My colleague Ant Pruitt wrote about why Ubuntu Desktop is ready for the everyday user and issued the challenge: “Why not give it a try?”
I took him up on that challenge and installed Ubuntu’s latest release 12.04 — for a month. Now, I’m a power user to be sure. But I’m not a tech head. There’s a difference. I’d rather spend my time using my computer than getting it to work.
Here’s what happened.
Before diving into the Ubuntu review, here’s a bit of backdrop — and a bonus review. I downloaded and installed Windows 8 Preview several weeks ago. It took me about two days to realize that Microsoft’s desktop OS had jumped the great white for me. I can see how the Metro UI would be really nice on a tablet, but the concept on a desktop screen baffles me. Coincidentally, my 8 year-old’s installation of Windows 7 got corrupted and he needed a reinstall.
It was about that time that Ant Pruitt’s article was posted. It seemed like a good time to take my old friend up on his Linux fixation. I first set up my eight-year-old’s laptop to run Ubuntu 12.04 and then my own. What follows is an account of what it’s like to run Linux from the power — but not hardcore — user.
Ubuntu Installation and First Impressions
I first booted the kid’s laptop (a lower-end Toshiba specifically designed for kids) with Ubuntu on a USB stick. Having messed around with Linux desktops years ago, I expected about 1/3 of the devices to not function at all, due to a lack of drivers. Color me surprised. Not only did Ubuntu discover all the major peripherals, it also popped on the built-in webcam and offered to take a picture for the new user account. Likewise, when I installed Ubuntu on my Sony Vaio, not only did it automatically install all the built-in devices, but the Microsoft bluetooth mouse (connected via USB insert) was ready to use from the first screen. It also prompted me to install the Nvidia-specific driver for my graphics card, which worked like a charm. Nice.
The Ubuntu desktop UI itself, Unity, was intuitive from the start. The 8 year-old wondered if I had installed “a new skin” on his computer. I told him it was a completely new system, which meant absolutely nothing to him, but he jumped right in and has only had one question for me: where to go to shutdown the laptop (he’s well trained in the art of eschewing the hard shutoff). Now, it’s important to understand that he pretty much deals in only two applications, Chrome and Minecraft, so once those were installed and set up in the launcher bar, he was set. He didn’t even seem all that phased that the window controls were on the opposite side. I, on the other hand, went habitually to the right-hand side for about two weeks. Two somewhat tedious weeks at that, because it’s amazing how unproductive you feel when it takes you four times as long just to minimize a window.
I ended up ditching the Unity launcher in favor of Cairo for two reasons. First, in Unity’s launcher there wasn’t a tree-view list of all my apps. It does have a nice search-by-typing feature, but I use a lot of small utilities that I don’t remember the names for, and need to locate by function. Plus, I had to get all new apps for Linux, so losing the full list of installed apps was doubly difficult. Second, I like creating folders of common apps on the launcher (such as media editors, games, etc), and I never figured out how to do that with Unity. Luckily, Cairo was easy to install and set up as my default launcher.
Speaking of installing new software, the Ubuntu Software Center is a really great way to find and install new applications. At least, as long as the apps you’re looking for are in their default repositories. Once you get outside that catalog of apps, you’ll find yourself figuring out how to use the terminal and “apt-get.”
And that’s really the point at which the Ubuntu experience breaks down. So long as you operate as a typical user and within the confines of what Canonical has put together (which is quite impressive), you’ll most likely enjoy Ubuntu quite a bit.
If, however, you start delving into the community supported hinterlands, it is a frustrating adventure. Don’t get me wrong, what the Linux community has done with this completely open-source OS is nothing short of astounding. But when you have to wget, compile, and make your way through a lot of technical help forums, many of which assume you already know how to change a setting into a .conf file… well, you start to whittle down your potential user base.
Let’s go back to my son’s laptop for a relatively simple example. He plays Minecraft. A lot. The official word from Minecraft.net says that you get best results when you start Minecraft from a long text command. To be specific:
java -Xmx1024M -Xms512M -cp Minecraft.jar net.minecraft.LauncherFrame. You have to put that in each time you want to launch Minecraft. Of course, you have to be in the correct directory first. Oh, and you have to install Oracle’s JVM, which requires about another 10 minutes of Google research.
If you’ve made it that far, you then get to figure how to take all of that and turn it into a launcher in Unity. Huzzah!
Here’s another example. Before — that is, in my Windows 7 days — I used Google’s DNS, and wanted to set up Ubuntu to use them as well. Changing the DNS entry for the Wireless was easy enough. I made the changes, and was wondering how to get the controller to refresh the connection. There was an On/Off slider right there in the window, so I moved it to “Off”. The wireless disconnected. Problem was, it wouldn’t re-enable. I rebooted the laptop, flipped the hardware switch for the Wireless, and tried everything I could to get it to turn back on.
Finally, I had to use my tablet to search the support forums. On one, I found a terminal command to restart wireless, which gave me back the error “Operation not possible due to RF-kill”. This required its own search which eventually advised me to “rfkill unlock all”. That didn’t work, and I had to muck around the rfkill on-screen help to discover the command had been mis-typed in the form post. It should have been “rfkill unblock all”. That didn’t work either, because I hadn’t run it as root. “sudo rfkill unblock all”. That fixed it. Finally. After 45 minutes of scrabbling together clues.
The Final Word
Let’s return to the original question: Is Ubuntu ready for the everyday user? As odd as it sounds, I’m sold on Ubuntu 12.04 for users who spend most of their time in web apps or would likely use software found in the standard Ubuntu catalog. Whether you’re at work or home, if you primarily using email, IM, web apps, and the occasional desktop media app, Ubuntu works wonderfully. It’s a nice, clean, efficient desktop with a great interface and runs super fast. The only issue that could be a real blocker is that you can’t watch Netflix on Linux.
Here’s where the surprise kicks in: if you are a power user — but not someone who enjoys figuring out how to make it work — then you’ll likely be frustrated by Ubuntu, at least at the outset. You should expect a fairly steep learning curve, especially if you decide you want to try and run Windows apps. That said, after nearly a month using the system, I plan on keeping it as my primary operating system for the foreseeable future.
Screenshots and graphic credits: Carey Head