Freeloading on a two-week Linux diet

It’s one of those perennial age-old battles that can never be resolved. Coke or Pepsi? Chocolate or vanilla? Linux or Windows?

I’ve been in the trenches of those wars for years. I’ve written about Windows since the days of Windows 2.0, including numerous books and hundreds or even thousands of articles, blogs and columns.

Along the way, I’ve been called every name in the book — and many you won’t find in any books, either — by Linux proponents, because I’ve extolled the benefits of Windows, while ignoring those of Linux.

So I thought it was finally time to confront the issue myself. How does Linux stack up against Windows? Which is really easier to use and less expensive? Which actually lets you be more productive?

In short: Could I live without Windows at all and run my life on Linux for two weeks without spending a penny for software? Since one of Linux’s great virtues is that it, and many of the applications that run under it, are open source part of the attraction for me was to see if I could use an operating system and applications that were completely free.

To put myself to the test, I borrowed an IBM ThinkPad T41 with 1.5GB of RAM and a Pentium M 1.6-GHz processor. It already had Windows XP installed on it, but if I wanted, I could wipe the drive clean.

Choosing and installing Linux

The uninitiated (as I was) will most likely be initially overwhelmed by the number of Linux distributions available, many of which sound as if they were named by participants at a Star Trek convention after too much late-night carousing: Gentoo, Debian, Knoppix, Madriva, SUSE, Red Hat, Xandros, Ubuntu– and that’s just a very short list.

My goal was to live in Linux for free, so that ruled out commercial Linux distributions such as Xandros. I checked with a number of Linux pros and fans, and in the end, I relied on my most trusted expert, my 18-year-old son Gabe, who recommended that I go with Ubuntu, using the Wubi installer.

Wubi creates a multiboot system on a Windows PC that lets you boot into either your existing version of Windows or into Ubuntu. You don’t have to modify any partitions, and you don’t have to use a different boot loader than the one Windows uses. As an added bonus, it can be installed and uninstalled like any other Windows application.

At first, installation seemed straightforward. I downloaded the Wubi installation file and ran it, which in turn downloaded a 694.5MB file. The installation program told me it needed to reboot. I told it to go ahead.

The Hardware Gods, though, were not pleased; perhaps I had forgotten to sacrifice a goat. My ThinkPad T41 didn’t reboot, even though the installer tried. So I took matters into my own hands and chose to reboot from the Windows Start menu. (At this point, the installation program was still running in Windows.) Once again, it stood firm and refused to reboot.

As a long-suffering Windows user, I’m used to this kind of thing, so I tried the three-finger salute and pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del — twice. Again, no go. Eventually, I had to unplug the machine’s power cord, take out the battery, then put the battery and power cord back in. Then I restarted.

At first, things seemed to go according to plan. After the restart, a dual-boot screen appeared, asking whether I wanted to boot into XP or Ubuntu. I chose Ubuntu and figured I was on my way. Wrong. I booted into a screen that looked like this:

BusyBox v1.1.3 (Debian 1:1.1.3-3ubuntu3) Built-in shell (ash)Enter ‘help’ for a list of built in commands.(initramfs)

As a Windows user, I’m used to seeing incomprehensible screens. But this one put even Microsoft to shame. I rebooted again (this time it worked) and once again chose Ubuntu from the dual-boot screen.

Once again the mysterious screen appeared. I typed “help” at the prompt to find the list of commands. The “help” was of absolutely no help. I got a listing of several dozen commands — things like alias, break, continue, pwd, loadfont and so on — but no information about what they did or how to use them.

I rebooted yet again. And this time, for reasons known only to the Linux Gods (perhaps they don’t require goat sacrifices after all), I booted into a Ubuntu GUI that began configuring my system. Finally! Well … not quite finally. After about 10 minutes, Ubuntu stopped functioning and the PC rebooted on its own.

After that reboot, though, all was right with the world. Ubuntu finally installed on the system as a dual-boot option and was absolutely rock-solid every time I booted into it. So solid, in fact, that it never failed to boot.

So solid that I never experienced a single crash or Blue Screen of Death in all the weeks that I used it, either in the operating system itself or any of the applications I used — something I certainly can’t say about Windows XP.

Amazingly — at least to a Linux novice like me — Ubuntu recognized all the hardware on my T41, including the built-in wireless card, so I didn’t have to fiddle around with drivers. If Microsoft had done this good a job with drivers on Vista, perhaps that operating system wouldn’t be so troubled right now.

Networking nightmare

With Linux working like a charm on the T41, it was time to get the machine connected to my home network, which uses a Linksys WRT160N wireless router.

