Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Big Ubuntu Switchover

There seems to be some kind of law that if you stop using Windows and you have a blog that you must at some point write a post about your experiences and who am I to buck that trend.
I recently moved over from using Windows XP to Ubuntu on my home machines and I thought it might be helpful for those considering the switch to read about my experiences. Since the most recent version of Ubuntu called Gutsy Gibbon (no seriously) came out there has been a lot of buzz about how it is great for every day PC users rather than just beardy computer science types so I have decided to write it with a non technical audience in mind.
I suppose that the first question to answer is what on earth is Ubuntu, and why do I use it instead of Windows?
Ubuntu is a type of Linux which is an operating system like Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X. Where Linux differs from the Apple and Microsoft products however is that it is free in two important ways: Free like free beer and Free like speech. Linux is free like beer because there is no charge for using it on your computer and it is free like speech because anyone can look at the program and change or improve it if they like (something Microsoft or Apple would never let you do however much money you had!). As a result lots of people both volunteers and people in industry continuously improve Linux allowing it to keep up with the huge investment made by its commercial rivals. Though you may not have Linux at home you will almost certainly use it every day as it is the most popular way of hosting web pages and powers such Internet legends as Google, Amazon and Ebay and quite a lot of phones and set top boxes also run it.
Lots of people bundle up Linux with a collection of useful bits and bobs in what is called a distribution or a distro. Ubuntu is a Linux distro put together by a company called Canonical who make their money by selling help and support for Linux users. The motto of Ubuntu is "Linux for Humans" and their philosophy is often compared with the Apple Mac mantra "It just works".
Ubuntu is designed to be as easy and friendly to install and use as possible and as a result it is fast becoming the most popular type of Linux with home users.
Now we know what Ubuntu is the next question is: Why did I abandon Windows and start using it? Well to tell you that I suppose I should tell you a little bit about myself.
I am what you might call a techy or a geek. I have a degree in a computing discipline and I work as a technology expert for a living however I would like you to trust me when I tell you that I am in no way a fan of technology for technology's sake. My mobile phone is second hand and exists only to make phone calls and I see gizmos as being only worth bothering with when they make our lives simpler and easier.
Whilst at university I was encouraged to install Redhat Linux on my PC by the department, but having sampled it in the lab I decided that though it had a lot of good things going for it, it was still too arcane at that point and didn't really offer me anything that I couldn't do in Windows 2000.
So what changed my mind?
As a younger person I like many people was not adverse to using software without playing for it, but as I got older I started to feel that if I got use from some software I should pay for it (I'm not judging anyone who feels differently). At the moment I own two computers. One of them is a fairly modern desktop PC which came with a legitimate copy of Windows XP and the other is a rather decrepit by modern standards laptop for which I did not own a legitimate Windows licence. Unfortunately the hard disk in the laptop had to be replaced and this presented me with a problem. The laptop had never run XP very well in the first place as it was rather too old and buying an XP licence when it had already been superseded by the underwhelming Vista was a rather unappealing prospect.
As an avid reader of the excellent Lifehacker (A website dedicated to making life easier and more productive) I kept hearing a lot about a newish and popular flavour of Linux by the name of Ubuntu. This surprised me somewhat as Lifehacker being productivity themed is typically more likely to sing the praises of Macs with their elegant interfaces and well thought out design.

So I had in my possession an old laptop, a virgin hard disk and a free operating system. What did I have to loose except a Sunday afternoon.

Having gone through an old fashioned Linux install as part of an engineering course some years back (Apparently during which if you set the scan rate wrongly it could make smoke come out of your monitor!) I was surprised at how easy it was to install (more detail of how it stacks up against XP in a later post). All you have to do is stick the CD in the drive and turn the machine on and it boots straight into Ubuntu from the CD and lets you poke around and check that you like it. Everything seemed to work and so I clicked the big install button and then other that asking me my name, time zone and the password for my wireless network everything just happened.

Not only did the machine work like a charm without me configuring anything (I've lever had to use a terminal for anything unless I wanted to) but I actually found my laptop now ran pretty fast and was very easy to use. soon I pretty much stopped using my well speced XP desktop except when I absolutely had to.

The two things that turned me from a dabbler to an advocate came when my other half who is as non techy as can be and had previously only really used XP asked if she could borrow the Ubuntu laptop I was using rather than use the XP machine because she found it easier to use and another occasion when I was showing a Youtube vid to a friend and he asked if my machine was Vista because it looked much nicer than his XP machine at home.

After this I soon changed the XP machine into a duel boot Windows/Ubuntu machine (I had paid for the XP licence so it seemed silly to delete it) and I have never looked back.

Next time I hope to do a feature comparison between the two so you can make your own mind up if you are considering making the switch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Monkeys Kill Mayor

The deputy mayor of the Indian capital Delhi has died a day after being attacked by a horde of wild monkeys.

Who thinks we should club together and smuggle some Monkeys into David Camerons office.

Free Verve Music

The verse have recently reformed and have released a free 15 minute MP3 of the first sessions of their new album via NME.

Check it out if you are a fan.

EDIT: I've just been having a listen and it really is a jam session, which is pretty interesting if you are interested in the process a band goes through to develop a song.

Arsenals of Folly

An excerpt of this excellent book has been made available on the Random House website.
It is the third part of a non fiction trilogy about the development of nuclear weapons / power and the ensuing cold war arms race the first part of which won the Pulitzer prize.

After reading the chapter I immediately bought the first book from Amazon though I had to import it from Canada as it is no longer in print!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tiny Laptop for £169!,39030092,49293507,00.htm

Asus have released a super mini laptop that only costs £169!

It's 7" so half way between a laptop and a PDA and it runs on flash memory rather than having a hard disk so it has a really good battery life as well as being super light and it starts up in 30 seconds.

It's fairly low powered so it runs Linux rather than Windows, but the good thing for non techies is that it has been designed to work as an appliance (Like some Nokia phones which also run Linux) rather than a PC so it is set up to "just work" like a Mac with all the things you need like web browsers and word processing on big simple buttons. They do plan to release an XP version. (Which will probably be £50 more and probably run quite a bit slower!)

I'm really excited about this.
The great thing about this is that Asus have done what Nintendo did with the Wii and ducked out of the arms race of power and graphics and produced a device that does the things that really matter like being small and light and cheap and having good battery life and it will almost certainly be more responsive than a much faster PC running Vista.

I'm quite tempted to get one especially as it would probably be a trivial task to install Xubuntu which would be pretty awesome!