For no particular reason, I decided to install Linux to a new disk partition today. It’s been a while since my last encounter with the OS (some ancient version of Gentoo) and things have changed a lot.
Linux’s graphical interface is no longer so ugly that you have to hide it behind a black command prompt and call it “non-bloated and functional”. In fact, a Linux installation that is customized to perfection has the most beautiful GUI eye candies ever known to computing outside of Hollywood movies.
Take a look at this video demonstration if you don’t believe me.
I chose Ubuntu as my distro of choice because it is widely supported and frankly the minute differences between Linux distros have no effects on my intended uses. Installing Linux is pretty simple: Most distros only require you to boot up a Live CD and then click install. (That’s provided you either don’t care about it formatting your hard disk or you have already taken care of the partitioning using something like PartitionMagic.)
Linux has relatively little support from hardware vendors. Most of the drivers it uses were written by third parties and released under an open source license for free, so it’s pretty amazing just how much stuff it can support by default. Ubuntu auto-configured my sound card, my USB devices and pretty much everything. In fact, the lack of official drivers ironically made the process a lot more painless than on Windows, provided your hardware is not too obscure.
But alas, my configuration is somewhat uncommon. My motherboard has two PCI-e slots and I have three monitors running off two Nvidia graphics cards of different models. I couldn’t get this set-up to work, even with the official closed-source Linux drivers from Nvidia. After hours of frustration, I gave up and stuck to my single 24-inch monitor instead. I sort of expected this to happen.
That annoyance aside, Ubuntu is pretty user-friendly, relatively speaking. My prior experience with Linux consisted of: Mandrake when I was in primary school (didn’t support my sound card and couldn’t mount FAT32 drives), SimpleMEPIS about three years ago (couldn’t do dual monitor), and Gentoo (took about five years to configure the install), so Ubuntu came as a pleasant surprise, especially when it didn’t threaten to blow up my CPU or format my Windows partition.
Compiz Fusion rocks!
Pretty soon I got all the essential apps up and running and was happily flipping video screens and Firefox windows around with Compiz Fusion. Here’s another video if you skipped the last one, this time with explanations:
Compiz Fusion is simply awesome. It’s not just eye candy either; it’s seriously useful. Everyone who has ever used Vista should give Compiz’s windows management effects a try. My AMD machine is a few generations outdated and it runs all the effects that you see in the video, completely lag free. Clearly, Vista must be doing something seriously wrong when turning on a few visual effects makes it run like a cow.
The rest, not so much…
But sadly, Ubuntu is not all sunshine and roses. Like most Linux distros in general, it is basically tsundere.
Setting things up still involve quite a bit of command line fiddling and pure luck. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or self-deluded. Applications have graphical interfaces that fall into two categories: overly-simplified options that force you to access vital settings through the terminal, or overly-complicated options with a ton of useless selections that no one will ever touch.
Some annoyances I encountered: Amarok doesn’t manage songs the way I want it to, gedit takes years to open a 8KB text file with no line breaks, applications in Wine look uglier than they do in Windows, Firefox in Linux renders Arial like crap, (after I installed Arial via apt-get because Ubuntu doesn’t come with it) and the list goes on. I’m sure there are fixes out there somewhere for most of the problems, but these things shouldn’t be issues in the first place. Moreover, Open Office and GIMP just don’t cut it for me.
The good news is that Wine now works extremely well. Games like World of Warcraft run fine with it, and apparently Photoshop CS2 works too. I tried a few Windows application and they ran without a hitch. This makes things much more bearable, but it still doesn’t excuse the lack of quality native GUI applications.
It seems to me that the roles have been switched: Windows XP is now the productive but ugly desktop, while Linux is awesome-looking and a blast to use but lacking in substance. (Vista is ugly and unproductive.) Of course I am referring only to GUI interfaces and purely desktop-related functions; Linux is after all still the king of productivity and stability when it comes to CLI implementations, such as servers.
In terms of general desktop usage however, Ubuntu (and Linux in general) currently covers the needs of two extremes: people who don’t need anything more than a browser, e-mail, chat and Open Office, and people who dream in Python and can write their own Linux kernels.
It needs to work on the middle: people who require more advanced features but don’t want to deal with command lines, or worse: write them from scratch.
That said, I for one don’t mind living with all Ubuntu’s flaws, except one: my monitor setup doesn’t work. I find that the lag-free window effects actually improve productivity and the seamlessly-integrated virtual workspaces (different sides of the rotating cube) create a very nice clutter-free working environment. I would totally run it on my laptop too, but alas Samsung has some seriously unorthodox hardware configuration that kills every single Linux distro I’ve tried.
I will definitely switch over to Ubuntu as my main OS the next time I build a new rig (after making sure that the setup is compatible) and use my current machine for network storage, BitTorrent and perhaps running an occasional Windows application or two.
I feel kind of empty inside as I write this post back in boring old XP… I want my rotating cube back. ;_;
P.S. I also gained a greater appreciation for Apple’s vision behind Mac OSX… But it’s still overpriced.
P.P.S. I wonder how many of you actually read this entry?