Reasons to be Cheerful #3: Ubuntu

Health-warning: Geekery ahead! If you couldn’t care less about operating systems, move along.

So this is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, but haven’t got round to it. A couple of weeks ago I decided that the release of Ubuntu 8.04 was as good a reason as any to finally take the plunge into the world of open source software properly. I’ve run Firefox and Thunderbird for a while now, and more recently I’ve been increasingly delighted with Songbird, and that’s nice as far as it goes, but I was growing increasingly weary of the flaky nature of my installation of Windows XP, and it was getting towards the stage when a day of backing up Windows and reinstalling from scratch was going to be necessary.

Except I couldn’t be bothered to put that effort in just to maintain the status quo, and anyway, there are good ideological reasons to want to get away from proprietary software. So I figured what I’d do instead is put Ubuntu on my external hard drive, and make it bootable, so that whenever I turn my laptop on with my external HD switched on, it will boot into Linux instead of Microsoft’s tyrannical kingdom. I thought it would be a useful environment in which to use Open Office to write up my research project without distractions, and that after exams I would have the time to sit around setting up everything else I use my laptop for: watching TV with my DVB card, chatting to people on MSN, listening to music, etc. The installation to an external HD was a precaution so that I could move slowly across, keeping Windows afloat as my primary system until I had the time to migrate fully.

Except that it turns out that, since getting the installation to boot (took maybe an hour), I have hardly been back to Windows. Everything I used my laptop for has taken very little time indeed to sort out, and anything I needed to find out how to do, someone had been there before me and written about it online, or in the Ubuntu Forums. So I am now writing to you, dear reader, from Firebox 3 beta 5, in Ubuntu. And it’s lovely, let me tell you. My laptop now takes about 1 minute 30 to boot from startup, and once it gives you a desktop, that’s it. Unlike Windows, where the startup took a good 2 minutes 30 to give me a desktop, and then another 3 before it settled down and stopped loading all the bloatware that Apple, Adobe and others insist that your computer needs perpetually running in order that you never have to suffer the prospect of – horror! – a program taking a few seconds to start up.

So yes, I am very pleased with the whole thing. Anything I still need from Windows I can run under Wine, and for the most part, everything I need to do has a perfectly good linux-based program to do it. VLC, Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin and xine get special mentions. Most of these are easily found using the Ubuntu Package Management system. Getting mp3s and other bits and bobs of music you got from your corrupt uncle to play takes a bit longer (maybe 10 minutes following some instructions), but that’s about the most strenuous its been.

Now, this isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have a problem with Windows or Mac OS, then great. Stick with it. If the prospect of an (occasional) actual text-based command line fills you with horror, stay away. But if you’re a bit technically minded, and you kind of like a bit of tinkering, then the next time you’re thinking about spending time giving your PC a performance-motivated spring clean, think about having a play with a Linux distro. They’re getting there, you know. And if you’re wiping your HD and starting over anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?

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