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Friday, September 22, 2006

The Great Linux Experiment

I've been buried under a blizzard of paperwork and a dense overlapping tangle of immobile deadlines over the past few months. Haven't had much time for gaming, but you can't keep a Techno-Nerd Master down for long. Being an adventurous sort, I recently volunteered to be a Linux "Guinea Pig," meaning that I joined the Linux conversion pilot program at my place of business, and in the process evaluated several different versions of Linux. Why subject myself to the annoyance of switching operating systems, you ask? Well, for starters, I was mightily impressed with the Ubuntu partition I played around with earlier this year on my little Inspiron (That hard drive space has since been claimed by SWAT 4...more on that soon...). However, the big reason is that I've had a *lot* of problems with Windows XP: Boot sector problems, device driver conflicts, file association errors, slow restarts, firewall clogging, slow startups--you name a problem, and I've had it. Although I've always been a Microsoft user and in general like their products, I just have to say that Windows XP has been an awful computing experience. It's not like I'm manually editing the registry (although I've had to do that to correct problems...) or reconfiguring the hardware interrupts or overclocking or have a hard drive stuffed with viruses. WinRot is much more pervasive in XP, and it's just too darn easy for an average user doing average things to just destroy Windows XP to the point where you have to reformat and reinstall the operating system. Repeatedly. After the great annoyance of my last reformat a few months ago, I'm open to alternatives, at least for productivity tasks at work (you just can't replace Windows for gaming, so no home boxes yet). The capabilities of modern Linux environments are comparable to Windows systems, and the stability of Linux, especially when compared to a system beset with WinRot, is very appealing.

As part of the process, I was able to try several Linux distributions. I first tried the universally liked OpenSUSE 10.1. I sure was impressed by the nifty graphical installer, but it didn't actually work with my work computer, a vanilla Dell PC, circa 2002. For whatever reason the desktop environment wouldn't display on my monitor, and since answers weren't forthcoming quickly from the forums, I decided to stop twiddling with OpenSUSE and try something else.

I then set up Fedora Core 5, which was a vast improvement. I was tremendously impressed with the robust Fedora Core 5 distribution, and I would easily recommend it to someone seeking to try a version of Linux. Unfortunately, I couldn't get some software packages that I need to work with FC5, despite much twiddling.

At this point, setting up a Linux partition was beginning to seem like a whole lot more trouble than it was worth. I had been favorably impressed with Ubuntu Linux earlier this year, so I decided to give it another try for my work partition. Plus, Ubuntu recently released it's new 6.06 version, so I was eager to see what had been improved. The new Ubuntu 6.06 graphical setup screen was actually in my view a significant step backwards in terms of ease-of-use and capability from the Ubuntu 5.1 text-based setup, and wasn't nearly as easy to use as the OpenSUSE or FC5 setups. That's one of the significant Ubuntu 6.06 drawbacks, especially for a Linux newbie such as myself. On the other hand, once I had set up my partition space (thanks in no small part to the experience I gained setting up OpenSUSE and FC5; I doubt I would have been successful otherwise), the actual configuration of my desktop and the installation of the software packages that I need took about 20 minutes, and I was up and being productive shortly thereafter! A far cry from the time consuming hardware and software difficulties that I had encountered with OpenSUSE and FC5, which propelled Ubuntu 6.06 to victory in this particular contest. The precompiled Debian packages that you can access through the Ubuntu repositories are truly great, especially if you don't have the time to mess around with installing software. You can get more Ubuntu packages more conveniently and more quickly through the Ubuntu repositories than you can with either OpenSUSE and FC5. This ease-of-use is probably Ubuntu's greatest strength.