Connecting to my home network itself, and then the Internet, was exceptionally easy — there’s a bar across the top of the Ubuntu desktop with a wireless icon. I clicked the icon, chose my home network and got in with ease.

That’s when my troubles began. I have a half-dozen PCs on my home network, three of them running Vista, one running Windows Home Server, one running XP and one dual-boot Vista/XP machine.

I’ve set up my Windows machines so that I can browse through each machine’s hard disk, with password protection. (The exception is the Windows Home Server, which I can only access through the WHS client or via remote access, and which I primarily use for daily backups.)

Because of the vagaries of Windows Vista and Windows XP networking, I have two workgroups on my network — WORKGROUP for Vista machines and MSHOME for XP machines. The dual-boot Vista/XP machine shows up in WORKGROUP when it boots to Vista, and MSHOME when it boots to XP.

In addition, I have a Lexmark E120 network printer, which is connected directly to the network.

Networking with Ubuntu was flaky, to put it mildly. When I browsed the network, it showed only some of the PCs, and those it showed weren’t accessible. Worse yet, PCs would sometimes show up and then mysteriously disappear.

In addition, my Windows PCs couldn’t see my Ubuntu machine, and I couldn’t print from the Ubuntu machine to my Lexmark printer; the Ubuntu machine could see it, but not print to it.

For help, I turned to the pros — Computerworld editor in chief Scot Finnie and Computerworld blogger and Linux guru Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, both of whom have successfully used Linux and Windows machines on the same networks. Their first advice: Install Samba, an open-source application designed to get Linux to work with Windows machines on a network.

Unfortunately, it only partially solved the problem. From my Linux machine, I now could clearly see the two workgroups on my network, and could see each machine within each workgroup.

However, when I browsed the Windows Vista machines, I saw nothing — directories were blank. When I browsed the XP machines, though, I could access their entire hard disks. My Vista machines could see my Ubuntu machine, but couldn’t browse through it. And I still couldn’t print to my Lexmark printer.

Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols both had plenty of good advice for me, which involved editing the Registry key LmCompatibilityLevel, changing authentication settings, making sure NetBIOS was turned on in the Vista machines and several other actions.

None of them, unfortunately, worked. As of this date, Ubuntu continues to work fine with my XP machines, but can’t talk to the Vista ones. And I still can’t print to the Lexmark printer. Does this mean that if you try networking a Ubuntu machine on your home network you’ll run into the same problems? Not necessarily.

Many people, including both Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols, have been able to get Linux machines to work properly with Windows machines on a network. I may well be the exception.

(And by the way, if anyone out there has advice on how to fix my Vista-Ubuntu networking problems, leave a note below, and I’ll check it out.)

A first look at the interface

It was time to get to work. I first spent time getting used to the Ubuntu interface. By default, Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop, which at first glance appears spare and bare-bones to old-time Windows users. Where, for example, are all the desktop icons? They were nowhere to be seen, although I could place icons there easily enough.

I didn’t need those icons, though, because a very useful taskbar across the top of the screen offered quick access to launching programs, browsing the hard disk and network, and exploring the system and changing system preferences.

The top-right part of the taskbar is much like Windows’ notification area, and shows the current state of the network connection, the date and time, and has a notification area for alerts about software updates.

The Trash bin, which works like Windows’ Recycle Bin, is in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. And there’s a nifty virtual desktops feature built into the interface, so I can create separate desktops — one for work and one for home, for example — and then switch between them by clicking the proper icon at the bottom of the screen.

There’s no Control Panel, thankfully, and no need for one. The System menu item on the taskbar includes Preferences and Administration submenus, and from each of those, I was able to very quickly change any preferences, and customize and peer into the system.

All in all, I found the desktop familiar, uncluttered and easier to use than the Windows desktop. The interface doesn’t feature as much eye-candy as Vista, and is somewhat klunkier-looking. But I got used to that quickly.

All in all, it’s a very clean, efficient interface. And remember, Ubuntu runs on much sparer hardware than Vista; there’s no way Vista could have run well on the T41.

Installed applications

As any Windows user knows full well, Windows doesn’t come with many built-in productivity applications. If you want a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and so on, you’ll generally have to buy Microsoft Office, for several hundred dollars or more — although there are alternatives such as OpenOffice and Google Docs.

Ubuntu, though, already comes with a surprisingly full set of ready-to-use applications. You won’t have to pay for them or even search for them — they’re there, waiting for you. They include:

Office applications: Four components of the OpenOffice suite come with Ubuntu: word processor, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation software. The OpenOffice database is not included.

Browser: The latest version of Firefox comes pre-installed.

