Linux For Real People: Ubuntu

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz lately about the new-ish Ubuntu Linux project, so this weekend I decided to blow away my Fedora Core partition and take Ubuntu for a spin. Why not? Worst case, I have to reinstall Fedora, which isn’t hard to do.

However, after tinkering with Ubuntu a little, I don’t think I’ll be reinstalling FC anytime soon.

Ubuntu’s stated mission is to build a Linux distribution that “Just Works”, and they’ve come impressively close to doing that.

I checked out the latest version of Ubuntu — Ubuntu 5.04, aka “Hoary Hedgehog”. (The funny-sounding names come from Ubuntu’s South African roots; it’s a project of Mark Shuttleworth, the maverick South African gazillionaire who bought himself a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2002.)

The install was quick and easy; unlike Fedora, Ubuntu’s installer is completely text-based, but it’s easy to use and understand nonetheless. You see right from the start one way Ubuntu is different from most Linux distros — there’s only one CD-ROM, where most ship with three or four (or a DVD-ROM).

That’s because Ubuntu is based on Debian Linux, which means it inherits Debian’s enviable software updating system, “apt”. This lets Ubuntu take a disciplined approach to building their distro: they ship a core set of applications with the OS that they believe are best of breed (OpenOffice, Firefox, Ximian Evolution, etc.). All other applications are omitted, which lets them get the whole shebang on one CD. If you want other apps, though — say, if you prefer Thunderbird to Evolution for e-mail — you can install it directly from apt, rather than having to have it on the CD.

Taking this a step further, Ubuntu has the Synaptic front-end for apt included and nicely integrated with the system, so adding and updating apps is dead simple. Contrast this to the process of using Synaptic on Fedora, which is a bit of a pain. Since Fedora is an RPM-based distro, you need to get apt for RPM, then get Synaptic, then hunt down community apt-for-RPM repositories, and then you can get your software. Ubuntu, on the other hand, comes with apt and Synaptic, and already has several repositories configured:

  • main: Free software that is supported by Ubuntu
  • restricted: Non-Free software that is commonly enough used to be supported by Ubuntu
  • universe: Open-source and Free applications other than those supported by Ubuntu
  • multiverse: Non-Free applications not supported by Ubuntu

When you first log in, only main and restricted are activated; if you want to pull from universe or multiverse, you need to go into Synaptic’s repository manager and turn them on. This gives newbies the “shopping mall in the sky” feeling of apt/Synaptic without leading them into downloading unsupported apps unless they know what they’re doing.

The graphical look and feel of Ubuntu is very nice too. It’s based on the GNOME desktop environment, and it feels quite clean and responsive. (If you prefer KDE, you can grab it from universe without problems, or simply choose Kubuntu, a derivative project that takes Ubuntu and swaps KDE for GNOME). Fedora’s look and feel are fine, but there are places where it feels rough as they try to merge KDE and GNOME together in an effort to be agnostic. Ubuntu’s “pick and stick” approach seems the better way to go (even if it means I lose access to KDE-only apps — since most have an analogue in the GNOME world anyway, and all the big boys are fine with GNOME).

So yeah, first impression: Ubuntu is pretty damn well put together. It’s solid, focused, and well-designed. I’m sure I’ll find things to be annoyed with eventually, but none have sprung up yet.

Linux for Mom? Maybe not quite yet. But we’re getting there…