Ubuntu: could do with a bit more work

I’d better start by admitting that I’m a fan of KDE. It’s not because it works like Windows, but for the quality of the tools available. However, a GUI is just a way of doing something and I think I’ve been a bit dismissive of the Gnome desktop up to now. I read a few reviews of Ubuntu, looked at their web site and decided to have a look. I wanted a general purpose (desktop) distribution and an opportunity to get to know the Gnome utilities.They do a Live CD; you download and burn an ISO, put it in your drive, reboot and voila! Instant Gnome in glorious brown. I played with the Live CD for a while, then decided to get to know it better by installing the distro to my hard drive. Ubuntu does not let you do this from the Live CD, you have to download a different ISO. Not an insurmountable problem for broadband users, it takes me about 3 hours, but Mepis Linux allows you to install from their Live CD. This would be a nice feature to include.

click for a larger view Ubuntu is Debian with a nice make-over and a mission statement. Debian isn’t easy to install, Ubuntu makes it easier. I was unimpressed with the partitioning tool. I wanted to keep my existing Swap and /home partitions and install Ubuntu in my / partition. It was not happy with my choices and only allowed my to continue with the installation after I had also formatted my /home partition. Fortunately I’d backed up everything to CD before I started. There is an automatic partitioner (that I didn’t use). I’m fairly confident about messing with partitioning tools, I know what I want to do and how to do it, but it would be nice if there was a bit of guidance. I would have given up without installing it if I had been doing this for the first time. I still think that Mandrake’s partition tool (Diskdrake) is hard to beat.

The installer is visually unattractive but it works. It detected everything except my internet connection. I usually judge a distribution by how long it takes me to get on-line. Most detect the DHCP server on the modem and just work. If you can’t easily get on-line, how will you download fixes and upgrades? Once up and running, the connection was easy to configure and far easier than setting up Win XP.

One choice I didn’t like was that a Root password isn’t used. I made myself an account with a password and expected to be asked for a Root password to use. No, it uses “sudo” with your user account. My Mac does the same, easier for Windows users, I suppose, but not the way I would choose to do it. They seem to have taken a few other ideas from Apple. The menu system is at the top of the screen, the interface is fairly minimalist. One thing they might learn from them is colour choices. Ubuntu is a Zulu concept (humanity to others) and they have tried to give the desktop an African flavour. Africa is full of bright colours; they have chosen a light chocolate brown for everything (everything that isn’t grey, that is). If you like African themes, why not use some of the other earth colours like reds or ochres? Of course, this is Linux, you can change anything that you don’t like.

Ubuntu uses an automount system which seems to work very well. Put a music CD in the drive and it plays, put a data CD in and it opens a Nautilus (file manager) window. My USB removable drive worked too. It also detected a Win XP machine on the LAN. What I don’t like is Nautilus as a file manager. I’ve used Konqueror for a few years, Nautilus seems very crude in comparison. If you are navigating to /usr/bin you are left with 3 windows, one for /. one for usr, one for bin. Click on a file in bin and another damned window opens. These have to be closed when you’ve finished. Presumably there is something somewhere to tell Nautilus to open folders in the same window, but it isn’t in “preferences” and I couldn’t see it in the Gnome Help files. I miss Konqueror’s html display. Click on a saved web page and it’s displayed, Nautilus fired up Firefox. Gnome gives me the impression that it’s just a front end for Linux, like Windows 3.1 on DOS 6.2. I copied and pasted my backup CD files to my home directory, then realised that I didn’t want some of them. Of course, the original file permissions from the CD were preserved, so I had to go down through each imported directory, select all files and alter the permissions before I could delete them. I don’t remember ever having to do that in Konqueror, it will alter the permissions of all the sub directories if you alter the permissions of a parent folder. Once I got all my rubbish in the trash, it still wouldn’t remove them. I tried to go into the trash folder and alter permissions, but it crashed when I tried. I did like the integrated CD burning tool in Nautilus. Just drag and drop your files and burn. There isn’t much to the interface, but it worked fine.

I liked Firefox, the default browser. It was quite easy to get my machine on-line. Under Computer>System Configuration>Networking was a beautifully simple tool. I just typed in a few values (I told it to use my ethernet card as the way to get on the net and use DHCP for the IP address and it worked). Ubuntu email is handled by Evolution, an Outlook clone. It’s OK, if you want something to do a similar job to Outlook.

The excellent Synaptic package manager is included, making installation of new software easy. However, it only lists the packages that the Ubuntu team have tested with the distribution. If you want to install other packages (how would you know if you were new?) you have to either instruct Synaptic or edit /etc/apt/sources.list. Their web site gives useful details.

I tried to play a Metallica DVD but Totem, the software provided, threw up its hands and instantly admitted defeat. I know that the code to read DVDs is available, but apparently not in the Gnome world. Mepis, for example, quickly downloaded the required library for Xine and played the same DVD without any difficulty. I gave up googling and decided that Totem could stay broken. Rhythmbox, their music player, had a list of internet radio stations to listen to. If you tried to make it work, it just stopped responding. I even tried to load it via Firefox, which them loaded Rhythmbox, which stopped reponding. That too remained broken. The Gnome CD player worked OK, connecting to an on-line database for track listings. However, it didn’t find my Soundgarden CD and there was no way to change the database details.

Ubuntu comes with Open Office.org’s office suite. I like OO.org, but what about the Gnome Office suite? Abiword and Gnumeric are both good replacements for MS Word and Excel and are not so greedy on memory as OO.org. If you are running Ubuntu on a slower machine, OO.org is not a good choice. The version included in Ubuntu 1.4 was 1.1.2, the version on OO.prg’s web site is 1.1.4.

Of course, you can install any package you like with Debian. Ubuntu provides you with what the Ubuntu team thinks is the best tool for the job. There’s one web browser, one mail client, one chat client etc. This is good for beginners, but I’d say that Ubuntu isn’t the ideal distribution to learn how to use Linux on. I realise that much of my criticism is directed at the Gnome desktop, rather than Ubuntu’s distribution, but that is what they have chosen to include. It’s not going to appeal to experienced Debian users, its Gnome tools are not really going to attract converts from Windows and the dull brown isn’t going to win friends from Apple. There’s a lot that is good in Ubuntu, their attitude (mission statement) attracted me, the web site is very professional and easy to navigate (and uses yellow and red, not brown) but the product itself has several failings could do with a bit more work.

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