July 13, 2008
Is It Time?

In a previous post I talked about the specter of open-source software in Microsoft’s rear-view, nearly side-view, mirror. Later in this post I’ll discuss my experiences over the past year running the Linux operating system.

But first let me make my case to those who plan to exit before the geeky stuff: If you’ve ever been pissed off at your computer and thought of switching to Linux, now is a great time to spend an hour or so taking it out for a spin.

The first section tells which types of computer users can benefit from switching to Linux. Next are discussions of why Linux is more fun to use, followed by brief instructions on how to download the file, burn it to a CD, and boot with it for a Linux test drive.

Who should consider Linux

For a long time the knock on Linux was that not enough applications ran on it; later it was that the applications weren’t of sufficient quality and versatility to replace existing systems. This started as a fair, and later became a partially fair, characterization. At the margins of usage, it’s still true that there are fewer Linux applications. But the margins have moved; these days most people depend on their computers to

  1. browse the web
  2. do email
  3. handle office materials like word processer files and slide presentations
  4. create and manipulate graphics and photos
  5. extract, burn, and experience audio and video files

Linux now has excellent replacements for all these applications. Occasionally there’s a little more setup, because Linux handles far more hardware combinations than Windows or Mac software. But in my experience the quality of Linux applications normally exceeds that of the programs I used on Windows, often by quite a bit. Linux software follows the Mac philosophy of presenting only those menu choices that make sense in the current context; but Linux presents a lot more choices, and has a whole lot more configurability.

If this list covers everything you do with your computer, then you’re right down the middle of the audience for a Linux distribution like Ubuntu.

The name of the distribution comes from the African concept of ubuntu which may be rendered roughly as “humanity toward others”, “we are people because of other people”, or “I am who I am because of who we all are”, though other meanings have been suggested.


Ubuntu had a brush with fame when it was written up in non-tech columns several months back after the Dell website revealed that Michael Dell ran Ubuntu on one of his many home computers. Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop manager, which looks a good deal like Windows on the surface, but is smoother and more coherent like a Mac in design and function. Users who want greater breadth of control might prefer my favorite distribution, Kubuntu, which replaces Gnome with the more configurable KDE desktop manager.

In any case it’s not a definitive choice. Ubuntu and Kubuntu are both official branches of the same project. Pretty much any program that runs on one will run on the other; you can even run the Gnome desktop manager on Kubuntu or the KDE desktop manager on Ubuntu if you choose. Hey, it’s your system.

Another recommendation for Linux is that installation packages have improved dramatically in recent years.

  • Three years ago I failed to install.
  • Last year it was easy on my desktop, my mother’s, and a housemate’s, but didn’t work on my brother’s laptop.
  • This year it worked on my brother’s laptop, first try, no fiddling.

The kicker is, you can make a bootable CD, which will run Ubuntu or Kubuntu without touching your disk or affecting your system in any way. When you’ve downloaded the file and burned it to CD, you can boot with the CD, check out the new OS, then reboot without the CD and be back to your existing system. (If you’re running Windows now, you won’t be able to read or write your Windows files until you install the OS plus a package that reads and writes Windows files. Which, natch, is free.)

Why Linux is better

It’s difficult to list the reasons that Linux is better, because (1) there are so many of them, and (2) what’s most important differs from user to user. But here’s what strikes me most, in no particular order.

  • Linux is faster. I run the same office products, text editor, browser, and chess database on Kubuntu that I used on XP. On Kubuntu those programs run about 20-30% faster.
  • The system is more reliable. My desktop has run Ubuntu or Kubuntu full-time for over a year without an operating-system crash. Applications crash, but the most you ever have to do in that case is log out and log back in, which takes less than a minute.
  • Package managers like Synaptic and Adept are much easier and more reliable than installations on Windows, and much cheaper than those on Macs.
  • The media tools are more powerful, faster, and easier to use. Video software can require some setup, depending on your hardware configuration, because a much larger variety of configurations is supported on Linux. But Amarok destroys the best Windows media players I’ve seen.
  • The community support model actually works. You can post a question on the relevant forum and get helpful responses surprisingly quickly.
  • Some applications that need lots of resources, like Skype, perform much better under Linux because the system overhead is far less.
  • The fonts are great. Even if you’re not a font freak like me, you’ll immediately notice how easy it is to read basic text.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it provides a flavor. Now to the instructions.

How to try out a Linux distribution

Here’s all you have to do to make a CD that will (probably) run Linux on your computer.

I say “probably” because there have been reports with each new version that some people cannot boot with the Live CD. When I first installed Ubuntu over a year ago I was one of them, though the Live CD for Kubuntu worked fine. If you can’t boot with the Live CD, bu want to try installing anyway, use the Alternate CD, which will install even on systems that won’t boot with the Live CD. (Alternate CD data is available from the same websites as the Live CD data.)

But everyone I know who’s tried Kubuntu 8.04, known as Hardy Heron, has been on the net as soon as they booted with the CD. Assuming, of course, they were on the net in their standard configuration.

It’s quite simple to make a bootable CD with Ubuntu or Kubuntu, which will run without affecting your existing system in any way. At the overview level, there are four steps.

