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Vista versus The Gutsy Gibbon - Ubuntu 7.10

I'm currently using seven computers. Well, not at this precise moment (just three, as it happens), but darn it if I'm not proud of the fact.

I'm currently using seven computers. Well, not at this precise moment (just three, as it happens), but darn it if I'm not proud of the fact.

Of those seven, three run XP, one runs Ubuntu 6.06, two are now on Ubuntu 7.10, and one is Vista. Apple has invited me along to the Festival of the Leopard, so I have high hopes that I'll soon be adding OS X to the mix (I do have a Mac OS 8 box in the bedroom, but I only use that for Crystal Quest, so it doesn't count).

My XP systems, I like. Everything works with them, the one in the office lets me use the office Windows-only software (gnash) that controls the phones, and the two at home get loaded up with other bits of hardware and software that i can't be bothered to (or just can't) shoehorn into Linux.

My Ubuntu boxes, I love. The 6.06 computer is an ancient Compaq Armada with a 500 MHz PIII, a smear of memory, a shagged battery, and an unusually large hard disk that got transplanted in from a dead Windows laptop. It does various server tasks perfectly well, I VNC into it from around the planet to keep it on its toes, and I last reset it after around 190 days uptime. It's the heart of the Goodwinsian computer matrix.

Then there's the work Ubuntu computer, on which I do just about everything when I'm in the office. On Friday, I decided to update it from 7.04 to 7.10. That took a single click - no, honestly - in the system software manager, and about ten minutes downtime, most of which was me playing about. While most of the software was downloading and installing itself, I could carry on working.

And 7.10 is really rather nice; I find myself enjoying the various windows animation gimmicks more than I expected. I particularly enjoyed installing some new Firefox add-ins that needed a browser restart: as the old instance closed, the window shrank into the distance, and a second later the new instance sprang into life as if it was being thrown onto the screen from behind me. The tabs I had open were carried across the restart - stylish, fun and minimally invasive. Oh, and 7.10 found the ZDNet editorial printer on the network and installed the correct driver, without fuss. Superb.

The upgrade at home has not been so splendid. There, the computer has two partitions, and for historical reasons the ubuntu system lives on a small 3GB sliver of a much larger disk (I mounted the major partition as my home directory). This was deemed too small by the automatic upgrade, and for reasons that eluded me like an eel on crystal meth, every time I tried to free up space, the amount by which I fell short got larger.

So I decided to reinstall from scratch, which means that certain problems I solved for 7.04 are now back again (in particular, a stubborn refusal by the system to set the resolution of the screen properly. XORG.CONF editing? Not want. It looks like a problem in the unholy empire of ATI chipsettery, and I've lost men there before.)

But again, the experience was mostly fine. Having used Ubuntu for the best part of a year, I'm a fan. I can (and will) go into the bipolar experience thereof - but for every ounce of frustration in trying to track down the answer to a problem through the jungle of forums and dubious advice, there's half a pound of pleasure when I can just install an application that does something I want done.

Which leaves my Vista machine. This is a Sony laptop that I've borrowed from the review pile while my lovely Dell X1 is up on bricks, and it's been my first serious encounter with the OS. And it's not been a good experience. There are plenty of specific problems that may be Vista or may be Sony. The wireless networking is vastly unreliable when switching between different access points, for example, and I've traced this down to a habit it has of creating new profiles and populating them with incorrect DNS addresses.

But mostly: it's slow, it's intrusive, and it's arbitrarily different. It takes minutes to wake up from various sleep states or from a restart; minutes in which parts of the system seem to get going only to lapse into an unresponsive state where you're not at all sure whether your mouse clicks are registering. When you're going through a lot of restarts (as in, say, when you're trying to diagnose a wireless network problem), that adds up to a lot of pain.

Elsewhere, it behaves like XP behaves on a 256MB computer, only it's running in 2GB. Everything is just... slow.

It's intrusive when it comes to downloading and running new software. I know why, and I know it's an old complaint, but it remains a real problem.

As for arbitrary differences: I know tons of useful short cuts through the XP interface. These don't work any more. Not because there's some fundamental new philosophy at work that I can learn to my advantage, but because things have been moved around. I know that I can close down XP by pressing the Windows key and 'U' twice. Not with Vista. Now, even the power switch icon in the start menu doesn't have an option to turn the computer off.

That wouldn't be so frustrating, if Vista wasn't so like XP in so many ways that the changes are so obviously change for change's sake. As it is, I still know enough about what's going on to correctly diagnose problems. I'm just prevented from finding the place to fix them.

(I won't mention the dead laptop at work that's dead because the Windows Genuine Advantage system has decided that its copy of Vista is illegitimate. It came in as a review machine, without the usual documentation, so we don't have the OEM's licence key. We do have the OEM's Vista still installed, but that's Not Good Enough.)

So here's the funny thing. I've used Windows since 1.0. I've lived through the bad times of Windows/386 and ME, and the good times of NT 3.51 and 2K. I know XP if not backwards, then with a degree of familiarity that only middle-aged co-dependents can afford each other. Along the way, I've dallied with many other operating systems on many other platforms - but never with Unix and only lately with Linux.

Then how come I'm so much more at home with Ubuntu than Vista? It boils down to one abiding impression: Ubuntu goes out of its way to get out of your way, even if it doesn't succeed all the time. Vista goes out of its way to be Vista and enforce the Vista way. You must conform regardless of the implications.

Call me curmudgeonly, call me prejudiced, call me atypical, but isn't computing all about doing what users want?