There's been a somewhat stressful few weeks lately; this week we're shooting the final video presentation for the project, and ATR has its yearly Open House. But while the run-up has been busy this week is remarkably slow as all the shooting, presentations and visitors pretty much preclude any real work. So I've taken the opportunity to upgrade my laptop to the newest version of Ubuntu.
For those that do not know, Ubuntu is an operating system (like Windows or Mac OSX) based on Linux. I've used Linux for many years but then, I'm pretty much hopelessly geeky. Of course, lots of people - you included - are using Linux without knowing it: you'll find it in your cable modems, cable-TV set-top boxes, routers and other electronic devices; many of the Internet sites you visit are served to you by Linux. When you use any Google application like Gmail or Google Maps you are using Linux. But while Linux has worked great for me on my desktop I'd be the first to admit that Linux on your PC is very much not for everyone. Up until now, that is.
Whenever I install a new version I always spend a good deal of time tweaking the new system to fix small issues and get everything working properly. It can take a couple of days of off-and-on tinkering to get everything shipshape. This time it took all of ten minutes, mostly just reentering passwords for my email accounts and such. My only real tweak is getting my keyboard to work. I have the very oddball requirement of using a Swedish keyboard layout on a a Japanese laptop keyboard that is missing a couple of keys vital to Swedish (specifically, the Swedish key for "<>|" to the left of 'z' is missing). I basically need to tell Linux to use a different, unused key for that. Of course you could argue that Linux sucks for forcing me to do such a remapping, but under Windows I have never found any way to do it at all. Under Linux this is a bother; under Windows it is impossible.
Other than the (self-inflicted) keyboard thing everything - and I mean everything - worked right out of the box. Wireless connections, suspend and resume, and things like connecting second screens have been common problem spots for laptops, but now it all just worked with no tweaking needed whatsoever. The included software (and there is a lot included) is all just a bit more polished and smooth than before. The F-Spot photo management software is updated and a lot more polished; the Gimp image editor is steadily improving too and is good enough that I prefer it over Photoshop even though we have both at home.
There are a few things not installed by default that I think people should get. Installing things, by the way, is generally much easier under Linux than Windows. Just about any kind of software (we're talking tens of thousands of packages here) is available through the "package manager". Just open the "Add/Remove applications" and you'll get a nice categorized list of what's available. One thing I recommend is the Inkscape drawing program. Smooth and polished; I use it for all illustrations and drawings. The included spreadsheet is pretty good, but I prefer Gnumeric as it is faster and more stable. Install Macromedia Flash; it's not included by default because its license doesn't allow it. Also look for VLC, a good film player, and "Ubuntu Restricted Extras" so you can play mp3 and various other music and movie formats.
But if you have some specific application on Windows you just can't do without? Well, we do have our computers for running our applications after all, not for using operating systems. If your program is important to you and there is no good alternative in Ubuntu then you should of course use Windows. If it's only one or two programs, however, and especially if they are "productivity apps" - tax software or stuff like that - then there is the possibility of running it under Ubuntu using "Wine". It is a piece of software that lets you run a lot of Windows software under Ubuntu. It is not perfect by any means but it does work decently. It may well be a solution for that one important software package you still need.
Anyway, just wanted to state that I'm happy with Ubuntu and you might be too. You can download and burn a CD with Ubuntu, then boot from that CD to try it out. It will be a bit slower than having it installed but it will not touch your computer in any way so it's a completely safe way to see what it's about.