I’ve been into computers since the early 1990’s, and while things have come and gone in that time (like the doomed “NetPC“), one thing that has remained is the war between the Windows and Apple Macintosh worlds. OK, so it’s never really been a war, but more like a friendly feud, but it still goes on to this day. Each side has had its valid arguments, but those of old that are still oft repeated make less and less sense as technologies evolve.
For example, there was a time you could get away with stating as fact that Macs were better for heavy-duty tasks like video editing, since the RISC-based processor was optimised for multimedia. Even as Intel‘s processors (and those of other IBM-Compatible manufacturers) evolved throughout the ’90s, Windows users had to admit their systems were business (or “home office“) computers while Macs were multimedia computers. And let’s not forget the graphic design and publishing worlds, where legions of Mac users created the bulk of the world’s magazines using expensive industry applications like PageMaker, PhotoShop, and QuarkXPress. Desktop publishing was invented for the Mac in 1985 (the first program was PageMaker), and even into the mid-’90s IBM-Compatibles trailed behind. But before long, every app previously only available for serious users (ie: Mac owners) made it onto the Windows platform.
By the beginning of this millennium, IBM-Compatibles (now being referred to as Wintel machines, even if based on processors made by Intel’s rivals like AMD) were not only seriously being used for desktop publishing, but also for audio editing. As Wintel technology progressed, video editing became another task Windows users could successfully achieve, meaning even less reason to fork out for the much more expensive Macs. Especially as the bulk of the world’s software was now only available for Windows.
If you’re starting suspect that I am a Windows fan-boy, I’m just stating the facts. And I’m not for a second suggesting that while the Windows world caught up with the multimedia capabilities of the Mac, that the latter was no longer superior – I’m sure for many processor-hungry tasks it was. But what about now that Macs have moved away from their PowerPC architecture and embraced Intel technologies? Would you dare try and convince me Macs are still better for multimedia now that they have the same guts as their Wintel counterparts?
You could get away with saying Macs come in some pretty classy packages these days – there is no denying that since the iMac, Apple’s machines have continually progressed in aesthetic design. You might get away with saying Mac OS X gives a much more stable environment than Windows for heavy-duty multimedia tasks. I can’t really comment, as I don’t use a Mac (call me whacky, but I’d rather build my own PC for a grand rather than pay three for the same specs in a Mac).
One thing I can tell you is that while over the last few years I’ve done some pretty demanding tasks in Windows, like video editing, sometimes it’s been less than perfect, and – yes – there have been stability issues as well. And let’s not even get started with all the security issues plaguing the Windows world! So while I’ve never seen the need to fork out for a Mac (especially since I’ve always actually preferred the Windows interface to that of Mac OS), I’ve become increasing disappointed with anything made by Microsoft, and at time much of what runs on its OS.
So while I was happy building my own PCs, it became apparent that I needed to go the next step, and build my own operating system! Now, installing a Linux distribution (or “distro“) might not be like building your own OS, strictly speaking, but considering you can generally remove any part of that system and truly customise it to your needs (in a way you could only dream of in Windows!), it’s pretty damned close. I mean, just try uninstalling Internet Explorer from your system (at least from Vista or XP backwards, as I hear you may be able to do so in Windows 7). Or make another file manager the default instead of Windows Explorer. Or perhaps see how long you can surf the web with your internet security suite switched off before you break into a cold sweat and re-initiate it!
Now, a while back, you could get away with saying Linux was only for technically-minded geeks, but these days many distros are actually easier to use than their commercial counterparts. Most distros are totally free, get regular free updates, and have available thousands of free open source programs. In the Windows and Mac world, you pay for your software (or break the law if using pirated versions), or put up with crappy freeware created by bored students (OK, so some of it is OK, but most is rubbish). In the open source world, you have everything from tiny little programs made for a single basic task through to powerful programs like the OpenOffice.org office suite. Yeah, OK, so some of the open source apps out there are also made by bored students and, hence, either useless or unstable, but the majority is pretty impressive. And it continues to evolve at an equally impressive rate.
If you’re wondering how it could be that open source software – created basically by volunteers – could be evolving faster than commercial ones – which are made by people doing it for money – all I can say is this is how the open source world is. I mean, if you’ve ever prayed for features to be added or fixed in your paid-for programs, and have even tried contacting the companies involved and expressed your wishes, all to no avail, then you would probably be pleasantly surprised with how the open source world works. For example, I thought of a cool feature that could be added to an app I use that deals with ISO disc images, and a week later a new version came out with that feature added! I had a bug with Wine (Windows emulator) that suddenly prevented DVD Shrink from running as smoothly as it had in Ubuntu, and within 2 days of reporting this, a new version of Wine came out that addressed this! OK, so some of your requests and bug reports might fall on deaf ears, but probably a lot less than from commercial companies from whom you bought their software. And no, you won’t get charged for anything other than installation problems, hehe!
