Linux Comparison: Introduction and Ubuntu

I have toyed around with Linux on and off for the last few years, mostly with Ubuntu. My first experience of Linux was Ubuntu. At first it was a bit scary, with me wondering if my CPU would implode should I type the wrong command. The more I used Linux though, the more I learnt about my computer. This is why I think anyone who finds computers and technology interesting, should give it a go. And what better time to do so than now?

Starting with Ubuntu at the end of October, what I consider to be the three biggest Linux distributions have released, or will soon be releasing, the latest versions of their operating systems - Ubuntu 8.10, Fedora 10 and openSUSE 11.1.

Over the next few days, I am going to install and review the GNOME versions of each of these distributions on my ageing Pentium 4 machine, in a dual-boot configuration alongside Windows XP. Sure it doesn't have a lot of power, but one of the things that is always said about Linux is it's ability to run on older hardware. So we'll see just how well it does.

Ubuntu has come a long way since I first started using it. When I first used it, codecs were hard to find, video drivers difficult to install, and desktop effects were not built-in. I remember spending quite a bit of time in the command prompt as well, trying to fix various issues. In short, while Ubuntu was the easiest distribution, it was far from being as easy as Windows. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and Ubuntu is better for it.

The not so boring installation...
I downloaded and installed Ubuntu from the LiveCD. The installation process was clear, particularly the new partition editor in the installation process. It simply displays a bar, where you can select how much of the disk you want to assign for Ubuntu. The first time I did this, it worked perfectly, suggesting a reasonable portion of my primary hard drive for itself, and leaving the rest to Windows.

However, in the meantime I installed another distribution on the same partition, before going back to install Ubuntu again. The second time round, it ignored the existing Linux partitions on my first hard drive, instead suggesting a complete format of my second hard drive, where I happen to have all of my documents! This meant that I had to manually edit the partitions, just like the days before they added the new partition editor.

Another new feature in the install process was that it asked me if I wanted to migrate certain things from Windows. I selected to have it migrate my wallpaper and my user picture. When the installation was completed, it had successfully managed to import my user picture, but seemed to ignore the wallpaper entirely with no trace of it to be found whatsoever.

As a whole, installation was fairly slow, although it does appear to have done an extremely good job of configuring the system, as I have as yet, only had to change one system setting. After installation, I rebooted as instructed and was greeted with the GRUB boot menu. Unfortunately, it was simply black and white and boring. It may not be particularly important, but considering that other distributions have colourful boot loaders it is a little disappointing to see Ubuntu not do likewise.

Drivers and codecs - couldn't be easier.
When I first booted into the system, I was immediately presented with the option to install restricted nVidia drivers for my video card. I installed them, rebooted and, without any configuration, Ubuntu was now displaying at the correct resolution, and had enabled desktop effects.

At this point it is worth talking about media codecs as well. One of the sore points of Linux has always been drivers and media codecs, mostly due to the large majority of them being proprietary and in the case of codecs, requiring a commercial license in some countries. However, this is where Ubuntu really shines now. It offers up drivers and codecs as required, but also states that you should only use them if you are permitted to. It also offers a location where you can purchase the codecs should you need to purchase the license.

Ubuntu is the easiest Linux distribution that I have ever tried, as far as media codecs go.

What applications are included?
The default selection of applications in Ubuntu is good, with the latest versions of Firefox and Pidgin IM amongst them. Strangely the newest version of OpenOffice is not included, with the older OpenOffice 2.4 included instead. The selection of applications is generally very good, with an application for each common task included. However, some things found in the "Applications" menu feel like they should be under the "System" menu instead, such as features for managing print jobs and encryption keys. The menus are easily edited though, so it is a minor point.

Should you be unable to find a suitable application included by default, the program for adding and removing applications is very easy to use, and has a large variety of free software available for download.

The warmth of the default theme...
While it probably isn't for everyone, the default theme in Ubuntu gives a warm feel to the system with it's light brown/orange colouring. The menus for opening applications are not particularly interesting, but they do their job. The desktop effects are nice and subtle too, however there were some nasty instances of glitches in the title bar of the windows when they are turned on. It is a common issue, although any possible fixes seem unclear. It is a shame that a fix is not more apparent, as the issues really detract from the overall polish, and the theme feels extremely dull without the desktop effects turned on.

