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.