For over six years I have been hunting for a Linux distro that would allow me to replace my Windows installation. I’ve tried many versions of RedHat and Mandrake, and more recently, Gnoppix, Kanotix, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Knoppix. In my evaluations, I would start with high hopes that the latest and greatest distro would install smoothly, support my hardware, and create a genuinely usable system, but none of them really worked–until now. I recently came across the first distro that satisfied all my requirements: Ubuntu.
Ubuntu is a recent distribution that is based on Debian unstable. From reading many online posts, it appears that a large number of Debian developers are Ubuntu users. From most perspectives, Ubuntu is Debian, but with added improvements and more testing.
My “perfect” Linux distribution would be completely open source, professional in appearance, have good laptop support, and be simple and clean. For example, Xandros, Linspire, and Lycoris appear to provide a good user experience, decent hardware compatibility, and technical support, but rely on proprietary software to achieve their goals. Many distros feature cute cartoons and inspired imagery, but while a cute cartoon image of a shark is fine for friends and family, it sends the wrong message in a professional crowd (I won’t even get into the distros that prominently feature cannabus sativa). Unfortunately, laptop support is fatally flawed in the current 2.6 kernel because of a buggy ACPI implementation, but few distributions seem to take the time to get the available working drivers/modules/daemons to work correctly (such as APM). More often than not, the end user is left to configure many laptop support options. Lastly, Gnome’s approach to the desktop is better in my opinion because it emphasizes usability and simplification (a la the Mac) rather than the cluttered, sickeningly sweet, drippy, transparent eye Kandy of KDE.
I installed Ubuntu 4.10 – Warty on an IBM Thinkpad T21 with 384 megs of RAM and a NEC 6500A DVD-writer that I recently installed in place of the stock DVD-ROM. The graphics controller is a S3 Savage/IX-MV which is known to have bugs. Windows 2000 and XP runs fine on this laptop with complete and working support for ACPI. The processor is an 800 Mhz mobile Pentium III. The laptop also has a Winmodem, but since I never use it, it didn’t bother me that it would be rather unlikely that Ubuntu would support it without additional configuration.
ACPI support in the current 2.6 kernel does not work on the T21 (or many other laptops for that matter). While sleep (and possibly suspend) do work, the integrated 3Com 3c556B Ethernet controller does not work under ACPI. For the most part, the laptop will work with APM under the 2.6 kernel, however.
Like many distributions, installation went smoothly. Note that because of the aforementioned ACPI bug, Ubuntu must be booted with “linux acpi=off” at the boot command line. Ubuntu correctly detected all of the T21’s hardware (except possibly for the Winmodem). Amazingly, my Epson 610 scanner and Olympus C3000z digital camera were also detected and worked correctly and–most importantly–worked without having to be root (unlike some distributions). My new NEC DVD-writer also worked correctly.
Unfortunately, tweaking was necessary before all was well on the laptop. I do not fault Ubuntu as most other distributions required the same changes. APM support had to be enabled by adding “apm” at the end of the /etc/modules file. In order to squelch the S3 Savage IX bug, the option “ShadowStatus” needed to be added to the “Device” section in the /etc/X11/XF86Config-4 file (failure to do so will result in random freezes when scrolling). I also needed to add the option “HWCursor” followed by “false” to the X11 configuration file in order to stop the “X” cursor that appears upon loading Gnome from remaining on the screen as a visual artifact.
Apparently, the IPv6 code in the 2.6 kernel is also somewhat buggy. There were long delays in name resolution when using Firefox. In order to fix this, I had to disable IPv6 support in the /etc/modprobe.conf file by adding the line “alias ipv6 off” followed by another line, “alias net-pf-10 off”.
Lastly, sound did not work correctly until I manually installed the Enlightened sound daemon using Synaptec. Admittedly, I may have broken things when doing an update with Synaptec, but the fix was simple enough. If you are using Ubuntu and the startup sound is choppy, make sure that the current version of the Enlightened sound daemon is correctly installed.
Unfortunately, no matter what I tried to do, suspend via APM would not work correctly. Pressing the function and F4 keys on the laptop would put it to sleep, but upon waking Gnome would experience long delays after clicking on menu options ( restarting the X server or rebooting the laptop fixed the problem). APM does appear to correctly manage the fan speed and possibly the CPU speed, however. The battery charge indicator also works correctly and the laptop’s LCD is turned off by the screen saver. Hibernate may work, but it would require a FAT partition which I don’t have installed. The inability to suspend the laptop is not a large issue for me as I rarely use the laptop in a situation where it’s not plugged into an AC source. Lack of full APM compatibility is Ubuntu’s largest fault in my opinion.
Unlike many distro reviews, my goal was not simply to install Ubuntu in order to review it; I wanted to actually use it as a replacement for Windows. Before Ubuntu, I was seriously considering several KDE-based distros, but eventually came back to the Gnome interface. To me, Gnome is more visually appealing and more usable due to the lack of clutter and duplication. Although the Gnome developers may not admit it, the Mac user interface appears to be their design goal while KDE’s design goal is clearly to duplicate the Windows UI. To most people, the consensus would be that the Mac is the clear winner in usability and appearance.
Ubuntu has made some positive changes to the standard Gnome configuration. The login screen and desktop are visually attractive and simple. The appearance is professional; although some people don’t like the choice of brown for a color scheme, it’s fine with me. Ubuntu places a menu bar at the top of the screen (a la the Mac) with two menus: Applications and Computer. OpenOffice 1.1.2 is the office suite, Evolution is the mail client, and Firefox is the browser. There are also shortcuts in the menubar for launching Firefox, Evolution, and help. A sensible, non-duplicated mix of applications are included.
It is very easy to add new applications to Ubuntu using Synaptec–the GUI front-end to apt-get–Debian’s coup de grace solution for package management. All I can say is that it works very, very well with the exception that about half of the applications don’t add an icon to the Gnome menu. There is a very wide range of applications customized for Ubuntu that are available in the standard Ubuntu repositories. You can also add a “backport” repository to Synaptec in order to get the most recent versions of Firefox and the Gimp, for example.
I used Synaptec to upgrade my kernel to the newest 686-based security upgrade (the default kernel install is 386). The new kernel options were automatically added to Grub, so all I had to do was reboot.
I have now had Ubuntu installed for about two weeks. In this time, I have not used Windows at all. I use OpenOffice all the time (as I do on Windows) and like it better than Win Word. I ended up switching from Evolution to Thunderbird as my mail client–again very easy to do with Synaptec–and am much happier. While Evolution has more features, it had an annoying tendency to keep changing the scroll bar position when I switched between folders. In addition, the escape key did not work to close the open message window–a feature that every mail client I’ve used has had. The layout was also not as efficient space wise as with Thunderbird (or Outlook for that matter). The way windows popped up halfway off the screen made me think that the developers never assumed that someone would be using Evolution on a lowly 1024 x 768 screen.
During the past two weeks, Ubuntu has been very stable. I have not once experienced a crash or freeze (except for the issue with APM, described above).
Overall I am extremely pleased with Ubuntu. There’s a lot of developer activity and the online forums and wiki are well put together and useful. Moreover, Ubuntu has an admirable philosophy that “software should be available free of charge…usable by people in their local language and [by people with] disabilities…. People should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.”
Ubuntu is one of the best distributions available and one which I can unequivocally recommend to those wanting to switch from Windows to Linux/Gnome. The small pain of configuring this distro to work on my laptop was well worth the hassle.
About the author:
Jeremy Wells currently works in the cultural resource management field and is interested in promoting the use of open source software in non-profit enterprises.
If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.