Friday, August 11, 2006

Ubuntu related comments...

In the comments to my previous post about Ubuntu, Earl Moore of Meandering Passage had a couple of questions. I thought I'd address them in a post just in case this discussion might be of interest to others. And of course others might want to leave their own comments on the subject. Here are Earl's comments to my post:

Richard, I've got a few questions I hope you won't mind answering.

Is Ubuntu being used as your primary computer desktop?

If so, what's been the biggest pro and con points of using it as such?

What would you consider the minimum hardware requirement for running Ubuntu with reasonable performance?

I've got an older PC that my wife use to use that has Windows XP Professional loaded on it. I've heard a lot of positive things about Ubuntu and I was thinking of installing it on this PC as a test bed. I'm interested in any recommendations you can provide.

Right now Ubuntu is definitely my primary desktop. When I installed Ubuntu Dapper, I had to fiddle a bit to get XP to play nicely in a dual boot situation. I knew the steps I had to take (I had done it before with the previous version of Ubuntu), but decided at that time to 'do it later'. Well, it's still later, and I haven't fixed it up yet. So right now I'm running an Ubuntu system with access to my XP files, but technically speaking I can't boot to XP. More telling is that I haven't really needed or wanted to.

There are many positives about running Ubuntu, I'll select a few of the bigger ones from my perspective:

  1. Not having to run virus and spyware scanning software.
  2. Realizing that open-source software can be pretty damn good.
  3. Being part of a relatively close-knit community (compared to XP users anyway) and the generally great support that comes with it.
  4. Being able to find software that will do just about anything and being able to communicate directly with those responsible for making the software.
  5. Having a stable system that only requires rebooting for kernel updates and virtually never for software installation (mind you XP was pretty stable on this machine as well - I had no complaints really).
  6. Not being locked in by a single vendor (this is a bigger deal to me that I initially thought). I don't necessarily want to play with Gates and Jobs for the rest of my life ;)
  7. And the list could go on...

Now, I try to be even-handed, and using Ubuntu has also had its drawbacks:

- You have to be prepared to learn and do more in terms of system setup and problem solving than when you run XP or a Mac (I would assume - never owned one). I love learning new things, so this is a pleasure to me and not really a curse. But if you want a completely hands-off solution, then Ubuntu or probably any Linux distro is not for you.

- You have to be prepared to go the extra mile to get certain kinks ironed out. For instance, with Ubuntu you have to run a 3rd party script or install a few things manually to get full support of mp3, certain proprietary video codecs (like wmv and mov), and flash. All of these things work on my machine, but the stock install won't include them. You can run very simple automated programs like Automatix and EasyUbuntu that will install all of this stuff for you.

- Hardware can sometimes be a problem. In general, if you have bleeding edge stuff like a just-released video card, then Linux support might be dodgy. A lot of this comes down to manufacturers not releasing their proprietary driver info. Generally though, hardware support is getting very good in Linux. Much much better than it used to be.

- There might be an app that you need that isn't available in Linux. There is always Wine which will run quite a few Windows programs, but it's not guaranteed to work. And you won't be able to run down to your local Staples to buy boxed software for your Ubuntu machine. This could be a concern depending on your needs.

As far as system requirements go, the Ubuntu site keeps it pretty simple and lists the following requirements:

For a desktop install: 256MB Ram and 3GB of hard drive space

For a server-only install: 64MB Ram and 500MB of hard drive space

Pretty basic requirements. They do state that you could run with less, however that might result in a more frustrating experience. Anything that will run XP will run Ubuntu I would think. And it is quite likely that Ubuntu will run on much older hardware than XP will. Also remember that the stock Ubuntu install will use the Gnome desktop environment, but you could also install Kubuntu which uses the KDE desktop (more similar to windows functionality) or even Xubuntu which uses the XFCE desktop - which is a lighter weight environment that might be better suited to older hardware. Also remember that if, for instance, you install Ubuntu, you can later easily install Kubuntu and/or Xubuntu desktop environments and boot into whichever you want after that.

Also, note that as with many Linux distributions (not only Ubuntu), you can download a Live CD. You basically download an ISO file that you burn to a CD. Then you reboot your PC with the CD in the tray and if the BIOS is set correctly it will boot into a fully functioning Ubuntu desktop. Anything you do or change won't remain after you shut down, but it is a great way to see how Ubuntu would run and what kinds of apps and functionality it has without doing anything to your existing system.

Ubuntu's Live CD is quite nice in that it gives you a full desktop that is identical to the stock install (although it's slower because it's running from the CD) and gives you an icon on the desktop to launch the actual installer if you like what you see.

My recommendation would be to try out the Live CD first. And again, most Linux distro's now have live CD's so you could also try others. Then, if you like what you see, I would erase and reformat the old machine's drive (after backing up any data of course) and do an Ubuntu-only install. It will be generally painless (hehe famous last words). The installer from the live CD just asks some basic questions and is quite quick. You'd likely have a fully functional Ubuntu box in under an hour. I would recommend against trying to dual boot it with the XP-Pro. It's a bit of a challenge and not something I'd recommend to someone new to Linux.

Although if you really need to keep the XP pro and dual boot it, it can be done. Lots of people do it this way. It's just not the simplest way.

Also note that Ubuntu will ship install CD's to you free of charge. The base system will install with a single CD, however I think Ubuntu will send you several (again, at no cost to you) so that you can distribute them to friends. Or you can download the LiveCD iso file and burn it yourself.

Hopefully this information helped you out Earl. There is a ton more out there. I'm still a newbie to Linux but I am constantly amazed at the amount of friendly support that's available from the Linux community. You would be wise to visit, register there and post any questions you might have. You'll get a ton of great responses and info.