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Living with Linux: installing and using Ubuntu Netbook Edition

Or how I learnt to stop worrying and love Linux

Heard about Linux but never dared to give it a spin? You don't have to, because I did - and here's how I got on.

Between office, home and smartphone, there are multiple operating systems in my life: Microsoft Windows 7, Vista and XP on various PCs, OS X on my Mac, and Apple iOS on my iPhone. I've used multiple smartphone operating systems, and fear not one of them, but I've never before used a Linux OS.

I have, of course, heard of Linux, but it's never been a direct part of my computing life. Colleagues have long espoused the virtues of open-source, but it's always seemed too much of a faff - a hassle to download and install, and an unknown quantity in terms of compatibility. In short, Linux is for weirdos, or so I thought.

(Yes, I know that various devices in my house run off the Linux kernal, but that doesn't count. If I don't use it to surf the web, email or word process, I'm not interacting with the OS, okay? Okay.)

So much for ignorance. After one too many business trips spent waiting for my creaking XP netbook to tick over, and having perused the glowing reviews of Ubuntu's latest - Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat - I decided to bite the bullet and give living with Linux a try. In this case, Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

I had nothing to lose, because my Asus Eee PC has two flash hard disks, one of which is taken up by the OS, and the other XP was unable to see. In fact, my netbook was rapidly becoming a notbook, and only Linux could save it.

Living with Linux: The install

Like driving around Spaghetti Junction, the Ubuntu install process is simple, but requires that you give it your full attention. Ubuntu is the most consumer of Linux distros, aimed at the mass market, so it makes sense that it's easy to download and install. And it is, albeit with a caveat or two.

If you are a competent computer user, you'll have no problem installing Ubuntu. You must first create a bootable USB drive with software downloads Ubuntu provides, and then install from the disk. There are many steps in the process, but they're all explained clearly as you go.

We had one false start when, having created the bootable USB drive, we inserted it in the netbook's lefthand USB port and set the Bios to boot first from it. Did you know that you can't boot a PC in Ubuntu from a drive in its lefthand USB port? No, me either. But some light Googling introduced us to this gem of a fact, and the rest of the install process was a snip.

We chose to write over the existing XP install, but it's straightforward to create a separate Linux partition, and retain the original operating system.

Living with Linux: Ubuntu in action

To fully experience the Ubuntu way of computing, I jettisoned all other digitalia, and went on a business trip armed only with my freshly Linuxed laptop. First impressions: it's fast. Fast, fast, fast. Clearly, Windows XP was not written for Atom-powered netbooks, but the difference is breath-taking.

It's also a stable OS - not once in a day or so of active use did the Eee PC freeze or crash. And the user learning curve is non-existant.

Ubuntu is so honed for the consumer space that it is beyond simple to use. Big colourful icons guide you to applications by function: web, music, office, email and so on. Files and folders are stored under an icon called, well, 'Files & Folders'. In fact, if anything it may be too simple. We wanted to hunt around to find the missing hard drive, but couldn't find a way of getting above the GUI. This is an OS built for users of all abilities.

The default applications are nothing to be afraid of either: you've used Firefox, I'm sure, and if you're familar with MS Word, OpenOffice Writer is your friend.

Evolution mail is nothing to write home about as an email client, but it is very easy to set up and straightforward to use, as is the Empathy Instant Messaging client. Indeed, all the default applications are easy for Windows or Mac OS X users to pick up. There's also a whole lot more software to be had via the Software Centre – an app store of open source goodies, accessible from the OS.

I merrily wrote, edited and emailed, all day long, and never really came up against any problems. Working principally in OpenOffice, I was able to edit and share multiple Word and Notepad documents without missing a step.

Living with Linux: Conclusions

There's no way I'd revert to XP now, because Ubuntu does everything I need my netbook to do in roughly half the time. It's quick, as stable as any OS I've used, and incredibly simple to use. In fact, it may even be too simple. I'm no Command Line hacker, but I'd like to be able to get above the GUI in order to dig around and find my missing hard disk.

And the interface is a little like computing with stabilisers on - far from the hobbyist, jargon-filled morrass I was expecting, this particular flavour of Linux is, in fact, a little too straightforward.

Compatibility has not been a problem, but it would be, I think, if I chose to use Ubuntu for my main PC. It's all very well editing important documents in OpenOffice, but I still want to be able to create files in the formats my colleagues use.

Although I'm unlikely to move over to Linux lock stock and barrel, I'm more than impressed with Ubuntu. If you have an older PC in need of a speed boost, you may well be too.

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