A Weekend with Ubuntu

by Mike Shea on 21 January 2007

What do we really do with computers? How do they improve our lives? What benefit do they serve? Why do I need Windows XP or Windows Vista to do any of those things? Can Ubuntu do them?

Yes.

In my work we're always throwing around terms like "business cases" and "use cases" which is to say "actions people need to perform" that will end up as "requirements" for some sort of "system" or "application". Yet we don't use this same process to determine what exactly we want when it comes to our computers. Do we need to calculate fractals? Do we need to process the entire day's trading on Wall Street? Do we need to see all of the news there is to see as it happens? Do we really need fancy 3d rendered UIs and beveled backgrounds when all we want is to watch Afroninja fall down?

I wrote last week about how much I hate Windows Vista. I would really really like never to buy Windows Vista. I would like to be completely off Windows in two years. Can I do it? Not as long as I play Everquest or World of Warcraft, but I think, other than those two games, that I can do everything I want with a PC running Ubuntu.

This weekend I installed and configured Ubuntu around the core functions that I need a PC to perform. These include the following:

Two critical functions that Ubuntu cannot realistically perform (yes, I know about Wine) include:

I'll just have to keep an XP partition around for those two functions. The rest I think I can do in Ubuntu alone.

The Installation

I've played with Ubuntu a lot since 6.06 Dapper Drake came out so I'm not a complete beginner, but the installation is still a bit tricky. The hardest problem comes with properly rendering the display at 1920x1200 resolution. I finally fixed this by making sure the nvidia binary drivers were installed and adding "1920x1200" to the "modes" line in my /etc/X11/xorg.conf file.

I also had to remove all the other modes other than 24 depth. It was a bit tricky but it worked in the end.

I never did get my wireless card working so I just hardwired it to my router which sits about three feet away anyway. Some wireless cards work better than others in Ubuntu. THe lack of good wireless support will keep a lot of people off of it until they get it working right.

Overall it took about two to three hours to get the OS installed, updated, and configured. I screwed something up late on Friday night and had to tweak the kernal a little bit to get two conflicting nvidia drivers working well again but that was my own stupid mistake.

After the installation it was a matter of tweaking and configuring it to get it exactly the way I wanted.

Once the base installation was finished, which took about an hour, I had to spend another hour downloading and installing the latest critical updates. After that I spent a long time installing a whole set of other programs but it turned out that I needed none of them to do what I wanted to do.

There was only one application I installed that I really needed, Easy Ubuntu. Easy Ubuntu includes all of the non-opensource drivers and codecs that you'll need to view, listen, or watch just about anything. There are very few open source codecs or device drivers that work with the material we're used to using, so we have to use a script like this to install propriatary drivers and codecs.

After that, however, Ubuntu included all of the other applications that I needed my computer to do. These pre-installed applications included the following:

Rythmbox: This app manages music beautifully and includes iPod support. I did have some horrible bug that ended up wiping out my iPod Nano and forced me to go reload all of my playlists from iTunes on my windows partition. Others like Amarok but if Ubuntu includes one just as good and simpler to use, why not stick to the default?

GAIM: GAIM also comes preinstalled. All you need to do is set up your accounts. I love GAIM.

Totem Movie Player: This pre-installed movie player, once loaded with all of the right codecs from Easy Ubuntu, plays all of the videos I could throw at it including .mov, .avi, and xvid encoded movies. Everyone seems to like VLC but if this one comes included with Ubuntu and does the needed job, why do I need anything else.

GIMP: GIMP is a great opensource image editor that compares to Photoshop. It's a bit much for flipping through all of your favorite artwork (coughporn*) but for cropping or resizing, it's great.

Gedit: This simple text editor doesn't have the sex appeal or power of emacs or vi but it can also be used by real human beings instead of the unix mentats that try to convince you how weak you are for not editing strictly from the command line. This also comes pre-installed and meets all of my needs for text and HTML editing. I'm writing in it right now!

OpenOffice: If you need to do larger formatted documents, nothing beats Open Office. Even if you're on a PC you should be using this.

Firefox: This is really the desktop app you will be using the most. All of the other functions including news, email, weather, and searching all come from this. The crafty use of online apps negates a lot of what you would typically do on a PC. The Web 2.0 world removes the need for client applications. With Gmail, Personalized Google, Flickr, Picasaweb, Youtube, and Torrentspy; there's little need for client software at all.

Late Saturday and early Sunday I decided that I wanted to have my data on a separate physical disk that could be read by both Ubuntu and Windows XP. This got a little tricky. I ended up installing a third hard drive and mounting it to /home/mshea/data. The drive had to be formatted in ext3, the standard formatting for Ubuntu, and Linux I would suppose. Some Googling helped me find a Windows XP ext3 driver that would let Windows XP read the drive. Now I have a single data drive physically separate from my two OS drives. If I want to install a new version of Ubuntu, I can do it and not lose any of my data. System settings may get lost, however.

If you want a data drive or an external USB disk, best to format it in Fat32 to have it natively readable by both OSs. I wish I'd known this three days ago.

Formatting, discovering, and mounting internal and large USB external drives was a lot tricker than it should have been and a lot tricker than doing so under XP. It isn't nearly as hard as I made it to be, but it will still take some tinkering to get it right, especially if you already installed one way and decided later to do it another.

If you're installing Ubuntu, you might consider building a separate /home directory in a different partition so you can reinstall the OS. You can do this by building your partitions manually on installation.

With Ubuntu's built-in applications and all of the new Web 2.0 sites giving us all the functionality we need in our "digital lifestyles" (such an awful term I had to wrap it in quotes just so I didn't get any on my hands) we can almost completely avoid Windows Vista.

Ubuntu isn't a truly out-of-the-box alternative to Windows yet, although neither is Windows. There's enough tweaking and installations required that novice users can't do much more than surf the web at the wrong resolution, assuming they can get their internet connection working on installation. Ubuntu is very close, however, to being a true alternative to Windows. On principal alone, I plan to continue using it for everything other than games.

I'm sitting here now, writing up my blog article in Gedit on Ubuntu. I have the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack playing in Rythembox. I have Firefox loading up my favorite news feeds. My IMs are all up in GAIM. Last night I watched the season premier of Rome. Within Firefox on Ubuntu I read this quote from Microsoft in reponse to those complaining about Vista's handling of DRM in HD:

"If the policies required protections that Windows Vista couldn't support, then the content would not be able to play at all on Windows Vista PCs. Clearly that isn't a good scenario for consumers who are looking to enjoy great next generation content experiences on their PCs."

Screw Vista and their next generation content experiences. I'm off to read Hyperion and playing Wario Ware on Wii.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.