Archived entries for ubuntu

A Personal Free Software Desktop Experience

By Jemma Batt, February 2010

When I began my research assistant position in November I was issued with a laptop to load with Ubuntu 9.10 using the default desktop environment, GNOME. Like anything new and different, it took a few days to get a feel for this open source desktop especially after having only had experience on Windows based computers since a very young age. After getting used to navigating around I have found it a very simple and user friendly system.

I mostly used the Office applications for my work; OpenOffice Writer for my word processor and OpenOffice Calc for spreadsheets. Both were easy to work with, offering almost all of the same functions as Microsoft Word. Any missing functions that I noticed were trivial things, like not being able to change the format of a single page within a multi page document to landscape [editor's note - this is a training issue, the OpenOffice uses a page style for portrait/landscape switches]. Nothing ever inhibited me from completing a project. One thing I particularly liked about Writer was the Table function; it was something I needed to use a lot and I found it extremely user friendly with lots of formatting buttons and no issues.  I had a quick tinker with OpenOffice Impress, the Presentation application, and again, it appears to meet all user needs.

When I first began using Writer there was no dictionary installed, however this was easily solved by accessing the OpenOffice Extensions website via the tools menu, and downloading the English (New Zealand) dictionary which was among a huge selection of spell checkers including Te Papakupu Maori.

Compatibility with other programs was something I worried about unnecessarily. I use a Windows computer for printing purposes and to open ODF files on that system was as simple as typing a “how to” into Google and downloading a plugin. Another option was saving the documents in .doc format in OpenOffice.

A really fantastic feature is the Ubuntu Software Center where there is access to an abundance of free software available to download. That’s “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer”. I used this to download Transcriber, a transcribing application, and Audacity, a Digital Audio Editor, to transcribe several interviews. Both were extremely helpful, however I had a few problems with Audacity freezing on several occasions, one which led to the loss of a whole interview and several hours work, which I thankfully had a backup of. I was told, though, that Audacity is known for having problems on all operating systems. Another issue with these programs, and the most significant I’ve had in the entire time of using this desktop, was not being able to open the recorded interviews which were WMA files. They opened without a problem in the default Audio/Movie player but not in the other applications. This meant a search for an open source file converter which took a lot more effort than I had anticipated thanks to WMA having copy protection. I couldn’t find an open source converter that both ran on Ubuntu, and converted WMA, so I had to resort to downloading one on a Windows PC and converting the files before transferring them onto my Ubuntu laptop.

The most impressive thing, and something I am not looking forward to returning to once I give this laptop back, is the lack of non responsive programs and required rebooting. I never (apart from with Audacity) had issues with programs freezing or crashing and I never had to restart the computer after downloading updates or new software. This is something that I constantly face with my Windows laptop and is the bane of it’s existence.

One thing I did not have any experience with is Evolution, the email client, only because it was not really necessary for what I was doing.

Overall the experience has been a good one, certainly not challenging, and has been a manageable solution for me as a general end-user. John Rankin says on the NZOSS website that a modern free software desktop will meet the needs of 90% of the people, 90% of the time which, after three months, is something that I definitely agree with.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Glynn Foster (of OpenSolaris and Gnome fame) kindly pointed me to Ubuntu Netbook Remix in a comment under my last post.

Well…HP what the hell are you thinking? Why on earth distrubute Novell SUSE Enterprise when such a hot hot distro exists? Indeed, why would you consider any other operating system, especially ones that cost money and restrict users?

I can’t speak highly enough about UNR. Just try it. Go to the web site, follow the instructions, or, send me a 2GB USB key and I promise to send it back with a bootable image ready to install.

To support my case, exhibit 1.

A menu view

A menu view

Exhibit 2:

Comparing Apples

Comparing Apples

and Exhibit 3

Gratuitous Firefox Shot

Gratuitous Firefox Shot

This is a simple very well thought out UI. If this is just the start of the usability work that is on its way I really do have high expectations that Ubuntu will be knocking off OSX sometime very soon.

Next up, Arch.

The Great Netbook OS Face Off

Some background. Mandrake (Mandriva), Debian and now Ubuntu have been my desktop OS’s of choice for the last umpteen years. That is the context.

