Monday, April 21, 2008

Why (almost) Everyone Should Try Ubuntu

If you're a hardcore Gentoo or Slackware type, go away and read something else. You're probably not going to like what I'm about to say. (But rest assured that I respect and admire your dedication to running the leanest GNU/Linux install you can muster, and I do indeed care about preserving your freedom of choice.) For now, however, I'm talking to the newbs out there.

If you've just started using Linux in the last year or two, chances are you're running Ubuntu. And if you're sitting on the fence contemplating trying Linux for the first time, you should definitely be considering Ubuntu. Here's why.

The arguments for choosing Ubuntu fall into two categories: immediate practicality and long-term viability. For sheer practicality, Ubuntu is a no-brainer. It installs in minutes, recognizes most hardware immediately, hides root from those who have no business messing with it, and comes pre-configured to let you get to work right away. For long-term viability, Ubuntu offers a well established coalition of developers, rapid growth among OEM vendors, and – most importantly – a massive base of users around the world.

First, the practical stuff.

Almost nobody actually enjoys installing an operating system. You might be an exception, because you read Maximum PC, and that probably means you're into computers. But for the most part, OS installation is a mundane and sometimes irritating process that the overwhelming majority of end users prefer to avoid. Unlike most other distros, you can get Ubuntu preinstalled from Dell, System76, and ZaReason, which means you can skip all the hassle of installation and just get started with a working PC. (Recent rumors also indicate that HP may soon be joining the list of Ubuntu-installed vendors.)

If you do choose to install Ubuntu yourself, you can look forward to one of the most streamlined installation routines available on any operating system. While Ubuntu's install process does give you options for custom drive partitioning, you could also just keep clicking Forward, pausing only to enter your time zone, username, and password, until the installation is complete. This is almost identical to what you'd experience with Windows Vista and Mac OS X.

For hardware compatibility, Ubuntu is tough to beat. I've installed it on everything from Power PC-based Macs to high-end gaming desktop PCs and a variety of notebooks over the last few years, and I've yet to find a system it wouldn't support easily. My personal benchmark for hardware compatibility is the low-budget Gateway MX3228 laptop I frequently use as a test system. (Incidentally, I'm typing this on it right now.) Its integrated Via UniChrome GPU, WXGA display, Broadcom 4318 wireless card, Via integrated audio, and Texas Instruments media card reader pose minor problems for almost every OS I've ever installed, including Windows Vista. While grabbing and installing the right Vista drivers from Gateway's website takes about ten minutes or so, many Linux distros can't properly detect the display at all. Even the latest Sabayon, which prides itself on its hardware support, falls short when it comes to this little notebook. But whenever I reinstall Ubuntu on this thing, it seldom takes more than 30 minutes to get every piece of hardware in the machine working perfectly, thanks in large part to all the amazingly helpful people in the Ubuntu Forums, who readily share their knowledge with easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions for every conceivable scenario.

Because it hides the root user away and uses sudo to run administrative commands, Ubuntu protects new users from themselves. It's a lot like Windows Vista's User Account Control, only less annoying and more secure. Many other distros still allow the user to log in as root, which can spell disaster for an unwitting newb who likes to mess with things.

Installing your OS is only a tiny fraction of the computing experience. In fact, it's an experience most computer users never even get. Once you boot Ubuntu for the first time, it's ready to do some real work right off the bat. Ubuntu has set a high standard for preconfigured software, giving you a professional-quality office suite, a powerful graphics app, a versatile photo management tool, a smart music player, and just about everything else the average person could need – all ready to run immediately. All of the major distros now do the same, which is great, but I believe Ubuntu strikes the best balance between covering all the bases and avoiding unnecessary junk. If you happen to want something that isn't already installed, go to Applications > Add/Remove... and click it. (Or if you're a more advanced user, you can find almost every major open source Linux app in the Synaptic Package Manager.) Buy a new Mac or Windows PC, and you'll spend a couple of hours installing all your expensive software before you can actually do anything. Buy a preinstalled Ubuntu PC, and you'll be working within five minutes.

