Yesterday’s Ubuntu install didn’t exactly go entirely to plan, but today I spent a little time trying to resolve things. My overall approach to this is to try to use the most user-friendly tools available first before starting to hack on the command-line - as a fan of running Linux servers which don’t even have an X server running this might seem odd, but I really want to know how well Ubuntu does as a user-facing OS while I’m doing this. For a server I just want something that does its job well, is resource-friendly and fast to admin remotely, hence SSH-only admin access is a perfect fit for that purpose. Desktop OS’s need to be configurable via their GUI alone to pass muster.
I had located Envy yesterday, a third party application for automatically configuring NVIDIA and ATI drivers, so I downloaded it and tried it out. And what do you know, it worked flawlessly, downloading its own dependencies and the drivers, modifying the Xorg config without ever having to touch any files manually - a swift reboot and my HD 2600 was purring along in accelerated mode - no upgrade to 8.04 required as had been suggested. I examined what it did, and it really just performed the manual steps I’d seen documented elsewhere for installing the ATI drivers, but importantly it wrapped it all up in a user-friendly package. Kudos to Alberto Milone for this work, the real question is why Ubuntu couldn’t do this itself, or isn’t packaged with Envy in the first place.
I had a little bit of fun with Compiz - the 3D desktop manager which is enabled by default on Ubuntu now. Most of the effects are of course shamelessly ripped off from either OS X or Vista, with the exception of things like the ‘desktop cube’, shown here on the right. It’s generally very attractive and very configurable though, so on the whole I like it. I do think the settings need to be exposed in a more friendly way in future versions though, it took me a while to figure out how to enable different plugins and configure the combinations of them appropriately.
Because Ubuntu’s package manager is apt based, it’s very easy to install new things and the Add/Remove applications UI is pretty intuitive - arguably it’s easier for a regular user to grab a bunch of extra software than it is on Windows and OS X because so much of it is right there in front of them. I’m used to apt on Debian and I must admit that it was hugely painful to have to use RedHat’s up2date and RPM-based tools after that; nothing is better than apt at resolving dependencies and tidying up after itself IMO. I liked that in a number of cases, Ubuntu realised that I needed new components to do something I wanted and offered to install them automatically, a nice touch.
A case in point is file sharing with Windows machines - opening the Shared Folders view immediately offered to install the NFS and Samba services. All well and good, and sharing a folder was very easy. But - and this is a big ‘but’ - it fell at the last hurdle because it fails to configure any Samba passwords by default, so while you can see the share, you can’t actually access it! You have to drop to a console and issue the usual ‘sudo smbpasswd -a ’. That was a huge disappointment because after the auto-install of the services it was really looking like it was going to be nice and automated.
So, I’m feeling a little better about Ubuntu now that Envy solved my driver issues, however it still has many rough edges which make it hard to recommend to non-geeks yet. It’s probably one of the friendliest desktop Linux attempts I’ve seen so far, but it still continues the tradition of stumbling at the last usability hurdle - like the failed driver install, and the missing final step of the shared folder configuration - a less technical user would have just hit a brick wall and probably given up. It’s definitely getting there, but that last 10% is obviously still proving tricky.