So, if you want to take the plunge into the open source world, I’d thoroughly recommend my main OS, UBUNTU (“Linux for Human Beings“). The vast majority of users out there these days just need their computers for tasks like web browsing, email, chat/networking, and multimedia (ie: playing audio and video clips, not so much editing). However, as a fairly advanced computer user, I can tell you Ubuntu not only compares with Windows for more demanding tasks, but actually surpasses it in some! Now, I’m not even talking about some of the basic differences that make Linux distros like Ubuntu shine in comparison to Windows, but we’ll cover a few of them first.
Besides the fact that Ubuntu is free, installs in less than half the time it takes Windows to do so (and installs on Macs!), and has no viruses or spyware/adware, there is the sheer glory of Package Management! In the Windows world, you are used to programs, many of which install things like libraries (.DLL files etc) throughout your system. In Linux, everything is a package, so a program could actually be comprised of one or more core packages plus a few dependencies. Yes, this means a program will not work unless all dependencies have been satisfied, but don’t run to the corner and cower in fear – this is all actually easier than what you’ve been used to!
In Windows, you would go search online for an app for your needs, perhaps eventually find, download and install some piece of freeware, or you’d find the website of a commercial program, purchase it (usually after having to go through an annoying registration process before you could even do so!), download it, and install it. In Ubuntu, you just fire up your favourite package manager (the default is Synaptic Package Manager), either look through the categories on the left hand side and pick apps for installation, or simply type the name of the app (if you know it, of course) or a phrase (like “DVD burner“) and choose from the results displayed! Any dependencies will be presented to you before you can proceed, and simply clicking OK to the message will install all of those as well! And you can sit there for hours adding games and apps, and when you’re ready, hit Apply and it’s all done for you! What’s more, many of those dependencies are libraries already on your system, so unlike in Windows where exactly the same DLL has been installed 10 times in different places by different programs, each app will use the same library when it needs it. And the icing on the cake is that package management and updates are tied in together, meaning that since everything is in effect a package, not only do parts of your system receive automatic updates as they are released, so do all your programs! Yes, that means free upgrades to all your software!
Ubuntu comes with a whole bunch of cool apps for many tasks, including a full office suite, but as you’ve seen, you can easily and quickly install a whole lot more. And I can tell you they will take up a lot less space on your hard drive than you’ve been used to. And some will impress you so much you’ll never go back to their Windows counterparts again. And because Ubuntu has integrated many great open source apps into their system, you’ll find it hard to ever go back to Windows again.
For example, if you’ve ever worked with ISO disc images in Windows, you’ll know that unless you already have burning software than can handle them, you’ll have to go out looking just to be able to burn them to disc. And if you actually want to create or edit ISO images, you’ll need to buy (or illegally download) something like PowerISO, since there is not much in the way of freeware. In Ubuntu, you just double-click the ISO file (or right-click and choose “Write to Disc“) and away you go! What’s more, you can just right-click it and choose to open it with an archive manager if you want to view or edit the contents rather than rely on a commercial alternative like PowerISO.
Speaking of discs, now only self-deluding Windows fan-boys will have the audacity to claim Windows comes with the ability to play DVDs “out-of-the-box“. Yes, you paid for Windows, but you didn’t pay for things like proprietary codecs needed to play some copyrighted media types… and even DVDs you created, let alone copy-protected retail ones. Try playing a DVD in Windows Media Player (WMP) on a freshly installed system and see how far you get. It’s when you’ve either bought software or installed what came with your burner that Windows suddenly gets the ability to handle video DVDs.
While Ubuntu is free, it also respects proprietary issues, so also ships without the ability to play DVDs. The difference here, and it is a major one, is that all you need to do is fire up Synaptic, type in ubuntu-restricted-extras in the Search field, hit Enter, and once you’ve marked it for installation and hit Apply, you’ll not only be able to play copy-protected DVDs, but basically any other media type out there in the whole frakking universe (“So say we all!”)!
So that means that while you need to find and install special players in Windows for media types like MKV, MP4, FLAC, and FLV (YouTube clips), in Ubuntu any of your installed media players will be able to handle them. In Windows, even with two different codec pack launchers pumping codecs into WMP, I still can’t play a good portion of clips I download these days. In Ubuntu, every one of them plays, and I can pick and choose between the players I have. And guess what: since you installed all the codecs via one metapackage (collection of packages rolled into one, basically), any time a codec is updated or created, you get it with your updates! So not only should you be able to play all those clips you thought must be duds back in Windows, you’ll be able to continue to do so without ever worrying if you have the latest codecs or not.
Media players abound, and you can choose from the more minimalistic to quite flashy ones like Amarok. WMP might have some visual appeal, but it also has useless features that can’t be disabled (like links to stores, etc), so there is wasted space and it all ends up not as intuitive as it could be. In Ubuntu, the default audio player is Rhythmbox, which might look less flashy, but has many more useful features (so is in effect more powerful than WMP). I’ve found it much better to work with devices like USB players, and you can do things like directly editing tags of MP3 files.