But honestly, my argument for Ubuntu has more to do with long-term viability than with short-term pragmatism. Over the last couple of years, Ubuntu has done more for the advancement of Linux on the desktop than any other distribution. This has everything to do with the practical benefits I've already discussed at length, but it also owes a lot to some less tangible factors. Thanks to a monumental outpouring of praise from both its users and the mainstream tech media, Ubuntu is now more popular with end users than Red Hat ever was. All this buzz has generated a terrific amount of momentum for Ubuntu, which has in turn made it the best supported Linux distro in the history of home desktops. By speaking out in overwhelming unison, end users made Ubuntu Dell's first choice for preinstalled Linux systems. By virtue of its popularity, Ubuntu has begun to overcome one of the greatest hurdles faced by all Linux distros: obscurity.

Historically, supporting Linux has been a thorny problem for hardware developers. The daunting task of working with a variety of packaging systems creates consternation among vendors, making it hard to decide which distros, if any, to support. Too often, vendors simply throw up their hands rather than deal with this issue. Ubuntu's high-profile status gives developers an obvious starting point as they venture into the Linux world, which significantly lowers this critical barrier to entry. And because Ubuntu appeals to home desktop users rather than just admins and supergeeks, it's more likely to spur growth on higher-end graphics hardware, which could potentially lead to much-needed improvements in the Linux gaming experience.

The point here is that, in order for Linux in general to succeed on the desktop, it must develop a distinguishable reputation as something other than a nerdy, niche operating system. To (ab)use a common phrase, it must attain critical mass. So long as the world of GNU/Linux appears fractured and chaotic to potential users, developers, and vendors, such critical mass will remain elusive. From where I'm sitting right now (in front of an Ubuntu-powered laptop), Ubuntu looks to be the best hope for a unified Linux community that is inviting – rather than threatening – to major hardware and software vendors, and the non-techy end users they cater to. And if Ubuntu manages to withstand the tumultuous growth it faces in the coming year or two, it will likely arise as a major third choice in the world of desktop operating systems, which is something no other Linux distro is currently poised to do.

By now, experienced Linux users who've disregarded my opening injunction to take their eyeballs elsewhere may be taking exception to all this Ubuntu talk. But here's the thing: Success for Ubuntu helps your distro, too. Both in its ease of use and in its popularity, Ubuntu has the ability to serve as a gateway distro for both users and vendors. Once people get their arms around Ubuntu, they may opt to try on Fedora. Once vendors start supporting Ubuntu, it's a trivial matter to support PCLinuxOS, too. While it would be foolhardy to expect any vendor to offer universal support for every conceivable distribution, growing support for any distro helps the growth of Linux at large.

Some of you die-hards may find all this “growth of Linux” talk offensive, preferring to horde all this Linuxy goodness for yourselves. Well, that's fine, too. Even if the unimaginable happened and Linux went totally mainstream, there'd be nothing stopping anyone from creating ever l33ter distros that no sane n00b in the universe would ever try. But really, you guys aren't supposed to be reading this anyway, so go away and let me talk to the newbs some more.

If you're just entering the Linux community, you've come at an exciting time. This all may seem new and intimidating now, but if you take a proactive interest and make use of the myriad forums and other community resources, you'll be a power user in no time. And once you learn to harness the phenomenal power and versatility of whatever distro you use, you'll find unlimited potential in your PC.

Fundamentally speaking, the differences between any two Linux distributions are typically minor, and uncertainty about where to start should never stop anyone from jumping in. For all the reasons I've stated here, I recommend new users start with Ubuntu. But more than that, I recommend simply starting. If you're more interested in jumping head-first into something more technically challenging, try Gentoo or Slackware. Or even check out one of the open source BSD OSes. The important thing is to pursue your own interests, try something new, and set your PC free.

It's easy. Just follow this link.

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