Well, it’s been one week since I successfully installed Ubuntu on my main desktop computer. How was the experience so far? Well, unfortunately, my experience so far has been somewhat limited by the fact that I haven’t been home very much in the evenings to make use of it. To make the most of it, I intentionally left my work laptop (running Windows 7) at the office to remove any temptation to go back to the familiar world of Windows. But I did manage to try a variety of different tasks in Ubuntu in that limited time span. As you’ll recall from previous posts, there are four essential roles that I use my computer for when at home: check email, listen to music, browse the web, and watch videos.
So, let’s take those four tasks in order to tell, at least initially, how well Ubuntu can meet those needs:
Check Email: Ubuntu comes bundled with an email client similar to Outlook or Thunderbird. But since most of my email at some point goes through Gmail, I’ve kinda stopped using a third-party client to access my mail and have instead defaulted to the Gmail web interface. So this one can pretty much be met by any computer with an Internet browser. But you might be surprised that during the limited time in which I was running my old Dell Dimension 4100 with Ubuntu, the standard Gmail web interface was too intense for Ubuntu to handle and I had to switch to Basic HTML mode to even check my email. Fortunately, the much more modern hardware in my main desktop computer is more than enough to handle the standard Gmail interface.
Listen to Music: This one was a little tricky, as there is no iTunes version for Linux. So while I have always been perfectly content with iTunes on Mac and Windows platforms, I admit I was saddened to have to give up my favorite music player. The good news is that I’ve been syncing my iPod Touch with iTunes on my file/media server for awhile now, so that functionality was not lost with the switch to Ubuntu on my main desktop computer. The alternative player in Ubuntu for music playback is called “Rhythmbox” and has a fairly iTunes-y feel to it (intentionally). I tried to connect to the shared library on my file/media server – and it even allowed me to enter the username and password! – but the library list from iTunes on the file/media server never loaded.
So, I had a bit of dilemma. I could be a minimalist and just use VibeStreamer to connect to my library through an internet browser, but without the benefit of having saved playlists already in iTunes. But I wanted iTunes functionality, dangit! So I decided to copy all 50 GB of music from my file/media server over to the local hard drive in Ubuntu. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it works. The visualizations lack the polish of iTunes, but I rarely use those anyway. Podcast integration is not as easy as with the Podcast Directory in iTunes, but I only listen to podcasts on my iPod Touch – which syncs with iTunes on the file/media server.
Browse the Web: This worked just as well as anywhere else, to be honest. Browsing the web has become largely agnostic with respect with to the operating system. Most of the major browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera – with the exception of the proprietary Internet Explorer) are available on more than one operating system. They all vie for supremacy, but performance advantages shift from browser to browser depending on who has the newest release. I’ve become a loyal Firefox user over the years, which was mostly driven by the crappy experience with Internet Explorer versions 5, 6, and 7 (while finally 8 shows some promise). Chrome and Safari can usually claim higher web “performance benchmarks” than Firefox, but the plugin ecosystem for Firefox just makes it too good to leave.
And let me leave you with three such plugins for Firefox that make it the bee’s knees. FireFTP is a free full-feature FTP client built right into the browser. I haven’t used any other FTP client since. And then there’s Ad-Block Plus. This program blocks images links from known advertising websites and hosts so that the normal cacophony of vewing websites is toned down to just the original content for the site you’re visiting. Granted, there’s a similar plugin for Safari that does the same thing, but its not quite as easy to install (at least older versions) and breaks every time you update Safari.
Watch Videos: This was really the only truly challenge I saw as being put to Ubuntu among my normal uses of a computer. I’ve collected a sizable collection of HD movies and TV shows that didn’t play nicely with either Mac OS X or Windows (until I discovered the nifty “EVR” setting in Media Player Classic Home Cinema that shunts the video playback duties from the CPU to the much more capable video card). So, was Ubuntu up to the task? Well, when I tried to open the first video, it said that it didn’t have the right codec. BUT, unlike Windows or OS X, Ubuntu automatically launched Software Updater and downloaded & installed the necessary codec packs to play the movie. Cool.
Playback itself was really quite smooth. I even opened up “I, Robot” – the only 1080p video I have on my server – and playback was very smooth. I was impressed. That task would have caused anything other than Media Player Classic Home Cinema (a Windows-only program) to stutter and skip. And the most interesting part is: I don’t think hardware acceleration was being used. Yeah, that’s right. The only way OS X or Windows could provide smooth playback for HD content was by shifting responsibility to the graphics card. Now, maybe Ubuntu does this on its own and I just don’t know about it. But if not, then there’s some serious optimization going on in Ubuntu for such smooth playback of high bitrate video.
So, at least in my initial experience, Ubuntu has proven itself a worthy replacement for Windows 7 or Mac OS X. And it’s FREE. That’s no insignificant feat. The next Ubuntu post I’ll write will be focused on some more advanced usage, probably including OpenOffice, disc burning, and sleep/hibernate functions.