Background

I think it's impossible to offer a purely objective review on an operating system – qualitative data like the GUI and nebulous concepts like “ease of use” can't be measured. There is a degree of subjectivity in such a review, and I believe it's important to relate that in this article To that extent a bit of background on myself is probably going to be helpful on relating my point-of-view on matters, before jumping into Ubuntu. This section is being written prior to my even touching Ubuntu, so that it doesn't end up reflecting my experience, rather than my expectations.

Based on the computers I have owned and the operating systems I have used, I would best be classified as a Windows user. Like many of our readers (and our editors) I have lived the Microsoft life, starting from DOS and going straight through to Vista. I have clocked far more time on Windows than anything else, and it's fair to say that's where my skills (troubleshooting and otherwise) are strongest.

With that said, I am by no means limited to just a single OS. As was customary for most American schools in the 90s, I had access to the requisite Apple IIs and Macintoshes. But to be frank I didn't care for Mac OS Classic in the slightest – it was a remarkable OS in 1984 and even in 1993 and the age of Windows 3.1, but by the time Windows 95 rolled around it was more of a nuisance to use than anything else. It's through a cruel joke that when starting work in IT in 2001, I was tasked with using the newly released Mac OS X 10.0 “Cheetah” full-time to gauge its status for use on the organization's Macs.

Apple didn't ship Mac OS X as the default OS on their Macs at that time, which should tell you a lot. Nevertheless, while I abhorred Mac OS Classic, Mac OS X was far more bearable. The interface was better than anything else at the time (if not a bit too shiny), application crashes didn't (usually) take out the OS, and the Terminal was a thing of beauty. Sure, Windows has a command line environment, but it didn't compare to the Terminal. Mac OS X was a mess, but there were nuggets to be found if you could force yourself to use it.

I'll save you the history of Mac OS X, and we'll pick up in 2004, where Apple had improved Mac OS X a great deal with the release of 10.3 “Panther.” At this point I was a perfectly happy Mac user for my day job, and I probably would have used one at home too if it wasn't for the hefty price of a Mac and the fact that it would require having an entirely separate computer next to my gaming PC. A bit later in what was probably a bad idea, I convinced Anand to try a Mac based on the ease of use and productivity features. This resulted in A Month With A Mac, and he hasn't left the platform since.

Finally we'll jump to the present day. I'm still primarily a Windows user since I spend more time on my desktop PC, while my laptop is a PowerBook G4. I would rather be a Mac user, but not a lot has changed in terms of things preventing me from being one. To replace my PC with a Mac would require throwing down money on a workstation-class Mac Pro that is overkill for my processing needs, not to mention my wallet.

I also am not a fan of dual-booting. Time booting is time wasted, and while I am generally not concerned about boot times, dual booting a Mac would involve rebooting my desktop far more often than the occasional software installation or security update currently requires. It also brings about such headaches as instant message logging being split in two places, difficulty accessing documents due to file system/format differences, and of course the inability to simultaneously access my games and my Mac applications. In theory I could game from within Mac OS X, but in reality there are few native games and virtual machines like Parallels and the Mac branch of Wine are lacking in features, compatibility, and performance.

I also find the Mac to be a weak multimedia viewing platform. I'll get into this more once we start talking about multimedia viewing under Ubuntu since much of the underlying software is the same, but for now I'll say that libavcodec, the standard building block for virtually all *nix media players, is particularly lacking in H.264 performance because the stable branch is single-threaded.

So while I'm best described as a Windows user, a more realistic description would be a Windows user that wants to be a Mac user, but can't bear to part with Windows' games or media capabilities.

As for my experience with Linux, it is not nearly as comprehensive. The only time I ever touched Linux was in college, where our department labs were Dells running Linux and the shell accounts we used for assignments were running off of a small Linux cluster. I never touched the Red Hat machines beyond quickly firing up Netscape Navigator to check my email; otherwise the rest of my Linux usage was through my shell account, where I already had ample experience with the CLI environment through Mac OS X's terminal.

