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Ubuntu 10.04 brings Linux closer to the mainstream

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; G04

No Windows viruses. Free. Any questions?

Of course. Start with this one: How can an operating system with those virtues, the open-source Linux, remain confined to a tiny minority of desktop and laptop computers at home?

Linux may run TiVo video recorders and live inside Android phones, in addition to running much of the Internet's servers, but it still lags on home PCs.

Will that change anytime soon? A new version of a consumer-oriented edition of Linux, Ubuntu (http://ubuntu.com), offers hope for Linux optimists but leaves room for doubters, too.

Ubuntu 10.04, nicknamed "Lucid Lynx," comes from London-based Canonical, but like other open-source releases, it benefits from other programmers who have improved its source code.

As for those names, Canonical christens its versions after the year and month of their delivery as well as an alphabetical series of animals (the release I tested last year was Ubuntu 9.10, "Karmic Koala"). The word "Ubuntu," in turn, comes from South Africa's Zulu and Xhosa languages and, Canonical says, means "humanity to others."

Installing Ubuntu 10.04, shipped in late April, starts with a large download you either burn to a CD or DVD or, if you're installing it on computer without a disc drive, copy to a USB flash drive using extra software.

You can also use an Ubuntu disc as a "LiveCD," booting the computer off it without touching your data -- a smart way to protect your online banking.

I installed 10.04 on a months-old Sony Vaio laptop running Windows 7, then put its netbook edition on a 2008-vintage Dell laptop set up with Windows XP.

I've spent more time waiting for Windows to ingest last month's bug fixes: Within 30 minutes, Ubuntu's installer had partitioned each laptop's hard drive to park Linux alongside Windows and then rebooted into the new software. On the Dell, the Ubuntu installer also copied over such Windows settings as the desktop background and Mozilla Firefox bookmarks.

Ubuntu's desktop interface shouldn't look too foreign to Windows regulars. Its Start-menu equivalent resides at the screen's top-left corner instead of the bottom left, but otherwise there's little to get you lost.

Its netbook edition is another matter, in a good way. Instead of cramming an unmodified desktop interface on a small screen -- see, for instance, Microsoft's disappointing Windows 7 Starter Edition -- it presents folders and programs as large icons grouped in palettes that vaguely resemble an iPhone's home screen.

Ubuntu, like most Linux versions, includes many free software titles of varying quality: Firefox; the cluttered but Microsoft-compatible OpenOffice; a simple, iTunes-esque music player, Rhythmbox; an e-mail/calendar/contacts combination, Evolution, as bloated and sluggish as Microsoft Outlook; and so on.

The 10.04 release adds a social-media widget that lets you follow Twitter and Facebook conversations in the same window and an Ubuntu One Web service that, after too much fiddling, synchronized notes and some other files among the two laptops.

You can edit or add to that collection in the Ubuntu Software Center program, an analogue of Apple's App Store or Google's Android Market that offers similar, click-to-install ease.

Ubuntu does not, however, include the junk that's standard issue on new Windows PCs, such as expiring trial versions or pushy security utilities. Neither can it run any Windows viruses, trojans, spyware or worms.

But Ubuntu also leaves out two things Windows users rightly expect: built-in support for common media file formats and all their computer's parts.

The first time you click on an MP3 file or view a page featuring Adobe Flash content, Ubuntu will offer to add software to play those closed formats. That wasn't a huge obstacle, aside from a guilt-trip dialogue box's warnings about possible copyright violations, but adding DVD playback to the Sony required repeat trips to the Linux command-line interface.

Attempting to listen to a DVD on the Sony, however, was a pointless exercise: Ubuntu didn't recognize its sound card.

Yes, you might have far less working hardware on a PC if you undertook the destructive "custom install" needed to migrate from Windows XP to Windows 7. But it remains infuriating, not least when more complicated components (such as the Sony's webcam) function fine in Linux.

Researching the sound-card issue brought out an unpleasant aspect of Linux: The things that aren't easy are often intimidating and difficult.

Compared with Windows XP and 7, Ubuntu 10.04 booted up and shut down much faster. But it needed more time to sleep and wake up and fell far short in battery life. With the screen kept on, two Web pages refreshing themselves and a music library playing, the Dell ran for two hours and 25 minutes in Linux, 23 minutes less than in XP. In the same test, the Sony lasted just under three hours in Ubuntu -- but ran for another 80 minutes in Win 7.

Four years ago, I wrote of Ubuntu 6.06 that, "You need to be a little bit of a hobbyist. But you don't have to be a masochist." Although the new release requires less tinkering, especially on older PCs, it's still not for everyone.

Then again, when was that ever the case with Windows?

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