SUPERGUIDE: The Open Source Challenge. How to replace Windows completely with Ubuntu.

Editor’s note: We all know how far open source software has progressed but has it come so far to not only challenge Windows but replace it? Can you really install Linux and open source software in place of Windows and want for nothing?

In the first of this multi-part series we send in Ashton Mills to take on the challenge of using nothing but Linux and open source software… for absolutely everything. Will he find nirvana in the process or lose all his hair in frustration? Follow him in and find out.

When I was first given this task I had to sit and blink a few times if for nothing else than dramatic pause. I’m a self-confessed Linux nut as some of you may know but even I’m cautious to do away with Windows completely. There’s a reason I have a dual-boot Windows and Linux machine. Several of them in fact.

But have I just been conditioned into using Windows because of past experience or applications or file formats or the myriad other reasons that make Windows a comfort zone because it’s all so familiar?

Linux’s earthy roots

Not unsurprisingly Linux and open source software in general has had an image problem. It doesn’t help that its inception by an uber-nerd and its subsequent adoption by bearded geeks the world over didn’t lend it a certifiable authenticity.

It grew in darkened server rooms with the toffs on lower floors using their Windows ‘desktops’ none the wiser. Nor for that matter were the managers in some cases.

But slowly surely its popularity grew outside of the elite clique and the development of fully featured desktop environments pushed Linux into a wider world view.

Ostensibly this was so system administators could work more efficiently while having a Matrix screen saver running behind their terminal (you know who you are). But in turn it opened Linux up to a whole new world of users — people like me and you.

That was many years ago now. The Linux desktop has progressed so far as to provide a challenge to Microsoft. No not to its dominance but to its pride. Arguably there are simply some tasks a Linux desktop does better. Could it be that Microsoft might have something to learn from the open source up-start? Vista certainly bears the fruits of both new initiative and features we now see in both Linux and Mac OS X.

But I’m a realist I actually don’t care as long as the OS I use is easy intuitive and does what I want to do when I want to do it. This is the purpose of a desktop operating system and the yard stick by which we’ll measure this journey into a world without Windows.

The beginning of our journey into Linux

I’ll be taking the new user perspective seeing how our open source operating system and applications hold up for all the everyday tasks it needs to do work and play — be it browsing banking printing playing watching DVDs sharing files talking on VoIP editing images gaming linking to digital cameras backing up the system and more. But I’ll also be going under the hood where necessary to explain what’s different and why.

Can you really use just open source software — with no fiddling and futzing around — to do everything you’ve come to do under Windows?

This is exactly what we’re going to find out. Cold turkey style.

The Ratings

In this project we’re making the assumption that Windows does all that we need and we’re seeing if Linux and open source software measures up. Perhaps that’s not an entirely fair place to sit as there will be tasks open source software can do better. However as the de-facto in operating systems for which everyone is familiar it’s our best basis for comparison. Oh geez enough of the waffle here’s how we’ll rate the experience of going Windows-free:

Optimal — Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed but better or easier than under Windows.

Pass — No problems. The task can be completed exactly as under Windows.

Iffy — When a task could only be partially completed or completed but not without issue.

Flop — Not possible to complete at all. Probably not a good thing.

Installing Ubuntu from the Live desktop: Easy!

Linux is like ice cream

But not a box of chocolates. Well unless you bring virtualisation into it. Anyway if operating systems were ice cream Windows would be vanilla and it’d come in different serves such as cones cups and bath tubs full of the stuff. Linux as you know isn’t quite like that — you sort of have to bring your own containers. Some people even build their own. But it does come in a hundred flavours to suit almost every taste.

The flavour for our foray will be Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support) a Debian-based distribution and the very version bundled with APC in the August 2006 issue but you can also download it here. For the purposes of imagery lets call this flavour chocolate because chocolate is nice. If you don’t like chocolate it can be strawberry I don’t mind.

Chocolate is a popular amiable flavour and Ubuntu is no different. It’s built a reputation as the easiest and most desktop-focused distribution available and so is a good choice for this adventure.

