Impressions of the new Ubuntu

Recently I had to re-install the OS on my little red HP Mini.

It came with Windows 7 originally, which was ok, but always felt pretty sluggish on such a small machine, even after I upgraded the RAM to the maximum of 2GB the day after buying it. I wondered if it was time to give Linux another try. I’d used it as my main desktop OS years ago, but eventually got frustrated by all the things it couldn’t do and went back to Windows XP, which seemed to Just Work in comparison. Though I kept on using it on servers at work and then on my Android phone, so I wasn’t completely out of touch with it.

I decided it was time to give it another go. After all I wasn’t going to be doing any heavy gaming on a netbook and other software seems pretty well supported by Linux these days. So I downloaded the newest version of Ubuntu, made a bootable USB key, tried it out for a while and then installed it on the hard drive.

The verdict? Very impressed, overall.

  • ¬†Hardware support is excellent. It seems to have come on leaps and bounds since I last installed Linux. Everything in the machine and everything I plugged into it works and I didn’t have to manually install a single driver. Wi-fi, a notorious weakness of Linux, just worked straight away. My little T-mobile broadband dongle, which is what I was most worried about, came up in the available networks menu as soon as I plugged it in and I was able to connect to it without any of the faffing around with a flaky, unstable driver that I had to do on Windows. It was also better than Windows in another way: my scanner, which refuses point blank to do anything on Windows Vista or 7 (even 32-bit), and which I thought I was going to have to replace, is supported as well. Yay! All the rest of the hardware – printer, webcam, sound, external drives, etc. – similarly just worked.
  • Speed is much better than on Win7. Despite the fact that Ubuntu seems to have all the fancy desktop effects like transparent windows turned on (which Windows won’t even let you attempt with such a low powered graphics card), the machine isn’t struggling anymore. Boot up, shutdown, starting applications, general web surfing are all much faster and less annoying than before.
  • All the software I wanted works fine as well. Partly this is because I’ve got in the habit of using mostly open source software even on Windows – Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, OpenOffice for documents, GNU Emacs for text editing, The GIMP for image editing (though by god I wish they’d change the name), VLC for playing music and movies, etc. – partly because other programs – Dropbox, Skype, etc. – often have pretty good Linux versions these days. I haven’t needed to fall back on trying to get Windows programs to run using Wine at all yet. The software installation and update system is much better as well. On Windows every program has its own separate installer, and often its own separate agent that runs in the background and checks for updates. This can get pretty annoying at times, especially when so many programs STILL need (or think they need) a reboot after updating. But on Ubuntu it’s all centralised – you can install new software from one place and update everything you have with a single click (hardly ever requiring a reboot).
  • Ubuntu can fully encrypt your personal files as standard. Admittedly I had to use a more advanced and complicated version of the installer in order to enable this, but it’s still better than Windows where you need to either spend a fortune on the “Ultimate” edition or install extra software (I use Truecrypt). I consider this an absolute must for laptops, especially after having had one stolen. It was a big comfort to know that even though someone had got hold of my hardware, they weren’t getting into my files unless they succeeded where the FBI failed. (Technical note: a normal Windows or Linux account password will stop someone from logging into your computer if they don’t know the password, but won’t stop them getting the files by putting the drive in another machine or booting a different operating system. Disk encryption makes the data effectively impossible to get at without the password).
  • There were some annoyances too. If you encrypt your files, hibernation doesn’t work, so you can’t suspend what you were doing to disk and resume it later. I’m kind of surprised at this and hopefully they’ll get it fixed soon. On the plus side it’s much less of a problem when boot up and shutdown are so much faster (Windows used to take an AGE to resume from hibernation on this computer, probably longer than Linux takes to boot up from scratch, so on balance I think I still prefer it this way). Also, the default GUI was a bit too weird and experimental for my liking… though thankfully it was very easy to switch back to something more traditional from the login screen.

Ubuntu effortlessly scans sheet music using the scanner that might as well be an A4-sized paperweight to Windows 7. Come on Microsoft, get your act together

So yeah. I love my netbook even more now.

(I wasn’t even planning to buy a netbook at all. When I had my old laptop stolen last year, I was feeling thoroughly fed up by the next day. Instead of spending the night at a hillwalking club social night and the morning getting useful work done as planned, I’d spent an hour shivering on the front steps waiting for a locksmith, then what seemed like countless more hours calling the police, waiting while they dusted for fingerprints, recounting exactly what happened what felt like a hundred times, and scrabbling around looking for details for the insurance company. So I needed something to cheer myself up. The next day I went straight to PC World to buy myself a shiny new replacement laptop, having decided my credit card could eat the cost until the insurance money came through.

But when the insurance money came through a couple of weeks later, it wasn’t actually money. It was Comet vouchers. Oops.

At this point any normal sane person would have phoned up Tesco insurance and said “um, look… I’ve kind of jumped the gun a bit here and I’m really sorry… these vouchers are very nice but could you possibly pay off my credit card bill instead? Pleeeeease?”. But being me I didn’t do that of course. What did I do? I shrugged my shoulders, went to Comet and came back with a flat screen TV and a netbook that I hadn’t really planned on buying. So it worked out in the end I guess).