big boys.

Maybe it’s not so far off any more.