Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Ubuntu excites me more than Windows or Macintosh

After a lifetime of high-tech disappointment, Hugo Rifkind has found true love, in Ubuntu Linux. As a new version launches, he attempts to share his excitement

Hugo Rifkind
You know that thing that happens on your computer, when you are using Windows? When you ask it to do something, and it thinks about it, and then it keeps thinking, and then you go off and make a cup of tea, and it’s still thinking, and you want to headbutt the wall, again and again, until gets all smeared and red and bloody and bits of your brain are raining down on to your shoes? Yes? Well, there’s a way to stop that happening. Stop using Windows. Use Ubuntu instead.
Ubuntu is an operating system. If you don’t know what one of those is, Google it, and then come back. The latest version comes out today. I’m writing this yesterday (confusingly) and I’m actually quite excited. Pathetic, isn’t it? Look, bear with me. It’s not easy writing in a passionate fashion about an operating system. It feels a bit like having a favourite type of petrol, or mounting a vigorous advocacy of a particular shade of lightbulb. But dammit, if you work on a desk, these are the environs are our worlds. Mine used to be Windows, and now it isn’t. And, as a result my life is better. Sad, but true.
Ubuntu is a Debian-based distribution of Linux. What does that mean? Buggered if I know. If you do, and you are feeling a powerful urge, already, to recommend a different version of Linux, then let me stop you right there. Is it easier to use? Is it prettier? No? Well, not interested. Move along.
I first tried Linux about five years ago, and it was a disaster, for all the reasons that Ubuntu is wonderful. The way it used to work, you see, was that you’d spend hours downloading the thing, and burning it in the right sort of image, and then you’d stick it in your CD drive and the screen would go all doolally, like the stuff Keanu sees in The Matrix. And then, if you were lucky, it would just go “KERNEL PANIC!!!” and do nothing. If you weren’t, it would wipe XP off your actually perfectly respectable PC and sit there having ropey graphics at you and not letting the wi-fi work. It didn’t take me long to realise why Windows was the market leader, and switch back.
But then came Windows Vista, the OS world’s answer to the Austin Allegro. All across the world, sleek expensive machines were sitting on desks, blinking little green lights and doing little else, for hours. Netbooks and smartphones came along at around the same time, helping people to realise that it didn’t really matter what language your computer spoke, as long as you could use Google and Hotmail. And into the void swooped Ubuntu. Finally, there was a version of Linux that was actually pleasant to use. “Linux for human beings,” they called it. See? Some IT jokes are actually quite funny.
My Ubuntu setup is faster than a PC and prettier than a Mac. But best of all, when you ask it to do something, it does it. Or, at worst, it doesn’t do it. It doesn’t think about it, for hours, and then mysteriously go off the idea. It doesn’t crash. It doesn’t break. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t use it.
Well, okay, I do. Some things might not work, straight away. When I installed Ubuntu, the graphics card didn’t get detected (so it was a bit blocky) and I couldn’t get flash to work in Firefox. It just took three minutes of Googling, though (“Vostro 1700 Ubuntu graphics”) and 30 seconds of tinkering, and I was away. This kind of stuff shouldn’t put you off. Any problem you might have, somebody else will have had first.
“But will I still be able to use Word?” you cry. Well, no. But you will be able to use something almost indistinguishable (OpenOffice), or Google Docs, which is far more useable anyway. You can mess around with it in all sorts of ways, and make it look however you want. I gather that Windows 7 is perfectly serviceable, but I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t see the point. It would be like moving into a generic hotel room, when you’re used to having your own house.
Hmm. I’m going on a bit, aren’t I? Look, I’m not an anti-Microsoft freak, I swear. I run XP quite happily on my netbook, because it works just fine and I can’t be bothered messing around with it. But on the big Dell tank that sits on my desk, it’s Ubuntu all the way. Now the new version is out, you should try it, too. Download it, put it on a disk, stick it in the drive and see what happens. You can run it from there, if you want, or you can tell it to install alongside whichever OS you’ve got on there already.
Personally, I dual boot with Vista, although I’ve barely used Vista three times in six months. The sole reason I do this is because Ubuntu won’t run iTunes properly, and as a result it won’t sync our music onto the wife’s iPhone. (Yes, I know there are other options. But IT’S THE WIFE’S IPHONE.)
Obviously, it’d be nice if Apple would do something about that. Although I doubt they ever will. Because if they did, why would anybody ever buy a Mac?

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