My expectations for Ubuntu are that it'll be similar to Mac OS X when it comes to CLI matters - and having already seen screenshots of Ubuntu, that the GUI experience will be similar to Windows. I am wondering whether I am going to run into the same problems that I have with Mac OS X today, those being the aforementioned gaming and multimedia issues. I have already decided that I am going to need to dual-boot between Ubuntu and Vista to do everything I want, so the biggest variable here is just how often I'll need to do so.

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  • apt1002 - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    Excellent article, thank you. I will definitely be passing it on.

    I completely agree with superfrie2 about the CLI. Why resist it?

    Versions: I, like you, originally plumped for Hardy Heron because it is an LTS version. I recently changed my mind, and now run the latest stable Ubuntu. As a single user, at home, the benefits of a long-term unchanging OS are pretty small, and in the end it was more important to me to have more recent versions of software. Now if I were administering a network for an office, it would be a different matter...

    Package management: Yes, this is absolutely the most amazing part of free software! How cool is it to get all your software, no matter who wrote it, from one source, which spends all its time diligently tracking its dependencies, checking it for compatibility, monitoring its security flaws, filtering out malware, imposing sensible standards, and resisting all attempts by big corporations to shove stuff down your throat that you don't want, all completely for free? And you can upgrade *everything* to the latest versions, at your own convenience, in a single command. I still don't quite believe it.

    Unpackaged software: Yes, I agree, unpackaged software is not nearly as good as packaged software. It's non-uniform, may not have a good uninstaller, might require me to install something else first, might not work, and might conceal malware of some sort. That's no different from any other OS. However, it's not as bad as you make out. There *is* a slightly more old-fashioned way of installing software: tarballs. They're primitive, but they are standard across all versions of Unix (certainly all Linux distributions), they work, and pretty much all Linux software is available in this form. It never gets worse than that.

    Games: A fair cop. Linux is bad for games.

    GPUs: Another fair cop. I lived with manually installing binary nVidia drivers for five years, but life's too short for that kind of nonsense. These days I buy Intel graphics only.

    40 second boot: More like 20 for me on my desktop machine, and about 12 on my netbook (which boots off SSD). After I installed, I spent a couple of minutes removing software I didn't use (e.g. nautilus, gdm, and most of the task bar applets), and it pays off every time I boot.

    Separate menu bar and task bar: I, like you, prefer a Windows-ish layout with everything at the bottom, so after I installed I spent a minute or two dragging-and-dropping it all down there.
    Reply
  • GregE - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    I use GNU/Linux for 100% of my needs, but then I have for years and my hardware and software reflect this. For example I have a Creative Zen 32gb SSD music player and only buy DRM free MP3s. In Linux I plug it in and fire up Amarok and it automatically appears in the menus and I can move tracks back and forth. I knew this when I bought it, I would never buy an iPod as I know it would make life difficult.

    The lesson here is that if you live in a Linux world you make your choices and purchases accordingly. A few minutes with Google can save you a lot of hassle when it comes to buying hardware.

    There are three web sites any Ubuntu neophyte needs to learn.
    1 www.medibuntu.org where multimedia hassles evaporate.
    2 http://ubuntuguide.org/wiki/Ubuntu:Jaunty">http://ubuntuguide.org/wiki/Ubuntu:Jaunty the missing manual where you will find the solution to just about any issue.
    3 http://www.getdeb.net/">http://www.getdeb.net/ where new versions of packages are published outside of the normal repositories. You need to learn how to use gdebi installer, but essentially you download a deb and double click on it.

    Then there are PPA repositories for the true bleeding edge. This is the realm of the advanced user.