Keeping in mind that as Vista is a DVD release we’ll be installing the DVD version as well weighing in at just over 3GB. As 64-bit processors are the de-facto now and Vista can be installed in a 64-bit native version (which has substantially more drivers available for it than XP 64-bit ever had) we’ll also be going with the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu running on an Athlon 64 4400+ with 2GB of memory.

As far as installation goes it’s as simple as specifying a username timezone and target partition and doesn’t bear a rating. Especially as there’s no direct comparison with Windows which for many comes pre-installed.

If you do want step-by-step instructions you can get them in APC‘s Linux & Windows dual-booting superguide which covers just about every permutation of Linux XP and Vista imaginable.

Nelson says hello: He appears in Ubuntu’s Experience video part of the Live desktop.

First impressions

So knowing this will be my system henceforth what’s the first impression of my new Linux-only home?

Installation and hardware detection was a breeze. Ubuntu found and setup the onboard Nvidia NIC with DHCP which works fine for my network. It also correctly installed the official binary drivers from Nvidia for the installed 7900GTX. Oddly the Live DVD detected both of my 19in LCD monitors and ran them cloned during the install but my new installation is only using a single monitor.

A quick look around at the display options and there’s nothing at all for setting up dual-monitors — though to be fair this is a feature lacking from all Linux distributions and desktops and not just Ubuntu. Linux is fully capable of utilising multiple monitors thanks to the X Window system’s Xinerama extensions and Nvidia’s own TwinView features for Nvidia cards but it requires editing the display configuration files by hand which comes under the ‘futzing around’ heading and really shouldn’t be necessary.

On this point Windows is far ahead. Even though a tool like UltraMon is essential to make the most of multiple monitors under Windows at least the option and basic setup to use multiple displays is there out of the box.

This aside Ubuntu’s desktop is very slick and clean thanks to its use of Gnome a more mininmalist desktop environment compared to the feature filled (sometimes overly so) KDE. Its top and bottom panels don’t appear to take any more screen real estate than the task bar under Windows but display more information.

Overall as far as first impressions go and of familiarity with a desktop paradigm it’s a happy little home just as you’d expect.

First impression: Pass — No problems. The task can be completed exactly as under Windows.

Ubuntu’s extensive software catalogue: Applications that are ticked are already installed.

All about Ubuntu.

Being up to date

Now onto the fun stuff!

Under Windows I’m a habitual upgrader and can’t help wanting the latest software updates for pretty much all my installed software be it a critical security fix or a mild feature addition I’ll probably never use.

So the first task to put to test on this open source system is to upgrade to the latest recommended updates. For this Ubuntu has an excellent tool no doubt inspired by Windows Update and driven by Debian’s repository system.

Running in the task bar is a neat little update manager that checks for updates once a day and prompts to install them if necrssary. Selecting ‘Update Manager’ from System > Administration starts the process immediately and not suprisingly the tool found a few updates for Ubunutu 6.06. And by a few I mean 127 updates totalling 186MB.

Keep in mind this represents not just security fixes but updates to core operating system components as well which in this case included a new version of the Gnome desktop (2.14.1 to 2.14.2 specifically) and new version of the Open Office suite.

Which leads us to an advantage one simply can’t fault for the open source solution — regardless of how this experiment eventually comes to fare I have an operating system a full office suite and more for nothing more than the cost of the August 2006 issue of APC and its cover DVD (or lacking this the bandwidth to download it!) It’s a positive Windows will never be able to bear.

So although the updates are large and many my entire system is now updated to the latest Ubuntu release including new (and hopefully better) versions of the software installed. Which is nice.

Updates: Optimal — Passes with flying colors. The task could not only be completed but better or easier than under Windows.

We’ve only just begun but we’re off to a good start with our flavour of ice cream.

You’ve got updates: Ubuntu will let you know as it finds new ones.

You’ll feel right at home: Ubuntu’s Update Manager bears a striking resemblence to the same under Windows.

Under the hood: Ubuntu lets you see exactly what it’s doing as it applies the update.

Next page: Web browsing security and formats plus media DVDs and entertainment! >>>



Open Source Challenge