Ubuntu in Action: Oh My Bleeding Eyes!

I’ve finally surrendered to the inevitable and installed Ubuntu 8.04 LTS over Vista on my company laptop. (Note that I am lucky enough to work for a company that is perfectly happy for its employees to use any Linux variants they like on their laptops.) Vista had gotten itself confused to the point where I was unable to get much of anything done on the computer, and I have another Vista box for testing now so my laptop’s dubious utility as a test platform is now irrelevant.

I’m writing this entry on said laptop and one thing that’s highly annoying when using Ubuntu is that it doesn’t have any of the fonts we take for granted and the combination of the fonts it does have and the anti-aliasing algorithm Ubuntu (Gnome? X?) uses to render those fonts is not terribly pleasant. Ubuntu’s fonts resemble well-known fonts such as Times, Century Schoolbook, Helvetica, and Verdana, but by and large they’re much less refined. So this means every bit of text you read in Ubuntu will be just that little bit uglier.

Even if Ubuntu had great fonts and great font rendering, it is still ugly. Whoever has set up the UI options has definitely tried hard to make the best of a bad lot, but all of the different theme and widget options are just bad. Text isn’t properly centered in widgets, spacing is wrong, everything just looks clunky. And of course it all suffers from the fundamental architectural mistakes of Windows and all the well-known Linux desktop environments — menubars belong to Windows not the OS. So the most valueable real-estate on the screen (the top 20 pixels or so) is wasted with a useless “faux Mac menubar” or — if you customize it — a window’s titlebar, and the menu you really want is somewhere below. Yuck. The fact Ubuntu, by default, pretends to have a Mac menubar is obviously some UI designer painting lipstick on a duck.

Low level usability in Ubuntu (or is it Gnome?) remains problematic. E.g. if I double-click on a directory name in a URL in FireFox it selects the whole URL. (It doesn’t recognise “/” as a word-delimiter.) Now FireFox doesn’t do this on a Mac, but Evolution does this in an email’s body text, so I’m blaming the operating system (which includes Gnome). Low level usability issues are the worst because they affect every application that isn’t written by fanatics — it’s why even the best Amiga applications tended to suck.

Next, Apple’s new MobileMe website simply refuses to run under Ubuntu. The problem isn’t FireFox, so I guess it’s Ubuntu. Is this just Apple being gratuitously anti-Linux or is it, just possibly, font-related? I’m guessing the very refined UI they’ve built relies on the known metrics of fonts that can be assumed to be present on any vaguely modern Mac or Windows PC. In any event, the error dialog is very annoying — it features a continue button that simply pops up the same dialog again.

Ubuntu’s online help is almost comicly bad. To begin with a lot of the time you type in a query or click a link and it just … disappears. Not even an error dialog. I’ve sat there several seconds wondering if another window is going to appear or a web page will be opened… but no. Nothing.

It’s possible to install an application in Ubuntu and then to have no obvious way to find it (Ubuntu’s search capabilities are pretty awful, and it hides a lot of stuff from you). Turns out you can (sometimes?) launch it by opening a terminal and typing its name (of course it’s case sensitive).

Speaking of installation, there are multiple installation mechanisms in Ubuntu but while you can use two different installation mechanisms at the same time, you can’t use the preferred mechanism (which if it’s already in use. E.g. if you’re installing some giant app slowly and then you browse the web while bored and need to install a plugin, the slow installation continuing in the background blocks the quick one (and it does rather badly in that you aren’t given the option to queue the second install and you “lose your place”).

Don’t get me wrong: Ubuntu’s Add/Remove… command is great. You can just add more software with a single click (and you can pick a bunch of things and then click install and it will do them all). But you can’t add to the queue while it’s working.

Overall, I’m liking Ubuntu. Yes, it’s a little ugly. Yes, it’s occasionally mystifying. But it works, it runs fast, and it’s certainly no uglier or more mystifying than Vista.

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.