The glitches in the title bar really detract from an otherwise polished system.

...and the coldness of integration.
One of the new things found in Ubuntu is the integration of Pidgin IM in the session menu, where you shut down or restart the computer. The status set in Pidgin will also change the status in the menu, and vice versa. While the purpose isn't exactly clear, it is a nice touch all the same.

The integration of Pidgin IM into the session manager is a nice touch.

The integration between default applications and the interface is good, but it also troubles me a little. It is what Windows is so often hammered for, by Microsoft haters and particularly by the EU. While I am sure the integration of Pidgin and Evolution mail could be removed with some terminal work, it feels like a step in the wrong direction - a step away from the openness and freedom that Linux so often promotes.

Did my ageing computer choke on the beans?
Not at all. During my use of Ubuntu, there were no noticeable slow downs with or without desktop effects. Even with me running Celestia (a space simulator) at a high simulation rate, with Totem movie player and Rhythmbox running in the background, there was no slow down. When compared to the struggle I can sometimes have while trying to navigate the start menu in Windows XP on the same machine, it is an extremely impressive performance.

Ubuntu is probably still the best distribution around, especially for new Linux users. While it doesn't necessarily do a huge lot different from other distributions, it is the amount of polish and the ease of use that sets it apart from the rest. However, there are also areas where the polish seems to be a bit thin, such as the title bar glitches and the dull boot menu. They are minor problems, but when put alongside what is otherwise, an extremely good operating system, they feel like huge mistakes.

Next I will be taking a look at openSUSE, a distribution that seems to do things quite differently from Ubuntu in some areas. Find out how it stacks up against Ubuntu tomorrow, when I will be posting the next part of my comparison and review of the big three Linux distributions.

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The graphics glitches are due to bugs in the Nvidia driver. I had the same problems, and they were resolved by updating to the latest Nvidia beta (1.80.08).

The best Linux distro? Hardly. Easiest for beginners maybe.
Personally I prefer a distro like Fedora or OpenSuse who actually contribute a lot.
You only have to take a look at their new feature list to encounter a whole bunch of things that they developed.
That doesn't mean I think Ubuntu doesn't do a good job, but their way of working just isn't for me.

Definitely agree with the others... good article.

Can anyone recommend a good dual-boot proggy so I can give this a shot?

Ubuntu can install like any other Windows application (using Wubi), and use the Windows boot loader for booting.
Besides that option, it can make a "real" install and boot using the GRUB boot manager. GRUB can be used to load all the OS's installed on the system.

Not needed, just boot into the LiveCD.
If this look ok then use the "Install to Hard drive" link on the desktop.

Backing up is always a good idea just in case, although I have never had a problem.

A tip is to install VirtualBox to allow you to run any windows apps until you find alternatives.

ive used ubuntu 8.1 and im thinking of renting a server, is there much difference between the normal ubuntu and the ubuntu server OS? or would it be better to go with debian or something?

Ubuntu is optimized for the desktop and Ubuntu Server is optimized for the server work.
Ubuntu can easily be converted into a server, but if having the chance to install Ubuntu Server, it would be a better choice for that task as it requires less configuration and it is ready for the job.
Ubuntu is Debian. Pure Debian doesn't differ much from Ubuntu, for the Server task there isn't much difference between both solutions.

As much as I love ubuntu, gnome is limited, slow, sluggish and unresponsive, when compared to anything (xp, vista, and osx). Linux can be faster than windows, but damn, the interface feels so unresponsive it's not even funny.

Just the menu then? :)
GNOME works the same, has the same apps in every single distro. A distro can make a tweak here and there, replace this app with some other, use another style... But in the end it's still the same GNOME desktop.

Good article.
I assume that in openSUSE 11.1 the desktop being reviewed will be KDE?
Otherwise there is not much point in making another GNOME review, GNOME desktops basically all look the same no matter what distro is being used.

Good article :D

This new original stuff makes it fun to stop by again (was growing stale over the years).

I'm looking forward to the OpenSUSE as I'm a SUSE guy myself. Ubuntu always seems to trade simplicity for power and features. I always find less or weaker stuff on the UBuntu side, but that's why we have options :D.