I then had to decide between the KDE (Kubuntu, pictured at left) and the GNOME (Ubuntu) desktops. Each one has its strong points; however, despite the fact that I appreciated the greater control and more options offered by the KDE desktop, I find that it is easier to get work done in the GNOME environment. I'll give KDE another shot in the future, but for right now I'm using a highly customized GNOME environment and liking it immensely. As I pointed out in my original Ubuntu review, I feel that the GNOME environment has significant advantages over the standard Windows environment.
I've been running the Ubuntu partition for almost two months now, and in general the experiment has been a success. Once you get it working, Ubuntu 6.06 is amazingly stable and the GNOME environment is really pleasant to use. I can create, open, and send PDF files; OpenOffice lets me open and edit MSOffice files easily without any problems so far; GIMP works fine for image processing tasks, and some of the more important customized software packages that I need have worked fine in Linux so far. Firefox has also proven its worth once again; its platform-neutrality coupled with the power of Google Browser Sync and Google Notebook (more on those later, too...) has significantly reduced the browser twiddle quotient. Ditto for Thunderbird, which remains my favorite e-mail client. Ubuntu 6.06 sports Thunderbird 1.5, a vast improvement over the Thunderbird 1.06 testing build that was available for the last Ubuntu version.
Having gone onto the record about how much I like it, I'll now go ahead and highlight a few of my bigger Ubuntu/Linux pet peeves from the perspective of a lifelong Windows user after a few months of constant use (no, that's not cliche at all...):

1) Hardware Support, Pt. I: It turned out to be relatively easy to set up Ubuntu to listen to most of the common audio and video formats, so that wasn't a problem. However, for whatever reason, the sound card drivers for my card don't work very well in Linux, although they work just fine for Windows XP. Whenever I try to listen to anything involving audio, the audio quality is terrible-it sounds like I'm listening through a waterfall with a front-end loader running in the background. Some more work there is definitely needed. I know it's sound-card specific to my machine because the Ubuntu partition on my laptop never had any problems at all with audio or video playback.
2) Evolution seems like a fine little e-mail client, but it's darn hard to configure properly. It also has a lot of trouble, for whatever reason, with our in-house email network (odd, because our email server is Linux-based). Kontact in KDE doesn't seem to have these problems, either. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to set up Thunderbird in Ubuntu, and I can use Firefox to access my Google Calendar, so I don't really need Evolution's functionality at the moment.
3) For any program not already in the Ubuntu repositories, installing it and setting it up is generally a real hassle. This was true with the other distributions that I tried. This is also where the only Linux system crashes that I've had thus far have occurred. Clearly, a better way of setting up new software is needed, especially to pull in the newbie contingent. The kinds of problems that I had would send a less-experienced user fleeing to the hills.

4) Both FC5 and OpenSUSE have fancy GRUB partition-selection frontends that easily handle the Windows XP partition if it exists, but Ubuntu 6.06 still has the text UI for the GRUB frontend, which is far less user friendly. The Ubuntu folks really, really need to fix this.

5) Legacy hardware support, Pt. II: I have a Radeon 7500 in my work desktop, which works just fine in Windows XP as a 3d platform using DirectX. The Linux 3-d picture is significantly murkier. Although Nvidia's Linux support is apparently pretty good, ATI's Linux support is terrible, and their drivers for Linux as provided in the Ubuntu distribution simply won't work with the 7500. This means software rendering aplenty, and for any application requiring 3-d acceleration I have to go back to Windows. [Update: ATI is apparently deleting all pre-9200 cards from its “official” Linux support]. This means that I have been unable to try out the vaunted Ubuntu 6.06 eye-candy.
6) This isn't really anyone's fault, just an observation: The ability to run just a few Windows applications in Linux would greatly reduce the occurrences of me having to shift back to Windows. Try as I might, however, I just can't get the open-source Wine emulator to work. I'll keep working on that, though. Some method of that would let me reliably run Windows applications—not a lot of applications, just a few-- in Linux would be an immensely handy thing.

The hardware problems are the most aggravating of this particular set of problems, and will probably require the manufacturers to get more firmly onto the Linux bandwagon. The audio problem is annoying, for sure, but the lack of support for my Radeon card (the 7500 isn't that old, after all) is a serious issue.

Because there's some software packages that I require for work that aren't yet available for Linux, it's not a wholesale switchover and I'm going to maintain a Windows XP partition on my workstation that I switch back to on a regular basis. However, I've been genuinely surprised by how infrequently I've had to switch back to Windows. I generally only need to switch back about once a day, although I've gone for an entire week without having to switch back. I only switch over to Windows when it would be more efficient to work in Windows (meaning that the software I need doesn't work in Linux or equivalents aren't available). The fact that I can do so much using nothing but Linux applications is certainly impressive.

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