six months of linux

I’ve been running both the laptop and the desktop on various flavours of Ubuntu for about six months now, which is time enough to get an informed opinion. This wasn’t a deliberate decision. I started with Xubuntu on the laptop, an IBM X40, because I was sick to death of XP’s erratic performance when switching between wireless networks and the a 3G dongle. It would interrupt me every two or three minutes with a demand or suggestion that it switch to one or the other, and in the Guardian’s confused wifi environment this was intolerable.

The desktop got switched simply because the XP installation there managed to wedge itself in an upgrade, so that it wouldn’t finish booting and I knew from experience that restoring all the programs and everything else would take at least six hours which I didn’t have. It was quicker and possibly easier just to bang in a CD and start with a basic install with openoffice, firefox, and – as it turned out – thunderbird. Of course I didn’t really save any time in the long run, but the subsequent fiddles have happened at my convenience, and this was a quicker way to get a working system. It did help that I knew what I was doing, that I had good backups, and that I knew how to symlink into my old Windows home directory for documents and how to pick up the settings and macros that I use in OOo and Firefox. I don’t think I could recommend it to anyone who didn’t.

In any case, I have managed to get most of the functions of windows duplicated in Linux. Almost everything is a little uglier and less slick than its commercial equivalents. But it gets the job done.

There are still some things where Windows XP is clearly better and I expect Windows 7 would be better still:

Bad points:

Music – sound in Ubuntu is erratic and needlessly complicated. I couldn’t get Suse to work at all and abandoned it. I really don’t think I should have to worry about mp3 playback skipping on a dual processor machine in 2009. Nor is there any really good jukebox/library program to compare with Mediamonkey. I have upwards of 10,000 music files on here, and the classical stuff, especially, needs a lot of metadata which doesn’t fit into the artist/album/track model (I also want to sort on performers, instruments, composer, conductor, and work-of-whch-a-track-is-part). Nothing on linux really handles that well. And of the programs that don’t, Rhythmbox is ugly, crude, and crash-prone; Amarok is ugly, crashy, and unendurably slow. Quodlibet is ugly but quick and doesn’t crash. I miss mediamonkey.

Video I hardly use. Can’t say that DVD watching is as good, but it’s tolerable.

OCR. Haven’t found anything that begins to work. Abbby finereader lives on virtualbox for that.

Notetaking: This is huge. There is nothing on Linux that begins to compare with Onenote, or Evernote 2, or Ecco. Tomboy notes are crude (and did I mention ugly?) and don’t have tagging or audio. Nothing else works at all. All three of the windows programs I mentioned sort of work under wine or virtualbox. But emulation is not the same and it’s not reliable and the notebook, where I really need them, isn’t powerful enough to run virtualbox happily.

Properly colour managed printing on a Canon printer is so far as I can tell impossible. It is possible, though, to calibrate a screen properly. The Bibble 5 raw converter runs OK on linux and will be fine if it is ever finished, and when the plugins for Bibble 4 are available.

There are also small programs I miss a lot from time to time: autohotkey, which let me set up system-wide macros for transposing characters; Irfanview (which may work under Wine); Ditto, which a clipboard extender that also works across the network (clip on one computer, paste on another) and keeps a useful static list of clips you will often use. All of these are free, by the way, so their excellence is not an argument for the superiority of commercial software so much as an argument for large markets. The Linux equivalents, where they exist, are clearly inferior. (There may be some things better in KDE, but that was in a very unstable state last winter and I didn’t try it for long).

Is there anything that Linux does better?

Well, the desktop can be made very pretty. On a laptop, the networking is clearly superior. Unison file synch works extremely well though it takes a long time to set up. It probably boots quicker, too. But I live on suspend and resume, and hardly ever boot the laptop, so that’s not important to me. I like command lines and can do many things with zsh quickly and easily that are slow and clumsy with a graphical interface. I have grown to understand and appreciate the double clipboard and middle-click pasting.

Beagle is a very good and fuss-free file indexer.

On balance,


a modern Linux system is actually an upgrade to an old laptop running XP, unless you have invested a lot of time or data in a note-taking program. I also feel much happier about plugging a Linux machine into other people’s networks, where strange monsters may lurk.
But on a new desktop, I can’t see the point. Actually I can’t see the point of buying a new desktop at all, but that’s another story.

PS I know, I know, A**le: nothing against them, and very nice in lots of ways. Unix goodness underneath, slick delight on top. I could always change both the hateful keyboards and the hateful mice. But I actually prefer small, light laptops to weighty ones. I’d love a Macbook air, but I couldn’t possibly justify buying one. And, to the extent that politics matter, I think of Apple as a much greedier and less trustworthy company than most. I won’t use iTunes, for example. I really wouldn’t like to feel I lived half in Steve Jobs’ world.

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13 Responses to six months of linux

  1. Shaun says:

    Greedier and less trustworthy than IBM?

    After 20 years of inverted snobbery Vistaphobia turned me Mac six months ago. Motivated by impatience as much as anything. I’ve lost my nostalgia for the golden age of motoring and don’t want to tickle any more carbs, just want to get there. For something beloved of creatives it’s remarkably soulless in its efficiency. (The silvery unibody suggesting Mercedes analogies etc). Have you ever had a car with cruise-control, Andrew?

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  3. You were still using XP at this late date? Wouldn’t it have been better to try a more modern version of the OS?

