Over the past couple of years, Ubuntu has been working hard to prove that Linux isn’t just for the user who enjoys banging their head against a command line.
The latest version of the free OS is 9.04, codenamed Jaunty Jackalope. Although Ubuntu’s naming scheme is becoming increasingly divorced from reality, each release (or distribution) gets sleeker and easier to use.
We installed it on a PC with an AMD Phenom II 940 processor, 4GB RAM and an ATI Radeon 4850 graphics card. Unlike some versions of Linux, Ubuntu won’t run on very old hardware but you can run it on almost any modern PC, including netbooks. If you have an appropriate processor, it’s worth downloading the 64-bit version for better memory handling.
Installation was quick and simple. After we’d selected our language, time zone and keyboard layout, we were asked how we wanted to partition our hard disk. If you’re installing on a clean system, you can opt to use the entire disk and let the installer get on with it. This will put your system and user files in a single partition. It’s a little more complicated if you’re installing Ubuntu alongside another OS, but the installer correctly detected our existing configuration and even copied our Windows document and media directories to the new installation. You can read content stored on your Windows partitions, too, but you’ll need to install the NTFS-3G driver from the Synaptic Package Manager if you want to write to them.
Ubuntu booted faster than Windows Vista on the same system. Its Gnome interface will feel familiar to anyone who’s used Windows XP or Vista. Browsing folders and managing windows works in exactly the same way, and you’ll be able to use many of the same keyboard shortcuts, too. The menus appear at the top of the screen and a taskbar at the bottom displays open applications, but you can move these anywhere you like. The menu is divided into Applications, Places and System. Using these you can install applications, explore your computer and network, and configure your settings. We’re not too keen on Ubuntu’s default orange and brown colour scheme, but thankfully it’s easy to add new themes and wallpapers.
You’ll need the right drivers to get best out of your graphics hardware. The Hardware Drivers entry in the System menu can detect most ATI and Nvidia cards and installs the appropriate drivers at the click of a button. We initially experienced errors when configuring our dual-monitor display but ATI released a new driver that solved the problem as we were testing. There’s built-in support for many common sound processors but you’ll need to download a dedicated driver for Creative X-Fi cards. It detected our USB sound device, an M-Audio Fast Track Pro.
Ubuntu comes with a good range of software, including OpenOffice, Firefox, the GIMP graphics package and an email client. The Synaptic Package Manager lets you browse and install thousands of free applications. It’ll even look for appropriate applications when a program tries to load an unsupported file. When we used Firefox to visit a Flash website, Synaptic offered us a selection of Flash plug-ins.
Ubuntu comes with Rhythmbox (which resembles iTunes) and the Totem Movie Player (which is similar to Windows Media Player). Visit http://tinyurl.com/27vslb for help with installing a range of video and audio codecs. You can install VLC through Synaptic to play DVD movies, but Blu-ray movie playback is possible only by using a complicated work-around. We also downloaded WINE, which let us run several of our favourite Windows programs, including Spotify and even games such as Valve’s Portal. WINE integrated seamlessly with our desktop and supports a surprising number of applications.