For some time I laboured under the mistaken impression that I was running the Kubuntu operating system on my computer at work. I had installed Ubuntu, and then the KDE desktop environment, and Ubuntu with KDE is Kubuntu, or so goes the conventional geek belief.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that, as I discovered when I installed Kubuntu on my home computer. I figured since I was going to use KDE anyway, I might as well start out with the Kubuntu distribution that has KDE as its default desktop environment, as opposed to Ubuntu’s default Gnome environment.
The version of Kubuntu that I downloaded, burned, and installed was 7.10, and it was buggy as hell. If a disgruntled Windows user were to try this, they would soon scurry back even to Vista. We’re not talking a lack of spit and polish, or a questionable aesthetic; we’re talking flat out things not working.
The most serious problem was the failure of administrative tools to remember that they were in adminstrator mode after I gave them the password they requested. One of the things that has made Linuxes more secure than Windows (at least pre-Vista) is that by default one uses Linux without administrative privileges. If that account were to be hacked, or compromised by worm or virus, the damage would be limited to what could be done with a regular account.
Lately, however, desktop environments will have an adminstrator mode, or prompt you for an administrative password. It’s a nice touch. However, when it fails, as it did with the Kubuntu 7.10 distro I installed, you’re hosed, at least as far as the pretty, graphical admin tools go. One can still use the command line, of course, but the classic test of whether or not Linux is “ready for prime time” is whether or not a naive user can manage their system without resorting to the command line.
There were a plethora of other problems, including a K-menu (KDE’s equivalent of the Windows Start button menu) populated with strangely long, not easily decipherable, labels. I will spare you the long list of bugs I discovered, as these two alone are sufficient to reject the distribution as unusable.
It occurred to me that this install was critically different from my machine at work in that it had no Gnome installed. Perhaps if I added Gnome (I reasoned), all the problems would magically go away (I wished). It didn’t make much difference, other than giving me a choice of login managers (I went with gdm).
Fortunately, the system was stable enough for me to download and burn a copy of Ubuntu which I then installed. Here is a screen shot of the default Gnome desktop. (Dimensions may seem a bit strange as I dropped the screen resolution down to 800×600 for the screen capture.)
Actually, it’s not quite default. I dragged the terminal icon from the Applications menu onto the desktop. The new Ubuntu user might not need to use the terminal/command line for most things, but if you go googling for Ubuntu-related info, sooner or later you will come across magical command line incantations for installing things. Even if you never use the command line for anything else, it is easier to copy from the web page and paste into the terminal than it is to go poking through the synaptic package manager looking for what you want. Here is the incantation for installing the KDE environment:
sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop
The sudo command says to do what follows as an administrator, and you will likely be asked for your password. Once installed, you can log out, then switch your session type on the login screen to KDE, then log back in. Here is a screen shot of the almost default KDE desktop.
When you log in you may notice that the splash screen says “Kubuntu”! For some reason, the K/Ubuntu folk encourage the perception that Ubuntu with KDE is Kubuntu, even though it actually provides a much better experience. There should be another name for Ubuntu with KDE installed after. I propose calling it Ubuntuk, which I imagine to be an Inuit term meaning, “There, fixed it for you.”
In fairness, if you are an absolute n00b to Linux, you might want to stick with Gnome for awhile, since you have a bit of a learning curve ahead of you anyway. I have been using KDE for years and am very comfortable with it, so have developed something of a bias. But even just monkeying with Gnome on the way to installing KDE, I am very impressed with how far along Gnome has come. I suspect it may even be usable now, especially in this distribution where a great deal of time and care and Mark Shuttleworth‘s money has gone into tweaking it to be their default environment.
That said, even if you’re going to give Gnome a whirl, install KDE anyway, as it comes with a lot of neat applications. Gnome also has associated neat applications, and both environments’ neat applications work in either environment. Why not have it all? Sometimes the best answer to a choice of two things is simply: both. Perhaps it should be called Gubuntuk, which we could imagine to be an Inuit word meaning “I want it all.”
If I had to summarize in a word what sets (G)ubuntu(k) apart from other operating systems, and, indeed, other Linux distributions, that word would be smarts. The default install settings are intelligently chosen, so unless you have reason to make things more complicated, it’s just a question of going through a few clicks, and a bit of waiting, to get to a fully installed system. And while you wait, you can surf the web or play games, because the install CD boots into a fully functional Gnome desktop environment that you can mess around in while the install is doing its thing. In fact, you could use it to take Gnome for a spin without committing to installing anything at all.
Immediately on first boot of the fresh install, Ubuntu informed me that proprietary drivers existed for my Nvidia based video card, and asked if I would like to install them. Hell, yes. No one makes better Nvidia drivers than Nvidia. My commitment to open source is not so ideologically pure as to decline proprietary drivers which will give me more features than open source equivalents would. I don’t know if it would do the same for ATI based cards, but now that AMD has purchased ATI and is increasing its commitment to Linux, I wouldn’t be be surprised if Ubuntu offered to install proprietary ATI drivers as well.
As I mentioned in my last post, Ubuntu is smart enough to recognize multimedia files that it doesn’t have the codecs for, then offer to download and install said codecs. Try clicking on a Windows media file in OS X and see what happens. Or on an Ogg Vorbis file in Windows. Unlike OS X or Windows, with Ubuntu you don’t have to be a computer geek in order to simply use your computer. (How’s that for turning the tables!)
The new Ubuntu user can access plenty of people-smarts via Google. (At time of writing, a Google search on “Ubuntu” returns 106,000,000 hits.) It is perhaps the most popular Linux distribution out there at the moment, boasting a large user community.
Like any OS, it does have its flaws. I would like to have seen a finer-grained progress indicator in the installer. It pauses long enough while it partitions/formats the hard drive that one begins to wonder if perhaps it is stuck. It also didn’t identify my Viewsonic PF790 monitor, so I had to tweak that myself in order to get the resolution I wanted.
I would also have liked it very much if the Ubuntu Myth TV package had installed flawlessly for use with my Hauppauge 150 TV card. I got further with Myth under Ubuntuk than I ever did under Fedora, but it still fell short. Ultimately I did manage to get the tv card to work with VLC, but that took some geeking. It would be nice to have TV work out the box. Ubuntu seems right on the edge of making that happen; the hardware itself was recognized, proper drivers in place, proper permissions, etc., but it falls short at the application level.
For the most part, though, stuff just works. For example, I had no trouble getting Parallels Workstation installed so that I could run Windows XP in a virtual machine. (I hadn’t been able to under Fedora 7.) Not only does Ubuntu have Mark Shuttleworth’s economic support behind it, but because it is so popular, there are many, many open source developers using it as their base distribution to develop for and with. And even those who don’t use it know that it is a distribution they can’t ignore. Not operating on Ubuntu is not an option.
An operating system with smarts. So different from OS X (“I am pretty, oh so pretty”) or Windows (“You are trying to do something. Doing things can be dangerous. Cancel or Allow?”). Ubuntu can be downloaded from their site, or get it preinstalled on a Dell.
Just don’t make the mistake I did of assuming that K/Ubuntu is Kubuntu. Either go with the default Gnome, or install KDE on Ubuntu using the magic incantation. If you’re looking to flee Windows but don’t want to shell out for a Mac, or if you’re tired of fighting with Fedora, Ubuntu might be just what you’re looking for.