    For a home user it is always best to keep up to date. The software is updated daily, what did not work yesterday works today. Hardware drivers appear all the time, by sticking with LTS releases you are frozen in time. Six months is a long time, a year is ancient history. An example is USB TV sticks, buy one and plug it into 8.10 and nothing happens, plug it in 9.04 and it just works or still does not work, but will in 9.10

    Yes it is a wild ride, but never boring. For some it is an adventure, for others it is too anarchic.

    I use Debian Sid which is a rolling release. That means that there are no new versions, every day is an update that goes on forever. Ubuntu is good for beginners and the experienced, the more you learn the deeper you can go into a world of software that exceeds 30,000 programs that are all free in both senses.

    I look forward to part 2 of this article, but remember that the author is a Linux beginner, clearly technically adept but still a Linux beginner.



    It all comes down to choice.
    Reply
  • allasm - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    > I use Debian Sid which is a rolling release.
    > That means that there are no new versions, every day is an update that goes on forever.

    This is actually one of the best things about Ubuntu and Debian - you NEVER have to reinstall your OS.

    With Windows you may live with one OS for years (few manage to do that without reinstalling, but it is definitely possible) - but you HAVE to wipe everything clean and install a new OS eventually. With Debian and Ubuntu you can simply constantly upgrade and be happy. At the same time noone forces you to upgrade ALL the time, or upgrade EVERYTHING - if you arehappy with, say, firefox v2 and dont want to go to v3 because your fav skin is not there yet - just dont upgrade one app (and decide for yourself if uyou need the security fixes).

    Some time ago I turned on a Debian box which was offline/turned off for 2+ years and managed to update it (to a new release) with just two reboots (one for the new kernel to take effect). That was it, it worked right after that. To be fair, I did have to update a few config files manually after that to make it flawless, but even without manual updates the OS at least booted "into" the new release. Natuarally, all my user data stayed intact, as did most of the OS settings. Most (99%) programs worked as expected as well - the problematic 1% falling on some GUI programs not dealing well with new X/window manager. And had no garbage files or whatever after the update (unlike what you get if you try to upgrade a winXP to say WinVista)


    Having said all that, I 100% agree that linux has its problems as a desktop OS (I use windows more than linux day-to-day), but I totally disagree that using one OS for a long time is a weak point of Ubuntu.


    P.S. one thing i never tried is upgrading a 32 bit distro to 64 bit - i wonder if this is possible on a live OS using a package manager.
    Reply
  • wolfdale - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    A good article but I have a few pointers.
    1) More linux distros need to be reviewed. Your "out of the box" review was informational but seemed to more in-tuned with commercial products aimed for making a profit (ie, is this a good buy for your money?). I, for one, used to check AnandTech.com before making a big computer item purchase. However linux is free to the public thus the tradeoff for the user would now be how much time should I invest in learning and customizing this particular distro. Multi-distro comparisons along with a few customized snapshots would help the average user on deciding what to spend with his valuable time and effort.

    2) Include Linux compatibility on hardware reviews. Like I said earlier, I once used AnandTech.com as my guide for all PC related purchases and I have to say about 80% of the time it was correct. But, try to imagine my horror about 1.5 years ago when my brand spanking new HD4850 video card refused to do anything related to 3-D on Ubuntu. I spent weeks trying to get it to work but ended up selling it and going with Nvidia. Of course it was a driver issue but no where did AnandTech.com mentioned this other than saying it was a best buy.

    Thanks for listening, I feel better now. I'm looking forward to reading your Ubuntu 9.04 review and please keep adding more linux related articles.
    Reply
  • ParadigmComplex - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    When I first saw that there was going to be a "first time with Linux" article on Anandtech, I have to admit I was a bit worried. While the hardware reviews here are excellent, it's already something you guys are familiar with - it's not new grounds, you know what to look for. I sadly expected Ryan would enter with the wrong mindset, trip over something small and end up with an unfair review like almost all "first time with Linux" reviews end up being.

    Boy, was I wrong.

