Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trying Out Ubuntu

For the last year or so I've been interested in trying out Linux, and last Christmas asked for and received a copy of VMWare's Fusion for Mac OS X. Although it worked adequately to get a sense of the OS, it was slow and laggy and I suspected that running Linux as a guest wasn't giving it a fair shake. However, as a combined wedding anniversary and Father's Day present, at my suggestion my wife got me a refurbished IBM ThinkPad T43 that had on special. It's by no means a powerhouse, but for about 1/5 the price of the lowest-end 15-inch MacBook Pro it's quite a good machine, with adequate RAM and hard drive space for my purposes, wireless, and an optical drive. It came with Windows XP Professional pre-installed (no discs for it included), but as soon as I set up and registered Windows — which warned me of the dire danger of not installing protection from malware — I pulled out the CD I'd burned with an ISO of 32-bit Ubuntu and installed it, and found the procedure easier than getting started with Windows (although admittedly a little more time-consuming because of having to tranfer the OS from the CD to the hard drive.

One of the things I was curious about was how close Ubuntu has come to becoming as user-friendly as Mac OS X. I found out pretty quickly that for a beginning user it's as easy or possibly even easier that OS X to use the basic installed applications, but once past basic uses there are ... not pitfalls exactly, but procedures which although not particularly difficult are not as just-works-ish as in OS X.

One good example is producing accented characters. A friend of mine who's moving to Mississippi gave my wife and me a stack of CDs which included the wonderful recording of the Irish accordionist James Keane With Friends Like These. For some reason Banshee — the installation of which was another example I'll write about next — wasn't able to find the album's metadata and I decided to enter it manually and came to a track with the tune "Paidín Ó Raifeartaigh" on it. Acute accents are a breeze in Mac OS X once you know the dead-key combinations (Option-e puts an acute over the next letter, for example).

It turns out that in order to get accented letters it's necessary to specify a Compose key in System->Preferences->Keyboard->Layouts->Layout Options; I still don't know what key or keys can serve to substitute for the AltGr key discussed in this article on accents in Linux. I discovered the Character Map (Applications->Accessories) and it's very similar to OS X's Character Palette, but it's not the easiest way to insert characters. What I find puzzling is that searching the on-line help (i.e., the big blue question mark at the top of the screen) for "accents" leads only to a link to the GIMP manual, and only to the entire work, not even to a particular page of it. This seems like a basic enough question that it shouldn't require as much time to figure out as I've put into it.

Now, for Banshee, I refer the curious to these instructions. I had no trouble following them — in fact, I used apt-get as an experiment and had no trouble at all with it — and I'm very happy with the application, but compared to simply clicking a download link and then double-clicking a .pkg file or a .dmg file and dragging the resulting application to the Applications folder is a lot less scary for the inexperienced.

On checking further I see that it's possible to get Banshee via Applications->Add/Remove Applications, and that's a lot simpler process. I've learned a lesson from this: check that option before downloading it from the website of the developer.

Heaven knows even Macs are not entirely intuitive, but Linux, even a Linux as comparatively easy to use as Ubuntu, is more opaque. That said, for people who aren't going to be installing applications not included with the distribution or who are prepared for a varied experience in ease for ones they do download, I think it's a good potential fit.