I look forward to hearing your review on the other 2. I have been playing with Ubuntu since 8.04 and have to say I have been impressed. I was hoping that one day I may be able to leave Microsoft one day and move over to Mac OS/Ubuntu but it looks like thats quite some time off yet.

for beginners i would suggest PCLinux OS... easy easy easy... and the best linux distro i ever used... just IMO... had lot of trouble with ubuntu... didn't manage to do all the things i did in PCLinux OS

Here's another vote for PCLinuxOS.
You really ought to try it. They have a livecd that works nicely and handles wifi VERY well out of the box.

Stuff for Matthew:

  • Alt+Print Screen :: Takes a screenshot of the window to which the mouse points
  • Here for the OOo 3.0 debate
  • Here for the new FUSA debate.
  • I don't use the desktop effects, but I tested it a couple times and didn't have any issue.

I don't know but I don't take LINUX distributions serious. I don't know if it's the way the GUI looks, or the ammount of programs which do the same thing, but just not what you are looking for.

I was using debian years ago and i got tired of updateing it everyday, most of the time i was updating programs I haven't used even once. It was a good choice for runing a web server, but then windows server 2003 came along...

But the shell is excellent to work with, it's almost like programing commands.

All together, I find no use for it, since microsoft offers all programs that i really need and hey, i can even play games on my rig :D
And yes photoshop is a must!

It sounds like you had a bunch of stuff you installed but never used or wanted. Then hold the OS (or developers?) responsible for their improvements and fixes coming daily.

Just check once every month, if that is your preference.

Microsoft offers all programs you need? You must not do very much with your computer then ;)

But I have to agree with markjensen above, blaming people for updating their software (for free I might add) seems a bit strange.

For me the fact that most programs I want are just a couple of clicks away seems like magic. People always coomplain that installation of packages that are not part of the distribution is just too difficult. I have since learned that most of the time you only have to ask yourself "why isn't it part of the distribution?". Normally it means it's just not ready yet because if it was distros would have picked it up by now.

Two comments from me.

1) Celestia totally rocks! :)
2) I am surprised that Ubuntu with Gnome was as speedy as you said. When I hear of people trying to test or compare a Linux distro on an old PC that primarily falls within the "XP" hardware age, I recommend a lighter GUI, like XFCE (included in the Xubuntu derivative). I expected complaints about the slowness.

OK, I lied. 3 comments. I can't stand desktop effects. I know some people like the eye candy, but it really never suited me.

EDIT: And #4, good article. I like original Neowin content.

I installed Ubuntu at the end of October, along side Windows XP. I quite like it, but I still prefer XP - but that's not Ubuntu's fault. It was easy to install as dual boot and I've had no problems with it. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to try Linux.

Look forward to reading the articles about different distributions of Linux.

Ubuntu 8.10 was really a great release all around. I've always been a fan of Linux but 8.10 was the first distro I could probably live with in terms of fully switching from daily Windows use.

Now if Adobe would port Lightroom/Photoshop to Linux, I would be set.

Same. Usually one HUGE issue would occur with every distro regardless of version, but moving to Intrepid was ridiculously smooth. Even the X-Fi was so easy to get working with ALSA.

I will be looking forward to the OpenSUSE article - looking to switch from Ubuntu to OpenSUSE, so will be interesting to see how they stack up against eachother. I am yet to have titlebar problems though, even with desktop effects on. Might be an issue with the author's hardware? Dodgy installation maybe?

Great article

Regards the glitches, I forgot to add that it is related to nVidia cards specifically (and probably only some then, although I've had the same with both a 5900XT and a 7600GT). There are a few threads about it on the Ubuntu forums.

As has happened before with games, nVidia blames Compiz, who in turn, blame nVidia. The only advice I could find was to install the "96" nVidia driver. While playing around in Kubuntu, I was offered this driver in addition to the usual two it offers, but Ubuntu never offered it to me.

Fourjays said,
As has happened before with games, nVidia blames Compiz, who in turn, blame nVidia. The only advice I could find was to install the "96" nVidia driver. While playing around in Kubuntu, I was offered this driver in addition to the usual two it offers, but Ubuntu never offered it to me.

Ugh. Too bad no one can view the nVidia source to find out the real cause. You know, there is a nice advantage to OSS there. Two conflicting Open Source Software packages can quickly get sorted out as to what the problem is, and what the solution(s) can be. Here, we have an Open Source compiz versus a proprietary nVidia. Who to believe? Can't be sure.