The Linux Project part IX
Ubuntu: Funny name, serious system.
As I was perusing the list of available Linux distributions, I ran into Ubuntu. With a name like that, I simply had to check it out. When I went to the Ubuntu web site (http://www.ubuntu.com ), the first thing I found out was that Ubuntu is an African word meaning, "humanity to others," or "I am what I am because of who we all are." Well, with such a humanistic ideal, it required further investigation. When I found out Ubuntu was based on Debian, I almost decided against it. Fortunately, I thought better. I figured if only for its slogan, Ubuntu was worth at least a look. What did I have to lose anyway? If it sucked, I could always delete it and replace it with the next Linux distribution on the list.
I'm glad I took the time to check it out. It turned out to be a really good distribution. It installs easily, works well, and has some really cool extras that some other distributions don't have. It also comes in other flavors depending on the desired desktop. Kubuntu comes with the KDE desktop; Xubuntu comes with the Xfce desktop. Edubuntu is specifically set up for the kiddies. Standard Ubuntu comes with the Gnome desktop. While they are functional equivalents, the basic difference between them is system overhead requirements. Due to the Debian-based package program, if you have Ubuntu, you also have the others as well. I started with classic Ubuntu and upgraded to Kubuntu.
Some time after the initial writing of this article, I also had occasion to try two different flavors of Kubuntu: 6.06 (dubbed Dapper Duck) and 6.10 (which should have been dubbed System less stable than its progenitor!). The only statement I'll make outside of what is already written here is Kubuntu has the KDE desktop built in. Other than the noted difference in headroom requirements mentioned above, it is, as far as I could see, a complete functional equivalent to Ubuntu. I have not tried Xubuntu, but I have no reason to doubt it will work as well as the rest of the Ubuntu family of operating systems.
As far as criteria go, Ubuntu gets five stars right off the bat. The test system recently had an upgrade. I went out and bought a new DVD ROM drive for it. The Ubuntu disk worked perfectly in the new drive. I didn't need to input any arguments to the kernel. I am always happy when that happens.
Ubuntu's installation is a part of a live CD package. Live CD simply means that Ubuntu boots to the desktop, and if you don't want to install it, you can use it without putting it on your hard drive. Or, if you are like me, you can start the installation program then use Mozilla Firefox to surf the net while Ubuntu installs on your hard drive. The installation is fairly straight forward and quick.
About the only part where Ubuntu falls somewhat short in my opinion is it uses a graphic program to partition the hard drive instead of the ubiquitous "cfdisk" partitioning program. For those of us who want to be able to set up the hard drive partitions just so, it can be a bit of an irritation. This is especially true when you opt not to have Ubuntu set up its default partitioning scheme. If you take the step of defining your partitions, you can do so, but you can't set the default boot partition active. Not a good thing. However, if you just let Ubuntu do all the work, no problem! I'm not gigging Ubuntu for that little glitch because most newbies are going to be smart enough to let Ubuntu do all the work for them. We super users might find it an irritation, but this is about newbies and making Linux available to them
For the second criterion, I give Ubuntu five stars. Mozilla Firefox is the default web browser in both live CD mode and from the hard drive. All the standard applications are there and work well. The real plus with Ubuntu is the Debian package manager program. With it, you can install not only Ubuntu specific stuff; you can also load almost all the standard Debian packages. Not only that, you can also install other "unsupported" software packages that just happen to have the .DEB file extension. This opens a huge world of available software packages.
I absolutely love that particular feature. Just about any program you could ever want in the realm of Linux is ported to Debian. I found numerous programs that I had to compile to install on my Slackware that installed just by downloading the .DEB package file and installing it. For example, there is a program called Audacity. It is a multi-track audio editor and mixer program. In order to install it on Slackware, I had to download the program itself, plus half a dozen extra libraries. I had to install the libraries AND the program by compiling them. For those of you who don't know, that translates to a large chunk of time the computer is doing nothing more than setting up a program to work. With Ubuntu, all I had to do was click on the Audacity program, apply the changes, and there it was, less than five minutes later. It was configured, set up, installed properly, and ready to run. That's just the height of convenience if you ask me. Few indeed are the programs out there that you would have to compile to get working under Ubuntu.
