Five Ways to Improve Ubuntu

by Mike Shea on 4 February 2007

For the past two weeks I've used Ubuntu to do nearly all of my computer-related tasks. Aside from three major applications: World of Warcraft, Everquest, and iTunes; it does everything I want it to do. It does it so well that I find myself seeking MORE things for it to do, which is, of course, a self-defeating principle. If I don't know what I want it to do, I don't need it to do it. I should move on and spend more time having fun, improving myself, or improving the world around me.

Ubuntu isn't perfect, however. It is difficult to set up and get running. You can't yet give it to your parents and expect to see them using it on their own machines after you've gone. Today I'll take a look at the major improvements Ubuntu needs to include in order to be a true competing operating system.

  1. Improve Video Card and Monitor Detection.

On installation with three different machines, Ubuntu 6.06, 6.10 and the alpha of Feisty Fawn didn't properly recognize my Dell 2405 widescreen monitor. It took countless google searches and trial-and-error editing of my /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to get my monitor at the right resolution.

Ubuntu also does not include native Nvidia device drivers for newer cards. The default nvidia driver is part of the problem with proper monitor detection. It is well known to the ubuntu community that Ubuntu includes no binary non-GPL device drivers but it won't be clear to new users.

Ubuntu should include better tutorials for the installation of proper device drivers.

  1. Improve Wireless LAN Hardware Support.

I still can't get my TrendNET TEW-423PI card working and I don't think I ever will. Even venerable Linksys 54GWRT wireless cards don't seem to work perfectly every time. The Ubuntu community should work very hard to get wireless cards working in both desktop and laptop computers. They should also have a good list of recommended cards or even a certification body that determines what cards work well.

Again, I recognize the difficult in this situation. Card manufacturers write binary device drivers to support Windows XP because thats 99% of their market. They won't bother to release opensource drivers and the opensource community can't always reverse engineer cards to get them working in Ubuntu.

Still, if they want to make Ubuntu a viable platform, they need better support for out-of-the-box wireless support.

  1. Make it Easier to Install Expected Device Drivers and Media Codecs.

Any critical binaries that new users expect should be easy to get. People don't know that MP3 isn't a standard and, like it or not, the opensource community isn't going to convince anyone, even me, to convert their music collection to OGG.

Ubuntu should include a tighter integration with applications like Automatix and Easy Ubuntu to make it easier for new users to install the binary applications they need to get their system running as they expect it.

  1. Automount NTFS Disks for Read Access.

Any user that wants to try Ubuntu likely will try it on an existing Windows machine. They want to read their data off of their windows drive. It took me hours of tweaking to mount a NTFS disk for read access. Worse, I had to reformat three external USB disks into FAT32 so that I could read them both natively in Ubuntu and Windows XP. That's too hard.

Ubuntu should include all of the necessary software to automount NTFS disks for read access. I know its blasphemy and may be totally against the free nature of Ubuntu to directly support a Windows propriatary format, but giving users what they expect is the only way to shatter the shell of Microsoft.

  1. Improve iPod Support.

Apple controls the personal media player market. Rythembox has nearly all of what it needs for good iPod support except for a few things. First, it should have better support for iPod playlists. While it can read existing play lists, it can't seem to create new playlists or add new tracks to those playlists.

There is also no existing Linux application for easily adding video to one of the new video iPods. A drag-and-drop application that converts DVDs, xvid, divx, and other video formats into the propriatary video format for an iPod and then copies it TO the ipod would give a lot better support.

Until then, it looks like I might get a native xvid portable video player like the Creative Zen Vision M.

I love Ubuntu but it has a long way to go before a novice user can install it and get it working on the hardware we have today. Given the current state of closed-source hardware and software, it will be an up-hill struggle for the Ubuntu development group to turn Ubuntu into a true out-of-the-box replacement operating system.

One possible solution to all of these problems comes in a new distribution of Ubuntu called Linux Mint. This distribution includes much of what one would expect in a working desktop OS including a few binary applications such as Picasa and the media codecs required to listen to mp3s, watch videos, and watch DVDs. It is a less ideal but more practical solution to the desire to break free from Microsoft's chains.