Sunday, July 20, 2008

When "boring" is a good thing: Ubuntu Linux

From Robin 'Roblimo' Miller at

Ubuntu hits new high in Linux boredom
Last weekend a friend was moaning about endless problems with Windows XP on his desktop PC. We installed Ubuntu 7.04 on it. The problems went away. That started me thinking about my own "daily driver" computer, a Dell Latitude that also runs Ubuntu 7.04, and it made me realize that I hadn't thought about my laptop or its operating system in many months. Linux -- especially Ubuntu -- has become so reliable and simple that for most end users it's simply not worth thinking about, any more than we think about tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. Does this mean desktop GNU/Linux has become so boring that it's not worth noticing?

Right now 8.04 is the latest Ubuntu version. I've stuck to 7.04 because I feel no great need to update a reliable system that does everything I ask of it. Yes, there was one major security flaw in 7.04, but Ubuntu's auto-update feature took care of that for me long ago, and took care of it immediately during the install process on my friend's machine.

And, as I type this, I'm (automatically) downloading and installing 24 Ubuntu software updates. Since I'm using a mature, "tried and true" version of Ubuntu, and haven't moved to the latest/greatest version of any software I use regularly -- I'm still running Firefox 2.xx, for example -- I run almost no risk of these updates breaking my system. I haven't thought about Ubuntu updates in several years; they've become that reliable, another "it just works" situation that doesn't impinge on my consciousness. Indeed, I only really thought about updating Ubuntu now because I'm writing this article. [...]

That's the way a computer operating system should be. I want to spend my time using the computer to get work done, not working on the computer to get it to work.

The article goes on to describe the authors friends and neighbors, who aren't very computer savy, and don't want to upgrade to Windows Vista with all it's problems. Distros like Ubuntu have become easy enough to use for non-geek, everyday users, and is increasingly becoming a viable option for them.

The latest version of Ubuntu (8.4.1) is the best I've tried to date, it has excellent compatibility with my hardware. Ubuntu does require installation of additional codecs to bring it's multi-media capabilities up to snuff with Windows, but it's fairly easy to do. When I was using it, it offered to download and install the needed codecs whenever I tried to run something that needed it.

My current favorite desktop Linux is Linux Mint, an Ubuntu variant from Ireland. It offers a more polished experience, as it has all the multi-media codecs already installed for you, and an elegantly configured Gnome Desktop (on Mint 5 Elyssa R1) that is similar to a windows desktop.

Both regular Ubuntu and Linux Mint can run off a live CD, so you can try them before installing them. The latest Ubuntu also offers an option where you can install it on your hard drive next to windows without having to repartition your hard drive. It just gets easier and easier.


MAX Redline said...

I have an ASUS notebook that I picked up for a couple hundred dollars, running Ubuntu. The little thing's lightweight and darn near bulletproof. Anything I plug into it just works. Mice, keybard, screens, cat10, wireless a/B/G - never a problem.

I took it along when visiting Yachats last week, and it was great to have.

Chas said...

Do you mean the Asus Eee notebook?

In the Mark Shuttleworth interview by Linux Magazine, the interviewer mentions that she has an Asus Eee, and she loves it. She says she has ended up using it a lot more than she thought she would. Shuttleworth thinks the Eee is going to be a bit hit.

I thought it might be a bit flimsy, so I've been waiting to see what happens to other folks before I buy one. So far, I've only heard good things.

MAX Redline said...

Chaz, yes it is the Eee. I believe that the one I have retails for about $300, but I was able to get it for considerably less due to betatesting. The screen is dinky small, but that's what one should expect from a notepad. Resolution, however, is excellent.

There's another model with more ram and disk space, and yet another in the works with a larger screen. More $$, but hey.

Frankly, that's all unneeded.

Mine works with everything - plug in a keyboard if the onboard seems too small; it works (it does take some time to get the feel of the built-in keyboard, but you have options). Don't want to use the touchpad? Plug in a mouse. Want to increase the screen real-estate? Easy. Plug in an LCD. Maybe you want to increase disk space. That's what thumbdrives are for.

Plug them in, they work. It's not Plug'n'Pray.

At Yachats, where WiFi is pretty much everywhere, the onboard picked up signals without a hitch. At our motel, I found that in addition to an 811.b wireless, there was an ethernet outlet in the room. I just plugged the cable in and went with the faster access.

Flimsy? Dude, the disk is solid-state. No moving parts. Beats the hell out of my IBM ThinkPad or my Bride's (gag) Dell laptop. Don't get me started on Dells.

But to get back to the ASUS, it's fast despite its relatively low ram and disk space, precisely because there's no significant seek time as heads try to find the data. This factor also reduces heat buildup and reduces weight. It fires up in seconds rather than minutes.

If you're trying to connect with a network, you'll have to spend a minute or two to set that up, but it's pretty easy.

All in all, as I mentioned, it's darn near bulletproof. Features I like: an actual keyboard (not one of those stupid membrane things). Built-in capacity. Upgradeability. Incredibly long cord so you can reach any outlet and not have to rely on battery power.

Don't like: the touchpad. I plug in a USB optical mouse. No built-in floppy/cd or other drives.

