Ubuntu: Too Good to be True?

A Curmudgeonly Review by a Very Irritable Webmaster

The news that Dell will begin making the fast-growing Ubuntu flavor of Linux available on some of its machines should be welcomed by consumers everywhere.

It not only makes a tiny dent in Microsoft's armor but also is one of the few times consumers can actually get something for nothing. Best of all, the something for nothing is, in this reviewer's humble opinion, a lot better than the high-priced spreads.

Though its name may sound odd initially, there's nothing odd about the way Ubuntu works. It is fast, lean and responsive, like a sleek jungle cat prowling through the South Africa outback.

But unlike a jungle cat, Ubuntu's not rapacious. The word means "Humanity to others," or "I am what I am because of who we all are." Nice words, chosen by the developer, a South African, and a very nice operating system to boot.

Speaking of boot, while it's good news that Dell is offering Ubuntu, here's even better news: you don't even need a new machine to take advantage of all Ubuntu has to offer.

In fact, Ubuntu is a perfect way to breathe new life into tired old machines. If you have an older computer that is having a hard time keeping up with the massive overhead imposed by Microsoft Windows, chances are it will run just fine on Ubuntu.

Say What?

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, let's back up a minute. Ubuntu is, as noted above, a popular version of Linux, an open-source operating system that does everything Windows does -- only faster, better and much more cheaply.

Linux is one of the family of heavy-metal UNIX-style operating systems originally developed to run industrial-grade systems like the real-time telephone switches that must be fast and ultra reliable.

Today, Linux and other UNIX systems power most of the Web servers that keep the Internet running. And there's really no reason they don't power the world's desktops and laptops, except that Microsoft has sold the world on the notion that you have to pay for software, then pay some more to keep it updated.

Pause for a second and consider this: software isn't a physical entity, it's an idea, an intellectual product just like a song, a poem or a novel. Sure, some people charge for such things but it's not really necessary, now is it?

There are lots of people around who think that information just wants to be free -- and open-source software is a key element in that freedom.

Make no mistake -- there's nothing amateurish or low-grade about Ubuntu or most other open-source software. In fact, because it's open source, it's constantly being improved, unlike Microsoft and Apple's operating systems which are upgraded rarely and then for reasons having more to do with damage control and corporate profit than anything else.

Practical Matters

OK, enough preaching. Let's get down to practical matters. I decided a few months ago, when I set up a new Dell desktop machine, that Microsoft and I were about to part company. That happened when I was "invited" to "authenticate" my copy of Microsoft XP to be sure it was "genuine."

Adding to my irritation was the infuriating slowness of my nearly-new laptop, loaded to the gills with 2 GB of RAM, running a 2.16 GHz dual-core Intel processor and a 7800 RPM hard drive. This is a very powerful machine yet there are times when the letters crawl onto the screen as though they were being carved with a chisel.

Also, as the Webmaster for ConsumerAffairs.com, my laptop contains the full content of our site -- about 200,000 files -- which my Web management software is constantly remapping and displaying as I do my day's routine of editing and adding content.

This should not be a big deal for a computer. What are computers for, if not to store and map files? Yet mine is as slow as a Prius in snow.

To experiment, I ordered an identical machine -- except with only 1 GB of RAM -- from Linux Certified. It came with Fedora, another Linux flavor, which I replaced with Ubuntu.

Now, I have worked with Linux in the past and, of course, our Web servers run on Linux but I had not played with it on the desktop for years. The last time I did, everything was still done from the command line -- the DOS-like blank screen with a cursor blinking slowly while you try to remember the basic commands.

No longer. Ubuntu uses GNOME, a graphic interface that looks so much like Windows that Bill Gates should be, and probably is, angry. For once someone has copied Microsoft instead of the other way around.

But the resemblance ends there. While Windows is pretty, it's not exactly agile.

On my Windows laptop, Windows plus the usual Office files, email and my Web authoring software, fill up 21 GB of the hard drive. On my Ubuntu machine, the same collection of open-source programs and the exact same data take up exactly 3.7 GB.

