Saturday, March 3, 2007

Why the Switch to Ubuntu?

This was originally posted on my family blog on 4/26/06. I will be slowly moving the geeky stuff from there to this blog.

My good friend Nolan asked why I switched to Ubuntu, or more general, how did I choose my linux distribution? Easy, I just used the linux distribution chooser!

OK, not really. Here's the long story. I first used Caldera OpenLinux, mainly because the company was practically just down the street from where I lived. Then I switched to RedHat because there was a lot more help online, since way more people used it. Then I found Mandrake. I didn't need any online help, most everything just worked, and it has this fabulous control center with fairly intuitive GUIs for configuring more advanced stuff that I had never tried, like firewalls and internet connection sharing and the like. It also made installing rpms much much easier because it had this awesome tool called urpmi that automatically downloaded dependencies and installed them for you. There was even a urpmi repository that had all the really good stuff like windoze media player and quicktime codecs, libdvdcss, and some mozilla plugins. Ahhh, life was good with Mandrake, even after they changed their name to Mandriva.

However, lately everyone on the internet has been talking about this new distribution called Ubuntu. I checked out the website, and gave it a try on my old laptop. I liked it, and the online documentation was very thorough--it more than made up for Mandriva's flashy GUIs. Any question I had was answered there. I was impressed...

... and here's where I should mention the one nagging thing about Mandriva that bothered me. It was that it was difficult and scary to upgrade from one release to the next. The upgrade option on the CDs never quite worked, so I'd have to back everything up, and do a fresh install, and then restore from the backup, and reconfigure all my config files, and it was a pain. I've always been jealous of the Debian users. Debian has the original packaging tool that automatically downloads and install dependencies, apt. Apt is so awesome, I've always read, that to upgrade from one Debian release to the next you just change your repositories from your current release to the next one, type 'apt-get upgrade' (or something like that), and like magic it brings you up to the next release. This is what I want. Plus, Debian was created by a fellow Murdock. How cool is that? I never switched to Debian though, because it was so rough around the user experience edges and notorious for being difficult to install (the joke is, since apt is so great, you only ever have to install Debian once. Why bother to make a nice installer?).

So back to Ubuntu. Ubuntu is based on Debian, it has an easy installer, a real focus on home desktop usability, great online docs, and the famous apt packaging tool. As long as it does everything else that Mandriva has always done for me, the switch should only be positive.

I was having trouble however, getting Ubuntu to do the firefox plugins and media codecs like Mandriva could do. The killer test was always the quicktime movie trailers. I couldn't get Ubuntu to play them, until I found Automatix. Automatix is by far the coolest Linux utility ever. It takes a fresh Ubuntu install and automatically adds all the firefox plugins you need: java, codecs, media players, acrobat reader, flash, etc.; plus dvd players and rippers, cd and dvd burning software, mp3 players, Nvidia drivers, torrent clients, windoze fonts, and everything else a Linux distribution needs but isn't quite licensed to distribute. All of it. You just run it, reboot, and you are there. It is so sweet. It only works on Ubuntu, and it finally made up my mind.

Well, there you go, Nolan. If you ever have time to read all that, I hope it helps you decide (and remember, usually your best friend's favorite distro is the one you can most easily get help with).

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