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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  • zerobug - Monday, February 1, 2010 - link

    Regarding benchmarks and Linux-focused hardware roundups, one thing worth of consideration is that while Microsoft places strong resources on O/S development to create features that will require the end users the need to get the latest and greatest powerful hardware, Linux places their efforts in order that the end user will still be able to use their old hardware and get the best user experience while running the latest and greatest software.
    So,the benchmarks could compare the user experience when running popular software on Microsoft and Linux O/S's, with different powerful machines.
    For this, you could pick up some popular open source and proprietary (or their free equivalents) application that can run both Linux and W7. and compare the price, time and power consumption for retrieving, saving, processing, compiling, encrypting,decrypting compacting, extracting, encoding, decoding, backup, restore, nº of frames,etc, with machines in a range of different CPU and memory capacities.
    Reply
  • abnderby - Thursday, September 3, 2009 - link

    Let me say this, I am a Senior Software QA Engineer, I have been testing windows, windows apps, DB's and web sites for over 10 year now. I am what you could consider an windows guru of sorts.

    I have off an on always gone and tried linux from red hat 5, 6, ubuntu, suse, fedora etc... Linux is not and has not been ready for mainstream users. Sure simple email, word docs web browsing it is ok.

    But in order to do many things I want to do and many advanced windows users the author and many commentors are right. Linux people need to get out of their little shell and wake up.

    Linux has such great potential to be a true contenderto windows and OSX. But it lacks simple usability. Out of the box it can come nowhere close to MS or Apple offerings. The out of the box experience is truly horrible.

    Hardware drivers? good luck I run RAID cards that have no support. Forget the newest graphics and sound cards. Connecting to shares just as the author mentioned a hassle of a work around.

    Again as stated elsewhere Linux needs someone who programs and or scripts to get things done right. I have neitherthe time or patience for such. I use command line when needed. I would rather have 2 or 3 clicks and I am done then have to remember every CLI for every thing I need to do.

    Time is money, time is not a commodity. Linus wastes too much time.

    It is geting better with each distro true. But It has been 11 years from red hat 5?? and Linux is not a whole lot better than it was then.

    What is needed if Linux really wants to make a stand in the desktop space, is a unified pull togeher ofall distro's. Sit down and truly plan out the desktop. Put together a solid platform that out of the box can really put the hurt on MS or Apple.

    Look what Apple did with OSX! And how many developers are wrking on it? How many developers are working on Linux all distro's? OSX is a jewel in 7 years it has matured much farther than any *nix distro. And has a following that cannot yet be challenged by any distro available.

    Why is it that when win2k came out Linux was claiming to be superior, and yet after 10 years of development it is hardly comparable to XP let alonevista/win 7 or OSX?

    You guys really need to wake up and smell the coffee!

    Reply
  • Penti - Monday, September 7, 2009 - link

    Of course it's not ready for consumer desktops, there are no serious distributions for that.

    It means no DVD player OOB, no proprietary codecs, no video editing software, no proprietary drivers which works magically. Of course not is SLED and RHEL Desktop ready for normal users it's targeted for Linux admins to set up the environment. Community distributions won't have as easy time to be set up by those. Community distros will also always lack the above mentioned stuff. It's simply not legal for them to offer it OOB. OS X is actually older then Linux and ran on x86 before Apple bought Jobs NeXT company. It's also supported by an OEM. (OEM = Themselves). Which no Linux dist is. It also uses many GNU technologies like GCC, X11 (optional but included on disc), bash shell and so on, and of course SAMBA for SMB/CIFS, on the server edition they use a modified openldap server, dovecot and postfix for mail, Apache, PHP, Perl, MySQL etc. Stuff thats developed on Linux and has matured thanks to it.

    There's a lot of problems with having just community supported stuff, but that doesn't mean it's useless or sucks. Sure the kernel aren't really helping getting drivers in there, by locking out closed source stuff but they end up useless if they are proprietary and not updated any way. For the servers just buy RHEL or SLES certified stuff and you get all the hardware support-needed. But on the other hand you wouldn't be much successful in running 7 year old video drivers in Windows either. Community distros definitively don't need to cease existing for the creation of a commercial one. But there will never be one linux and that's really the beauty of it not the course. It wasn't meant to be something rivaling windows and the kernel developers has no desire to create a distro. That's why we can see Linux in stuff like Android and Maemo. And from home routers to mainframes and supercomputers. For a commercial entity targeting that many devices wouldn't be possible. Not with the same basic code and libraries. There are definitively some top notch products and solutions based on Linux and GNU. But Linux doesn't want anything as it's not an entity. And it's really up to GNOME and KDE to create the desktop environment. It's not the distros that shape them and write all the libraries that software developers use to create their software. As there are no major consumer desktop distro maker there is also no one that can really steer them by sponsoring work and holding discussions either. Not towards a unified desktop environment for normal non-tech users anyway. Also GNOME and KDE has no desire to create a exclusive platform around their software. OS X is a innovative 20 year old OS (since commercial release) and is actually based on work before then (BSD code). OS X UI is really 20 years into it's making and builds heavily on the next/openstep framework. On other Unixes there hasn't been any such heritage to build on, X was an total mess on commercial Unixes and I would actually say it's a lot better and more streamline now. There's just Xorg now, sure there are a lot of window managers but only two major environments now so it's still better then when all the vendors had it's own and couldn't make up it's mind on which direction to go and standardize on. In the middle of the 90's there where like at least 4 major Unix vendors that all had their own workstations.
    Reply
  • fazer150 - Friday, September 4, 2009 - link

    which Linux distro have you tried? did you try the PCLinuxOS which is atleast as usable as windows xp, 2003?
    Reply
  • nilepez - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    Most end users are not comfortable with the command line. Linux, even Ubuntu, is still not ready for the masses. This shouldn't be confused with the quality of the OS. It's mostly GUI issue. I've also had some issues with installers failing. Some were solved from an xterm and others just didn't work.

    It wasn't a big deal in most cases, because there's generally another program that can get the job done, but for the typical home user, it's a deal killer. Nevertheless, I must give credit where credit is due, and Ubuntu has made huge strides in the right direction. The UI isn't close to Windows 7 and I suspect it's not close to OS X either, but Canonical is moving in the right direction.

    Reply
  • Etern205 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    See this is the problem with some of linux users, you guys are some what always closed in a nutshell. What you may think is easy does not mean the rest of the world will agree with you. In this day and age, people what to get things done quickly and use the least amount of time as possible. For Mac OS X and Windows getting a simple task done takes like 3 simple clicks, for Ubuntu performing the same tasks requires the user to do extensive amount of research just to complete it.

    I'm glad this article was written by a author who has not head into linux terriroty before and it shows the true side of linux from the perspective of a new user.

    If you like to do ramen coding and so forth does not mean the others will. If linux want's to become mainstream, then they really need to stand in the shoes of Joe or Jane.
    Reply
  • forkd - Saturday, October 31, 2009 - link

    I use mac, windows and linux and I must disagree with your assessment of "this is the problem with some linux users"

    This article, and this site for that matter, comes from the perspective of a windows (and some mac) user looking at linux. More specifically Ubuntu. From this point of view of course Linux is difficult. A person who is linux focused thinks windows is difficult at first too and is likely to criticize. If you take the time to learn something instead of just criticizing something because it is different you may be a lot happier.
    Reply
  • fepple - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Check out all the usability studies the Gnome Project does, then come back and make some more generalization :) Reply
  • SoCalBoomer - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Again - those are done by Linux people. His points are right on. . .someone a while ago did a "Mom" test, which is closer to what is needed, not people who know computers doing studies on usability. Reply

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