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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