Linux for the word worker?My six year-old HP laptop has never failed me. But lately, it has been making me wait.

It’s running Windows XP, and even after a clean install – once its 512K MB of RAM was burdened with service packs, security updates, anti-viral software and a modern browser – it becomes the Little Laptop That Can’t.

At least not quickly.

It’s not the end of the world; I run my company on a fast new laptop. But I keep the HP upstairs, so I can surf and check email without heading downstairs to my office.

Was I screwed? Time to shell out for another laptop?

Maybe. But when you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to lose by trying something new. I went looking for a faster alternative. And found it.

The Linux Story

Linux is an operating system that runs many of the servers on the Web (this blog’s server runs Linux).

Linux is also available for the desktop, yet it’s rarely found on the information worker’s PC (desktop market share has grown to just over 2%).

A free version of the age-old Unix operating system, Linux is considered an operating system for techies, scientists and cranks. It’s fast and powerful, but often labeled “user unfriendly.”

Yet recently I’ve heard the rumblings. The newer versions are “friendlier.” Easier to install. Cuddly even.

True? Or false?

I’m no propeller head. But I am a good test subject. I’m a marketer, copywriter and online guy. And I don’t mind tinkering (a little).

In short, I use a PC the same way most online-savvy folks use PCs. And here I sat with a slow laptop; a perfect test bed for a Linux installation.

The Ubuntu Effect

Among all the Linux distributions, Ubuntu has been called the friendliest, easiest-to-install Linux distribution. That made it my starting point.

Which is when I experienced my first Linux Surprise.

Ubuntu isn’t one system; it’s many of them.

Several flavors are available, including a server version, an education version (Edubuntu), two “standard” desktop versions (Ubuntu & Kubuntu), an interesting studio version for multimedia types (Ubuntu Studio), a mobile version, and yes – a small footprint version for slower PCs (Xubuntu).


Installation was straightforward; I downloaded an Xubuntu CD image, burned a CD, and rebooted from the Xubuntu CD.

Expecting a painful confrontation with an extraterrestrial installation process, I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of indecipherable choices, I faced four installation options:

  • Install the Linux operating system over the old system (reformatting your drive and destroying all your old data)
  • Install Ubuntu in its own partition (it divides your hard drive into separate virtual disks; you decide which operating system boots at startup)
  • Install it on on your Windows disk (maintains all your Windows data and system; Linux runs a little slower)
  • Run it from the CD (quite slow, but you can test-drive the system without altering one byte on your Windows disk)

Because I didn’t care about maintaining my old Windows XP installation, I went with option #1.

And gritted my teeth.

This was where it was going to get messy.

This was where I was going to meet the Linux Monster head on.

This was… done already?

Installation went smoothly. Very smoothly.

The only holdup? The wireless card didn’t work, so I had to plug my laptop directly into my router. It connected immediately, and automatically downloaded the driver software for my wireless card.

Done. Finished.

Ready to compute.

In other words, installation was easy. Damned easy.

In 40 minutes, I was looking at the Xubuntu desktop, complete with open source (free) word processor (Abiword), spreadsheet (Gnumeric), Pidgin all-in-one IM software, and plenty other goodies.

Still, I’m a fan of OpenOffice (an open source, MS Windows Office equivalent), and installing it was a snap.

I simply ran the Package Manager, which automatically downloaded and installed software for me.

Fast. Simple. Easy.

What was I afraid of again?

With a little configuring (the browser had to download some non-open source plugins to run flash), my old laptop was once again a useful Web surfing tool.

It isn’t blazingly fast, but it is faster than when running XP, and Xubuntu handled my laptop’s limited memory far better.

The interface is clean and simple. Upgrades and updates are automatic. And yes, there was much rejoicing at the Underground.

The End of the Story?

Not quite. Running (and yes, enjoying) the streamlined version of Ubuntu forced me to ask the question: would I prefer the full-featured desktop version of Ubuntu to the copy of Windows Vista running on my business laptop?

I’ll be blunt. I don’t much like Windows Vista. It makes my fast new laptop run like my old slow desktop. In fact, it feels like little more than a slow, tarted-up version of Windows XP – and many of the interface “improvements” leave me scratching my head.

It doesn’t feel like an upgrade worth waiting years for. And I have zero interest in moving to the latest version of MS Office. In fact, my daily software set is already largely open source.

Wtih that in mind, was Ubuntu a faster, updated-more-often, better-designed choice for my everyday work computer? Was it possible to find out in a relatively painless fashion?

The Ubuntu Project: 30 Days of Linux

Turns out it was. I installed the full-blown glossy version of Ubuntu in a partition on my new Dell Inspiron laptop (total: two hours).

Most the software I wanted was already in place, but I quickly downloaded the few bits that weren’t (the big list looks like: OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Evolution, Audacity, Kompozer, Scribus, Gimp, gTwitter).

Ubuntu running all the usual suspects: OpenOffice, Firefox, gTwitter, IM manager…

Some are simply Linux versions of the software I already use. Others (like HTML editor Kompozer) replace commercial Windows products.

Meanwhile, Vista – and all my old software – reclines on my hard drive, ready to boot if needed.

Like Morgan Spurlock of “30 days” fame, I’m going to live with Ubuntu Linux for the next month.

If I like it, I switch. If I don’t, Vista stays.

First Impressions

Ubuntu is faster than Vista. Not by a factor of several times, but noticeably faster.

The interface is (to my eye) cleaner. And I’m already using mostly open source software, which means I barely notice the switch.

There have been glitches.

Playing a standard commercial DVD wasn’t possible without messing with indecipherable command lines. It’s an easy fix, but it’s clumsy. And while there’s a lot of open source software available, Linux currently lacks a killer blog editor.

I loved Windows LiveWriter on Vista, but have been relegated to using the oddly designed ScribeFire (Firefox-based Java app) for blogging. (Don’t Linux people blog?)

I already miss some of the peripheral software available in Windows. Like the Twhirl Twitter editor and the Q10 “dark screen” text editor.

And moving contact data from my Windows PIM (Time & Chaos) and into Evolution (the open source equivalent of Outlook) has been a surprisingly painful experience.

Outside of the few glitches, I’ve enjoyed an easy move. And with Web-based software becoming more common, the application barriers to moving to Linux are going to come down (in most cases, they already have).

Of course, larger questions of availability, scalability, compatibility and even philosophy are at work here, and I’ll get into those during my month-long Ubuntu test.

Until then, keep writing.

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