Long term followers of this blog will know that I use multiple computers and multiple operating systems when I work. Of late, I have mostly been using my new MacBook Air, singularly the most lovely piece of hardware I have ever owned, and Scrivener 2 which remains the most polished iteration of that great piece of novel writing software. Over the past few months, I’ve mostly used my Windows PCs for gaming and I have been neglecting my Linux installations completely.
All of this changed this week when I finally got round to installing the latest release of Ubuntu, 12.04 Precise Pangolin, on my trusty Acer Travelmate where it shares a hard drive with the much maligned (but actually rather excellent for my purposes) Windows Vista Business. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Ubuntu is a free operating system produced by Canonical and it comes with almost every type of software most people could possibly require to get some work done. In the past I have used it to write fiction and blog posts and I expect to do so again.
Linux is free, relatively secure, and very, very fast. It runs well on older computers and netbooks, of which I possess many. It has a reputation for being difficult and for the technical minded but this is not strictly speaking true any more. I have installed it on my mother-in-law’s computer. She is completely non-technical and she has never had any problems with it. In terms of efficiency I would say its probably on par with OSX, maybe slightly ahead given the bloat that the Leopards brought. And like I said, it comes with masses of free software and you get access to masses more through its App Store (or Software Centre as Ubuntu calls it). There are a lot less security threats for the home user as well. Windows has always been plagued by these, and recently OSX has been attracting its share of malware too.
Ubuntu updates its OS every 6 months, pretty much like clockwork, with Long Term Service releases every two years– 10.04 was the last LTS. I always said I would give Canonical a year to work out the bugs of the new Unity interface introduced in 11.04 and I planned on migrating with the 12.04 release.
The process of upgrading was a touch more complex than a simple clean instal since I was using a two year out of date release and according to the user notes on the Ubuntu site a direct upgrade was not recommended. Since I wanted to preserve my data, I updated the long slow way, via 11.04 and 11.10. (Those numbers are simply the year and month of the upgrade’s release, April 2011 and October 2011 respectively.) This process was a bit tedious, took a couple of hours in my case but went extremely smoothly. Colour me impressed. It was just a case of using Update Manager and leaving the machine alone while I got on with my work on another computer.
Since 11.04 there has been some controversy over the Unity interface with which Cananical replaced the venerable Gnome Desktop. The jump is a big and jarring one, even more than going from say Windows XP to OSX. I am fond of Gnome and more to the point I am used to it. I tried Unity last year, decided it was not quite ready for prime time and reverted to Gnome. I figured with another year Canonical would have smoothed out a lot of the bugs and inconsistencies and made the whole thing a lot more polished. I reckoned that if they had not I could always try Mint or one of the other Linux distros. (For those of you wondering what I am gibbering about– there are multiple variants of the basic Linux operating system maintained by different organisations. Imagine if Windows was produced by many companies rather than Microsoft and you’ll get it.)
Anyway, the upgrade process took a while but performed flawlessly. Booting seems slower. I seem to recall that 10.04 booted in just under a minute. It now takes almost 90 seconds from power on to hitting the desktop. You do get a much more polished loading screen when you sign in though.
After I booted into Ubuntu all of my previously installed software was there, including the Microsoft Office install I use with PlayOnLinux. It worked too. To someone like me who remembers how endlessly frustrating OS upgrades were even a few years ago this seems little short of miraculous.
My basic first impression was pretty much the same as 11.04. I was confused by the new Unity interface. It’s not like it’s so difficult to understand. There is a dock-like taskbar at the left hand side of the screen where your most commonly used programs live, when you click on the appropriate icon the program launches. It’s not bad per se, just weird, like walking into your home and discovering someone has rearranged all the furniture when you were away.
A lot of complaints I have read on the net centre on the lack of configurability of this arrangement and I completely get this. One of the nicest thing about Linux is being able to tweak it till you get exactly what you are looking for. Having the taskbar always appear on the left hand side of the screen sort of forces you to work the way the designer’s want, not the way you necessarily might want to.
What does work nicely is the new HUD (Heads Up Display). You hit the Windows key and you are taken into a nicely transparent screen with a search bar. This is a sort of combination of OSX’s Spotlight and the functionality you get from programs like Quicksilver or Gnome Do. Type the name of the program or file you are looking for and a list is provided. You just need to click on the appropriate item and it launches. I am a big fan of Quicksilver on the Mac so I can see myself getting into this in a big way.
The basic office suite is LibreOffice, which I rather like. It’s a fork from the old OpenOffice suite and it works just fine. I can’t comment on the music player or movie player because I basically never use them. Linux is one of the places I go to work. My system is pretty stripped down.
The truth is that there is not a lot I can say here except comment on the cosmetic changes. It all feels new and novel but you can tell underneath that it’s basically Linux with all of the old advantages and disadvantages. Dropbox functioned perfectly and all my files were there. I was up and working on 12.04 mere minutes after it loaded and most of the wasted time was simply looking around at all the new stuff. It’s too early to say how stable the system is but so far there has been absolutely zero problems. I will report back if they do show up.
My basic response– I am still not sure about Unity. I’ll give it some time and see how I feel a few months down the road. I may well report back then.