While we’re on the subject of multimedia, let’s not forget to mention editing capabilities. For audio, there are great sound editing apps like Audacity for working with sound files, Sound Converter for converting between audio formats, and all the way through to a bunch of composition and recording apps for musicians. For video, there are user-friendly programs for DVD authoring like ManDVD, video editors like Cinelerra and Open Movie Editor, and powerful video converters like tovid GUI.
In fact, it was with this last program that I noticed some stunning differences in performance compared to expensive commercial counterparts in Windows. On certain clips I needed to convert to DVD-compliant MPEG format, I would end up with a slight (or sometimes more than slight) lag in either the video or audio. Often I suspected it had to do with things like crappy formats like WMV (which would sometimes crash my converters), and just had to live with it. So when I started using tovid GUI, I was amazed to receive perfectly-synced outputs from those that had given me trouble in Windows (one had ended up with over 20 seconds of lag using one of the best apps out there for Windows, but with its Ubuntu counterpart it was perfect!).
So, for the average user, Ubuntu comes with basically everything you could need out-of-the-box, like the ability to copy and burn discs, Firefox as the default web browser, a powerful PIM and email client (Evolution, which Windows and Mac users also use), OpenOffice.org office suite (also used by millions of Windows and Mac users), GIMP (a powerful image editor almost in the league of Adobe PhotoShop), and a handful of media players.
After a few minutes of searching for things in Synaptic, you can easily install all the codecs you’ll ever need, as well as install some new apps for your other needs, such as aMSN (MSN chat client), Azureus/Vuze for bittorrent filesharing, Downloader for X as download manager, Opera (as another web browser if you want to be able to save complete web pages into one MHT archive like with Internet Explorer), QtTube for downloading YouTube clips directly from the web pages (so you can play them back at any time with your media player), and perhaps some fun games like the ever-popular Frozen-Bubble (anyone can play this, and it’s addictive!).
As for those who use their computers for more complex tasks, well, I’ve covered multimedia a little, but whatever your needs may be, I’m sure there is an app out there for it. Just remember that not everything is always available in the repositories (the official list of Ubuntu packages), so you may need to do some more of what you’re already used to, being some Googling till you find what you’re looking for (some developers don’t bother to submit their programs to the repository, but offer their apps for download from their web sites).
And once you’ve done with installing some programs, go to your System menu in the top panel and into Preferences > Appearance and spend hours (I mean quite literally hours!) tweaking the look of your system like you’ve only ever dreamed of doing in Windows, or Mac OS for that matter. Ever seen pics of people’s systems where the file manager windows look like they’ve been made with polished wood, or everything is dark and looks like it’s moulded from black plastic? Want to be able to change the rather basic default icon theme to one with icons that look like they’ve been cut from glass? Or to initiate those stunning Compiz-Fusion desktop effects you saw YouTube clips of? Well, you can do so in the Appearance Preferences window. What about that cool cursor set you downloaded that mimics the cursors in your favourite game? No worries! And of course, you can save all the changes as your own custom theme(s), to change between at will.
Finally, here are a few more things for your consideration. In Ubuntu, you can access everything on your Windows drive/partition with no problems; in Windows, the system does not even recognise there is another drive/partition attached. And talking about drives, Ubuntu comes with the superior EXT3 (and now EXT4) filesystem; Windows has NTFS, notorious for file fragmentation and data corruption. With Ubuntu, new hardware technologies and interfaces (for example, eSATA) usually present no problem, since you get support for those with system updates; with Windows, you usually need the driver disc, and some basic support that should be part of the OS just isn’t there (like trying to get an eSATA drive recognised in XP). In Windows, the supplied firewall is notoriously useless, and even the decent commercial ones can let you down; in Ubuntu, built-in IP tables and the very structure of Linux mean you don’t even need to install a firewall (though you can of course choose to do so, and for that I recommend Firestarter). In Ubuntu, you might be amazed how much of your Windows software that you just can’t live without will run fine under Wine; in Windows, you’re dreaming if you think you’re going to get any Linux apps to work! In Ubuntu, if you have the knowledge, you can not only tinker with any program or part of the system, you can even package it for others’ use under your own name; in Windows, if you tinker with any part of Windows, even just on your own system, you are open to prosecution from Microsoft (and the same goes for those programs you paid for!). And last but not least: with Ubuntu, you get a system for free, and it is yours to do with as you please; with Windows, you pay hundreds of dollars just to lease their OS (um, read the license agreement if this has shocked you into disbelief)!
Hopefully this introduction to Ubuntu has been helpful, and maybe even inspired you to try it, or any other Linux distro for that matter (Ubuntu is a good place to start since it has such a huge community). I’ll be posting occasional Ubuntu tidbits and further (shorter) comparisons between it and Windows in the future. Sometimes the cool little tricks I find in Ubuntu are hard to contain, and when I find a major difference between it and Windows, well, that really just needs to be shared.