My thoughts on Ubuntu

This isn’t so much a review, just a rambling discussion on what comes to mind for me about Ubuntu after using it on my laptop for three months or so. I decided against writing a conventional “review” of Ubuntu… seems like there are enough of those, so I don’t see the value of it.

But I do see some value in a rambling discussion on the subject, so here goes.

Why Ubuntu?

I installed Ubuntu on my laptop back in June, since I needed to wipe it and rebuild anyway. I thought it was time I gave it a try, particularly since I wanted to give my own Linux experience a little more focus.

I thought, philosophically, that I’d split most of what I wrote about here on Linux Critic into two distros, more for simplicity’s sake than anything else. I figured I’d write about Slackware from a more technical perspective, for people who want to tinker, and I’d write about Ubuntu for people who are Linux newbies, or non-technical, or just don’t care so much about getting under the hood.

The best way for me to know what I’m talking about is to use it, and though I’ve been a Slackware user for years, I had never touched Ubuntu.

I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on my laptop pretty much accepting most of the defaults. I wanted to know what things were like out-of-the-box before I started tinkering with it, and as such, I forced myself to use GNOME, since it was the default desktop.

Since I was going to be writing howto posts and waxing philosophical about window managers and desktop environments, and since it had been quite a while since I had bothered to use GNOME, I thought it a good idea to re-acquaint myself with it.

What I ended up doing with it, and why

I’ll do a little recap as I go along here, so as to catch anyone up that hasn’t been following me.

One of the first things I did was make GNOME a little more conducive to to how I like things arranged. I discovered that GNOME had been improved in some ways since I last tried it, but, sadly, it had been made worse in some ways that bothered me quite a bit, namely in that the developers had oversimplified many things to the point of making them useless.

Frustrated by the lack of basic options in many things, and noticing how sluggish it ran on my aging laptop, I decided I’d flogged GNOME enough and I installed and configured Fluxbox to use instead, since Fluxbox is the fastest window manager I’ve ever used, and I’ve had good luck with it on this same laptop in the past.

That came with its own issues, of course, but many of those issues were simply problems or deficiencies in how it was packaged in the APT repositories, and after some additional troubleshooting, I shook out the rest of the issues in short order and had Fluxbox working pretty well.

Over the course of looking into alternate window managers, I came across Openbox and decided to give that a try. As it turns out, Openbox is very Fluxbox-like, and I found that I really liked it, and as it turns out, that’s what I’m still running on my laptop, even though I finished my evaluation for it for my article.

So as you can see, in going from GNOME to Fluxbox and finally to Openbox, I’ve put Ubuntu 9.04 through some motions, and I think in doing so I’ve looked under the covers quite a bit, and that’s given me a pretty good feel for what Ubuntu can and cannot do, what it does well and what it does not so well.

What I think about this whole mess

I said this wasn’t going to be a review, but I still think my opinion is relevant; it’s just not quite so formalized as I think most people expect from something labelled a “review”, so I would still like to avoid that term.

I’m pretty impressed with Ubuntu, to say the least. I’m a Slackware guy, and have been for years, and the primary reasons for that have been expressed by me in many other posts here: stability, reliability, simplicity, usability, and the simple fact that it stays out of your way.

While I’ve had to do some kind of crazy things to get Ubuntu to behave itself in some cases (like the gymnastics I had to go through on Ubuntu just to disable the touchpad on my laptop, as just one example), you have to remember, my view of “how to do things” is heavily colored by my ability in Slackware to simply edit one file, tweak one or two things, and have it do what I want it to do. I’m not used to the “here’s how we think things should work” vision the makers of Ubuntu have (which apparently doesn’t include a way to disable a laptop touchpad without a whole lot of extra work), so I’m always contrasting the two, whether I intend to do so or not.

For every problem I encountered, I eventually found an acceptable solution. For every piece of quirky behavior, I at least found a workaround, if not a satisfactory way to shut it off or change it. For every bit of flaky behavior (like the tendency for Ubuntu to hang on boot while doing its file system check every so often) there was a way to deal with it (I shut off the boot screen graphic in GRUB).

I can’t fault Ubuntu for any of these things… I can’t even imagine how many countless hours I’ve spent figuring things out that don’t work in Slackware; it wouldn’t be exactly fair for me to tear Ubuntu to shreds over the things I’ve encountered that were less-than-perfect. So I won’t. Every distro, I’ve discovered, has its quirks and its faults, and Ubuntu has plenty. But as I said, every one of them I encountered was something with which I could work. There weren’t any showstoppers among them.

One GOOD thing that stands out above everything else is APT. What a time saver THAT is. Yes, I’ve used it some here and there before, and in Slackware I use slapt-get to update my system and install the occasional package, but there’s almost no comparison. APT wins. Hands down.

