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How Necessary Is Windows? Part 2: Ubuntu

In the past two week’s I’ve installed Ubuntu Linux 9.10 (Karmic Koala) three times: twice as upgrades, and once as a clean install from a CD. The combo LiveCD/installer ISO came down with uTorrent in 8 minutes 5 seconds (!!) and has given me trouble only once, and that with the partitioner: I tried to install 9.10 on Carol’s old HP laptop, but the partitioner could not determine the size of the existing Windows partition, and thus the resizer slider would not appear. On an SX270 with a similar size hard drive and an existing XP partition, the partioner resized XP without any trouble. (I’m wondering if there’s some weirdness in the HP BIOS, but have not gone after it yet.) I’ve spent a great deal of time in Ubuntu in recent days, and beyond that one little glitch with the laptop, I’d say Karmic is the best one yet.

Apart from its contrarian (and purely optional) brownness, Karmic’s default GNOME desktop is a great deal like Windows XP. The taskbar functionality is divided between two panels, one at the top and one at the bottom. Now that 20″ displays are common, I use two lines for the Windows taskbar as well and don’t begrudge GNOME the extra line–and you can put both panels at the screen bottom if you want to. The Home folder stands well for My Documents, with familiar subfolders for documents, music, pictures, video, and downloads. Nautilus looks enough like Windows Explorer to pass, especially given that most of us custom-configure Explorer after awhile and not everyone’s configuration is identical. Left mouse button selects, right brings up context. In short, all the basic ideas of the Windows UI are present, in recognizable form. There’s some bumping-up-against-habit in switching from one UI to another, but after even a little time exploring in GNOME you won’t be lost anymore.

The Control Center is a great deal like Control Panel, with applets to manage most configurable options. One gripe about the Control Center is that there is a perfectly good applet to manage grub’s boot options, but it’s not installed by default and I only came across mention of it online by accident, while looking for something else. If you want it, go into the Software Center, and search for Startup-Manager. Install it, and you can specify grub’s default OS, the menu time delay, a splash background, and other things. I take back the grouchiness expressed in my entry for November 7, 2009, with the exception that Startup-Manager needs to be installed by default.

I still have a gripe with Linux generally that goes back a long ways: It needs centralized font management. Unless I’m missing it (and I looked pretty hard) no such applet exists for Control Center, and installing fonts is much more fussy than it needs to be. This may not matter much if you’re not a publisher or a graphic artist, but it matters a lot to me. I have a set of expensive Type 1 fonts that I bought in 2001 and use in all of my Copperwood Press books, but getting them into Linux was non-trivial, and not all apps that should recognize them do. Scribus and poor little Abiword picked them up immediately, but OpenOffice still can’t see them and I still can’t figure why. I know that X11 makes font management a little more complex than it is in Windows, but that’s no excuse for not having a font manager in Control Center.

Beyond that, few complaints. There is now a Safely Remove Drive context menu item for thumb drive mount icons that I don’t remember seeing in earlier versions. Videos that play without sound in Windows (due to obscure codec errors) play with full sound in Karmic. Bottom line: Ubuntu 9.10 implements all the fundamental GUI machinery that Windows does, and does it with enough similarity not to drive a newcomer to distraction. From that standpoint, Windows really isn’t necessary at all…but alas, GUI machinery is only one small piece of the larger Windows pie. More tomorrow.


  1. Tony Kyle says:

    I tried Kbuntu 9.1 on a Toshiba (circa 2003 model) with 1.25GB of memory. It lasted about 2 or 3 hours and I went back to XP on that system prior to selling the laptop.

    Trying to configure it to my taste seemed harder than it should have been, and harder than I remember any other distro being.

    Maybe the geek in me has died. 🙁

    1. “Maybe the geek in me has died.” I know just how you feel. An old Ubuntu I never use is taking up half of my hard drive (because I can’t find the re-partitioner), I rarely script in DEBUG any more, new scriptwriters’ techniques replacing batch files puzzle me, even today’s DOS overpowers my noggin. I never bother with guest accounts. When will progress take a breather, and fix the old bloopers?

  2. Terry Roe says:

    One of the things I like best about Gnome are the panels. You can have as many as you want, put them wherever you want, and arrange the contents however you want. (You don’t have to have two panels. I don’t think you have to have any, but I’m not sure how you’d get to your application menu.) Also, the panels can be expanded or unexpanded, and you can auto-hide them if your into that. In short, they are highly customizable. They are one of the big reasons I really like the Gnome desktop.

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