Linux as a Viable Desktop Solution

Approximately 6 months ago, fed up with my first release installation of Vista, I decided it was time to uninstall Vista and wait for the traditional first service pack release. As this was my home PC for the family, and did not need to run many high end applications, I looked at two possibilities for an operating System. I could either go back to Windows XP or install a version of Linux. Having been in touch with Linux distributions since the early days of RedHat, and having read the recent hype around Linux as a viable desktop alternative, I decided to give a Linux OS a try. I looked at the different releases and decided to go with Ubuntu.

Installation

Ubuntu is easy to install, I simply placed the CD in the drive, and booted up. I was given the standard boot from CD prompt and then directed through a process of partioning drives. If this was a clean install, this process would be painless, and I could get the OS to decide on everything for me. I did however have multiple drives, with existing information on, and choose to only format my old "C" drive and keep the contents on the existing drive. I cannot imagine a novice PC user getting this right...but then again...I doubt they would get an XP or Vista installation right either. All my drives are SATA and it found them no problem....good start for now!

Next step was to run through the install. I chose all the appropriate software, set my username and password, and the installation dashed through that with no problem. It was not exceptionally fast, but marginally faster than a windows install. After an automatic reboot, I logged in and was ready to start exploring.

Hardware

Ubuntu recognised and installed drivers for almost all of my hardware without me having to do anything. My DSL connection was working without any configuration as I have MAC address security on my router, In all the following was recognised immediately:

  1. Video Card (although not nvidia drivers)
  2. Sound Card
  3. Network Card
  4. all the relative motherboard drivers
  5. HP 5100 printer (although I needed to add a new printer)
  6. Joystick and other peripherals (mouse, keyboard, monitor)
  7. My original hard drives are easily accessed even though they are formatted as NTFS (and with Gnome's beta NTFS read/write access - which I have had absolutely no problems)

What was not recognised

  1. My Winfast XP2000 TV Card (I have still not got it installed)
  2. My old Logitech webcam (also still not)
  3. My Kodak Photo Printer (also still not)
  4. My FireWire card (also still not)

Other Hardware

  1. Both my digital camera's are easily accessed when connected
  2. My removable hard-drive
  3. My Canon video camera cannot be accessed due to the FireWire problem (although I suppose I could access it through USB - but don't really want to)

All in all I was satisfied, but did need to do a bit of digging and tweaking to get my nvidia card being used to its full potential. I have also not really needed to access my video camera, but when I need to, I think I will be needing to do some more research and tweaking.

User Interface

The user interface is intuitive, and I was easily able to navigate and configure things without any problems. Already installed, was all the applications my family needed for email and writing documentation. Open Office does the job just fine, but for those of us used to MS Office, I may take a little while. Windows users may get frustrated with the Ok and cancel buttons being switched around, and I managed to cancel a number of operations instead of Ok'ing them!

I was easily able to download and install software through the excellent Synaptic Package Manager, which really takes the trouble out finding and installing programs. I do recall having to download a lot of files to get everything as I wanted - i.e. additional software and settings. This may be a problem for those in bandwidth restricted countries (i.e. South Africa!).

Problem Areas and frustrations

Outside of the hardware issues, I have encountered the following problems

  1. I am still not happy with my display configuration, and to get it remotely right I have had to edit a lot of configuration files. I can imagine a non-technical person (i.e. standard windows user) not getting this right. Even after that, I can still not get my TV and Monitor configured exactly how I want it. This was a breeze with XP and Vista and the nvidia drivers.
  2. I still have not got my relevant hardware installed, even after trying a couple of times
  3. There are too many occasions when I have needed to fire up the terminal window and type some terminal code, i.e.
    sudo /etc/init.d/samba restart
    
  4. Speaking of Samba...while I am able to connect to my XP laptop, I have not successfully been able to print through my Linux PC, and I am not 100% happy with the networking. To get this configured..I also needed to do a lot of editing of conf files
  5. In some ways, Ubuntu is too restrictive (and yes, I know it is for security) as users need to enter a "root" password to do a lot of things. While Vista does have this feature, you can easily turn it off.
  6. i have not found an adequate file explorer (I like a windows explorer type interface!) It is also easy to get lost in all the etc, var, bin etc directories. I do not like saving into a home directory, and sometimes to find my data drive i need to dig though "/media/sda2/Personal" to get to my personal directory. At the same time I need to remember if it was sda1 or sda2!. That being said, the default file manager does place a quick link to the drives and removable media on a left pane, and this is mostly always accessible.
  7. to get my kids computer games installed through wine seems like too much effort, so they are a bit disappointed to be missing old games (but see the positives below)
  8. i have not found a decent media player, but that being said, have no real complaints with the player that comes standard (or VLC Player).

The positives

  1. It is free!
  2. I have absolutely no virus or spyware software installed, and not had 1 problem in the 6 months I have been running
  3. It is much more stable, and does not grind to a halt after being on for many days.
  4. There are no files left behind after uninstalling a program
  5. My wife has been able to navigate around...this is a major plus factor
  6. Other friends and family have had not problem accessing web mail, downloading word documents (not Word 2007 though!) and opening and editing them in open office.
  7. My kids love some of the new games
  8. i have been able to easily install all my favourite open source GIS packages

Conclusion

A non technical person would get much further installing and configuring a windows machine than an Ubuntu PC. If a technical person where to install and configure a PC with Ubuntu, a standard user would be able to get around, but would defiantly encounter problems and frustrations. With the market share that MS office has, the transferring of documents from open office to MS office may prove to be a stumbling block (especially with the new 2007 docx and xlsx format). Is it going to stay on my PC, yes it will...so long as I can get my hardware issues sorted out at some time. If I were not technically inclined....I don't think I would keep it installed.