  4. You seem to have missed Basket Notepad. Give KDE another try.

  5. Daniel says:

    I’ve had a love hate relationship with Linux for years, trying out different distros in the hope one….just one would work exactly how I wanted it but it still fails in aspects that Windows can do fine.

    Two weeks ago I thought “hey I’ll install Ubuntu!” thinking the praised distro would be my ticket away from Windows for good.

    Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case, while the operating system installed fine and it seemed to recognise all of my hardware – there was still one issue that severely hampered my opinion of it. One of the joys of modern computing is being able to take advantage of multiple screens to extend your desktop experience. In my case I have my HDTV plugged in as a second monitor – mainly used for watching things like iPlayer/streamed video – I can do this in windows by simply dragging an instance of Google Chrome or whatever browser I’m using to the second monitor and watching my show.

    This isn’t possible in Linux, the drivers are too buggy to facilitate this simple process (when going fullscreen the video would just move to my normal monitor). While it is possible to run a second instance of X, it’s still messy as you can’t drag windows between the two systems.

    Obviously this is a really small problem when you look at the wider picture, it’s the principal that irritates me. I like Windows because it (mostly) works. Linux might portray itself as a true alternative, but I just don’t think it’s reached that point.

  6. Carlo Piana says:

    Glad to hear that you switched almost completely to Linux.

    You don’t see the point of using it on a desktop? I do: Freedom. You seem to hint at this in your PS. I remember a very good cartoon strip:

    “Hey, we are going to implant this gelocation tracking device under your arm’s skin, so we will always know where you are and what you are up to”
    NO WAY!”
    “But it has a nifty mp3 player with 100Gb music pre-installed for free”
    “COOL, let’s do it!”.

    I have a desktop, a netbook and a MacBook. Desktop has always been on Suse and then Ubuntu. Netbook came with WinXP. MacBook, obviously with MacOSX. XP went off in two days, almost never booted back. MacOSX stayed far longer, I thought I could never switch out. Then I gave Ubuntu a try. I have been using Ubuntu ever since, never looked back. Of course I am power user, but not that much. The stuff is just great. And it’s Free Software too.

    Ah, and now I have an Exchange equivalent without an Exchange server, with Funambol. I synchronize calendar, tasks, contacts and notes between all of my computers, and with my Blackberry. Plus I have a full email server on an Internet virtual machine running Debian, also email is fully replicated on the BB. And I host my own web sites (3 so far) with Apache and Drupal. And I have my own off-site backup solution via Unison on an encrypted partition that I bring up on demand. All Free Software.

    You think I am a sysadmin, don’t you?

    Nope, I am a lawyer without any programming background and without any external help.

  7. acb says:

    Carlo, you’re certainly a sysadmin in your spare time … I don’t doubt all these things are possible; it’s just a personal judgement whether they’re needed.

    Daniel, that’s a very good example. With Linux, you have to care about whether your graphics card is from Nvidia or ATI (it needs to be from nvidia). This really isn’t a problem on Windows, or on a mac.

    ubuntuforfree: I looked at basket notes and saw that it is no longer actively developed.

    Shaun, my car has both cruise control and automatic transmission. But if I sold it, the proceeds still wouldn’t get me a macbook air, and I would be deprived of my most useful piece of fishing tackle.

  8. Kevin says:

    Re: note taking, there’s one program that works for note taking in any OS you could think of.

    Emacs.

    Now, bear with me here…

    If you set your emacs up right, eg. turning on cua-mode (regular Ctrl+v/c copy-paste keys etc.), it actually isn’t very different from eg. Textmate on a mac and so on. And with emacs 23, with org + remember + daemon you have the perfect note-taking setup. What you end up with, is you can press your favorite hotkey from any program, a frame pops up where you type your note, and goes away again when you’re done. Notes are stored in plain text files (org-mode notation) so they’re portable across all systems. You don’t need emacs to read them, but emacs does run practically everywhere.

    There’s a handy tutorial here: http://emacs-fu.blogspot.com/2009/04/remember.html

    It really is worth it — you’ll never want to go back.

  9. First, I just noticed that KDE 4.3 RC3 is available in the Kubuntu reposits. Download the liveCD and give it a try.

    Shaun: man up! dont fear the Vista, because it’s here and it’s going to be temporary (when was the last time you saw a WindowsME machine in production?).

    All of my friends loved their Zaurus and/or Newton for taking notes. Have you seen the advanced Moleskine notebooks? Perhaps having an operating system is too much.

    Owning an nvidia vs an ATI is important on Windows. Since you mentioned the car analogy, It’s as critical as choosing toyota vs kia. You’re going to get better support from one.

  10. acb says:

    Notetaking: I want something that does more than just plain writing scraps on pieces of paper. The need to be searchable, to support tagging of some sort or another, to be closely linked into the browser, and to be easy to arrange by subject or content. There is nothing still being developed on linux which is remotely suitable. Yojimbo on the Mac looks good. Onenote and Evernote and Ecco are all variously impressive attempts.

    As for video cards — on Windows I don’t need to fucking care about support. They all just work, with varying degrees of ugliness. I don’t play games; all I want is something that will handle photographs and play DVDs without fuss. Anything on Windows will work. Nothing from ATI seems to do this in Ubuntu at the moment. That’s just farcical and a good enough reason to avoid the whole mess.

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  12. Did you ever hear of SongBird http://getsongbird.com/ I bet you never even tried it… it’s not ugly …

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