Ubuntu: A nice holiday, but glad to be home

With 48 hours of open-source over, reflecting on the entire experience, how do I rate Linux from a Windows-only background? The results may suprise you;

This past 48 hours has been an eye opening time of which I plunged myself into an entirely open-source environment head first, with no prior experience.

Over the preceding weekend, I simply set up the machine and installed what I believe I needed. Ubuntu 9.10 was running in a VMWare Player virtual machine (790MB RAM) with VMWare Tools for Linux, running on top of my Windows 7 production machine (AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual core, 4GB RAM).

The reason I chose a virtual machine were twofold: I needed my Windows machine to stay on as I run critical back-end services and processes in the background which are necessary for various reasons. Secondly I didn't have the knowledge or understanding to install a native Ubuntu installation properly on my laptop; I thought a nice, secure environment where nothing could go wrong would be best.

Many have criticised my methods. Many have said 48 hours isn't enough time, others have said I should have performed a native installation, which I ended up doing. One person seemed almost terrified that I was going to suddenly hate the overall experience as a result of a few minor glitches, resulting in what can only be described as a "panic metaphor". 48 hours was enough though, and was so for logistical reasons.

As the hours went on and my temptation to play with Compiz, the graphics accelerating program which manipulates windows and provides a far richer visual experience, overflowed and I installed it on my laptop. However, my issues (along with many others) in getting the graphics drivers for the ATI Radeon HD 3200 card stumped me and was unable to enable Compiz.

So, with this, how do you think I would rate my final experience?

On a very simple basis, my experience can be boiled down to a bunch of stars. Yes, Windows 7 in my opinion is pretty good, and Vista is poor in comparison, yet Ubuntu is far better and in between the two. Mac OS X doesn't strike well with me due to the limited number of applications available in comparison to both Windows and Linux.

The best analogy I could find to summate my experience is this. I had a lovely time on holiday, but equally glad to be back home again. You know that feeling when you go away somewhere beautiful and serene, you like being there but after a short while you do miss the smaller things in life which you had at home. But at the end of it, you still come away refreshed and happy with your time, and the want to continue exploring further and revisit that place.

Of course, I'm speaking in metaphors, but you get the picture.

There were two major issues I encountered: VPN and drivers. A vital part of the university experience is to access remote documents, file shares, research articles and databases and other networked resources. VPN software needs to be installed first off, unlike other editions which have it automatically bundled, and even after the configuration a mystery message just told me that the connection had failed. I gave up in the end.

Once I had installed native Ubuntu onto my laptop, the drivers for graphics and networking weren't exactly falling at my feet. I've realised that when (any) operating system needs drivers, try and let it pick them out for you. The vast majority of the time it gets them right. I should have done this initially after facing issues with the manual installation and nearly having to reinstall.

Linux doesn't have an issue with drivers; it's the hardware manufacturers who seem to have, almost rightfully, seconded drivers' priority to Windows, the more popular operating system. As there are still hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Linux users out there in the world, hardware vendors and driver writers should still at least attempt to support these systems. Yet with the open-source community as it is, they chip in where and when they can to write and maintain drivers they have written themselves, filling the gaps in most places.

But these two issues are minor in comparison to the wholly positive experience I have had. So to answer my question: How would an "ordinary" student cope using a non-Windows environment for 48 hours?

Granted, a lot of the time will be spent installing drivers and configuring the system for how you want it to be, and will probably take longer than those who have used nothing but Windows through their entire careers or lives. But once it's done, it's a brilliant operating system to use and massively powerful and open to pretty much anything. The applications and packages are endless and I can now see why people feel so passionately about open-source and free software.

Once you get into the flow of things, most of the concepts are similar to Windows. You can still install, uninstall, customise, browse, work and play games. Things do look a little different, but you can easily change the way things look, more so in Linux than you can do in Windows. Icons and windows are still there, and there's even a file structure - believe it or not - albeit it takes a while to reconfigure your own mind set into a different organisational file structure.

I will say this once again, dear readership. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter which operating system you use. No operating system is perfect, and every manufacturer has its own following of people who engage within a certain subtype of culture. No one is better than the other, and it should always boil down to a personal preference and not to insults, criticisms and a childish disposition like many have done so.

While I was working away these 48 hours in Ubuntu using only open-source technology, the vast majority of you were fighting each other in the comments section. However, for those in the minority spurring me on, providing useful feedback, helping me out and generally keeping me going, I offer you my most sincere thanks.

You know what? I think tomorrow I'll boot back into Ubuntu and see if I can get Compiz to work.