The last time I tried a Linux OS was back in the late 90′s with Red Hat and it took me about 20 minutes before I broke it. I didn’t give it much of a chance after that.  Now I take another look at a Linux distribution by the name of Ubuntu.

Since my last excursion into the world of Linux, the open source distributions of this OS have been forging ahead at an astounding pace. One of the most popular, free and well supported distributions of Linux at the moment is Ubuntu. I’m going to take you through some of the highlights.

Introducing Ubuntu 9.10 – The Karmic Koala.

Ubuntu Gnome Desktop

Distributions:

In linux distributions, there are two main flavors of desktop environment: KDE and GNOME. These are the graphical environments that display the software you wish to use. Some programs developed for one environment won’t work well under the other, or at the very least will use a lot more system resources to run.

Ubuntu uses the GNOME environment, however the underlying operating system comes in a KDE form called Kubuntu. Another variant is called Xubuntu, which uses the Xfce environment designed for slow computers or those that wish to have a resource light interface.

In addition to the Desktop Environment variants, there is also an Ubuntu distribution targeted at schools and parents called Edubuntu. It comes preloaded with learning programs for children.

For this review, I will basically be looking at the standard Ubuntu desktop release as well as a small look at the Netbook Remix release, which includes a new user-friendly application loader.

Applications:

The Applications Menu

The available applications are what might make and break an operating system. Ubuntu comes with several great applications built-in. I will go over some of the most useful:

Firefox 3.5
The popular and fully featured web browser comes standard with Ubuntu.

CD/DVD Creator:
Built into the explorer (nautilus) allowing you to burn DVD and CD discs.

Brasero Disc burner
Burn music cd’s

Evolution:
An email client which includes calendar and organizer similar to Outlook.

Empathy IM:
An instant manager client supporting most popular IM services.

UbuntuOne Online Storage:
An online storage account providing 2gb of free storage. This can be mounted as a virtual drive on your system to be synchronized with the local disk

Transmission BitTorrent:
A client for downloading files with Torrents.

OpenOffice:
Ubuntu comes with Presentation, Drawing, Math Formula, Spreadsheet and Wordprocessing apps.

RhythmBox Music Player:
A fully featured Music player which includes support for mobile devices, internet radio, magnatune and jamendo music sources, podcast feeds and playlists. It also includes some plugins which include UPNP and DAAP servers to share your music to the network, cover art, song lyrics and visualization.

F-spot Image Manager:
A very good image manager which will download pictures from your camera and allow you to tag and sort them. It will also automatically upload images to online albums like flickr and picasa.

Movie Player:
A built-in movie player that works quite well.

Games:
Ubuntu comes with a nice list of puzzle type games to keep you occupied, and there are many more available for download.

Gimp image editor:
A rival to Adobe Photoshop for editing and creating images.

These pre-loaded apps are just the icing on the cake. You’ll find thousands of titles to download in the Ubuntu Software Center. The Software center allows you to search, browse by category, install and remove install software.

The Ubuntu Software Center

Drivers:

It is important to note that some hardware might not run with Linux. Lexmark printers are notorious for not working very well. These are however only exceptions to the otherwise extensive hardware support provided in the distribution. Without the need for a driver disk, all of my hardware functioned out of the box, including a usb wireless network card, external hard drives, USB web camera and digital still camera. Drivers can also be downloaded for Nvidia and ATI video cards by going to System => Administration => Hardware Drivers. This will enable you to get 3d acceleration.

Security:

Ubuntu is perhaps unique in that it does not allow root access to the machine by default. Instead it assigns the first user on the system the most privileges, but requires a password to do many things. Many system commands executed in the terminal require the use of “sudo” or “gksudo” (super-user do) which will run the specific command as root after the password is entered. This provides a much higher level of security as potentially dangerous things require a password. It lowers the risks of viruses as software will not be able to damage your system without knowing the password.

Ubuntu also comes with a system for filtering and routing packets called iptables. Several front-end firewall applications can be found in the Software Center to manipulate iptables and provide port blocking.

