Review: Ubuntu

by Christopher Paul on July 18, 2006

Before I get into the details of my review, let me preface this post by summarizing it first.

Ubuntu ROCKS!!!

Now that I’ve given you my opinion, I’ll tell you why.

In short, it’s fast, fresh, and surprisingly easy to use. An added pluses are the versions they offer and the support that is optionally available (for a fee). Now on to the review.

Ubuntu’s ISO image is designed in a way to run completely from the CD. You can use the built in tools like Firefox and GAIM to access the Internet without running off the hard drive or installing the OS itself to a hard drive. It’s great as a portable OS and Windows XP recovery tool too. Later, I’m going to try and install it to a 4GB USB disk and attempt to boot off of it; if it works, I have a portable OS that retains my settings and goes wherever I go (drivers could be a problem on this task, however).

But the CD is very easy to download. You select your Ubuntu distribution: the standard one with the Gnome GUI; Kubuntu is the same kernel with the KDE desktop GUI (for those KDE fans out there), Xubuntu with the Xfce GUI, and Edubuntu – a special Ubuntu package (with the Gnome GUI) that includes pre-installed software for young students in addition to the standard Open Office suite and multimedia applications. The full list of software can be found here and, I must say, its very impressive; any teacher would want this in their classroom. Anyway… there are also server versions to run and even DVD ISO images to download (although I’m not sure what extras it gives you but whatever is there takes up 3.2GB) and special ISOs for OEMs, large deployments, RAID installations, and legacy system installs (PCs with less than 192MB of RAM); there is even a specific ISO for 64-bit computers that support EM64T or AMD64 extensions. With all ISO images you download the distribution package you want, burn it to a disc using burner software that supports ISOs, restart the computer and boot from the disc you just created.

When you boot from the CD, it actually loads its own “boot loader” application that just shows you a small menu system. That menu system allows you to select from two different install options and a “boot from hard drive” option in case you didn’t want to start the OS from the CD. The two install options are normal mode and graphic safe mode. At my PC at home with an ATI 850XT, I had to use graphic safe mode. But with some spare work PCs, I didn’t run into any trouble with nVidia or Intel chipsets.

I first tried installing Ubuntu at home. It didn’t go as well as I would have hoped because of two things that I can’t say is any fault of Ubuntu. The first problem was the video card that I have, an ATI XT850E (or some flavor of the 850), was causing the normal CD mount to fail at some point. Thinking they offer a graphics safe mode for a reason, I chose that option and I was able to boot just fine into the CD’s virtual instance. The other problem was the power issue I wrote about earlier – again, not Ubuntu’s fault.

Once inside, I played around with the OS a little and discovered the Firefox pre-installed and ready to use. If you use online bookmarking systems like or online IM like Meebo, you have all the things you need right in front of you. Besides Firefox, it comes with Open Office, GIMP, GAIM, Evolution, Rhythmbox, and some basic apps like a calculator and character map. There are lots of games available out of the box and many more to choose from if you install the OS to the hard drive.

The actual installation process is very straightforward and it runs off an icon that’s displayed from the CD instance. It asks you for the time zone and prompts you for a user & computer name and asks for a password. It also goes through a hard drive configuration wizard that asks how you want to allocate space. I chose to use entire spare disk of my home PC because I’m not that familiar with Linux partitions so I’d only recommend you manually adjust those settings if you are a Linux wizard (and if you are, why are you reading this?) or are trying to do some dual boot thing (which I wouldn’t try to do unless you are willing to lose your data). But if you choose the auto-partition, all the contents are going to be erased.

Once the partitions are created the install wizard copies all the files you need over to the hard drive and runs all the miscellaneous scripts needed to complete the process. It didn’t take more than 5 minutes or so to do the entire thing so don’t expect a long wait. Once the copying is complete, you are asked to reboot and take out the install CD; you don’t want to boot back into the CD and waste time.

When the OS loads for the first time, you are asked to enter your username and password. Once that’s done, you will find the familiar GUI you were first introduced to when you ran the CD. Like the CD, you have access to all the applications previously mentioned above but now gain the ability to add your own by downloading or the CD you created. Before you can really look at the apps, though, the update wizard connects to Ubuntu’s website and prompts you to download the updates, patches, and any new versions of the bundled apps they provide to make sure your system is as secure and as up-to-date as possible. This part can take a while if you have a slow Internet connection; on my home PC it didn’t take too long a time and I was still able to navigate around the system while it was updating itself.

After a reboot following the patch installs, you really can try the OS out for all it can offer – which is a lot (in case I forgot to mention). That is, in part, due to the millions of developers who offer their code under the GPL license and making their software open source and freeware. What the GPL community offers to the OS and its users is a world of software that, at times, shadows that of the more traditional PC world. Not only does GPL allow others to add great ideas to already great ideas, it offers potential users more choices than ever. There are at least three multi-client IM applications out there besides GAIM and the only other popular IM client for the PC is Trillian. Anyway, coders who follow the GPL, in my opinion, love to prove that Linux can do anything Windows can do but better. That’s not hard to prove to people like me but the masses are much more difficult. And in realizing that, GPL coders love to create open source versions of the world’s most popular applications.

