Warning: Linux geek territory. Enter at your peril.
Now, I’m both a tweaker and an operating system junkie. I use Mac OS X for multimedia production, Linux for web development, and Windows for… for… hmmm… tech support issues. However, I’ve also tinkered in the guts of Solaris, VMS, *BSD, QNX, BeOS and a half-dozen other OSes, just to see what they had to offer. I switch operating systems like people change their clothes.
I made a mistake about a month ago. I had to burn down and build up one of my chief production machines, a Linux SGI box. It had an ancient version of Red Hat on it and it was unsecure and unstable, not to mention extremely dated (Open Source development moves very fast). On my previous laptop I had been using a Frankenstein variant of Debian Linux, originally installed from a Knoppix live CD-ROM, but I was frustrated by being forced to choose between either very unstable software packages or very old ones. After a brief but unfortunately ill-suited dalliance with Fedora (it didn’t like my hardware), I started looking elsewhere for my new distro.
I had heard a lot of good things about SuSE Linux, so I tracked down SuSE Professional 9.2 and installed it on the SGI box. At first, I was quite happy with it. It came with a recent and very pretty version of the KDE desktop environment, along with Java, Flash and plenty of bells and whistles.
But about two weeks ago, the discontent really started. I continually found KDE far too slow and bloated for my day-to-day use. KDE is a pretty heavy-duty system, and it has always struck me as focusing on providing a user interface that matches or outdoes MS Windows feature-by-feature. I didn’t need all that. Heck, I’m happy with just Emacs and a web browser. I tried switching over to GNOME but found out that the SuSE packages were ancient — about a year old. I tried sucking down newer packages from third-party repositories (including apt-get), but many things didn’t work well — for example, anything using the Gstreamer multimedia kit crashed. Garnome was a three-day compile-fest that left me with many other problems, including incompatibilities with existing libraries. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. Two days ago, I burnt down SuSE.
Now, I’ve never really been a Debian fan. Most Debian users I’ve met have had all the subtlety of religious zealots trying to convert me at swordpoint. The “live free or die” mentality also tends to get in the way when one is forced to commercial means of making a living. Yes, I do believe in the Braveheartian notion of freedom, but this isn’t very convenient when it conflicts with my “use the best tool for the job” rule: sometimes you need a screwdriver, not a hammer. I don’t like to be told, “Well, you can’t do it that way because the software license isn’t worded correctly, but here’s a simple 48-step way to do it… first, download the new kernel source and modify the Makefile like this….” And don’t even get me started about the user-unfriendliness of the Debian website. All that, plus the very infrequent updates to the base system, led me away from this distribution in the first place.
However, I had been hearing about Ubuntu, the Debian-based distro with “the strange name”, for quite a while now. Convinced that there was something inviting in those waters, I did a little bit of research into it, and arrived at the following conclusions:
- Ubuntu is Debian, but with a very current set of packages, including the recent GNOME 2.10. It can also connect to all third-party repositories for extra and “non-free” packages.
- Because it is Debian, and uses the famed Debian package management system, installing and upgrading software is an absolute breeze.
- Ubuntu is a very philosophical operating system, rather than a religious one. Ubuntu means “humanity to others,” whereas I find Debian Prime to be a “convert or die” sort of experience.
- A very strong effort has been put into usability issues. Not only are most things very intuitive (a lot of credit must go to GNOME Human Interface Guideline adoption), it carefully balances the need for an administrator with the need to be a regular user.
- Ubuntu offers a “live” CD-ROM, where you can boot from the CD and experience how everything works. It detected everything on my system perfectly, and it was extremely nimble when compared to SuSE’s KDE (even though it was running from a CD-ROM!).
- It installs very quickly, and lets one immediately update the system with whatever other packages one wishes.
- The community support is amazing: lots of people helping each other, and plenty of knowledgeable folks creating how-to’s, handbooks, unofficial guides, and wiki pages. And hardly a flame or rude person to be found. Maybe this distro does bring out the humanity in geeks. Heh.
- Get this: Ubuntu will actually send you CD-ROMs by mail, and pay the shipping. I have a stack of 20 x86 and three PPC CD’s on the way to give to friends and volunteer organisations. (Of course, being at least partially funded by a humanitarian billionaire Debian developer — Mark Shuttleworth, also the second space tourist — probably helps in this regard.)
Whereas SuSE took a few days to set up to my liking (and even then, it felt far too sluggish), I installed Ubuntu in less than an hour. It took only a few more hours to download other software packages, choose fonts and themes, slap on Java and Flash, and set up my panels exactly right. In less than four hours, I had a smoothly humming Linux box with everything I wanted, and nothing I didn’t. I’m even getting used to the… uhm… brown-ness of everything: very earthy.