Ubuntu 13.04: A Little Deeper

A few weeks ago, I stated that it wouldn't be fair to pass judgement on Ubuntu 10.04 just yet. But that was before I took the plunge, fully installed it as a dual boot, and actually used it in my day-to-day activities. At this point, I think it’s safe to go there.

The install was a bit of a long and winding road, beginning with the need to make some space. My primary PC had Windows 7 all over the only partition and I had to deal with that before I did anything. Most people would suggest downloading a 30 day trial of some professional package for that task. This is because Disk Manager for Win 7 doesn't work consistently. Windows 7 has the odd habit of putting the Master Boot Record (MBR), an immovable file, somewhere other than at the end of the disk. Since a new partition needs contiguous space, that can complicate things. In fact, if it’s not in a good place, Disk Manager won’t even attempt to shrink a volume. However, in my case, after a defrag, I found my MBR somewhere in the middle of the disk. That was good enough for me and Disk Manager so I went ahead and carved out about a third of the drive for Linux and about 100 GB for a shared file partition to be used by both operating systems. Then I did a reboot and crossed my fingers.

That never works. My MBR was totally gone. If you haven't been there before, that means that all your files are fine. They just won’t boot. Luckily, I’d made a repair disk just like Windows told me to (I almost never do) and was able to get to a command line and rebuild the MBR.

Now I had a functioning Windows partition and another partition empty and ready for Linux. Although I’d mentioned Mint in my previous post, I decided to go back to Ubuntu this time for two reasons. For starters, the internet seems to think that Ubuntu is synonymous with Linux in the same ways that iPhone is synonymous with “smart phone”. If you are running Ubuntu, it is just easier to find help out there. Secondly, I realized that everything I hated about Ubuntu could be replaced with everything I liked about Mint by simply installing Cinnamon, Mint’s answer to Unity. More on that in a moment.

The install process was about as simple as it could get. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu ISO from their site, burned it to a disk, and rebooted. At the appropriate prompt, I booted into the Ubuntu install wizard and selected all the obvious options. When in doubt, I went with the preselect. After that, it started formatting,downloading and installing while found other ways to entertain myself. After maybe a half-hour or so, it booted back up and there it was.

Having done quite a few distro tests, I can tell you that this was the easiest one, yet. After years of wrestling with fstab and init.d, I was rather surprised to find my monitor working perfectly, my internet and home network connections found effortlessly, and every volume on the PC mounted without typing a letter. Event the Windows partition, which it is best to leave alone to avoid corrupting the OS, mounted perfectly, by default. Every peripheral I owned, my camera, my wireless headset, my printer, everything, worked as soon as I logged in. Canonical has made the install process about as easy as it can possibly be made.

That said, the first thing I noticed upon logging in was not all the stuff that worked, but the freakishly huge icons of the Unity interface. As such, the first task was to make that go away. To do that, I went to the Cinnamon site and followed the simple directive to add a single PPA to my repositories. After that, it showed up in the Ubuntu Software Center. I just had to click and install. On the next login, there is a selector next to the account box where I could choose Cinnamon instead of Unity. From that point on, it was the default and I didn't need to worry about it anymore.

After that, it was simply a matter of finding my favorite apps, or their Linux equivalents, in the Software Center and installing them. It took some time, but there wasn't much brain-work involved in getting Ubuntu up to the standards of a perfectly serviceable desktop. Staying within the Canonical ecosystem, I was able to find just about everything I needed and getting it up and running was a matter of searching, installing, and launching.

Of course, I didn't stay completely within the Canonical ecosystem. It didn't take all that long to find a few things I needed that just weren't there, For instance, I pretty much manage my life with Evernote, and they have not yet crafted a Linux client. As with most popular applications like that, someone else eventually stepped up to the plate and there is a decent “unofficial” client called NixNote that will do the job. Pretty much.

Finding applications that were almost as good as their Windows equivalents was pretty much the rule of my experience. Maybe 75% of what I used, the most common and popular applications, worked perfectly. But the rest, the niche apps without a critical mass of users, were definitely a step back. One had to track them down, then install by adding the PPA or downloading a DEB file. Sometimes the icons wouldn't load right, Sometimes, a library was missing and had to be located and installed separately, or possibly uninstalled and replaced with an older or newer one. In other words, it was similar to experience one has always had installing Linux applications, Just not quite as bad.

Games, like the installer, have also come a long way from my last attempt. Between ongoing improvements to WINE, the maturing of PlayOnLinux, and the advent of Steam for Linux, there is a whole new world of opportunity for Linux gamers. It’s now actually possible to be one.

But even then, as much as it has improved, there were still issues peculiar to Linux. One game’s installer constantly crashed while downloading updates. It worked, just had to be constantly restarted. Another game stuttered during some of the (non-essential) animations. Another one had weird clicks in the audio. They generally worked. Just not as well as I was used to.

Performance was a bit of a surprise. One of Linux’s claims to fame is its ability to add years of usefulness to old hardware. Only I didn't really see that. Everything seemed just a hair more sluggish on the Ubuntu partition. Maybe it was Compiz. Maybe it was the driver for the Video card.

I had an ugly incident when I went to test that theory about the video driver. Installing the proprietary Nvidia drivers was about as simple as adding any other software. I just selected what I wanted off the "Additional Drivers" tab in the Software Center. It didn't seem to do anything noticeable, so I gave it a reboot to see if that was what it needed. Apparently, it wasn't since Ubuntu would no longer boot and I had to do a full re-install to get back to where I was. I went back with the default driver on my second try.

Overall, the entire experience felt functional, but buggy. It was immeasurably better than every other attempt I have made to make Linux my desktop. However, now that I’ve made it past what used to be the non-starters that had always taken it off the table, I found that the problem is simply that there is no compelling reason to use it. Windows comes with just about any PC you buy, and just about everything runs better on it. It costs more, but only if you don’t place any value on your time. I’m amazed at what thousands upon thousands of F/OSS developers have built in what amounts to their “spare” time. It’s an amazing ecosystem. And it, finally, seems to work just fine.

Now I just need it to be better.