Open Office is a perfect example. Not having tried it for long, I can’t say how good/bad it is but it claims to have all of Microsoft’s major functionality for its word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and desktop database applications. There is a PIM/email client called Evolution that Ubuntu bundles that rivals MS Outlook – it even interfaces with Exchange Server (I know… I got it running at work). There are image editors (GIMP), media players, FTP tools, development environments, news readers, BitTorrent clients, dial-up and fax utilities, and a network vulnerability scanner – all included with Ubuntu. If you don’t like one application to do a task, there are sure to be several more to choose from; in fact, there are several clients included with the standard distribution that you really don’t have to download any at all (although if you do, you’ll find dozens more).

Moving along in the review, I need to mention the speed. It’s FAST. At home, I’m running an AMD Athlon 64 4400+ with the ATI card, 4GB of RAM, and a 72GB 10,000 RPM hard drive; the computer is fast in and of itself. But running Windows XP on it makes it feel like my Tandy 1000 TL from 1988. Don’t get me wrong, my PC is great. But loading my standard web apps in Windows takes at least 1 or 2 seconds more than it does under Ubuntu. At home, I haven’t even upgraded the video drivers yet and I know its faster than my Windows install. At work, the graphics were fast until I upgraded and now they are really fast. Disk speed is disk speed and you will be limited by that but when you think about RAM, Ubuntu only needs a small amount of RAM; 256MB is the recommended for the desktop – recommended!!! The server only needs 64mb!!!! And don’t forget the special distribution you can get for systems with less than 192MB of RAM.

Its hard to equate my observations into something that you can quantify (since I lack those tools) but I can say that the low system requirements, the way software is installed, and the way that Linux handles resources all help translate into better performance than the Windows box I run. When I get into some demanding applications like video play/editing or intense archiving, I’ll update this report and see if there are any definitive metrics to compare against.

Another thing I noticed was Ubuntu seems to be more stable than Windows. GASP!!! What a thought!! But its true! I ran an early Alpha version of Songbird on both platforms and, although rather stable, it crashed the Windows OS hard like Evel Knievel on a motorcycle whereas Songbird on Ubuntu just quit. This is not a knock on Songbird – it is an alpha, after all and it won’t be perfect right out of the box (so to speak). But Ubuntu gracefully handled the exception while the Windows Explorer crashed and everything else went with it. To be fair, I had access to many of the running in apps in Windows but we all know that the items running in the taskbar are almost unreachable without a restart. Songbird is only an example of how applications in Windows are more likely to bring a halt to the OS than applications in Linux.

In terms of security, I can’t say which one is better. Sure, there are more viruses out there for Windows but that doesn’t make it more or less secure. I’m of the mindset that it is user responsibility that makes a system secure more so than any code or design. The fact is that all code can have exploits and vulnerabilities means that we all have to be more aware of what we do as computer users. Windows is an extremely large OS with many million lines of code. One typo or malformed assembly statement can mean the difference. But I will say this: Linux, like OS X, isn’t as popular as Windows and doesn’t gather the same kind of attention hackers and virus writers give the MS counterpart. Hell, Windows could be more secure than Linux because I’m a novice at it. Over time, however, I could find Ubuntu to be the most secure OS I’ve ever encountered. Windows haters might say that Linux is the most secure OS in the word because its open source but I don’t buy that. Linux lovers who don’t configure their firewall properly will find themselves part of a botnet just like any Bill Gates junkie. All I’m saying is that it could be more secure off the shelf because its smaller, with a different code base, and less attractive to criminals but its not the code that makes a system at risk, its the user.

The only thing I wish was different about the OS is the way to install applications that aren’t bundled with the CD. The CD has built in install scripts that make everything a breeze. But if you run into something that doesn’t have its own script, you might have to run a few command lines to get things working. The last time I touched a Linux command line was in 2001 when I was in school (and that was only sed and awk commands… the class kinda sucked). Anyway… Ubuntu is working hard to change that and they’ve compiled a list of applications that install automatically via a script – much like MSI packages work for Windows. As it gains momentum, all most all the major apps would be a snap to install.

So with that, I have to get back to my original statement: Ubuntu ROCKS!!!

With its speed, stability, variety of free software, and ease of installation & use, Ubuntu has become my new OS of choice. I love OS X and I love Windows XP for their own distinct reasons. But I am going to use Ubuntu for everything I can from now on until I get that Mac Mini I’m drooling over (when the new Core 2 Duos come out for it). I recommend that you download the CD and boot to it and try it out. I’m sure you’ll find it fun and interesting and if you don’t, you can always reboot back into Windows. As the Internet progresses to online apps and services (think Writely, Gmail,, et al), OS is going to become less important to us but this is one way to enjoy all those sites without the hassles and hardships of the PC OS.

David Ashley April 21, 2007 at 12:40 PM


beojan August 28, 2007 at 12:01 PM

Wrong, Ubuntu has had an automated installation system (apt-get with many GUIs available), for years, and it is only now that BG got the idea and put digital locker into vista.

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