Ubuntu vs. Vista

I started to install Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on my Vista laptop but ended up bugging out. I’m writing this blog entry in Ubuntu having not installed it, but running it off the optical drive on my Dell laptop. The reason I bugged out is that Ubuntu can’t tell me what’s on the partitions it sees during installation, and can’t resize NTFS partitions (or mount them). From what I can tell of Ubuntu, it’s very slick, but I do have a number of observations based on what little I’ve seen so far.

Screen real estate, especially vertical real estate, shouldn’t be wasted, especially in these days of wide screen displays. Ubuntu’s default Gnome setup wastes quite a bit of vertical real estate:

  • First, there’s the global Apple-like menu bar. Unlike Apple’s menu bar, it’s essentially just an app launcher, which means that 99% of the time it’s just wasted space. Not only is this a waste of vertical real estate, it’s a waste of a screen edge (very valuable — see Fitt’s Law). The Mac’s UI remains the only non retarded implementation of a menu bar in a major OS.
  • Ubuntu still wastes title bar space even for maximized applications. Windows also commits this sin, but at least it doesn’t have the pointless app launcher above it.
  • Edit: I forgot to mention Ubuntu wastes space for a “start bar” at the bottom of the screen even though that functionality is actually provided by the space wasted up top for the app launcher.

Installation

  • During installation, the time zone requester is extremely annoying. I live in Alabama and finding a “dot” corresponding to the time zone I’m in was quite fiddly.
  • During installation, touching the trackpad is treated as a click. This actually led me to accidentally click potentially fatal buttons. Bad. I’d err on the side of not treating random things as clicks in an installer.
  • Not strictly an installation issue, but getting onto my wireless network was needlessly painful. I needed to enter my 128-bit WEP password but it’s too stupid to (a) recognize the kind of password being entered automatically or (b) try all the obvious options automatically, meaning that the proverbial clueless user will have to know that it’s a 64/128-bit hex password and whether or not to use a shared key and so forth. On a Mac you just selected a network and type in a password and your computer, which is good at such things, figures it out. Vista has to be the worst of course, since it makes you confirm the password (like I really wanted to type that damn thing in TWICE).
  • The preceding issue is magnified by some pretty dumb behavior in various nooks and crannies. I have two wireless routers at home and log into them separately (but with the same 128-bit code). Ubuntu’s Mac-like keychain offered to store the settings but stored them incorrectly, so after waking from sleep I lost my network connection and couldn’t restore it without typing the long string in again, which I didn’t have handy. A Keychain tool (there are two and only one seems to work) appeared to let me copy the string, but I couldn’t paste it into the WEP login (and I had previously pasted stuff into it, so I’m guessing the copy operation silently failed in Keychain). But by then I’d deleted the erroneous keychain entries, so I was screwed. At this point I gave up on Ubuntu.

Digital Media

  • When I visited Hulu.com it told me to install Flash and sent me to Adobe’s page. Adobe asked me which of three archive formats to download (gz, rpm, or yum???). I downloaded each and none worked. Later, I tried my own video code (which simply tries to display Flash video naively), which caused Firefox to display a missing plugin graphic. Clicking that automagically installed the right stuff (and now Hulu works). Score one for Firefox/Ubuntu and zero for Adobe.
  • None of the WMV or MOV videos I tried would play. I got a weird looking player interface and a black screen. All the FLV media worked just dandy. I assume that SOME MOV or WMV video will work, but none of the codecs I use, and I tend to use pretty nice codecs.
  • Shockwave stuff doesn’t work… I thought the plugin had been ported to *NIX but apparently not.

Aesthetics

In my opinion, Ubuntu 8.04, despite lacking the GPU-fluff of Vista or even OS X’s understated elegance, is a very attractive OS. It’s tasteful, understated, and tidy in a way that even earlier releases of Ubuntu weren’t. I don’t care for the heron desktop, it seems desperately trendy (with the bezier swirls that seem so popular these days but not so well executed). Someone has gone to the trouble of trying to make all the included apps look reasonably similar.

Final Thoughts

Ubuntu is making Desktop Linux almost credible. I’ve been around long enough to have been excited by FreeBSD distributions. I remember installing a fairly early RedHat on my old PC (it took three of us to even get it vaguely working). The first Linux distribution that even vaguely tempted me was Knoppix (to which the Linux world owes a huge debt, and which should make Microsoft and even Apple pretty ashamed — if one guy can make a self-configuring Linux distro that runs on almost anything, why can’t Microsoft do the same for Windows?)

I’m definitely thinking of quickly rebooting into Vista, backing up any files I really want to keep, and then cheerfully overwriting Vista, but only because I’ve found Vista so annoying. (My major gripe with Vista right now is probably not purely Microsoft’s fault — somehow the permissions policy on my machine have been set such that I can’t install any new software or even updates. It’s a work machine which had Vista Business installed on it for me for testing purposes, but I can’t really use it and our Office is still mainly XP-based so it’s not well-supported.)

All that said, if it weren’t for Flash support, I would find Ubuntu pretty intolerable. One of the few things I find this laptop useful for (aside from testing stuff under Vista using whatever versions of stuff it has on it) is watching Bones on Hulu.com (I’m catching up having just decided I like the show, and this saves me buying the DVD box sets or paying $2/episode on iTunes). If Flash didn’t run under Ubuntu, then I’d probably be rusted on to some flavor of Windows.

That said, it annoys me that Apple doesn’t support Linux with QuickTime. I suppose that QuickTime would make Linux a better alternative platform to the Mac for digital media across the board (and Linux is already very credible in the 3d arena).

Addendum: I just realized that Ubuntu doesn’t seem to know how to put my laptop to sleep. Whoops! If this turns out to be the case, then that’s a show-stopper.

