Monday, 24 December 2007

Ubuntu: a Linux first timer's thoughts

(My Ubuntu Linux desktop!)

(My newly reinstalled Windows XP desktop!)

I hope it's not too late to wish Selamat Hari Raya Aidiladha. To all who performed their haj and qurban this year, I hope Allah accept your amal and reward you abundantly.

I spent a few days before Raya working on my latest project: installing Ubuntu Linux on my PC. I recently got a new hard disk and I backed up my old hard disk on it. That went well, alhamdulillah.

(However I did not backup my primary partition (drive C:) the drive where Windows is installed. That is like begging for trouble, more on that later.)

I've talked about going into Linux before. I've read up a bit what I should expect when I'm switching to Linux, especially Ubuntu. And I had my own expectations and reservations. I was quite concerned about my aging PC since it's now 5 years old. I heard that Xubuntu handles old systems quite well with its low resource requirements, so I thought I could always switch to that if things starts getting slow(er).

The installation

After backing up, I turned off the PC and disconnected the new hard disk. I was trying to avoid any problems for new the hard disk since this is where my backup – gigabytes of it – is stored.

Ubuntu is comes as live CD. A live CD means that when you restart (reboot) your PC, the CD will load Ubuntu Linux into your memory and make your PC run in Ubuntu. You can familiarise yourself with Linux using it and I've tried it before. Turns out you can't do much other than what comes default with Ubuntu. For example, playing MP3 is not automatically enabled in Ubuntu (due to legal reasons).

The installation was confusing at first because I could not see the 'Next' button in installation window. I was annoyed by this because I thought there was something wrong the installation wizard. The solution to this problem was to decrease the font size displayed. This made the window fit entirely on screen and I was finally able to see the 'Next' button. I never heard other people complain about this issue, so I'm guessing its the problem with my own hardware.

Once installation started, everything went without a hitch.

That was until as message appeared, something about unable to reach 'mirrors'. I thought the process had stopped abruptly, so I forced the PC to restart. Bad idea.

Let me re-clarify that at this moment my hard disk is divided into two: one part with Windows XP installed; and another empty, unformatted part for installing Ubuntu. Restarting the whole thing– as I found out the hard way – caused the part with Windows XP on to be erased. Oh dear God.

(Bye-bye, unbacked up articles, passwords, ebooks and all.)

Long story short: I had to reinstalled Windows XP from scratch, free up some empty disk space and install Ubuntu again on it again. I'm still slowly restoring my XP back to its former settings, but I'm not complaining. One blessing out of this blunder is my XP is now runs faster than I can ever remember.

Using Ubuntu

Can Ubuntu make me ditch XP for good?

My first impression of this operating system (OS) is that it is well-designed for even the most novice of users. I've came across a few of the "even my granny can use the PC now thanks to Ubuntu" stories, and I can see how that can be true. If you need to do basic stuff like typing documents, emailing and surfing the Web on your PC, Ubuntu will help you get started in no time. Everything is organised so that you can find folders, save documents and customised your OS with ease.

In some ways, its easier to get things on Ubuntu than on XP, like installing and removing applications. Ubuntu uses an integrated application system called Synaptic Package Manager, an approach that eliminates much of the headache that comes with failed or improper applications installation/removal.

Connection to Streamyx is not automatically done but I found the steps to do so in the Help section. Ubuntu's Help section gets my thumbs up for its clear and friendly explanations.

Enabling things such as MP3 playback, Microsoft core fonts and Java required a tiny bit of extra work, but well worth it if you're a seasoned Windows user.

Overall, after a few days of tinkering around Ubuntu, I manage to settle into Ubuntu comfortably, accepting both its advantages and disadvantages over Windows. I especially love the way how things are organised in Ubuntu. Microsoft could learn a thing or two from Linux, IMHO.

Issues encountered

So, can I now sign the divorce papers and start a new life with Ubuntu?

The issues I have Ubuntu right now may likely due to my aging hardware. The only way to solve them is to get a new PC. But my copy of XP is tied to this PC, which means I can't installed it on another PC. And there's no space in my room for a new PC. (I would also need another house because the other rooms in this one are all used up).

Why I'm still using XP as my main OS reason #1: the display in Ubuntu is OK, but not as good as in Windows. I use a GeForce 2 card that is no longer supported. In this sense, Ubuntu can't do anything much to solve the problem.

Reason #2: Firefox in my Ubuntu looks awful. The websites are oversized and becomes painful to look at after some time. I tried Opera, another favourite of mine, but strangely Opera can't detect the Flash plugin. That means I can't watch Youtube or use any Flash-based stuff with Opera. This is a bit disappointing because Opera do make the websites look better.

Another confounding issue that I have is that Ubuntu cannot shut down the PC. Ubuntu will boot off, the hard disk will quiet down, BUT the power is still on! After going to the Ubuntu forum I learned that I'm not the only sufferer. It is suggested that old hardware could be the cause.

I also wouldn't recommend Ubuntu if you don't have an Internet connection. Installing new applications and updating the OS means a lot of downloading. Without Internet connection, you'll be stuck with a bare bones setup, which is OK if you're not expecting too much. But if you're an advanced or power user, not being able to play around with system because the the Internet is inaccessible is a major drawback.


To be frank, I'm very, very much impressed by the work has gone into making Ubuntu as a workable alternative to Windows. Had I own a newer machine, I'd probably have nicer things to say about Ubuntu. But my interest in learning how to use Ubuntu hasn't waned down just yet. I have learned some valuable lesson during those few days.

As for the unable to shut down problem, my solution is to restart the PC in XP and shut it down from there.

Final words: Ubuntu works, and works rather well and right from the start. Ubuntu can help you do your stuff, but in a different way compared to Windows. You're going to learn and unlearn a lot, so don't fret if don't succeed at first. Just have fun and make the most of what can be achieved.

If you want a smoother transition from Windows to Linux, you'll need to do some hacking here and there. And to that I say, let the hacking begin.


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