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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Taking Linux For a Test Drive

In the near-future I need to start using some software packages that were written for Linux systems and haven’t been ported to Windows yet. Supposedly Windows conversions are coming, but they’re not likely to be done for a while. I have been using Cygwin/X to create *nix environments in Windows, but using a proven technology that I have experience with is easy! It’s more fun to explore new things. Dell laptops come with a 3.7 GB “hidden” partition which is supposed to restore the main partition in the event of a system crash but in practice is completely useless. Just for fun, I decided to temporarily replace the useless Dell partition with a Linux kernel. I cleared the Dell partition and installed Ubuntu Linux 5.1. I picked Ubuntu because I read that it had a small installation size footprint, was compatible with my Inspiron 8600, and came with lots of program packages.

A quick point before we continue: I am definitely not a Microsoft-hater. In fact, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of Microsoft products. By and large, in my experience, Microsoft products are just plain better…except for Internet Explorer 6.0, which is horrible. My last brush with Linux five years ago did nothing to change this viewpoint. I spent a lot of time with one of the Red Hat distros and was completely unimpressed. The interface was clunky, none of the programs worked very well. It was, to put it briefly, a very unpleasant experience. My considered response to folks who attempted to extol the virtues of Linux was therefore a firm “pffft.”

What a difference four years make! I have to say, I am mightily impressed with Ubuntu. The installation was a snap; even the arcane laptop hardware components of my Inspiron 8600 were correctly configured after the installation. The GNOME/Ubuntu interface is impressive, and is better than the Windows UI in many ways. I’m very surprised that the multiple workspaces concept hasn’t filtered into Microsoft Windows yet. It’s remarkably easy to do the things you want to do. I’m now curious to try the KDE desktop, which by all accounts is even better (or at least different).

Perhaps the most impressive thing is the functionality out of the box; Ubuntu comes with the equivalent functionality of both Adobe Creative Suite (PDFCreator, Inkscape, and GIMP) Microsoft Office (Evolution, OpenOffice.org 2.0)—and it’s one of the smaller distributions. I’m now curious to see what the larger multi-CD distributions (like SUSE 10) come with. It is not all roses: the multimedia functionality is severely lacking (that is to say, completely non-functional), apparently due to third-party licensing issues. I’ve yet to get Ubuntu successfully playing MP3s, for example, although that’s largely because I haven’t had time to twiddle with it, and by all accounts it can be done in a relatively straightforward manner if you do twiddle with it.

Bottom line: If you’re a home user who is happy with the Windows copy that came with your computer purchase, then you have no reason to switch over. However, if you’re a computer literate person, then setting up a dual-boot system is definitely something you should try. In fact, if I was starting a small business, I probably would use Linux instead. Desktop Linux has come a long way, and (to my incredible, pigs-are-flying-by-in-squadrons surprise) I think that it is now finally a realistic and potentially even preferable alternative to Windows. Except for one thing…

…and that’s gaming. Although Linux versions of some games are out there, most developers confine their compatibility to a single Linux platform. With so many Linux distributions out there, I gather that it is very difficult to make games that work on all of them. There are ways of playing Windows games in Linux environments, such as the subscription service called Cedega, which duplicates DirectX in Linux environments for a monthly fee. I hate monthly fees, so I wouldn’t consider that a “real” solution.

I think that this is an important point, and has a lot to do with why Linux isn't more popular. Computer games have always been the primary driver of hardware and software innovation. If it wasn’t for Wing Commander , for example, then we’d all still be using the PC speaker instead of Sound Blasters for audio. Although modern Linux systems have a lot going for them, until Linux systems can offer stable gaming platforms, then I can’t switch over. There are probably lots of other folks in the same boat. It is a good bet that the gaming-specific improvements that are going into Windows Vista were done to keep computer-savvy users like myself in securely in the Windows fold.

Still, I like Ubuntu so much that this temporary experiment might just have earned another gigabyte or so for a permanent little partition…and coming from a die-hard Linux basher like myself, that’s says a lot. Microsoft finally has some real competition, but the real winner is going to be the consumers.

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