Contact Manager: Yes, Windows users, there is a life beyond Outlook. Evolution Mail and Calendar is a solid-mail and calendaring program.

IM: Pidgin is a universal instant-messaging client that works with AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and others.

Graphics: Ubuntu comes with the Gimp Photo Editor, a Photoshop-like application with a surprisingly full set of features. For digital photo handling, there’s the F-Spot Photo Manager.

Multimedia: Ubuntu comes with ripping and burning software and media playing software — pretty much whatever you need. They include Audio CD Extractor, Brasero disc burner, Movie Player, Rhythmbox Music Player and Sound Recorder.

Accessories and games: There’s plenty here, including a calculator, text editor, note-taker, screen-capture program and plenty of games, including classics such as chess, blackjack, mah-jongg and Sudoku.

Installing software

If Linux has an Achilles heel, from the point of view of a Windows user, it’s installing new software. Be prepared to enter a new world in which Windows Update is a model of simplicity by comparison, and in which you may feel as if you need a Ph.D. in physics merely to install new applications or updates.

Let’s take something as simple as installing the latest version of a Flash Player. I was visiting YouTube, but couldn’t view any videos because Ubuntu doesn’t install a Flash Player by default. Actually, neither does Windows, so it didn’t bother me — all I had to do was install the player.

I clicked on a Web link as directed, and came to a screen that asked me which version of the Flash Player for Linux I wanted to install: tar.gz for Linux, .rpm for Linux or YUM for Linux. This was, to say the least, confusing: The .rpm version sounded like a car specification, and the YUM version sounded like a bubble gum.

From my experience using Windows archiving software, I’ve heard of the .tar compression format, so I chose that one. I downloaded it, uncompressed it and ran the installation program. Nothing happened. I tried running it another time.

Again, nothing. Then I tried an option that allowed me to run the installation program in a terminal window. It was a shot in the dark, but somehow I had hit the target. Why, I’m not sure, but the installation worked fine.

I experienced similar issues when updating to Version 3.0 of OpenOffice — and in fact, finally gave up. Version 2.4 worked just fine.

People who believe that Linux will replace Windows as the main operating system on PCs should realize that the mass of consumers don’t want to face these kinds of issues when upgrading or installing software.

This use of confusing and unfamiliar terminology seemed to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to updates and installs. I found another example when I decided to update my software.

Ubuntu has an Update Manager, similar to Windows Update, which is supposed to keep you informed about available updates for applications and utilities, and will then download and install them for you.

It’s accessed via a starburst icon at with a down arrow inside it that’s located at the top of my Ubuntu screen. Hovering my mouse over the icon, I found out that 129 updates were available. This sounded like a serious problem, so I clicked on the Update Manager.

I was rewarded with a long list of recommended updates — and what they were, or were used for, is anyone’s guess. For example, the first four were:

alacarteeasy GNOME menu editing tool

anacroncron-like program that doesn’t go by time

app-install-data-commercialApplication installer (data files for commercial applications)

bind9-hostVersion of “host” bundled with BIND 9.X

The Ubuntu Update Manager had me longing for Windows Update. In Ubuntu’s defense, though, I did find a few updates that made sense, such as updates and plug-ins to the Evolution e-mail application.

On the other hand, the Update Manager was missing some vital updates; for example, I was using Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org and was never told that Version 3 was available. Worse yet, I was using Version 8.04 of Ubuntu, and Ubuntu 8.10 came out when I was researching this piece.

Yet the Update Manager didn’t tell me that either. Eventually, I found out that 8.04 is what’s called a Long Term Support release, but 8.10 isn’t, and by default, the Ubuntu Update Manager won’t tell you about releases that are not LTS. And you thought Windows Update was confusing?

All in all, I didn’t find the Update Manager to be much help. I was better off checking for software updates on my own, or allowing the applications themselves to warn me about updates. But as my experience with installing OpenOffice.org 3.0 showed me, that doesn’t always help.

Work productivity

Getting up to speed is one thing. Actually being productive is definitely another. How well, I wondered, would Linux fulfill my various computing needs?

I’m a writer, and what I spend most of my time doing is, of course, writing. Ubuntu comes with Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, which includes OpenOffice.org Writer, which (I already knew from the Windows version) is a top-notch free application.

As I mentioned earlier, Ubuntu had installed Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, although I knew that Version 3.0 was available.

But unaccountably, Ubuntu’s Update Manager didn’t inform me that an upgrade was available, even though it did tell me about numerous upgrades of other software I’ve never heard of, and certainly will never need. (If I ever needed xulrunner or Yelp, though, the Update Manager was here to help.)

