13 November 2008

Linux pros and cons

It has been about eight months since I installed Ubuntu's version of the free Linux operating system on my Sony Vaio laptop, and a couple of weeks since I began working with the latest version -- Intrepid Ibex -- which installed itself on my computer during an update session.

I've never had time to become an Ubuntu or Linux insider, so my comments are those of an ordinary computer user who needs the operating system to serve reliably without much knowledge of what's under the hood. Dedicated Linux users form an admirable and interesting worldwide community with its own language and conventions, and they often advocate passionately for both the philosophy and the technical advantages of their work. I've learned just enough about Linux to wish I could be part of that world, but reality dictates that for now I remain a retail-level user.

So here, in plain English and in no particular order, are the main advantages of switching to Ubuntu Linux--particular for a MS Windows user:
  1. My computer boots, runs, executes commands, and shuts down much more quickly. Maybe it's a completely uneducated observation, but my hard drive indicator seems to show less activity.
  2. My computer isn't constantly asking me to spend more money. This is what first drove me over the edge when I turned on my new Sony laptop with its Windows Vista operating system and its panoply of preloaded trial software and "special offers," even its preloaded Spiderman movie (to be unlocked with a credit card). Linux programs are free of cost and of copyright (traditionally understood) and simply carry out their tasks.
  3. All my basic computing tasks are provided for with programs that install themselves along with the Ubuntu Linux operating system--e-mail, instant messaging (using many standard protocols), word processing (including conversion to and from MS Word), database, PowerPoint-style presentations, spreadsheets, image manipulation, audio and video players, Web browser (Mozilla Firefox), Internet and wi-fi connections, CD and DVD burning, and much more. Every update session checks for revisions of not just the operating system, but also these installed programs. For information on the equivalents to MS Office, see www.openoffice.org.
  4. Additional free programs mirror much of what is available for Windows--for example, Skype, Picasa, the VLC Media Player, Scribus for desktop publishing, and Bible software. Ubuntu automatically chooses and installs the various packages of files needed by most of these add-on programs.
  5. You can accept Ubuntu's defaults for desktop appearance and functionality, or you can easily change almost anything. I've added simple desktop controls to switch between Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, to insert √°ccented letters, to show the weather in Moscow, and so on. If you have time, you can visit forums where other users demonstrate amazing creativity in making their desktops reflect their personality -- and explain how to obtain similar results.
  6. One of Ubuntu Linux's biggest advantages is the ease of installing printers and scanners. Every time I've added a printer or scanner, it has been recognized and installed within seconds. With Windows, I'm asked if I have the original installation disk, and since I'm almost always using secondhand or borrowed equipment, I normally don't have that disk. (And here I'm operating offline most of the time, so downloading drivers is often not convenient.) Even when I did have that disk for one particular scanner, I simply could not make Windows talk to it and had to reboot in Linux to use it. And just today I found that my new Intrepid Ibex does something that Hardy Heron could not seem to do -- it found and installed my USB-connected CDMA broadband modem without any intervention on my part.
Ubuntu is, however, far from the ideal out-of-the-box, totally smooth operating system that would spell doom for bloated commercial systems. Here are some of the obstacles I've encountered:
  1. Licensed and encoded media, such as commercial DVDs, pose a problem for the open-source world of Linux. In the case of DVDs, there is a work-around, but I had to search forums to figure it out and install it. Ubuntu itself is coy about this, probably for legal reasons.
  2. Back when I installed Ubuntu 8.04, Hardy Heron, the operating system did not do a good job of figuring out my laptop's audio hardware. It took me most of a day to figure out how to modify configuration files so that, when I plugged in external speakers and microphones, the audio would be correctly routed. Maybe this has been improved with 8.10, Intrepid Ibex, but during the dialogue boxes that came up while Ibex was installing itself, I made sure to choose to keep old configuration files whenever I was asked. (Those dialogue boxes, unfortunately, were not accompanied by explanations of what stakes were involved in keeping or replacing files.)
  3. At first, using two displays (a huge preference for me) was hard to implement, but updates to Hardy Heron removed this problem.
  4. Windows XP and Vista appear to have a slight edge in resolution and sharpness of fonts.
  5. Finally, there are some Windows programs that I can't duplicate in Linux, and it seems less of a hassle to retain the ability to boot in Windows to use those programs rather than figure out a Linux variant. When I installed Linux, it gave me the choice of a dual-boot installation, which allows me to choose Linux or Windows when I start or restart the computer. I know there are Linux work-arounds such as emulators, but they strike me as requiring more tutoring than I have time for. Right now those programs are MS Access, specifically for an existing database, and iTunes. Everything else I need I can run in Linux. (If you have solutions for those two programs, let me know!)
In fairness to Windows fans, I must say that here in Russia I've met people who seem to be able to manipulate Windows almost the way some Linux fans recompile and fine-tune their programs. Those Windows power users are doing things to their operating systems that Microsoft perhaps never contemplated. But I'm not a power user within either universe, and don't feel apologetic for traveling between them at my convenience. I spend 90% of my time in Linux--that proportion seems just about right.

Today both Judy and I visited Zhanna Grigorievna's fourth-year classroom, and began collecting reactions to the election of Barack Obama as next U.S. president. One day's worth of impressions are not enough, so -- more about such reactions next week.

In the meantime, an item by Matt Mendelsohn is forthcoming on the Martin Marty Center's "Sightings" archive, previewed here in the New York Times.

A simple request from Howlin' Wolf: "Don't talk about me." (With Hubert Sumlin, from this highly recommended DVD: American Folk-Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966)


Unknown said...

thanks for the info on ubuntu johan. i think i'm finally going to give it a try this weekend. have you tried banshee? it looks pretty similar to itunes and does virtually all the same stuff.


Johan Maurer said...

I'm installing Banshee right now! I'm not sure, based on the descriptions I've read, that it can handle my DRM-protected iTunes video downloads that I bought for my classes here--such as the 1957 NBC interview with Martin Luther King--but I hear they're working on that. Thanks!

Martin Kelley said...

Thanks, I liked reading through your experiences too. I When I went to Mac this spring I immediately got a virtual machine emulator (VMWare Fusion) and run WindowsXP and Ubuntu simultaneously with Mac. Having all three worlds easily accessible I find I use Mac and Windows constantly and Ubuntu not so often. I like it and it's speed and low memory footprint but you know me, I'm a media junkie and there are times when I just can't watch things because some plug-in doesn't exist or would take the next two hours to configure. The problem isn't Linux so much as it's the media companies that don't mind offering Windows/Mac only solutions.