The only thing I don't like about Ubuntu is it doesn't set up a root user account. The root user is also known as the "super user". This account is supposed to allow the administrator (me) to configure everything on the system. While most programs and configuration utilities that require super user access will ask for the system password and allow you access once it is received, there are certain programs that absolutely require super user access. If you don't have it, they don't work. This is a personal irritation for myself, and probably wouldn't bother the newbie. That's why I didn't gig Ubuntu for this small irritation. With the number of available packages for Ubuntu, if one of them complains about no root user account, there are at least five other packages that will set up and work perfectly without even noticing the lack of a root user account.
On the third criterion, device support, once again, Ubuntu gets all five stars. The sound card, net card, and new optical wheel mouse were all found, set up, and installed properly. They worked right the first time and every time thereafter. Moreover, it was one of the few Linux distributions that worked properly in concert with the APM power management on my computer. What that means is when I shut down Ubuntu or Kubuntu, the test computer shut down completely.
In addition, Ubuntu also found and properly accessed the printer on my main machine. Through the use of a program package known as Samba, Ubuntu and numerous other Linux distributions can communicate with other computers on a standard Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 LAN system. While most of the numerous Linux packages I have installed have all had Samba as a readily available option, so far, only Ubuntu has properly found, set up, and operated the HP DeskJet printer installed on my main machine. Even Slackware, my personal favorite can't make that claim. The curious thing is all the distributions that use Samba also use CUPS, the printer driver program under Linux. So far, only Ubuntu has done it right. Very nice!
NOTE: I did get my printer working under Slackware eventually. I can hear you applauding...
On the fourth criterion, look and feel, Ubuntu gets five stars. Even before I upgraded to Kubuntu, the Gnome desktop was nice to look at. It wasn't as cluttered as some Gnome iterations I have seen. The screen savers even worked properly. This is yet another sore spot for many Linux distributions. For reasons still unknown (simply because there is no real consensus in user forums), some Linux distributions' screen savers refuse to operate automatically. Ubuntu is one of the few that do work right. I like that in a Linux distribution. I like it a lot.
Ubuntu boots directly to the GUI. At the point where you input your user name and password, you can also choose whether you are going to run Kubuntu or Ubuntu (depending on the desktop desired). That's a nice feature. As much as I love the KDE desktop, it's a real resource hog. Considering the speed and age of the test system, there are times (like when I want to watch a DVD) when I forgo the prettiness of the KDE desktop for the more resource conservative Gnome desktop. I like having that freedom of choice. Ubuntu gives it to you right when you need it.
On the fifth criterion, overall impression, I give Ubuntu all five stars again. I do so, however with the following provisos.
Ubuntu is not without its bugs. Because it's built on Debian, it can become unstable. Usually, that only happens when you are trying to run more programs than you have actual physical memory to run properly. Given the grand scheme of life in the world of Linux, Ubuntu is a lot more forgiving when it gets temperamental than most distributions. It's definitely not as unstable as standard Debian, so if you are hooked on the world of Debian, Ubuntu is a way to have Debian's versatility and not have to deal with Debian's instability.
The lack of a root user account can be incredibly frustrating. While there is technically nothing in Ubuntu that absolutely requires the root user account, some programs, such as X CD Roast simply won't work when you try to run them outside of the root user environment. As a matter of fact, X CD Roast can't even set up its configuration file in any other mode than root user. As I said above, for every package that gets persnickety about the lack of a root user account, there are five others that could care less. With Ubuntu, one has to use K3B as a GUI CD burner. No big deal since K3B actually works and looks better than X CD Roast. The point remains, that one small glitch can be incredibly annoying.
Other than those two bumps in the road, Ubuntu is a distribution that lives up to the ideal of its creators. It is very user friendly. It is just right for the newbie and the power user alike, given said power user can handle the no root user proviso. It's not harnessed with a set of non-removable training wheels like Ark Linux, but is just as friendly to the newbie. In operation, it is as flawless as one could expect a Linux distribution to be. Also, considering you can get it in Gnome, KDE, Xfce and Educational varieties and install them without further need for installation of more, it is truly the distribution that can give you what you want right out of the box.
As I said before, of all the distributions I have tested so far, Ubuntu comes as close as any to making me reconsider using Slackware exclusively. Considering how long I have had Slackware set up on this machine. That says a lot.
As I said in the intro, "Ubuntu: funny name, serious system!"