Ubuntu 8 - Is the penguin finally coming of age?
OK I admit it, I'm a Windows boy. I've been using Windows now from 95 through to Vista, working on networks from small businesses to large corporations. As much as I hate to admit it I even know a few registry keys off by heart... but that doesn't make me blind to what else is going on in the operating system world. Closing your eyes to other systems in the fast moving field of IT can often leave you stranded but can also mean you miss out on something which could improve your life dramatically. After all I might have more windows experience than a Canary Wharf glass cleaner but I still run my web servers on Linux and Apache because its the most sensible choice.
Of course if you do spend all your time looking at grassy hills through Windows, the first time you venture down penguin alley and take a bite out of an Apple you may find you end up with muck on your trainers and a sour taste in your mouth. This is usually enough to put most people off but what you need to remember is the first time you tried to look through windows you ended up banging your head on the glass. Just because its not what you are used to it doesn't mean you should discard the opportunity. Once you have realised how to step over the penguin dirt and only pick the juicy Apples you will be amazed at the freedom you will find.
Today I'm heading into Ubuntu land which appears to be the trendy Linux desktop of the moment. What I will find, who knows but as always there's an adventure to be had...
The Hardware Setup
This time around I decided to use my Dell Vostro 1400 for the test. The reason I chose a laptop and not a desktop is due to a number of factors:-
Firstly: Linux (and indeed Unix in general) has historically had a hard time dealing with machines of the non tethered variety. This is simply because Unix has its roots in always-on, networked mainframes, where the sheer thought of not having a network connection was inconceivable.
Secondly: Laptops present their own complications and challenges such as the issues associated with power-saving, standby and hibernation, not to mention proprietary hardware and strange screen resolutions.
Thirdly: With Dell being one of the largest PC suppliers in the UK and laptops fast becoming the computing platform of choice it seemed sensible to head in this direction.
Now before I end this section I should mention one last thing, my laptop has the optional nVidia GeForce 8400M GS upgraded graphics card. There is a special significance in this which I feel I should point out: If you plan to install Linux (as any experienced user will tell you) you need to make sure you have an nVidia graphics card. The reason for this is graphics cards are possibly the hardest device to write drivers for. Not because the technology is complex (although that pays a big part) but mainly because the manufacturers work in obsessive secrecy so not to allow their competition to gain any of their technologies. If all the interfaces are secret how can you develop a driver? The end result is you simply choose the company that puts the most effort into supporting Linux with their own drivers which at this point in time is nVidia.
Prepararing for the Install
Getting ready to install Ubuntu is easy and guess what, you don't even have to sell you soul to PC World to be able to afford it. You simply go to the Ubuntu website, download it, burn it to a disk and boot from it. You can even run the disk from within Windows and install it alongside, although personally I think the most sensible option is to have it in a different partition.
As it happens the machine I am using contained a Dell MediaDirect partition at the end of the disk. Apparently this is some standalone OS thing which allows you to watch DVD's without booting into Vista, something I have never used and have no intention of using so I killed it. I didn't even know it existed until I pressed the home button by accident on my keyboard one day instead of the power. As it turns out even after deleting the partition I can still run MediaDirect under the Vista OS so in my opinion I didn't loose anything.
However just deleting the MediaDirect partition on its own probably wasn't going to provide enough space for Ubuntu so additionally I shrunk the Vista partition by a few gigs using the built in Vista Disk Management tools. I could of course have let the Ubuntu installer take care of it but I did it myself just to see how the Vista tools coped.
During installation I noticed a couple of things which I felt could have been done better, although to be honest they were all pretty minor compared to the Windows installers insistence on asking you what country you are in over and over again in multiple different dialoges. I swear after the 3rd or 4th time I actually start to wonder if maybe I am in America after all... but anyway back to Ubuntu.
Personally I found the timezone zooming in thing a little odd but nowhere near as odd as after having selected the correct zone Ubuntu telling me the time was an hour ahead of what it actually was. Now being of a techy nature I know this is most likely due to the fact that Windows deals with the hardware clock in a slightly different way to Linux, and to be fair, once Ubuntu had rebooted the time was correct and additionally remained correct in Windows. Therefore I guess I have no real cause for complaint... however putting my "I'm a complete novice" hat on I can see this could throw people a little.
Usernames and passwords:
Those of you that know me personally will have heard me complain about this over and over, and yes I am going to do it again. Why oh why can I only use lower case letters and numbers in my username? For an operating system that boasted long filename support long before Windows was even out of nappies, why is it my username has to look like a DOS folder? All I want to do is have Firstname.Lastname as my login so it matches every other system I log into from Windows accounts to email address and web page signins. Sure I could just use my last name in lower case with a bunch of numbers after it but that's so 1970's. "I am not a number - I am a free man!"
After having spoke to multiple people on this issue it seems it's a rather superficial/historic limitation and not a real restriction at all. You can actually go in at a low level and change it afterwards to whatever you want and nothing is affected (which I have done in the past and will do this time). So what the wizards problem is I don't understand?
The other thing which struck me as being a bit odd was I don't recall giving any information about what to do with the root accounts password? Did it use the same password as my user account or what? I guess for the average newb coming from Windows this isn't a concern but some indication would have been nice for those of us that know what a good root can do for a man.
