30 Days with Linux

Many people, daunted by Vista's hardware requirements and product activation issues, claim on various boards how they plan to "switch to Linux." We spend 30 days using nothing but Ubuntu Linux to find out if this is truly a viable alternative for the consumer.


Complaining about Windows Vista is a national pastime on Internet forums these days. Windows Vista "costs too much," "has onerous product activation," "requires too much hardware," etc. These complaints are often followed up by a very simple boast: "I'm just going to switch to Linux (or Mac)."

But in today's landscape, how viable is that statment? Is the threat to switch to Linux an empty one, or is it entirely possible? Linux on the desktop has been viable for years, especially for programming gurus who can solve their Linux problems by simply writing new software. It also seems to be viable for آ“Mom and Popآ” end-users who just want a machine to write letters, send email, and browse the Web (although, admittedly, a guru will probably have to set it up for them).

But what about power users, such as the typical audience of HardOCP - those who know how to build their own computers, but not compile their own programs? Or people who may not know how to do something, but aren't afraid of taking the time to figure it out? Is Linux truly an alternative? Can they do everything they did in Windows? The truth is, we didn't know, but we very much wanted to find out.

To properly explore these issues, we took a cue from Morgan Spurlock and made the decision to use Ubuntu Linux as our home operating system for 30 days.

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The Rules:

1) Iآ’ll start testing on Ubuntu Linux 64-bit. Vista is available as a 64-bit operating system, (although it also comes in 32-bit) and, should we look at Vista 64 in the future, we want to be able to compare apples-to-apples. However, Iآ’ll also test the 32-bit version of Ubuntu and compare not only the 32- and 64-bit versions of Ubuntu, but will also be able to compare my observations to a 32- and 64-bit Vista should the opportunity arise.

Note: In this evaluation, you can assume that anything I write applies to both 64-bit and 32-bit Ubuntu unless I specifically state the results were in one of the two kernels.

2) I would try to test out as many "typical end-user" applications and activities as possible. Digital photography and video, burning and ripping DVDs and CDs, email, Web browsing, gaming, word processing, MP3 playing and organizing, instant messaging & IRC chat, scanning, movie watching, etc. I'd also plug in as many hardware components as possible, from my own collection of hardware - none of which were bought with the idea that they would be Linux compatible, some of which is years old, and some of it brand new - a typical real-world situation. The devices are listed below.

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3) I would use Ubuntu Linux on my home machine as the sole operating system for 30 days.

4) I would not go into this blindly. Before giving up on a problem, I would consult a few sources - most notably the Ubuntu Forums and a book called Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks, written by Rickford Grant. I'd also check out the #ubuntu and #linux-help channels on the Freenode IRC network if I really got stuck.

5) I will go into detail on some applications that you would find surprising. I won't go into detail over other applications that many people mention. Specifically, you won't find a detailed critique of AbiWord, OpenOffice, Gaim, and the Gimp. This is because these programs have been extensively reviewed elsewhere and they are really not the focus of this editorial. Even more importantly, AbiWord, OpenOffice, Gaim, and the Gimp all have Windows versions functionally identical to the Linux counterparts. If you want to know how a particular program behaves, you can download those programs yourself and test them before moving to Linux.

Applications that will receive more attention will be Rhythmbox and Evolution, for example, as those programs are more likely to be used only on Linux.

6) Since there are many applications which can do the same job in Linux, I'd keep trying until I found one that meets my needs - starting with the Ubuntu defaults, then moving to a Gnome application before using a KDE-based program.

While KDE is available for Ubuntu (and the base of the Kubuntu distribution), I stuck with Gnome for two reasons: It's the default, and it seems to work well for what I want it to do. As a corollary, there may be better applications out there, but I stuck with what worked for me first. Many prefer Amarok to Rhythmbox, for example, but Rhythmbox did everything I needed to as a default.

7) I would test on two different computers. The first, and the majority of the test would be on a lower-end computer, which I have named "Whakataruna." This system represents the previous generation of hardware, and is perhaps very much like what a consumer would have bought one year ago.

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One year sounds ancient when you live on the bleeding edge of the hardware market, but when you think of your parents or your non-techie friends, one year is practically brand new to them. In our opinion, these are the folks that are most affected by the Vista vs. Ubuntu vs. stick with XP decision, as their computer has a borderline hardware profile for being able to run Vista. While their computer is likely serving them very well and they question the need to upgrade the hardware since the computer is still آ“new,آ” they are most at risk for taking the leap to Vista with the notion that their computer should be able to run it fine.

To make sure the problems I experienced are with the software, and not with the computer, we will also mirror our testing on a current mid-range computer. This computer represents what a consumer would have bought within the last few months in the expectation that they would be set for the next couple of years. The prospective owner of a configuration such as this would have bought this system in anticipation of running Vista on it and made component choices reflective of that goal. This system was graciously provided by Puget Custom Computers and represents a solid mid-range machine that should be able to run Vista, should the owner decide to upgrade.

As an aside, Puget is one of the few OEM system vendors out there that is willing to ship a computer with Linux pre-installed. Although we were sent a computer with a blank hard drive so that we could install our applications fresh, we wanted to make sure that we were getting a computer from a company that is at least familiar with providing Linux configurations. Puget prefers to install SuSE Linux, but it also offers Ubuntu and RedHat as configuration options.

For the purposes of the article, we dubbed Puget's computer "Pugetina."

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With these rules in place, I forged ahead, backed up my data, wiped my hard drive on "Whakataruna," and started with the installation.