Follow-up: I found the appropriate setting, but it seems that suspend mode is not supported (as I found out later after, apparently, leaving the laptop running all night. That’s a bit of a show-stopper.

Final, Final Thoughts

With the problems I ran into, there’s no way Ubuntu will replace Vista on my laptop just yet.

I haven’t explored Ubuntu very deeply, but I’ve basically looked at three things: the web-browsing experience (fairly crucial, since I’m a web developer), wireless networking, and sleep behavior. In those three areas, respectively, I find:

  • a profound lack of polish (although, in part, this was because of Adobe’s stupidity — why not tell me which install to use with Ubuntu or automatically detect which one to give me versus giving me three options that don’t work) and serious incompatibilities with common digital media
  • usability issues and serious bugs, and
  • complete incompatibility with some pretty common hardware.

Given that free software developers tend to concentrate on the kinds of things they use, and that web browsers, wireless networking, and suspend mode are pretty central to the lives of almost any developer I can think of, it’s hard to imagine that quality and attention to detail will be better in the components of Ubuntu that are less central to a developer-centric world. So I’d rather not find out the hard way right now. Wake me up for the next major release.

Microsoft Vista Business: 1, Ubuntu 8.04 LTS “Hardy Heron”: 0.

Truly final aside: I did the final edits to this post on my Mac Pro, since my Ubuntu laptop has lost its internet connection and I don’t see the point in getting it going again.

Microsoft and Yahoo

If you haven’t seen it, you should read John Siracusa’s take here (funny in large part because of the quotes). I seem to recall reading that Yahoo is hoping to be bought by Apple instead, but I’m sure Apple will have nothing to do with this.

Since Jobs returned to Apple, he has been relentlessly focussed on turning Apple into a well defined set of individually profitable businesses with clear interlocking synergies (look at this list: Mac, OS X, iPhone, iTunes, iPod, Content Creation Software, and AppleTV — each makes money on its own and benefits from at least two of the other businesses). This is precisely the kind of company Apple is today, the kind of company Microsoft used to be, and the kind of company Yahoo has never been. Apple needs a bunch of ill-defined and not necessarily profitable or synergistic new businesses like a hole in the head. (And so does Microsoft.)

Anyway, I think this deal is the best thing ever. If we’re really lucky, Microsoft will insist on moving all of Yahoo’s services onto Microsoft platforms.

Is Leopard Apple’s Vista?

As I write this, I’m installing Leopard on my Mac Pro, having used it since release on my MacBook Pro, so you can take that as my firm “no” vote.

Here’s what’s wrong with Leopard as far as I’m concerned:

1) The translucent menu bar is a bit ugly. I think I’ll use a command line hack to fix it.

2) The dock with reflections (on the bottom of the screen) looks stupid. I’ve moved my dock to the left side of the screen, which works well and looks fine. I should have done it years ago (when I started using 16:9 aspect ratio displays) but Leopard forced me to do that, or use a command line hack to fix that as well.

3) Until 10.5.1 came out, my MacBook wasn’t going to sleep properly. Now fixed.

Aside from that, Leopard has three compelling features that I was missing terribly when using Tiger:

1) Apple tweaked spotlight to work as an app launcher. I far prefer the improved Spotlight to QuickSilver. If OS X were open source this would have been backported to Tiger, but Apple prefers to make money. Oh well.

2) Stacks are great (if I could customize the icon of a stack they’d be perfect). They finally eliminate the need for something to replace OS 9’s wonderful but flawed tabbed Finder windows and the Apple menu, and they’re better than either.

3) Spaces is the first virtual display solution I’ve ever not given up using after a week. The ability to have apps automatically launch into specific workspaces, integration with Expose, is very good (not perfect).

Here’s what’s great about Vista compared with XP:

Nothing, although I do prefer Aero to XP’s default theme visually (there’s a low bar). I find the blurry window frames very distracting and ugly, and running Vista the laptop I use it on runs hot if I open a text editor.

Here’s what’s wrong with Vista:

1) Sluggish waking from sleep.

2) Idiotic confirmation dialogs.

3) Idiotic automatic updates are basically about as bad as having viruses on your computer installed by the Vendor. Only you could clean viruses off your system; this crap is working as intended.

I don’t hate Vista. I don’t prefer XP. Both are pretty decent … for Windows.

Vista, The Gift That Keeps On %$#@ing

So, today, my copy of Vista Home Basic (retail, full price, etc. bought for me by our IT department to test our stuff on) demanded that I activate it. OK, annoying and alarming, but I’ll bite. So I clicked the Activate button (or whatever it was) and held my breath. A few seconds pass, and then “Activation was Successful”. OK, so a bit alarming, scary if I were — say — not online at the time, but no biggy.

Then, a few minutes later I notice the following at the lower right of the screen:

“This copy of Windows is not genuine.”

Slightly panicking (only slightly, because I really don’t give a rat’s ass) I search the help for “not genuine” and follow the most appropriate seeming link. I eventually activate Vista again. Same thing — Activation Successful.

And the message still reads:

“This copy of Windows is not genuine.”

I guess XP is genuine.

Windows vs. Mac Security. One of these operating systems has a destructive virus built in

Oh the irony. So here I am watching the last Steve Jobs keynote (the aluminum iMac introduction) on my Dell Windows Vista laptop (the one I use for testing the software I write, and incidentally use to surf the web when in bed) and Windows logs out on me without warning.

Why? Well to update Windows of course.

It’s funny how Windows thinks that it’s OK to shut down my computer without so much as a by your leave in order to patch itself, since — presumably — the reason you patch your computer is to fix security problems and bugs, each of which could potentially cause your system to crash without warning or corrupt your data.

In contrast to this, when my Mac patches itself, its updater patiently waits for me to restart.

I’ll take the OS without malware built in by design, thanks.