I have always liked the idea of using Linux as my main desktop operating system and in the past I have made several attempts to switch over. My previous experiences of Linux have always resulted in me moving back to Windows.
My first taste of Linux was Suse 8.0 and don't get me wrong it worked, but it never felt comfortable. Windows gives the user a comfort zone. They install it and it just works. Back then Linux was very “fiddly”. It would work flawlessly if you where an experienced Linux user and knew your way around the system using shell, but as a desktop machine it fell way short of the high bar that had been set by Windows. There where all sorts of issues that general wouldn't effect a Windows user. Simple things like getting the screen to display correctly on the monitor, or configure your sound output were very tricky under Linux. The biggest problems where simply non events under the “user friendly” Windows OS.
I set myself with a the challenge of using nothing but Linux for a week to see if modern versions of the Linux operating system really are mature and stable enough for an average user. I choose to use Ubuntu because I had heard and read good things about it.
Getting and installing Linux
In the past I have purchased the physical cd's and documentation in store, much like you would do with Windows. On this occasion I downloaded the operating system. My previous Linux distros Suse 8.0 and Suse 9.0 where each 6 cd's. The Ubuntu download is 650 megs. With much easier access to broadband a download like this really isn't an issue. Ubuntu do however offer the option if receiving the OS on cd.
Once you have downloaded the ISO image you then need to test and install. By testing I mean running the OS as a “live” OS as opposed to installing it. This not only gives you the opportunity to have a look at the system, it also enables you to determine if it will run on your hardware. The two main options for this are to create a live CD or run the system from a flash drive. Most cd/dvd burning tools will have the option to create a bootable cd or dvd from an ISO image. There are detailed instructions on how to do this that can be found on the Ubuntu downloads section.
Another option is to create a bootable flash drive. Not all computers will support this, although most modern systems will. You will need to edit your bios to enable booting from flash drive. My desktop machine bios recognized the USB device as a hard disk. I was able to achieve booting by setting hard disk priority to the flash device. My laptop on the other hand saw it as a USB ZIP drive. It will depend on your system specifics exactly how you will enable USB booting.
DO NOT INSTALL ANYTHING ON YOUR SYSTEM UNLESS YOU ARE PREPARED TO LOOSE EVERYTHING ON YOUR HARD DISK INCLUDING YOUR CURRENT OPERATING SYSTEM!
Because I intended to install Linux directly only my computer I took the precaution of removing my current hard disk, and putting it somewhere safe. I also made multiple backups of my files before removing the disk. You cant be to safe when it comes to backups!
When you are in live mode there is an option at boot up to “Install on hard disk” This will really install Linux on your hard disk, you have been warned.
The entire install took about 15 minutes and required no reboots. As soon as the system ran one thing became so very apparent. Linux is a very different beast. Everything just works. My screen aspect is spot on, I can hear sound. As a Windows user these are things we all take for granted, but for me, it was a pleasant surprise from my previous excursions into the Linux world. With suse 8.0 I spend almost a day getting my screen set up right using sax2, it was great to know I wouldn't need to do that again.
The default desktop/windows manager that comes installed with Ubuntu is Gnome. My personal preference has always been KDE so I installed the KDE desktop through the Ubuntu Software Center. If I remember rightly the entire install process was four clicks.
By installing the KDE desktop package what I now have is the best of both worlds. When my system boots and I am typing in my password I also get another option. I can access the system using Gnome or KDE. From a user interface point of view this is like having two operating systems, but under the hoot they are both running on the same system, and access the very safe file system.
It doesn't matter if I access the OS using Gnome or KDE, I have access to the same programs and applications as well as the same files and file structure. For example I am composing this post using Open Office under KDE. If I saved it in my “Documents” folder and logged out then logged in using gnome, I could open OO and browse to the same file and carry on writing.
It gives you a bit of verity. Both KDE and Gnome are very customizable and you can set up either or both to have the look and feel you want. I have been using both, and each is set up very differently. I tend to use KDE for work and Gnome for fun, but both can be used in a productive or entertaining way.
Part of the experiment was to see if I it could be used by an average user. I personalty class myself as being a lot more savvy that what would be considered an average user so I evaluated everything with an open mind. I tried to figure out how easy the system was to use. For a windows user the KDE desktop version would be a much easier migration. Ubuntu provide two versions. The standard Ubuntu install comes with Gnome. You can also download Kubuntu (KDE as standard, no Gnome) Kubuntu is the version I think would provide the smoothest transaction from for a Windows user.
KDE has a similar interface to what you would be used to in a Windows OS environment. There is a “K” icon at the bottom left, this is effectively your start button and this provides access to your programs.
I think the task bar may present some issues, by default it is not locked and it would be very easy to move things around and break the layout. This is by design to allow the user to make changes, but to an inexperienced user a little knowledge could be dangerous.
I also found out by accident you can hide items on your desktop. Of you lock your desktop widgets and save a file to the desktop it wont appear, it will however be in your desktop (folder view). Even when you unlock the desktop thee items wont appear. Items will only show on the desktop if you unlock the desktop widgets then save a file/folder to desktop.
I also found myself being inflicted with “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” trying to line up my desktop icons. Under Windows your icons are on a grid, not so under KDE.. I keep noticing something out of line, unlocking the widgets then moving something a pixel to the side. :)
You will notice a lot of complaints in this post, but do you also notice something about them? They are all hardly worth speaking about. On the severity scale all these issues rank 1/10. To be honest there aren't any major issues to talk about. Things just worked.
The achilles heel of Linux had always been multimedia support, or lack thereof . Thankfully I am glad to report this is also a lot less stressful than it used to be. There are packages within the “Ubuntu software center” called “restricted extras”. There is a package for KDE and one for Gnome. Once you install these you will have support for flash, MP3 and most common media formats.
DVD still poses some problems. I think average Joe user might struggle here. It involved entering a line of text into the console, but is very well documented on the Ubuntu website. I think most users would get it, but some may struggle.
The solution for such users would be a commercial distribution where the proprietary software is all pre-installed and configured.
Linux has come a long way in the past decade, and I now think the majority of the system is user friendly and could be seen as a viable alternative to Windows. For techies like me its the Geek factor that makes me like Linux, but for Joe user what incentive is there. It involves learning a whole new way of doing things.
I think for now the Average user has a real choice, but for the foreseeable future I think that choice will be Windows.
Thanks for joining me on the journey :)
Day by day, A week without Windows