The HP Mini 2140 Netbook is my dream computer. For many years I have sought a device that was portable (as in I can take it tramping and not begrudge the extra 1 kg), usable and powerful enough to carry out all of my “knowledge worker” functions. The power to weight to usability ratios of this device is exceptional.

Due to an ordering botch up on my part I ended up with two HP Minis at my disposal, one with Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 pre-installedby HP  and on the other we installed Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope). The latter was an “out of the box” point and click installation. Thus armed I am able to compare and contrast.

Room for this on even the untidiest of desks

Room for this on even the untidiest of desks

Both systems are very good. Things that should work out of the box do work out of the box. Wifi, tick, ethernet, tick, USB wireless mouse, tick, you get the drift. Installed applications work well. A very decent baseline to work with.

Still, Ubuntu ended up a clear winner. In the rest of this review I will attempt to explain why.

It is not that SUSE was at all bad, it was just that there were a lot of little things that gradually built up to an overall level of dissatisfaction. This started with the initial boot up process.

Whilst Ubuntu has a nice gui install process the pre-installed SUSE took me straight into a configuration process and an admin tool called “YaST”. As well as being unreadable it was extremely hard to understand what I was being asked for. I was stumped at about question 2, and it was only by trying about 10 combinations that I managed to get through onto the next step. Then there were the EULAs to which I had to agree. Of course, having clicked “yes” on about three of these without reading them I cannot now find out what I have agreed to as I cannot find the licences. I believe one was a Novell specific EULA, another for RealPlayer and a third for Adobe PDF reader. It seems bizarre for a GNU/Linux distro to have such “agreements” in the first place and in the second to be offering Real and Adobe as default installs where the free alternatives are just as good.

Ubuntu is very clear about these sort of shackles. It doesn’t have them. If you want to install them you can and it lets you know what you are doing in a very straight forward manner.

Talking about applications, it seemed to take the SUSE system about two days to register against a Novell repository. I tried registering with Novell as I was asked to from the get go, but that seemed to hang, for two days anyway. Maybe this was a protest because I refused to purchase a new licence from Novell for another Entreprise edition, I don’t know.

Once the Novell repositories were available I was struck by the lack of applications that were available to me to install. No Gwibber, no Google Earth, no Skype. The Gimp and similar applications not installed by default.

Ubuntu on the other hand works out that there is an NZ Ubuntu mirror for updates and new applications and sets my repositories accordingly. From then on I can install and uninstall to my heart’s content.

Sticking to administrivia, did I mention how nasty YaST is? Uninstalling software (Real, Adobe) is not an obvious thing to do and as far as I can tell, does not work. Here is my cock-up story. I thought I would be smart and install Firefox 3.5. Unfortunately, due to Firefox only releasing a tarball (zip file) and my lack of technical prowess I stuffed up on SUSE and decided to use Google before updating Ubuntu. Result, no web browsing for me on SUSE.

“No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just uninstall Firefox” and reinstall from the Novell repository. But the “uninstall” did not work. Either as a “root” user or normal user. I had to manually find and delete files before the re-install worked. And then the re-install gave me an older version of Firefox than came pre-installed. To add insult to injury there were no alternate web browsers I could install from the repositories.

Other niggles with SUSE on this platform? Well, the default fonts are rather spidery and hard to read, the application menu system is less intuitive, there is no Māori  keyboard option (right Alt plus vowel invokes a macron on Ubuntu) and the application choices are limited.

It does seem as though Novell has left the SUSE community behind in a way that Ubuntu has not. Ubuntu gives me as a user many more freedoms and choices. There was a time three or four years ago that the Novell SUSE desktop was going to take the world by storm. But times have moved on. Ubuntu has a large following and very good community support. Novell does not seem to have harnessed this support, largely I suspect, because they are attempting to follow a blended business model. One where Open Source is seen as a hook into their “real” software offerings rather than as a core and essential part of their business.

Where to from here? I still have SUSE on one HP Mini and will continue using that for while. There is nothing quite so unfair as an initial review. So, if you can help me get more out of SUSE and correct my many beginner mistakes please do. SUSE is an important option for many enterprise clients so the more information we have on its inner workings the better. I should also give Mandriva a run. It has been a while.

On a positive note “suspend” worked automatically on SUSE when I closed the lid, on Ubuntu I have to invoke it manually. That’s all.

P.S. Thanks to for their constant and assiduous help in sourcing Linux based machines. They are cheaper.

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