1/7 as Bloated

Yep, that's what I said: Ubuntu uses one-seventh as much of the drive as Windows to do the same thing. Imagine that.

Even more startling is the speed with which Ubuntu operates. I had long noticed that when loading files onto our Web servers, the server side of the display would populate instantly, even though the servers are hundreds of miles away, while the side of the window that displays my Windows files would load about as quickly as a bunch of chain gang workers moving rocks.

On Ubuntu, both sides of the window flash onto the screen so quickly it seems they were already there. Likewise as I move around the different sub-directories, lists of hundreds of files pop onto the screen instantly. It often takes 10 seconds or more for Windows to do exactly the same thing.

Now a few seconds may not sound like much but when you do something several hundred times a day, those seconds add up.

Another greatly improved task -- collecting and downloading huge collections of consumer complaints about iPods or Dell or Ford. It takes forever for the Windows machine to download the complaints and load them into a Word file -- often several minutes.

The first time I had Ubuntu running, a reporter asked to see the 264 iPod complaints for the previous year. I compiled and downloaded them into the OpenOffice word processor as fast as my fingers could move across the keys. I was at first convinced that I must have opened an old file by mistake, but no -- the compilation was up to the minute.

Old and Gold

OK, so it works well on a brand-new, high-powered machine. What about an older model?

I retrieved a Dell Inspiron 8600 laptop, probably about four or five years old, once mine, then my son's and now long since retired by my daughter. The poor old thing literally would not boot up, it was so short of memory and hard drive space, thanks to all the graphics files, IM messsages, anti-virus software, bloated swap files and who knows what else?

I formatted the drive, loaded Ubuntu and the Inspiron now runs like new, better than new actually. Fully loaded with everything the average family needs on a computer, its 26 GB hard drive has 24 GB wide open and ready for use.


Can you do it yourself? Yes, you can. If you have an old machine that is past its prime, go to www.ubuntu.com, click on the "Desktop Edition" button and follow the directions. You can order a CD by mail or, if you have a working machine (or can borrow one), you can download Ubuntu, load it onto a CD and install it on your old machine. (Read the instructions carefully; you don't just burn it onto a CD, you have to create a mirror file. It's easy but you need to do everything in the right sequence).

Alternatively, you can order a basic laptop -- brand new -- with a Celeron processor and 512 MB of RAM for $699 at Linux Certified. Other dealers offer similar deals and, as noted Dell will soon be flooding the marketplace with Ubuntu-equipped boxes.

This is not just a good thing, it's a very good thing, for the environment, for cash-strapped families and down-at-the-heels organizations.

It always makes me sad to see all the old computers that are tossed in landfills and left to rot in attics and garages. Every one of them could probably be running Ubuntu and providing a more than adequate machine for a school child, a senior, single mom or anyone else on a tight budget.

Did I mention you don't need anti-virus software? It's available but chances are you don't need it, since Linux is relatively immune to viruses. Besides, most of the vandals who are writing viruses are aiming them at Windows.

Tinkerer's Delight

Best of all, Ubuntu is fun. Not to make shocking age-related disclosures but I've been working with information technology in one form or another since 1960 or so, everything from home-built ham radio gear to PDP8 mini-computers the size of refrigerators (no ice-maker though). The first 20 years or so were fun but then Microsoft took over and dispatched the Information Police to watch over every move we make, which somehow made it all sort of dreary and totalitarian.

It's nice to be out from under the Man's thumb. It makes the whole thing fun again. Ubuntu is like having an old Alfa Romeo instead of a Toyota. If you feel like it, you can pop the hood and get your hands dirty, knowing it will still run like hell when you're done.

When I'm hard up for ways to amuse myself, I like to put my nearly identical laptops side-by-side and watch them. The Windows laptop sits there spinning and chattering away, making a huge commotion over exactly nothing. The Linux laptop, with half as much RAM, just sits there, silently waiting to spring.

Is this a new day in computing? That might be a slight exaggeration, but I hope not.

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