Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ubuntu Update

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I have been working through my Ubuntu for Non-Geeks book and trying to get things working smoothing under the current version (7.10 - Gutsy Gibbon). It mostly works. In fact, I am typing this in Firefox running on Ubuntu 7.10. Thoughts so far:

In general, if you don't like geeking around with your PC and just want the dang thing to work when you try to get your e-mail or pull some photos off the digital camera, Ubuntu probably isn't for you. I keep hearing these stories about guys that have set up an Ubuntu PC for their 80-year-old grandparents and it's been running trouble-free without so much as a reboot for two years. I don't mean to call anyone a liar, but I gonna have to on this one. I can't go 48 hours without a reboot to fix some glitch with printing, external drives, sound, wireless networking, etc. I mostly have things working, most of the time. But for me a PC is a tool that I use to accomplish certain tasks, not an end in itself. What is most frustrating is how close Ubuntu is. So. Frustratingly. Close.

So, to the details. Non-geeks may want to skip this part.

First off, the book I used said it was for non-geeks. I disagree. It is for geeks who like to accomplish tasks instead of endlessly noodling around with their system. It will show you how to do certain routine tasks and how to set up things that just work out-of-the-box in Windows or on a Mac. And like any book of this sort, there were things that just didn't work the way the book said they should even though the version of Ubuntu the book was written to (7.04 Feisty Fawn) was included on a CD in the back of the book. Some of those I was able to work around after poking about in the Ubuntu forums. Some I was never able to work through.

The biggest problem with Ubuntu is expectations. Everywhere you look, all you hear is "just install it and everything you could possibly want to do is ready to go!" Ubuntu's web site, blogs, forums, magazine reviews, all go on and on breathlessly how switching to Ubuntu will be the easiest thing you will ever do on a PC. Which, I suppose, is true given the following caveats:
- You never intend to watch a commercial DVD on your PC.
- You never intend to watch any video in any of the most common formats (Divx, MPEG, Real, or Flash).
- You never intend to listen to music in any of the most common formats (MP3, WAV).
- You have external or non-booting internal drives in any of the most common formats (NTFS, FAT32).

If you want to do any of these radical, off-the-wall things (and the *nix community will make sure that you feel that only a complete moron would, for example, want their music in MP3 instead of the far-superior-yet-completely-unheard-of OGG format, which is nearly universally ignored by the entire electronics industry because they've all been bought out by The Man), you will be directed to a special repository that forces you to agree to a long, scary disclaimer. The gist of the disclaimer is that most everything in the repository is illegal to install if you live in the United States, and if you install any of it, you will spend the rest of your natural life in a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison. Yep. I can just see granny clicking "I Agree" to that one. Sure.

The interface is pretty good. About Windows XP good by default. I just stumbled on a setting that adds some eye candy if you have a fast graphics card which bumps it up to maybe Vista (when Vista works, that is). Not bad, and certainly better that previous Linux distros that I've tried, but out of the box, it's still pretty vanilla. I can change much of that, which is cool, but it requires a lot geeking around and hours of downloading stuff off the internet to do it. Again, speaking for myself and most everyone I know, I don't wish to spend days and days just trying to find, download, and install a desktop background. I'd rather irritate large numbers of people by posting racist stuff on our blog. (OK, make that "irritate small numbers of people." Or maybe "irritate three people." Whatever.)

Most of the common applications lack polish. They work. Sort of. Most of the time. But they just don't have that loose-ends-tied-up feel of a typical Windows application. This is true even when comparing the Ubuntu version of an application with the Windows version of the very same application. For example, Ubuntu Firefox doesn't render correctly. Windows Firefox has no problem with that page. Worse, this has been true for at least three years. That's a long time to have a persistent rendering bug in a browser. Another example is Google's Picasa. The Ubuntu version refuses to admit to the existence of any drive other than the Ubuntu boot drive. My photos are on an external drive, so Picasa is nothing but a waste of disk space on my Ubuntu partition. The Windows version, as one would expect, has no problem with my external hard drive. The Linux alternative is F-Spot Photo Manager, which really isn't an alternative at all. It is a perfect example of software written by people who never actually use it. I'm sure it works at some crude level, but why would I bother working with an interface I wouldn't have found acceptable in 1987, when something far superior already exists?

Lots of little gotcha's that don't even make sense: Audio playback has little glitches in it, like a dual core PC with a gig of RAM isn't up to the task of playing back MP3's. Please. All video playback ignores the audio device set up in System Preferences and plays audio through the laptop speakers at a nearly inaudible volume. Ubuntu insists that I don't have permission to even mount one of my external hard drives. The other two mount just fine. The really odd thing is that if I power up the drives in a different order, a different drive suddenly becomes unmountable. Wireless networking has definitely improved from previous versions when it didn't work at all to the current version that mostly works, but requires periodic rebooting to bring the connection back to life. I know the network here, especially the wireless network, is at best shaky, but again, Windows has no problem re-establishing a dead connection without requiring a reboot.

And that is pretty much where I'm at right now. I'll keep picking away at each issue, and I'm sure there are answers to most of them, but this is certainly not the painless computing that the fanboys rave about.

[Update: Yahoo's home page now renders correctly in Firefox. There was an update that I installed late last night that must have fixed it. However, I am posting this update from Windows because Ubuntu's DVD Rip is a nightmare. I'm sure I can do the same thing I do with Window's Magic DVD Ripper, but I fear I will need to pay $40 or more for a book to explain to me how it is done. Magic is simple: load the DVD, the software picks the title that contains the actual movie, remembers where you want the results stored, defaults the target file name, and remembers that I want a single file in MPEG format. I click Start and in 45 minutes or so, I have a perfect copy of whatever DVD I loaded. Ubuntu's DVD Rip is geek-ware; intended for someone that would rather make a project (the software's term, not mine) out of something so simple. Now I'm sure DVD Rip can do a lot more than Magic's DVD Ripper, but the software developers seem to think that I want to have that fact rubbed in my face while I'm trying to do something quite simple.]

1 comment:

GreatMatt said...

This is actually good to know. I've considered playing around with linux, and Ubuntu is the obvious choice (at the moment). But that sounds like way to much of a hassle for my tastes. Sounds like the Linux fanboys are about as bad as the Apple fanboys. Anything delivered from their respective companies is gods gift to mankind, and how dare you say that you have any problems with it. LOL.

Now, can we get back to the racist stuff? ;-)