Since Update Manager didn’t seem to want me to upgrade, I decided to try it on my own and downloaded Version 3.0 for Linux from the OpenOffice.org site.

I unpacked what I downloaded, but when I checked the unpacked files, there seemed to be no installation file to run. So I checked the OpenOffice.org site for download instructions. I found them and they weren’t easy.

It involved first opening a terminal prompt and then finding the proper directory for the unpacked files. I found the directory, which was named — I kid you not — OOO300_m9_native_packed-1_en-US.9358.

Once there, I had to issue the command rpm -Uvih *rpm. I tried it, but was told that “the program rpm is not currently installed.” To install it, I discovered, I had to type the command sudo apt-get install rpm. (And Linux is supposed to be easier to use than Windows?)

I followed the instructions to install rpm, and then once again typed rpm -Uvih *rpm. Still no dice: I was told that it wouldn’t work because I had to “use alien.” At that point, I simply gave up. Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, I knew from previous experience with the Windows version, works just fine.

OpenOffice.org’s Writer is a surprisingly powerful word processor, and the Linux version looks and works just like the Windows version.

For my needs, it did just about everything I asked. The interface’s layout, although clumsy-looking and a bit cartoonish, gives instant access to all the tools one needs, including search and replace, drawing, creating tables and hyperlinks, and even creating backgrounds for documents.

Those who don’t like Office 2007’s ribbon interface will find it superior to the latest version of Microsoft Word.

Because OpenOffice.org supports the .doc format, I could create documents in it and exchange them with others. (Working with .doc files is a must for writers — for many, it’s the lingua franca of journalism.)

However, it has one serious drawback for writers or anyone who collaborates using .doc files: It doesn’t support Word markup (redlining) and comments. So at times, I had to send the marked-up file to my Windows PC and work on the document there. Those who collaborate using markup in .doc files need Microsoft Office — Linux simply won’t cut it.

The OpenOffice.Org spreadsheet was similarly easy to use.

I’m not a spreadsheet jockey, so don’t need to create complex spreadsheets and can’t compare it to Excel for sophisticated tasks.

But for most simple tasks such as budgeting and the like, it was simple and straightforward. Its graph creation is particularly useful, with a simple wizard that practically creates its own charts. For tasks like that, it’s clearly the equal of Excel.

OpenOffice.org also has one great feature that Microsoft Office lacks — it will open any kind of Office document from within any of its applications. In Office, for example, if you’re in Word and want to open an Excel document, you need to open Excel, then browse to a spreadsheet and open it.

In OpenOffice.org, software works the way it should: When you’re in Word (or any other OpenOffice.org application), you can press Ctrl-O to launch the open dialog, and browse to any document you want to open, whether it be a word processing document, spreadsheet or other OpenOffice.org document. When you open it, the right application automatically launches.

Sharing files

As I detailed earlier in the story, I had serious problems connecting my Linux machine to Windows Vista PCs on my home network. Because I often use multiple PCs, this made sharing files difficult, to say the least.

The kludgiest way to do it was to send files from machine to machine via e-mail. An even better solution (in some circumstances): Use Google Docs.

If I had to work on a file on the Linux machine that I had created on my Vista PC, I opened Google Docs on my Vista machine, imported the file into Google Docs and then later opened it up in Google Docs in the Linux machine. After I finished working on it, I could open it in Google Docs on my Vista PC.

Google Docs doesn’t have as fully featured a word processor as OpenOffice.org or Word, but for straight-ahead writing and editing, it did what I needed. That isn’t to say that Google Docs is perfect.

The original file’s formatting was sometimes changed or lost, and I occasionally had a hard time with boxed text. As with OpenOffice.org, I couldn’t use some advanced features, such as tracking changes. Still, though, for most basic tasks, it worked well.

Google Docs does have an offline feature that lets you store and work with files when not connected to the Internet, but I found it to be less than perfect. To do it, you have to first install Google Gears, which I did on both my Vista and Linux machines.

I found using Google Docs offline to be somewhat flaky on my Vista machine — it would occasionally freeze — but it worked without a hitch on my Linux system.

In addition, there are plenty of weird gotchas I came across using Google Docs offline. You can’t edit spreadsheets or presentations offline, for example. And you won’t be able to create any documents offline.

You have to first create them online, then sync them with your local PC to make them available offline. So it’s far from a perfect solution, but it works in a pinch, especially if you always have an Internet connection.

Connecting to hot spots

I have a home office, and it can get lonely working there all day, so I spend a fair amount of time every week working at cafes or other places with free hot spots. Linux makes it exceedingly easy to find and connect to hot spots. In fact, in some ways it’s easier than in Windows Vista or XP.