  1. Download the bootable file.
  2. Install a small program to make a bootable CD.
  3. Use that program to burn the bootable file to a CD.
  4. Boot into Linux.

Naturally parts of Linux will run slower when it’s loaded from a CD than if it were installed, and you won’t be able to save configuration changes — you haven’t given it any disk space where data can be saved. Otherwise, though, it will work just like a newly installed system.

If you’re a little nervous about the whole prospect, you might start with a fine guided tour of Ubuntu, with lots of screenshots and good information. Ubuntu aims at friendliness, and is in a sense Linux’s answer to the Mac.

If you’re confidantly looking at how sophisticated Linux has become, I recommend Kubuntu. It’s very powerful, yet very coherent. It’s not really the Windows to Ubuntu’s Mac because Kubuntu actually works, and it doesn’t try to fool you into thinking it can do something it can’t. Either the function is there and easy to use, or we haven’t figured that part out yet, no bones about it.

There are many others, such as Red Hat and openSUSE; but these are the two I’m familiar with. Once you’ve decided on a distro, as the Linux cognoscenti say, you’re ready to begin.

  • Download the ISO file.

    Downloads for the two distros I know well are at Ubuntu and Kubuntu.

    ISO files represent data in a format that a computer can boot from. This is what they call the “Live CD” data. Many non-Linux systems see it as an ugly file that should be repaired before it’s copied. Thus you need to proceed to the second step.

  • Find or download a program to burn the CD.

    Because the bootable CD is not a standard file from the Windows or Mac points of view, you can’t just drag-and-drop the file onto a CD. On Windows you need a tiny special program to burn it. Macs apparently have a similar program built in; follow the link for instructions on finding it.

  • Burn the CD.

    On Windows, right-click the file and find the program you downloaded in Step 1. On Mac, find the appropriate binary-file writer and write the ISO file to CD.

  • Boot your computer with the CD you just burned.

    This should bring up whichever OS you downloaded. Now you can browse the web, try out office products, and so on in exactly the environment you’d see after a fresh install.

Posted by Chuck Dupree at July 13, 2008 01:01 AM
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Ubuntu and Kubuntu aren't really separate distros, of course. And there's always Xubuntu for the adventurous.

Debian was the original distro from which Ubuntu is a partial fork, and I used it for many years before switching to Kubuntu. I never really cared for GNOME, either.

Way back in some dark ages I used RedHat, and before that, Slackware.

Lately I'm using MacOS X, however.

Posted by: Michael on July 13, 2008 3:15 AM

True, officially Kubuntu is a subproject of Ubuntu; but the difference between what Ubuntu and Kubuntu are, and what two distributions are, is a bit esoteric, and defining it seemed perhaps unnecessary in this context.

Debian is the distro that Neal Stephenson famously wrote so fondly of nine years ago, in "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" (I highly recommend this essay, which still makes me laugh after five readings). The entire Ubuntu family is based on Debian.

In addition to the simple Ubuntu and the more sophisticated Kubuntu, there are the lightweight, low-memory-footprint Xubuntu and the education-oriented Edubuntu, plus Gobuntu, which aims at strict compliance with the Free Software Foundation's Four Freedoms (to be allowed to run, study, copy, and improve the software).

Wikipedia has plenty of data on the Ubuntu family; after all, the people who make Ubuntu et.al. probably have shortcuts or nicknames for Wikipedia editing.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on July 13, 2008 8:58 PM

Today, my ubuntu linux box died. Well, actually, didn't start back up after a power failure. I have a UPS, which ubuntu supports, and after the obligatory "beep" every few minutes, so I came in and shut the pc down and went back to bed.

After the power was restored, the danged thing wouldn't start. sigh.

I keep a windows pc at my desk so I can play WoW with a KVM switch to allow me to switch between the 2, and I thought, what the heck, I wonder if ubuntu would boot the other box if I installed the hard drive in it.

20 minutes later I'm back up with only 2 errors related to differences in the setup (different network cards and only one hard drive in the windows box.). I fixed hard drive issue (commenting out the missing drive in the fstab) reset the network using the handy network tool, reboot and all is well. Less than 30 minutes. Probably didn't need to reboot, but drive errors freak me out.

I don't know if you can do that in windows these days, what with it's god awful drm, but since I can live without WoW longer than my email, rss feeds and web browser, it was a pleasant surprise.

I hear that Wine can run WoW, though...

Oh, I run Xubuntu. It's even quicker than KDE or Gnome. Try it sometime, or use it on the older machines and laptops.

Posted by: nealbirch on July 13, 2008 10:08 PM

heh. Additional comment: I was able to get dual booting working very easily after a quick web search.


Ubuntu (and Debian!) FTW!

Posted by: nealbirch on July 13, 2008 11:39 PM

Yes, I might have added to my post that I set up my mother's system as a dual boot, which she handles with aplomb. I also helped my brother set up his dual-boot system over the phone. It's quite easy, as long as you don't mash the wrong partition.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on July 14, 2008 2:09 AM

So why, then, doesn't someone make it easier to draft legal documents on pleading paper in something other than Windows?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on July 14, 2008 11:37 PM

I would find it odd if OpenOffice.org didn't do that. I did find a template for Los Angeles here.


Does that help?

Posted by: nealbirch on July 16, 2008 12:20 AM
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