Partitioning and boot loader installation:
As mentioned before, I had already cleared some disk space for Ubuntu so I selected the guided option relating to installing the OS in the free space. Now while I appreciate that the installer is aimed at being smooth and easy to use for novices, I think in this case it was maybe a little too over simplified. My impression of what 'guided' meant was "show me what needs to be done and as long as I click next you can do it", as it turns out what it actually means is "just do it and don't bother me again". The next thing I knew partitions were being formatted infront of me which isn't the most reassuring thing when you have a cherished Vista partition on the same drive. However as it turns out my Vista partition was perfectly in tact and the Grub boot loader quite happily gave me the option to boot it, so I had no real cause for complaint (apart from a little distress of course).
Overall the first part of the installation went very smoothly and certainly smoother than any other Linux installation I have ever done. It did seem a little slow (in fact possibly slower than installing Windows) but I have to admit I didn't exactly use a stopwatch so it could just be that I'm not used to watching orange screens instead of green ones. Of course doing things from a CD-ROM drive doesn't help, I forget how slow optical media is sometimes and Vista ships on DVD now so that could be it.
If anything, the Ubuntu installer was perhaps a little overly slick. Completely glossing over things which perhaps the more experienced user might want to know about is maybe taking things a little far in the name of "keeping it simple". Its great for the average Joe but a couple of little pointers for those more experienced wouldn't go a miss...
Getting the Hardware Up and Running:
To be honest first boot was a bit of an eye opener for me into how much Ubuntu has progressed since I last installed it (version 6 I think). All the hardware just worked and did exactly what it said on the tin, something which I wasn't quite expecting...
Guessing that my WiFi probably wouldn't be working straight away I booted Ubuntu for the first time with a network cable connected. This isn't an usual practice and to be honest I would probably have had to do the same thing if I were installing Windows. However what did surprise me was how quickly and efficiently the system got the WiFi up and working. What I thought was going to be an arduous task of downloading and installing drivers was a simple popup balloon and a few mouse clicks - arguably easier than installing drivers under Windows!
One of the things that did pose a bit of a worry was during the WiFi install a couple of dialogue boxes talked about uploading firmware. For most people upgrading firmware is not something to be taken lightly and I have to admit, worried that it could upset my Vista installs drivers, I myself hesitated. As it turns out this isn't the sort of firmware we usually experience. In fact its not actually very firm at all, something which could have been made clearer perhaps in a brief statement along the lines of "this change is not permanent and will not affect any other systems which use this hardware" but it wasn't. As it turned out a brief reboot back into Vista did indeed confirm other operating systems were unaffected.
The WiFi interface itself is surprisingly slick. In fact after putting up with Vista's pathetic, clunky efforts to manage WiFi over the last couple of years this was a breeze. I simply clicked on the icon, clicked the network I wished to access and entered the key. It really doesn't get any easier than that. Whilst I realise Vista's efforts to provide extra functionality are admirable sometimes basic simplicity and efficiency will always win out.
Graphics has always been a tough one for Unix, historically changing screen resolutions and configuring drivers has always been a pain. Its for this reason I was genuinely quite impressed to be presented with an interface in full colour and the right screen resolution. Lets face it when installed from scratch even Windows doesn't get that right all the time and that's on an operating system supported by the manufacturers.
What made the experience even more pleasing was the same simple hardware wizard I used to install the WiFi drivers quite happily upgraded my display drivers to the proprietary nVidia ones and still managed to give me the right screen resolution! Sure I had to reboot the computer (which for us Windows users is always kinda comforting) but hey it all worked!
Like graphics, for some reason sound has also been area of historical suffering for Linux users. I remember days where they would say "ditch that proprietary soundcard and get yourself a real soundblaster - its the only way to do it". Well as my laptop booted it played an intro tune. What can I say, it worked without issue, at least for me..
I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail about Ubuntu Bluetooth support yet as basically I haven't used it, so I can't provide any comment. However I will say that it all appears to have installed correctly and I have a nice little Bluetooth icon on the gnome bar. One thing which is a little odd is there seems to be no way to completely switch it off for the purposes of saving power and since my laptop has no hardware switch that leaves the BIOS as the only way to control the power for it. Not ideal as I'm sure you will agree...
The next big challenge for any operating system is being slammed into a docking station. Sure mines not massively complex, in fact its not really a docking station at all its just a laptop stand with a bunch of USB peripherals and a power pack. But to my surprise everything just worked. Additionally my mouse and keyboard instantly worked, something which Windows has never managed to do. I'm often caught sitting wiggling the mouse waiting for something to happen.
Topped off with a nice little notification to say the laptop was on a power pack, it seems this 'just working' thing is something I am going to have to get used to!
In this day and age anyone who says "Linux is harder to install than Windows" is either using the wrong distribution or needs their head testing. I have a LOT of experience of installing Windows and I can tell you installing this version of Ubuntu does appear to be significantly easier than most Windows variants. At the end of the day installing any operating system is tricky and buying a computer pre-installed is always easier than installing one yourself but if you do have to install Ubuntu, at least in my experience, it most definitely isn't harder.
This of course isn't the end of the story... Once you have your Ubuntu installed you need to get accustomed to it and install all the software you require - or at the very least their Linux equivalents. That however is the subject for another blog, which I may or may not write using Ubuntu.
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