Simply click the network connection icon at the top of the screen, and a list of wireless networks appears. A small icon next to each connection indicates whether it’s encrypted or open, and there’s also an indicator that shows the signal strength. Click a network to connect to it — and you’re online.

In Vista, based on the kind of network to which you connect (private, public or work), certain features are enabled or disabled for security reasons. For example, file sharing is disabled in public networks.

In Linux, you can’t indicate whether the network is private, public or work, but then again, Linux is a more secure operating system than Windows, so perhaps it isn’t needed.

Security

As a longtime Windows user, I’m exceedingly aware of the need for security, and use antivirus software, antispyware and a software-based firewall. That kind of software doesn’t ship with Ubuntu, apparently because it isn’t needed. So I decided not to try any Linux security software, and never found the need for it.

Internet, e-mail and instant messaging

Windows users will feel right at home on the Internet with Linux, because Firefox is a cross-platform browser and has most of the same features and overall interface as the Windows version — including the add-ins.

As somebody who wanted to use both Linux and Windows machines, and keep my bookmarks and passwords synchronized, I welcomed this, because I was able to use Foxmarks to automatically synchronize my bookmarks and passwords.

For instant messaging, Ubuntu includes Pidgin, an open-source universal instant-messaging client (formerly known as Gaim).

From a single interface, I could communicate with people on AIM, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, IRC, ICQ, Groupwise, Google Talk and many others I hadn’t heard of, such as Gadu-Gadu. On Windows, I use a similar program called Trillian, and Pidgin is clearly its equal. (There’s also a Windows version of Pidgin available.)

For e-mail, I tried the Evolution package that comes with Ubuntu.

The interface might not be scintillating, but it’s got everything you’d expect, including an antispam feature, the ability to create filters to automatically manage incoming mail and a contact manager. It also includes a calendar, to-do list creator and memo taker. I tried the software, but wasn’t able to use it instead of Outlook because I couldn’t import my e-mails into Evolution.

Other applications

Apart from Office applications, I don’t use much software to get my daily work done. I do need to take a lot of screenshots, and Ubuntu’s built-in screenshot utility is adequate, if not particularly impressive.

You can capture a screen or a window, but you can’t capture only part of a screen, something that numerous Windows screenshot utilities let you do. And it saves only in the .png file format, rather than the more common .jpg.

The GIMP image and photo editor that comes with Ubuntu is surprisingly powerful; unless you’re doing high-end graphics work, it should handle whatever you throw at it.

In fact, it’s probably overkill for many simple uses, such as editing photos, because of its complexity. For basic photo editing, a better bet is F-Spot, which also comes with Ubuntu. It offers easy-to-use tools for cleaning up red eye, rotating images and similar tasks.

The Tomboy tool that comes with Ubuntu will be welcomed by people who need to jot down and track notes. It also lets you manage your notes, search through them and create separate notebooks.

The bottom line

For someone who has been using in Windows since the days of Windows 2.0, trying to live in Linux for free was easier than I expected. Although installation was filled with some glitches, once I got it installed, Ubuntu’s overall interface and operations was surprisingly similar to Windows, and quite simple to use.

The suite of free software that ships with Ubuntu is quite robust — the free OpenOffice.org, for example, is an excellent alternative to Microsoft Office. However, if you or your colleagues use markup mode in Office, you’ll be in trouble, because OpenOffice.org doesn’t handle markups.

Networking with Windows machines may cause problems. I was unable to connect my Linux machine to Vista PCs, and vice versa, although I had no such problems between Linux and XP PCs.

It may be my network setup that’s at fault, because I’ve talked to others who have been able to set up mixed Vista-Linux networks. Still, be aware that it might cause you considerable difficulties. The only way to know is to try.

Ubuntu’s biggest Achilles heel is software installation and updating. Installing some software was simple, but installing others was so baffling as to be nearly incomprehensible. The same holds true for updates; I ultimately gave up on even trying to update OpenOffice.org.

Will I be giving up Windows for Linux? Certainly not. The inability to work with Word markup, problems with connecting to Vista machines, and difficulty in installing and updating software meant that I’ll be using Windows for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I plan to always have a Linux machine near at hand — possibly a netbook or other small laptop, or an older PC. I’ll probably use it on a lightweight, older notebook for browsing the Web, checking Web-based mail, and some writing and editing using OpenOffice.Org or Google Docs.

So while you can’t consider me a full convert, from now on I’ll be more interdenominational when it comes to operating systems.

Source: ComputerWorld

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