Untried: I've never tried to hook up my scanners or cameras to the thing, nor my dvd/cd burners.

I've gotta get around to that sometime.

Mostly, I just use it for the portability. A few days at the coast, or plugging into my WiFi network so I can work while out on the swing on my deck.

It's not a substitute for the systems I build, more like a surrogate.

Chas said...

It sounds great. I had read some comments in the early previews that some people thought the keyboard was kinda flimsy, but no one had really used them a lot at that time.

I see on that the user/buyers have given the Eee high marks.

You say you're using Ubuntu on it. Did it come with XP or Xandros? Which version of Ubuntu are you using? 8.4? Gnome desktop?

For under $300 bucks, you can't go wrong.

MAX Redline said...


No, my notepad came preloaded with an ASUS-modded Ubuntu 7.x, but it updated itself, so it's probably an 8.x version now. I could go downstairs and check the version, but it's not especially important (to me) - what is important is that it works.

If you're really dying of curiosity, I can check the version later.

I have no problem ripping systems apart, coding, tweaking, but what I found really cool in testing the ASUS was was the function and design straight out of the box.

I was running SUsE 9.0 on this system for awhile, but configuration was kind of a pain, so I set it aside. The Ubunto on the ASUS is all set up and ready to go; just click on Networks and establish a link, easy.

Now, I have to say that the system comes with instructions (well, mine did, anyway) for setting it up to run Windoze XP, but you know, I just don't see any reason to do that. It's preloaded with firefox and some other cool freeware, and I'm fine with it in its original configuration at this point.

You could put XP or SusE or Xandros on the machine by plugging in a USB cd drive, but of course you have to wipe the memory and the flashdisk and essentially build it up from ground level. That's a lot of work for no appreciable gain (just my view).

The keyboard is an actual keyboard, and not flimsy at all. My problem is that I'm used to the "ergonomic" keyboard and so I have some trouble adjusting to the smaller footprint. If I want to do some serious typing, I have a few other keyboards lying around the house that I can plug in, but for minor crap the built in works well. When I'm on the move, I'm not dragging an external keyboard along for the ride, so I just adjust to the smaller footprint.

If it had one of those membrane keyboards, I'd never have gone ahead with the purchase; I want actual keys that respond to the normal touch. But this little thing, for me, has worked really well. I've been all over the state with it - it only weighs about a pound and is around the size of a skinny book.

The only real complaint I have about the thing is that they sent me one with some sort of robin-egg blue outer cover, which doesn't seem especially manly to me. I suppose I could have got a different color, but I liked the performance enough during the test phase that I wasn't about to send it back and pay cash for a different-colored one.

But yeah, even at $300 it's a good deal. Mine was less because it was used because I was testing it before it went to open market. You give them data, then either send it back or opt to purchase at a reduced rate.

I've never had a malfunction in nearly a year of messing with it. No BSOD, no "this program has encountered an error and needs to close". Nada. Even when my daughter knocked it off the edge of the couch.

Chas said...

I had thought it only came with XP or Xandros Linux. Ubuntu would be great, but I've not seen it offered on any models for sale. Did it come installed on yours because it was a test model? I could install Ubuntu myself, but then I'm not sure I'd get the out-of-the-box functionality.

You make it sound very appealing. Thanks for the lengthy description.

MAX Redline said...

Man, sorry - I'm not selling anything; just saying what my experience with the thing's been like. In all honesty, I can't say anything about the retail models because I've not looked at them. From the blurbs I occasionally get, I don't think they come with XP (and frankly, I can't envision any reason for installing it - XP is serious bloatware, and space is at a premium on these things).

It's possible that they moved to Xandros when they went retail with it - I think it's only been retail for like six months or so.

In any case, as I said, they sent instructions for installing XP, but I tossed that. My pad doesn't have any optical or other drives in it; I've got usb cd, floppy, and dvd drives, but I've never seen any need to plug them in. I've got windoze disks, but no desire to wipe the OS in order to replace it with a slower and inferior product.

If you've got a place that's retailing them, you might want to swing in and check one out - retailers generally let you play before deciding. And they'll probably be able to tell you more than I can.

Best of luck!

Chas said...

I know you're not selling anything, I'm just interested in your opinion. I've been following news about the Eee ever since it was announced. None of the shops in my neck of the woods sell it, so it's great to be able to ask someone who is using one.

I've read that it's being sold with Xandros Linux (which I'm told uses rather old code). Then Microsoft wanted a piece of the action. MS had already shrunk down a version of XP for the OLPC project's tiny XO laptop, and they wanted to offer it on the Eee too. I read that they plan to offer it pre-installed on some of the newer models of Eee that will be coming out soon.

I'm interested in the hardware, but not in XP or Xandros. When you said you use Ubuntu on it, that got my attention, because Ubuntu has gotten pretty good lately. But there are different kinds (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, etc), so I was curious as to which you are using.

On the web I found at least one version of Ubuntu made especially for the Eee:

Unless the Eee becomes available at our local Walmart, Radio Shack or Staples stores, I'd probably have to get it from an on-line source like I wouldn't want to spend more than $300, so it's tempting to get one of those before they disappear.