For one example of how APT wins, just this morning I was busy evaluating music player software for Linux, trying to find a suitable replacement for Amarok. I looked at Rhythmbox, Songbird, Banshee, and Exaile, NONE of which — not a single one — could I get working on Slackware when I tried to do so a couple of weeks ago. Not at all.

But on my Ubuntu laptop, each one (with the exception of Rhythmbox, which was already installed there) was a single apt-get install command away. I was able to evaluate all of those applications in about an hour on my laptop.

On Slackware, a couple of weeks ago, after an hour of fighting with dependencies for EACH APPLICATION, I had given up on all of them without trying a single one.

So I can definitely appreciate the power of such a tool.

The documentation and the community are also quite good for Ubuntu, which contributed quite a bit to my earlier statement about not finding any problems I couldn't eventually resolve. With the help of a few quick Google searches, I was able to find what I was looking for time and time again, and there's a LOT of value in that.

Conclusion

So, I've banged Ubuntu around for a few months, shaken out all of its oddities, and filled my head with Ubuntu knowledge and learned its ways. What next? Move on to something else?

In a word, no. Ubuntu will be staying here, on my laptop, for the foreseeable future. I like Ubuntu, as I've discovered. And, since I've started recommending it to others, people for whom I provide ongoing computer support, I now need Ubuntu as well. It's a lot easier to walk someone through something or troubleshoot something if you actually use it and have it in front of you. So no, Ubuntu isn't going away. In fact, with my having begun to lose faith in Slackware lately, and with as good a handle as I feel I have on Ubuntu now, I might even be installing it on my main desktop at some point in the near future as well.

I had a lot of preconceived notions about Ubuntu, I'll freely admit that. One of the main things that turned me off of it for so long was GNOME, and while I definitely still find GNOME to be counter-intuitive, sluggish, oversimplified, inflexible, and hard to work with, I also discovered that it's easily discarded and replaced with any number of other window managers that do the trick for me. Underneath it all is a robust, well-supported, well-documented, and easy-to-maintain Linux operating system, and I found that I really enjoy using it, tinkering with it, writing about it, and showing it off.

So I took a bit of a journey myself; I went from just testing and playing with it to actually using it and then deciding to STICK with it, which impresses the hell out of me. Frankly, I haven't been impressed by a Linux distro since I first started using Slackware. Most of the time, when evaluating a distro, I kick the tires, use it for a while, might see some good things, but still ultimately decide "it's nice, but it sure isn't Slackware" and don't see it as good enough to replace Slackware as my main Linux distro.

For the first time in years, that has happened for me, and I'm very surprised to say that the distro with which that happened was Ubuntu. Combine that with what I'm seeing as some pretty good reasons to drop Slackware as my distro of choice going forward, and there's a good chance that I might have found my new favorite Linux.

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19 thoughts on “My thoughts on Ubuntu

  1. nice article/review/rant. Ubuntu on laptops is a little finicky, and for you coming from slackware I can see how it would be pretty weird to see how n88b friendly it is and finding the other way of configuring your system via GUIs. When you get sick of ubuntu i recommend you try out arch, its like slackware but with a package manager like apt. I will still say apt is pretty dang good. LIke you i hated the default music player in ubuntu. It sucks, but it plays last.fm pretty nicely. I shuffled around all the music players very easily, a few commands and bam i had them all. Then a few commands later they were all gone and i kept the default haha, it does its job. For a desktop system, it does its job very nicely, for a laptop it does take a little tweaking, especially with a wifi card. I like your blog, keep it up.

    • Thanks for the comments, Scott. I’ve been checking out your site for a while now and have gotten some good info from it, so it’s much appreciated.

      When you get sick of ubuntu i recommend you try out arch, its like slackware but with a package manager like apt.

      Yeah, it’s on my list. I have gotten a LOT of suggestions to try Arch, so I’ll definitely be taking a closer look at it when I get a chance.

      LIke you i hated the default music player in ubuntu. It sucks, but it plays last.fm pretty nicely. I shuffled around all the music players very easily, a few commands and bam i had them all. Then a few commands later they were all gone and i kept the default haha, it does its job.

      Actually, I ended up deciding on Exaile… it’s almost like a Gtk implementation of Amarok… okay, not quite that close, but it’s pretty close. If you haven’t given that one a try, you should.

      But yeah, APT made the process of evaluating all of those really easy, so I was able to rapid-fire try each one out and make a decision very quickly.

      For a desktop system, it does its job very nicely, for a laptop it does take a little tweaking, especially with a wifi card.

      Actually, the only “laptop” specific issue I ran into with Ubuntu was the touchpad stupidity. Other than that, everything’s worked perfectly, especially wifi. I think it probably helps that this is an older laptop (it’s a Toshiba Satellite A75 I got in 2005-ish), so support for all of its hardware is probably old hat by now.

