Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

A look at Ubuntu--and at how Linux can appear to beginners

Today's review of Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" (doesn't everybody like cute animal names?) is not the first time I've written about the open-source Linux operating system. In fact, it's been about eight years since my first column devoted to the subject.


So I feel safe in predicting that much of the eventual e-mail response to my writeup of the desktop (pictured at right) and netbook (below) editions of Ubuntu 10.04 will fit into one of the following four templates.

1. "Ubuntu is fine for beginners, but you should have tried [insert name of some lesser-known distribution Linux distribution] instead."

2. "You just had to do [complicated command-line tinkering here] to get that [problem reported in review] fixed."

3. "So when are you switching all of your PCs to Linux?"

4. "Just get a Mac."

(My answers: If you can point me to a more consumer-oriented version than Ubuntu, I'll give it a shot, but I'm not interested in something aimed at more technical users; I'll try that now; never, since some of our newsroom software doesn't seem to run in Linux and I need to stay conversant with Windows anyway; I like Macs too, but switching from Windows to OS X is much more expensive than going from Windows to Linux.)

But I don't know if I'll get a fifth sort of reader feedback: a query from somebody who's not familiar with Linux and is now interested in trying it out. There seems to be an intimidation factor around using Linux at home.

In some cases, it's understandable. The ever-changing array of Linux distributions--packaged bundles of the operating system and add-on programs--can make Microsoft's mix of Windows editions look simple. The insistence of many Linux publishers on not including any proprietary software or closed formats leaves some assembly to the user (though some distributions, such as the Ubuntu-derived Linux Mint, include that support upfront). Parts of Linux, such as the cluttered and ugly "boot loader" used to choose between starting up Linux or Windows, have yet to be ungeeked. There are weird names to learn how to pronounce (in this case, "oo-boon-too"). And you can never be entirely sure that all of your computer's hardware will work in Linux, though that situation is about 50 times better than it was back in 2002.

(So you know, some editors I've worked with would have been quite skeptical of devoting an entire column to Ubuntu.)

But in other respects, it's unfair to think of Linux as some sort of exotic, frightening experiment. Unless you go out of your way to choose the wrong options, a Linux install is far less likely to cause issues for an existing Windows system than Microsoft's own updates. The switch to Web-based applications that has allowed users of Macs, iPhones, iPads and Android devices to stop worrying about needing Windows applications benefits Linux users too. And the difficulty and cost of upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 makes an Ubuntu installation look a lot better.


One other data point to that effect: After installing Linux on the Dell and Sony laptops noted in the column (in addition to testing an in-place upgrade from the copy of Ubuntu 9.10 I'd installed on another Dell last year), I took that first Dell on last week's reporting trip to San Francisco--then didn't boot into Windows until Thursday morning. Everything you read here from Monday through Wednesday of that week was done in Linux. I finally switched back to Windows to write my column, since that required running remote editing software that doesn't work (or I don't know how to work--anybody have advice on Citrix in Ubuntu?) in Linux.

So I hope today's column gets some attention outside Linux-focused blogs and mailing lists. On the other hand, it's yet to elicit any reader mail or comments. Am I getting ahead of myself with this review? You tell me.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 28, 2010; 11:01 AM ET
Categories:  Linux , Security , The business we have chosen  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Kylo TV-friendly browser adds Hulu workaround (update: gets blocked again)
Next: Clear launches WiMax Internet service in D.C.


Ubuntu is as good an operating system as you need.

If you want a simple, stable, functional system that looks good, it is.

If you want a system to match wits with, it is.

If you want a system that is plagued by malware, viruses, and every single day begs for you to install a life-saving update and over-bloated software, try windows.

I really like Ubuntu; used it for 3 years now. Not any real problems except my experiments doing things that I didn't know how to do really.

If you want a simple "install", Ubuntu is the greatest.

Posted by: catclaw | May 28, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Nice review. Feel ya on the sound card issue. As you say, much better than it used to be. I wonder if a USB sound dongle would work?

As I said here:

"So why a Mac? After 12 years of Linux, why? Cost (oddly, for a Mac) is part of it. A big, gorgeous monitor like the iMac's costs about $600. Maybe more for one of that size and quality. Add in a completely new box (as the old one was 6 years old) kitted out similarly (core duo, mobo, graphics card,hard drives,etc.), including being designed to be very quiet (adds about $200), and a Linux box would probably cost as much, if not more. Another part is time: I'd have to assemble it myself. Then I'd have to install the distro myself. Then tweak everything. Too much work. I have better things to do with my free time. "

Also, Linux is boring these days...

