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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  • brennans - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    I use both XP64 and Hardy (Ubuntu 8.04).
    I am also a power user.

    Both these operating systems have pros and cons.

    Cons for XP64:
    1. It does not recognize my hardware properly.
    2. Finding 64 bit drivers was/is a mission.

    Cons for Hardy:
    1. It does not plug and play with my hardware (i have to compile the drivers).
    2. Not as user friendly as windows.

    Pros for XP64:
    1. Windowing system is super fast.
    2. User friendly.

    Pros for Hardy:
    1. Recognizes my hardware.
    2. Command line tools are awesome.

    I think that the article was good.

    I am one of those people who has always had problems installing windows straight out of the box and thus find that paying a large amount of money for their buggy OS is unacceptable.

    I can get a lot of stuff done with Hardy and it is free and if I find a problem with it I can potentially fix that problem.

    I also find it unacceptable that manufacturers do not write software (drivers or application software for their devices) for Linux.

    For me, it is difficult to live without both XP64 and Hardy.

  • ciukacz - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link"> Reply
  • JJWV - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    How can people use something like Aero and its Linux or OSX equivalents (that pre-dates it if I am not mistaken) ? The noise is just hiding the information. Transparency is one issue, another are those icons that are more like pictures : one looses the instant recognition. With Aero knowing which is the active window is not something obvious, you have to look at small details. The title of the window is surrounded by mist making it more difficult to read. Even with XP the colour gradient in a title bar is just noise : there is no information conveyed by it.

    The OS GUIs are more and more looking like those weird media players, with an image of rotary button that is to be manipulated like a slide button.

    The evolution of all applications to a web interface reminds me of the prehistory of personal computers : each program has its own interface.

    The MS Office Ribbon UI is just in the same vein: more than 20 icons on each tab. The icon interface is based on instant recognition and comprehension, when you have so many it turns into a mnemonics exercise. And of course with MS one does not have a choice : you just have to adapt to the program. An end user is only there to be of service to the programs ;-)

    If i want to look at a beautiful image I will do it, but the when I want to write an letter or update a database all those ultra kitsch visual effects are just annoying.

    As a summary the noise is killing the information and thus the usability.
  • Ronald Pottol - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    The thing with windows has been seen before, back in the win 3.1-OS/2 days it was found that while one instance of excel didn't run any faster under OS/2, two in separate VMs (ok, not technically the same thing) ran in about the same time as one on windows.

    I like the package management, and hate when I have to install something that doesn't support it, it means I have to worry about updates all my self. If they have one, they I get updates every time I check for Ubuntu updates, very handy. Nice to get the nightly Google Chrome builds, for instance (still alpha/very beta).

    Frankly, supporting binary kernel drivers would be insane. Now they are stuck supporting code they cannot look at and cannot fix, they cannot fix their mistakes (or are stuck emulating them forever). If they supported them, there would be even more of them, and when they wanted to fix something broken or that was a bad idea, they would have to wait a reasonable amount of time before doing it, so it would be supported. Frankly, I don't see why people don't have automated frameworks for doing this and automated deb/rpm repository generation. I add their repository, when I get a kernel update, perhaps it is held up a day for their system to automatically build a new version, but then it all installs, instead, I am stuck with having to run a very old kernel, or not having 3D on my laptop, for instance.
  • cesarc - Sunday, August 30, 2009 - link

    I found this article very interesting, because is oriented to windows user and is helpful to them because you just didn't die trying it.
    But you can't blame ubuntu (or any distro), about the pain in the ass a video card's drive could be to install, blame ati and nvidia for been lazy, and if using wine for playing games is not as good as playing in windows blame games company for don't release a GNU/linux version.
    Also, the thing about why GNU/linux overpass windows in file management is because ntfs is a BAD file system, maybe if windows somehow could run under ext3 would be even better than it is.
    And why your negligence to use a console (stop saying cli please), you are not opening your mind trying to use GNU/linux as a windows just because it is not windows is a completely different os. Look from this point of view... something that you can do in windows with 5 clicks maybe you can do it in GNU/linux in just one line of bash code. So, sometimes you will use GUI and others you will use console and you will find that having this options is very comfortable. So start using the console and do the same article a year later.
    I hope some day have a paid version of GNU/linux (still open source), that could pay salaries to programers to fix specific issues in the OS.
    In the other hand, when you do the IT benchmark is very disappointing that you don't use linux with those beautiful Xeons. Servers environment is were GNU/linux get stronger. And Xeons with windows are just toys compared with unix on sparcs or power architectures.

    PS: try to get 450 days of uptime in a windows 2003.
  • rkerns - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link


    Thanks for your good work.

    Many people considering linux are still on dial-up. These are often folks with lesser expertise who just want to get connected and use their computer in basic ways. But getting connected with dial-up is something of an adventure with many distros and/or versions. Ubuntu 9.04 has moved away from easy dial-up, but Mint7KDE includes KPPP for simple dial-up connection. Mint7KDE has other nice features as well.

    I am asking you to expand your current picture of the landscape to include people who want to use linux with a dial-up connection. This of course would have to include a brief discussion of 1) appropriate modems and 2) distro differences. Thanks,
    r kerns
  • William Gaatjes - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link


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  • lgude - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    Really glad to find this in depth article after all this time. Thank you Ryan. I too have run Ubuntu as my main OS even though most of my experience is in Windows and have had similar experiences. Because this was a very long article it got into detail about things like the Package Manager or the multiple desktops that I have not seen discussed elsewhere from a user perspective. As someone else pointed out it is moot what people would like or complain about if they were moving from Linux to Windows or OSX, but imagine for a moment if they were used to getting the OS and all their apps updated in one hit and were asked to do it one app at a time and expected to pay for the privilege!

    If you go on with the Linux series I'd like to see discussion of the upcoming Ubuntu and other distros - I've been impressed with SUSE. I'd also like to see projects on how to build a Linux server and HTPC - including choice of distro and the kind of hardware needed. I'm less sure of where benchmarking is really useful - the tradition of detailed benchmarking at AT arose from the interest in overclocking and gaming which I think is a much lesser consideration in Linux. More relevant might be comparisons of netbook specific distros or how to work out if that old P4 will do as a home server. There is a lot of buzz in the tech world about things like Symbion, Chrome OS, Moblin, Maemo on portable devices that could possibly draw new readers to the Linux tab at AT. A great start in any case.
  • jmvaughn - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    I just wanted to say thank you to the author for a very thorough article. After reading it, I decided to use Ubuntu for a PC I'm building out of spare parts for a retired friend who's on fixed income. My friend just uses web, e-mail, and some word processing, so this will be perfect.

    The article gave me a good idea of what to expect -- a good honest appraisal with all the good and bad. After installing Ubuntu 9.0.4, I am very impressed. The install was very quick, and easier than XP. Everything is quite snappy, even though it's running on a AMD 3800+ single core processor and an old hard drive.

  • xchrissypoox - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    I only skimmed the article (I saw the part on gaming being poor), I'd like to see a comparison of several games using the same hardware on windows and linux (results given in fps). If this has been mentioned sorry and good day. Reply

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