The last few months have been months of rediscovery for me. On a whim, in October, I decided to download Ubuntu Linux. It was cropping up more and more frequently in web pages I was viewing and as an old (albeit lapsed) Linux hand - my first Linux box was in 1995. I wept when I got it to answer the phone - I was curious to try it out. Thanks to India’s shitty broadband, it took effing forever to download the image but once done and burnt onto a CD, it represented the state-of-the-art in Linux desktops as well as the present culmination of the efforts of million of open-sourcers all over the world.
Pop in the CD, boot to the live Ubuntu OS, click install, partition the disk and away we go - a free, brand-spanking-new operating system that does pretty much as advertised - it just works. The web is full of reviews of Ubuntu so I won’t go into details about this particular flavour of Linux. What impressed me most is the giant steps that Linux has taken since my last immersion in 2004 - running Fedora. I remember spending most of my time searching for rpms to resolve all kinds of dependencies and eventually breaking the system. Ubuntu’s (or rather Debian’s) apt package manager also represents one of the finest tools to add and remove software. Want to install a different desktop? sudo apt-get install kubuntu. Lamp server? apt-get install php apache mysql. You get the idea. Truly stunning. Coming from windows, it was such a refreshing change instead of going to three different websites, downloading three different installers, etc. And all the software is free so no annoying popups, credit card reminders or lame demo versions.
The other big improvement is in the desktop managers. I haven’t tried out KDE too much but GNOME is certainly ready for the prime time. It is pleasing on the eye, well laid out and comes with all sorts of cool panel applets - my favourite being deskbar, the file and application search tool that mimics apple’s Spotlight. DVD and USB drives are mounted automatically and most hardware works out of the box. As though this wasn’t enough, you can turn on sexy 3D effects with compiz-fusion (check it out on YouTube). With all this lovely compositing action going on, your desktop turns into a slick, shiny workspace with spinning and weaving windows and nice shiny screenlets for everything from calendars to now-playing.
Is Linux ready for the desktop? Let me put it this way - my mom runs Linux. Granted she only surfs the web with it, but she’s had no problems so far. The one area where Ubuntu really has to make up ground is in the multimedia space, although this is more an issue with restrictive licensing issues (lame, aac, etc) as well as poor support from hardware vendors.
Anyways, it took me no time to become bored of Ubuntu. I don’t think it really deserves all the hype it gets. For one, it looks really ugly. I suppose when it came out it was the dogs bollocks and all, but there are so many nicer looking distros out there. Sure you can customize it to look whichever way you want but it still is nice to have a really pretty distro out of the box. Secondly, with anything that is hyped so much, you got to look around and see whether the hype is justified, so it was with a sense of eager curiosity that I set out to find my perfect distro..
I next tried out Mandriva 2008 and it totally blew me away. It had like six window managers on the install CD that I got with Linux For You magazine. It was faaaaast, compared to Ubuntu. I always had trouble with the 3d effects in Ubuntu (I run a four year old 2.60 Ghz comp with 1.5 GB ram, but no GPU for graphics processing.) but Mandriva delivered them slick like anything. I found no annoyances with Mandriva, except it didn’t properly configure my sound system. Took me half a minute to fix. At about this time I decided to blow XP off my disk once and for all, so a reformat of the hard drive left me wondering again what OS I need to run now. I turned to PCLinuxOS, the other highly hyped Linux distro in town..
PCLinuxOS’s hardware detection and configuration is second to none. The whole shebang just worked out of the box, wireless network card included. Beautiful. Starting 3d effects is a breeze with drak3d. Is Linux ready for the desktop? Absolutely, but this is boring? Where are my config files and whats with all this gui stuff? Enter Arch Linux..
Arch is the Linux for Linuxers, not Windows users whose MS loyalties are being tested by Vista and can’t afford a Mac. A really small download (250 MB) and a quick install and you’re presented with a text login prompt. Time to build your system from the ground up. This time I decided to try out XFCE for the window manager as I wanted something lightweight and snappier than GNOME. Arch uses the excellent pacman package manager, so a quick pacman -S xfce4 xfce-goodies thunar firefox (and a long wait for the download) and poof, graphical desktop. I was expecting XFCE to be feature poor compared with GNOME but it is a really sweet and elegant desktop. It has native compositing support (as does GNOME), so no need to load up compiz-fusion just to get the nice shiny screenlets. Arch is entirely configured with .conf files and you know what? I love it! No more mismatches between your icon-configured network and the actual system config files (spend some time doing wireless on ubuntu and you’ll know what I mean). It boots FFFFAAAAST and shutdowns in an instant. It is very very cool. I have decided to use archLinux as my main distro for the time being, but what will happen to all the other nice distros? No problem - Virtualbox to the rescue..
The first thing I did was install XP as a virtual machine. It works fine. Virtualbox even sets up a network proxy for the virtual machine so networking works out of the box with no configuration. Sweet. My little hack-lab is up and running..
Next up? Linux mint..
Here’s a small screenshot of me running Mint in a virtual machine under arch. The terminal is the lovely tilda, a nice transparent terminal, one keystroke away. Nice work..
More linux updates in subsequent posts. Try Linux out. If you’re a windows switcher, try Mint. If you lnow your way around Linux, try arch. It is sweet.