Back in the early part of 2008 we decided that we wanted to take a fresh look at Linux on the desktop. To do so we would start with a “switcher” article, giving us the chance to start anew and talk about some important topics while gauging the usability of Linux.

That article was supposed to take a month. As I have been continuously reminded, it has been more than a month. So oft delayed but never forgotten, we have finally finished our look at Ubuntu 8.04, and we hope it has been worth the wait.

There are many places I could have started this article, but the best place to start is why this article exists at all. Obviously some consideration comes from the fact that this is my job, but I have been wanting to seriously try a Linux distribution for quite some time. The fact that so much time has transpired between the last desktop Linux article here at AnandTech and my desire to try Linux makes for an excellent opportunity to give it a shot and do something about our Linux coverage at the same time.

After I threw this idea at Anand, the immediate question was what distribution of Linux should we use. As Linux is just an operating system kernel, and more colloquially it is the combination of the Linux kernel and the GNU toolset (hence the less common name GNU/Linux), this leaves a wide variation of actual distributions out there. Each distribution is its own combination of GNU/Linux, applications, window managers, and more, to get a complete operating system.

Since our target was a desktop distribution with a focus on home usage (rather than being exclusively enterprise focused) the decision was Ubuntu, which has established a strong track record of being easy to install, easy to use, and well supported by its user community. The Linux community has a reputation of being hard to get into for new users, particularly when it comes to getting useful help that doesn’t involve being told to read some esoteric manual (the RTFA mindset), and this is something I wanted to avoid. Ubuntu also has a reputation for not relying on the CLI (Command-Line Interface) as much as some other distributions, which is another element I was shooting for – I may like the CLI, but only when it easily allows me to do a task faster. Otherwise I’d like to avoid the CLI when a GUI is a better way to go about things.

I should add that while we were fishing for suggestions for the first Linux distro to take a look at, we got a lot of suggestions for PCLinuxOS. On any given day I don’t get a lot of email, so I’m still not sure what that was about. Regardless, while the decision was to use Ubuntu, it wasn’t made in absence of considering any other distributions. Depending on the reception of this article, we may take a look at other distros.

But with that said, this article serves two purposes for us. It’s first and foremost a review of Ubuntu 8.04. And with 9.04 being out, I’m sure many of you are wondering why we’re reviewing anything other than the latest version of Ubuntu. The short answer is that Ubuntu subscribes to the “publish early, publish often” mantra of development, which means there are many versions, not all of which are necessarily big changes. 8.04 is a Long Term Support release; it’s the most comparable kind of release to a Windows or Mac OS X release. This doesn’t mean 9.04 is not important (which is why we’ll get to it in Part 2), but we wanted to start with a stable release, regardless of age. We’ll talk more about this when we discuss support.

The other purpose for this article is that it’s also our baseline “introduction to Linux” article. Many components of desktop distributions do not vary wildly for the most part, so much of what we talk about here is going to be applicable in future Linux articles. Linux isn’t Ubuntu, but matters of security, some of the applications, and certain performance elements are going to apply to more than just Ubuntu.

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  • ioannis - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    ...sorry, I think it's Alt+F2 by default. I'm talking about the 'Run Command' dialog. Reply
  • Eeqmcsq - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    Oh, yes you're right. I stand corrected. Reply
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    Ubuntu doesn't ship with the firewall on eh? Weird. SuSE's is on, and that has been the default for quite some time. GUI management of it is easy too. Reply
  • clarkn0va - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    For incoming connections I don't quite grasp what good a firewall will do on a system with no internet-facing services. With no open ports you stand little to gain from adding a firewall, and any internet-facing service you might add, well, you don't want to firewall that anyway.

    I can see two theoretically plausible arguments for a host-based firewall, but even these don't really stand up in real-world use: 1) a machine that has open ports out of the box (I'm looking at you, Windows), and 2) for the folks who want to police outgoing connections.

    In the case of the former, why would we open ports and then block them with a firewall, right out of the box? This makes as much sense to me as MS marketing their own antivirus. Third-party firewalls were rightfully introduced to remedy the silly situation of computers listening on networks where they shouldn't be, but the idea of MS producing a host-based firewall instead of just cleaning up their services profile defies common sense.

    In the case of outbound firewalling, I've yet to meet a home user that understood his/her outbound firewall and managed it half-way effectively. Good in theory, usually worse than useless in practice.

    db
    Reply
  • VaultDweller - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    Just because a port/service is open, doesn't mean you want it open to the whole world.

    Examples:
    SMB
    NFS
    VNC
    RDP
    SSH
    Web (intranet sites, for example)

    And the list could go on... and on and on and on, really.

    Also, it's erroneous to assume that only 1st party software will want to open ports.

    And that is to say nothing of the possibility of ports being unintentionally opened by rogue software, poorly documented software, naughty admins, or clumsy admins.

    Host-based firewalls help with all of these situations.
    Reply
  • clarkn0va - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    Windows firewall doesn't filter by source. In other words, if you want SMB or any other service open to some peers and not others, Windows firewall can't help you; you'll need a more sophisticated product or a hardware firewall for that.

    I'm not saying there's no case for host-based firewalls, I'm just saying it's pointless for most users out of the box, where Ubuntu doesn't need it and Windows should be looking at fixing the problem of unneeded services running, rather than just bolting on another fix.
    Reply
  • VaultDweller - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    "I can see two theoretically plausible arguments for a host-based firewall, but even these don't really stand up in real-world use"

    That sounds to me like a claim that there is little or no case for a host-based firewall; at least, that's how I interpreted it.


    "Windows firewall doesn't filter by source. In other words, if you want SMB or any other service open to some peers and not others, Windows firewall can't help you"

    That is incorrect, and you should check your facts before making such statements. The Windows Firewall can filter by source. Any firewall exception that is created can be made to apply to all sources, to the local subnet only, or to a custom list of IPs and subnets.

    The firewall in Vista and Windows 7 goes a step further, as it is location aware. Different ports and services are opened depending on the network you're plugged into, as exemplified by the default behavior of treating all new networks as "Public" (unknown and untrusted) until instructed otherwise.
    Reply
  • clarkn0va - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    "The Windows Firewall can filter by source. Any firewall exception that is created can be made to apply to all sources, to the local subnet only, or to a custom list of IPs and subnets. "

    In that case I retract my assertion that an out-of-the-box firewall makes no sense in the case of Windows.

    As for Ubuntu, or any other desktop OS having no open ports by default, I still see including an enabled firewall by default as superfluous. Meanwhile, firewall GUIs exist for those wishing to add them.
    Reply
  • Paazel - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    ...not enough pictures. admittedly my interest additionally waned when i read the newest ubuntu isn't be reviewed. Reply
  • philosofool - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    I'm not done with this article, which I'm loving. However, there's a grammatical/spelling quibble that's driving me nuts: "nevertheless" is one world. Reply

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