My first Linux (and oh how I wish I'd kept the box and disks) was RedHat 2, in 1995. One boot floppy and one cd-rom. Linux 1.something kernel, fvwm desktop environment. Pretty much everyone built custom kernels for speed and size reasons. I remember writing and building my own USB driver to get a new mouse working.

The last time I played with Linux it was installing Ubuntu "Jaundiced Jackal" in a VMWare virtual machine on the Mac. Ho-hum. Everything works.


Posted by: wiredog | May 28, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the review. I've got a 6 year old computer and am planning on getting a new one soon. My plan is to try a dual install of Linux/Windows 7, using Linux primarily and W7 only when I need to. Most of my software (GIMP, Open Office, Audacity) is all open source, so I'm not sure why I'm still using Windows. I'm planning on trying a LiveCD soon and see how my old computer performs with that.

Posted by: cassander | May 28, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Years ago I considered installing Linux and was put off by reports that wireless connections for laptops were often difficult to get working under unix. Is it generally safe to assume that this is no longer an issue? Are there other significant hardware issues that now arise?


Posted by: fedbert | May 28, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

The wifi issue is mostly fixed. That said, Dell (and HP, I think) ship laptops with Linux pre-installed, so their laptops are usually safe. Sony tends to have lots of custom hardware, thus Rob's problem with his, and be difficult for Linux.

Posted by: wiredog | May 28, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Wiredog -

Thanks for the remarks.

Posted by: fedbert | May 28, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I just installed Ubuntu 10.4 in dual boot with Win XP. Installation was a breeze. No problems with sound card or video drivers. It has worked well and the Gnome desktop looks great.

Posted by: jgluke | May 28, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Rob: You should give Linux Mint a try. It's based on Ubuntu and uses the same software repositories, but has all the multimedia codecs pre-installed and also has several Mint-specific features to make it more user friendly. The community is a very helpful one, and the lead developer is very responsive. All in all, many like this distro better than Ubuntu, especially for those new to Linux.

Posted by: djross95 | May 28, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Varied hardware support is definitely one of the pitfalls of Ubuntu. Once you get past that (and start selecting components based on compatibility), Ubuntu is a terrific gateway to the world of Linux.

I just created a remote access desktop system/web server running Ubuntu, Apache, MySQL, and PHP for nothing more than voluntary donations: If that's not putting computing power into the hands of humanity than I don't know what is.

Posted by: TobyFuller | May 28, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

Our netbook has been slow since day one. XP has just always bogged it down.

I decided to try Jolicloud (netbook-centric version of Linux). I was able to run it off of a USB stick. I was blown away and plan to soon install it as the main OS.

It was dirt-simple to install and the developers have made sure that it plays well with most netbook hardware (you can check their website to see if it is ensure to work for your make and model).

After all of that, I am thinking of putting Ubuntu on my 6-year old laptop. The only thin holding me back is my reliance on iTunes - but I imagine that I will find a suitable alternative with some research.

Posted by: jerryravens | May 29, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I have been using Ubuntu for years. Its feature packed and comes with several programs installed.

These qualities make Ubuntu a top recommendation:
Stability, efficiency, great looking, polished, user friendly, speed, safe and secure.... all this for free, as always...

Time to move to the awesome OS Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) or at least dual boot it.

Its fast, safe, stable, secure, efficient, polished, well supported & FREE.

Posted by: goldfish2 | May 29, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

You know, after years of hearing how linux had issues with this and that, I avoided using it. Finally after reading your review of Ubuntu, I gave it a shot and guess what, the first thing it does? Fails to connect to my wireless connection.
An OS that still cannot pick up simple things like that on my Dell laptop because itprobably couldn't find the drivers to the broadcom chip is just ridiculous

Really peeved at the whole experiment.

Posted by: ohwelloldstem | May 29, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I am running Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04 on a Dell Mini 10v. I recently upgraded to this from 8.04, the process was smooth and everything works. Having said that, here is a great Ubuntu example of how it is not quite ready for prime time unless you are at least a little bit geeky. Ubuntu offers a Mobile Me clone called Ubuntu One, with a free service and a paid service. After you sign up at the website, it asks you if you want to register your computer; well, for some reason the registration website crashed. I could still log in to my account, but my computer was not registered. There was no simple "Register this computer" link to click. I read in the Wiki that in order to return to the correct web page, I had to go into terminal and enter:

u1sdtool -q; killall ubuntuone-login; u1sdtool -c

which took me to the correct website and I successfully registered my computer.

BTW, I'm writing this in Firefox on my Netbook running Ubuntu.

