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:
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.
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.