    With only one major issue (about APT, which I explained in another post) and only a handful of little things (which I expect will be largely remedied in Part 2), this article was excellent. Pretty much every major thing that needed to be touched on was hit, most of Ubuntu's major pluses and minuses fairly reviewed. It's evident you really did your homework, Ryan. Very well done. I should have known better then to doubt anyone from anandtech, you guys are brilliant :D
    Reply
  • Fox5 - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    One last thing I forgot to say....
    Good job on the article. I (and many others) would have liked to see 9.04 instead (I don't know of anyone who uses the LTS releases, those seemed to be aimed at system integrators, such as Dell's netbooks with ubuntu), but the article itself was quality.
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    I'd like to make one last addition in similar spirit. I appreciate this article as a generally unbiased review that covers many important aspects of a general-purpose OS.

    And just to be sure: I'm not a Linux fanatic, in fact, for some reason, I'm writing up this post on Vista x64 ;)
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    You're right that there are historical reasons that dictate that one Linux binary might be in /usr/bin, another in /sbin or /usr/sbin, yet another one in /usr/local/bin, etc.

    However, you really couldn't care less as long as the binary is in your path. which foo will then tell you the location. Furthermore, there's hardly any need to manually configure something in the installation directory. Virtually anything that can be user-configured (and there's a lot more that can than on Windows) can be configured in a file below ~ (your home). The name of the config file is usually intuitive.

    But yeah, for things that you configure as admin (think X11 in /etc/X11/xorg.conf or Postgres usually somewhere under /usr/local/pgsql) you might need to know the directory. However, the admin installs the app, so he should know. Furthermore, GUIs exist to configure most admin-ish things (I don't know what it's in Ubuntu for X but it's sax2 in SUSE; and it's pgadmin for Postgresql in both Ubuntu and SUSE)
    Reply
  • ParadigmComplex - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    Again, if I may extend from what you've said:

    Even though it is technically possible to reorder the directory structure, Ubuntu isn't going to do it for a variety of reasons:

    First and foremost, one must remember Ubuntu is essentially just a snapshot of Debian's in-development branch (unstable aka Sid) with some polish aiming towards user-friendliness and (paid) support. Other then the user-friendly tweaks and support, Ubuntu is whatever Debian is at the time of the snapshot. And while Debian has a lot of great qualities, user-friendliness isn't one of them (hence the need for Ubuntu). Debian focuses on F/OSS principles (DFSG), stability, security, and portability - Debian isn't going to reorder everything in the name of user-friendless.

    Second, it'd break compatibility with every other Linux program out there. Despite the fact that Ryan seemed to think it's a pain to install things that aren't from Ubuntu's servers, it's quite common. If Ubuntu rearranges things, it'd break everything else from everyone else.

    Third, it would be a tremendous amount of work. I don't have a number off-hand, but Ubuntu has a huge number of programs available in it's repos that would have to be changed. Theoretically it could be done with a script, but it's risking breaking quite a lot for no real gain. And this would have to be done every six months from the latest Debian freeze.
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Wednesday, August 26, 2009 - link

    I disagree with the evaluation of the package manager.

    First, there's a repo for almost anything. I quickly got used to adding a repo containing newer builds of a desired app and then installing via apt-get.

    Second, with a few exceptions, you can just download source code and then install via "./configure; make; sudo make install." This usually works very well if, before running those commands, you have a quick look at the README and install required dependencies via apt-get (the versions of the dependencies in the package manager almost always are fine).

    Third, and most importantly, you can simply update your whole Ubuntu distribution via dist-upgrade. True, you might occasionally get issues from doing that (ATI/NVIDIA driver comes to mind) but think of the convenience. You get a coffee while "sudo apt-get dist-upgrade" runs and when you get back, virtually EVERYTHING is upgraded to a recent version. Compare that with Windows, where you might waste hours to upgrade all apps (think of coming back to your parent's PC after 10 months, discovering all apps are outdated).
    Reply

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