Posted by: Ken_G | May 30, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

To ohwelloldstem, I believe that is a known problem with WiFi and that chipset. If you do a quick websearch you can probably find that there is a relatively simple solution, though it will most likely involve typing some obscure code into terminal. BTW, I am using a Dell Mini and my WiFi works great, now. I think in the beginning I had to do what I describe above to make it work....

Posted by: Ken_G | May 30, 2010 7:50 AM | Report abuse

I have a RAID 1 installation (A mirror disk to provide backup in the event of disk failure) that is implemented in the mother board--what the Linux community refers to as Fake RAID. Ubuntu is supposed to work out of the box with this configuration but does not.

I second your comments about the difficulties of trying to resolve a problem when it doesn't simply work!

Posted by: schafer_otr | May 30, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Congrats on the very positive and well-balanced review. As a long time Free software advocate and Ubuntu user, I am glad that mainstream media reporters and columnists finally "get" what we are doing. You review is a fine example of that.

Just FYI, Citrix do have a Linux version of their ICA Client. It is terribly crufty (shame on Citrix for not maintaining it more actively), but it does work. You can get it from Citrix web site at:

Posted by: EtienneG | May 30, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

To ohwelloldstem, I have a Dell laptop as well and ran into problems w/ the wireless adapter. The bottom line is that some of the wireless adapter manufactures (that Dell and others make use of) have held their proprietary hardware info so tightly, not allowing third parties in to let them write Linux drivers. This has made it necessary for the Linux community to come up with workarounds. The great news is that the Ubuntu community really does pull together and your likely to be able to get help getting any difficulties you encounter working (often not the case in the corporate Windoze world).

Here's are the (only-Gui tools) steps that got my wireless working. Maybe it will help you as well.

Posted by: UbuntuRising | May 30, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

To ohwelloldstem, I forgot to mention that mine is a Broadcom chip as well, and that they are probably the most notoriously infamous companies for not cooperating with the Linux community, but nomatter most Broadcom wifi problems are solveable. Hope my link above will help you get it working.

Posted by: UbuntuRising | May 30, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Based on Rob's review, I decided to download a copy of Ubuntu 10.04 Laptop and tried running it from CD on our old Dell Inspiron 1100, which has become terribly slow with Win-XP.
Unfortunately, Ubuntu 10.04 evidently doesn't like the graphics adaptor (I assume) on the old Inspiron 1100, because the screen keeps flashing between a series of vertical white bars in the upper third of the screen and a flash of text that you can't read before it quickly flashes back to the white bars. This persists until I kill power to the laptop. Trying to find information on how to address this on the website has been thus far unsuccessful.
Given this experience, I'm reluctant to actually install Ubuntu onto my hard drive. Any ideas from Linux pros on how to work around this problem would be appreciated!

Posted by: Seahawk85 | May 31, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I've said it before and I'll say it 1,000 times more...with Microsoft, I spent a majority of my day installing patches, screaming at the computer's performance and in general getting f/a done!

With Ubuntu, the same computers work alone, together and with the world. I now spend a majority of my time working!

Here's an idea, spend $200 (ish) on an old ThinkPad T61 or even T42, install the latest Ubunut (very easy to do) and you have an awesome laptop!

Macs are pretty good too to be honest.

--Steve aka @implu

Posted by: steve97 | May 31, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Have you downloaded and installed the Citrix client?

Since you are using Ubuntu - the debian package should work...

Posted by: paulecannon | June 1, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Anyone considering Linux should run the live CD version. If you can't fix it there, then it may not be compatible.

But even with the Dell Broadcom cards it may not be hopeless or require all the fiddling around. You may just have to go into networking and turn the card on if it didn't get turned on by setup or by the Live CD. That is what I found with my older Dell Laptop with a Broadcom card.

That said, my US Robotics Broadcom 4318 based PCI card in my desktop has been a pain. There may be a workaround now that the card is 5 years old.

If wireless is the deal killer, it may be worthwhile to invest in a USB wireless stick known to be compatible which can be as low as $20 and turn the original off.

If you don't have to have a particular program to do whatever you want to do, the Ubuntu can often do the job. But the more specialized you get like Ham Radio, the more time you will spend fiddling. It is a personal choice how much fiddling you want to do.

But there is one job that Linux is great at. My business computer dual boots into Ubuntu and all it does when in Ubuntu is logs onto my bank and credit card sites. It doesn't get mail or do anything else. The Windows viruses don't affect it and my information is much more secure. Not perfect no doubt, but nothing in this life is perfect!

Posted by: eteonline | June 1, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company