Mere Users Could Leap Into Tinkerers' World

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Linux operating system -- a free, open-source alternative to Windows and Mac OS X -- has long served to define the gap between people who merely use computers and those who tinker with them.

If you counted yourself among the first group, you probably were irked by the some-assembly-required ethos of Linux. If you were in the second group, that same aspect was more likely to be a source of satisfaction.

But that dividing line may be fading. On one hand, the security problem with Windows seems as bad as ever for many people -- especially those still running pre-XP releases ineligible for some of Microsoft's latest fixes. On the other hand, Linux's developers have been working to fix the issues that have understandably spooked outsiders.

These days, Linux is a lot less likely to bite your hand off. This software may not hold your hand much either -- but if the alternative is sticking with a copy of Windows that you no longer trust with your data, Linux may be good enough.

Consider the version of Linux that has been drawing the most attention lately, Ubuntu 6.06 ( http://www.ubuntu.com/ ). It combines a few important ingredients: no charge to install or update it, a focus on simplicity, a level of polish that can help reassure nervous beginners, and a growing user base motivated to help improve this software and its documentation.

Now, Ubuntu is not Shangri-La. (The name, according to the Ubuntu site, is pronounced "oo- boon -too" and means "humanity toward others " in South Africa's Zulu and Xhosa languages.) This operating system can't run your Windows programs, and it may not recognize all of your computer's hardware. You need to be a little bit of a hobbyist. But you don't have to be a masochist.

You can get Ubuntu in two ways, both free: Download a nearly 700-megabyte "disc image" and burn that to a CD-R, or request a CD at the Ubuntu site. (My disc arrived in about seven weeks.) This distribution, along with Ubuntu's development, is sponsored by Canonical Ltd., a software developer that sells software-support services to businesses.

The Ubuntu disc, like those of other Linux versions, is a "LiveCD": You can start up the computer from this CD, then run Ubuntu off it without changing anything on your hard drive. You may first need to tell your computer to boot off its CD/DVD drive; its start-up screens will indicate what key to press.

This lets you get acquainted with Ubuntu risk-free -- and see if it quarrels with your computer's hardware. It usually shouldn't; in my first test of Ubuntu, even the volume and mute buttons on a Dell laptop worked perfectly. But Ubuntu may have trouble detecting a WiFi receiver or adjusting to a widescreen monitor. The internal dial-up modems in PCs almost certainly won't work, owing to their reliance on proprietary, Windows-only code. Adding a cheap external modem can solve that-- but since almost all Linux software comes via download, dial-up access won't fit well with Linux anyway.

Ubuntu's system requirements roughly match the bare minimum for Windows XP: 256 megabytes of memory and three gigabytes of hard-drive space. Adding Ubuntu, or any other version of Linux, doesn't mean removing Windows; its installer will offer to divide your hard drive into Windows and Linux partitions that you can switch between at each start-up. (An HP laptop, however, somehow didn't allow this partitioning; on the Dell computer, I had to run a separate partition editor included on the CD.)

Installing Ubuntu took about 30 minutes, with only minimal input required -- mostly creating a user name and password. Here's where this version differs from other Linux editions built on the same basic code: Esoteric stuff is hidden from view by simplified user interfaces and sensible default settings.

Ubuntu's desktop shows the same mindset, with a minimum of the onscreen widgets cluttering many Linux releases. Three menus at the top left -- Applications, Places and System -- clearly group access to all the important parts of the computer. The system features a well-edited set of third-party programs, including the Firefox Web browser, an Outlook-ish e-mail/address book/calendar program called Evolution and the OpenOffice productivity suite.

But Ubuntu doesn't support the popular music and video formats (most importantly, MP3 and Flash), which the developers could not include and still keep this distribution free. Adding them is easy enough if you know where to look -- but neither Ubuntu's setup screens nor its help file explain this, much less provide the helpful installer ( http://easyubuntu.freecontrib.org/ ) that fixes this and a few other omissions.

Adding most extra programs, however, is a breeze. The "Add/Remove" item at the end of the Applications menu provides access to a catalogue of downloadable applications; find a program you like, click the checkbox next to it and the "Apply" button below, and Ubuntu handles everything else. (You do, however, have to adjust a few settings to get access to the full set of software available.) Removing an installed program is just as quick.

This centralized approach can seem odd, but it works -- and sticking to Ubuntu's repository of programs drops the already-low risk of catching a Linux virus to just about zero.

Most common external devices work properly in Ubuntu; for example, USB flash-memory key chains showed up on the desktop as they would in Windows, but faster, and an HP printer worked immediately, without needing any extra software. But Ubuntu's scanner program didn't recognize the HP's built-in scanner, and I haven't been able to transfer music to an iPod Nano in two programs supposedly capable of the task.

Issues like the last one mean Ubuntu isn't likely to please a multimedia junkie. It also probably won't work for those attached to their current Windows programs (though it's possible to run some Windows applications within Linux using such translation software as Wine or CrossOver).

But that leaves a large group of people who use a computer just for the Web, e-mail, and the occasional letter or spreadsheet. Some of them might find that it's easier to get those things done in Ubuntu than in a far-less-secure copy of Windows 98 -- if, that is, they can wrap their heads around the idea of taking such a leap into the unknown.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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