Flash and Codec Support:

All software included in Ubuntu is released under an open source license. Flash however is proprietary software, and must be installed manually. To do this is easy, as flash is included in a package called “Ubuntu Restricted Extras”. This package also includes a Java engine, Several audio and video codecs, Microsoft core fonts and some other proprietary things that users expect. The package can be found in the Software Center. If it is not showing up in a search, make sure to check the box next to proprietary software in the Software Center preferences.

Networking Support:

Ubuntu comes with a very good network manager, called… network manager. It allows you to manage wireless connections, fixed line, broadband, DSL and VPN connections, ans also allows you to adjust settings such as static IP (v4 and v6) and DNS.

Ubuntu Network Manager

In the past, Ubuntu has had sketchy wireless support. In the current version, it works without any hassles, and with no driver installs on the few computers that I’ve installed it on so far.

The Wifi Selector

File sharing is separate from this manager, but still provided. Ubuntu can communicate with windows networks through a program called Samba. When you enable sharing for the first time (right click on folder in Nautilus file manager and select sharing), Some packages will be downloaded and your share should be visible in the windows network. This can sometimes be tricky if things are unexpected such as the workgroup name not being “WORKGROUP”. But some web searches and helpful forums will no doubt get you going in no time.

What about my favorite Windows Games and Programs?

For those things that have no Linux alternative, or you just can’t bare to live without, There is a really useful program called Wine. It is a windows compatibility layer that will allow you to install and run windows programs on a virtual C:\ Drive. The software run through Wine is generally quite stable and fast. You should refer to the Wine App DB to see how well your favorite application runs. If it’s rated platinum, you should have no worries.

To install Wine, search for it in the Software Center. After it is installed, any .EXE files should be set to open with Wine.

Usability and Accessibility:

Canonical have produced a Linux distribution that is very user-friendly, with many things users might have once spent hours trying to set up such as wireless networking functioning straight out of the box. Menus are intuitive and well-sorted and categorized. Most importantly, since this software is supported and popular, you can get help when things go wrong.

Ubuntu also also includes accessibility features such as keyboard selection at login for multi-lingual systems, and also a screen reader and magnifier for those with poor eyesight. There are a few other accessibility options which I have not yet explored.

Tweakability:

As with most Linux distributions, Ubuntu can be tweaked by a skilled user to achieve very specific tasks. Almost everything can be customized. Through the synaptic package manager, new packages can be downloaded and current ones can be uninstalled, applications can be set to execute at system start, the bootloader can be modified, splash screens can be changed, and so on.

Netbooks:

Ubuntu can also be installed as a “Netbook Remix”, which is basically the standard Ubuntu with a few tweaks and a new application manager to make it easier to use on the small screen. Applications are forced to full screen to avoid mess and everything is bold and well-sorted into user-friendly menus. We have installed this on our netbook and the windows install never gets used anymore. The boot-up is much faster and in no time we’re browsing the web.

Netbook Remix main screen

The Verdict:

I would have to say I’m very impressed with the Karmic Koala. In about a month of using it, I have not had any serious problems, though I have learnt plenty of console commands along the way trying to personalize the system to my needs. I have found the free built-in and downloaded applications useful and enjoyable.

The most compelling fact, given that Ubuntu is stable, supported, user-friendly and has plenty of available software, is that it costs absolutely nothing. A copy of Windows 7 Home costs US$180 standalone, and for the professional version Windows 7 Ultimate, you would pay almost US$300.

And being free does not mean it is lacking. “What about the media center?” you might say. You might like to try xmbc, a free and open source application available for Linux.

Ubuntu also has a server release, with a special kernel, security and applications to easily run a server. This release is also free of charge.

The only thing that stops me from a complete move to Ubuntu, is that one of my favorite online games, Dark Age of Camelot, has some problems running under Wine. When those problems are resolved in later releases, I will see no good reason to keep Windows. But until then, it’s good to know that Ubuntu will happily run along side any other OS.

I recommend to anyone that they give it a try.

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