      • exaile huh, i just tried it out, it didnt seem to offer anything over rhythm box except the easy plugin download. haha. Ill stick with my rhythm box for now. It does just fine.

        ‘I’ve been checking out your site for a while now and have gotten some good info from it, so it’s much appreciated.’

        didnt know anyone really looked at my site, im starting to turn it into more of a, whats cool in linux blog for things that should be made known that are hidden within the linux open source communities…like dmenu :D

        • exaile huh, i just tried it out, it didnt seem to offer anything over rhythm box except the easy plugin download. haha. Ill stick with my rhythm box for now. It does just fine.

          Well, I was really looking for something to replace Amarok, and Exaile is pretty close to it in how it organizes the music library and how it handles playlists and the queue. Heck, it even fails to download album art like Amarok does! ;)

          Anyway, since it’s so much like Amarok, it wound up being just what I was looking for.

          Somewhat related: WTF is up with all the various music players (including Rhythmbox, Banshee, and Songbird) that don’t have “stop” buttons?

          I find that baffling.

  2. Good article, Trent. I’m glad that you’ve been able to tweak Ubuntu to suit your needs. I’ve given it a fair shake, but I just have a very hard time liking Ubuntu. I’d choose to use Linux Mint instead, if I were going to go that route.

    Truthfully though, I can get a Debian system up and running, doing everything I need it to do, with less hassle and weird bugs, faster than trying to do the same thing with one of its derivatives. One of the weird things about the Ubuntu family is that they have a different distro for each desktop manager: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, etc., whereas with Slackware, Debian, and Arch, you can pick what you want during the install process, and not get what you don’t want.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Ubuntu is great in terms of it’s contribution to the open source community and Linux, it’s just that it doesn’t grok with me, personally. And I like what many folks are doing using Ubuntu Minimal as a base: Crunchbang, WattOS, etc., and I’ll be curious to try out Lubuntu (using LXDE) when it hits next month. Still, all these things can be done starting with Debian, and honestly I wish these folks would build from Debian, rather than Ubuntu.

    APT: The reason that Debian and its derivatives are so popular, period. It is “the bomb.” Only thing that comes near it, in my opinion, is pacman from Arch.

    I’ve come to the same conclusion regarding music players: Exaile is the way to go for non-KDE environments.

    • I have considered trying vanilla Debian and just bolting on exactly what components I need. I haven’t decided what’s going on my desktop quite yet though. Since I’ve kind of gotten a handle on the Ubuntu way of doing things, I am leaning in that direction, in part just to keep things consistent from my laptop to my desktop.

      But we’ll see. Debian is kind of like Slackware but with APT, so there are a lot of things about it that are appealing to me.

  3. If you like openbox then I highly recommend that you give CrunchBang Linux a spin. I think you will find it to your liking. I use it, and I am very impressed with it. It is all that you will need out of the box, and i have found no difficulty in adding any additional apps that I wanted, such as Picasa.

    It is based off of Ubuntu. So you have the Ubuntu repos available. All your multimedia works out of the box. Give it a try.

  4. Good article, was interesting to see someone who was very tentative about Ubuntu become someone that actually thinks its a pretty good distro.

    Personally I tried many many distro’s and settled on Ubuntu, this machine is 64 bit Jaunty and runs without a flaw just like the 3 other machines in this house.

    On my wife’s laptop I disabled the touchpad in no time through the Mouse options.

    As to Gnome I don’t mind it at all, but I dislike KDE’s approach at things. Can’t say I have tried Fluxbox, might have to give it a shot.

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  8. I’ve tried liking Ubuntu, and altough I admire what it can do, theres just a certain thing that I find missing from it that other distros,

  9. About the touchpad, I just tried it on my machine and it works fine: I disabled it and logged out. It was enabled in GDM. I logged in again, and it was disabled.

    • When you say you “tried it”, are you logging into GNOME, or some other window manager?

      The problems I was having involved the touchpad not staying disabled when I was using Fluxbox or Openbox. I’d fire up the gnome-control-center, disable the touchpad under the mouse area, log out, log back in, and the damned thing would be enabled again.

      I got tired of having to manually disable it every time, so I figured out a way to toggle it on/off with a shell script I could call in my window manager startup. :)

  10. You really should consider building the music players from scratch or getting the tar installer from the authors website.

    In some cases like Exaile, you are already running the current version. But in other cases, like with the Listen player, the version you will build from source is newer and has many more features.

    My first rule of thumb when building a new version is to apt-get build-dep “program name”. There may be some differences between building Listen 2.2 in the repos and Version 3.1 from the website. But the build-dep gets you 80% of the dev files without you having to figure out what you need.

  11. i have to agree with michael’s post here, crunchbang is a well polished, and suprisingly popular openbox alternative to ubuntu – so much so im suprised canonical have yet to release ‘obuntu’, it would be right up your street.

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