Is Linux Ready For The Mainstream? Testing Ubuntu 8.04
Written by Erik Neff   
Friday, 25 April 2008
Kubuntu Desktop Screenshot
It's been almost 2 years since my last product review, technology blog post, or news update.  In that time, I've been very busy building websites, moving, and learning how to surf.  When I read an announcement about the release of a new version of Ubuntu, I felt compelled to awaken from this blog-less slumber and write this article.

The article I read was about the release of the 8th version of Ubuntu, codenamed "Hardy Heron".  If you're wondering why they chose that name, they did it because it's now quite trendy to make a two-word alliteration with the letter that corresponds to the next release number - 8 in the case of Ubuntu, or, H.  Anyways, my plan was to test two variations of this new release - Ubuntu 8.04, which runs the "Gnome" window manager by default, and a special version of its twin brother, Kubuntu 8.04 running the brand new KDE4 window manager by default.

I downloaded and burned a LiveCD for each, booted them up one by one, and attempted to answer two important questions: Is KDE4 better than Gnome, and most importantly: Is Linux Ready For The Mainstream?  Here's what I found:


Right away, when booting up in Kubuntu, I was greeted with a very slick KDE4 interface.  Just as immediately however, I was presented with an unsolvable problem for the average user - no easy gui for configuring network settings.  I had disabled my router's dhcp server, so I needed to manually enter the ip address, and KDE's network config manager only showed what the ip adddresses were, and wouldn't let me directly alter them.  Either it was broken, or I was missing something - not sure which, but I spent quite a while trying to figure it out, to no avail.  Gnome's gui for network config on the other hand, was at least usable.  Also, at the time when I booted up in Kubuntu, I didn't realize that the *buntu's mimiced mac's implementation of no root user, requiring the "sudo" command to precede any command requiring elevated permissions, like ifconfig, so I was actually unable to get kubuntu to access the internet for this test.  I'm not sure who's more pathetic - me or Kubuntu, but it's not looking good for either of us.

Continuing, both Gnome and KDE had some other nice things, and obvious oversights. Sound was working on both without any configuration, which was nice, but what wasn't nice was KDE's lack of a volume control in the tray - something Gnome had.  My keyboard has volume up/down buttons, and they did nothing on KDE, but worked perfectly in gnome without any config.  In fact, Gnome mimicked Mac's volume up/down on-screen display perfectly, which was really nice.  I also use the calculator button on my keyboard a surprising amount in Windows, and to my surprise, it worked in gnome without any config, and you guessed it, not in KDE.

Ubuntu 8.04 Screenshot
Gnome also automatically loaded drivers and had a tray icon for my bluetooth usb stick without any config by me - nothing in KDE.  Another irritation with both was the lack of out of the box support for divx/xvid/mp3/mpg/wmv/asf media playback.  I assumed that this sort of thing would have been addressed well before now, but to my surprise, it hadn't, and actually was quite a hassle to get working.  Furthermore, I have yet to find a suitable replacement for Winamp in Linux, and that to me is a "uge"[trumpism] dealbreaker.  The search continues in this regard.  I've read comments from people running winamp in wine, saying there are some really bad performance issues there.  Furthermore, the official Winamp clone - XMMS, has been forked so many times it's not longer recognizable, however there is a fork now called Audacity that may be worth looking into.  Amarok may be another program with potential.

The "add/remove programs" interface for gnome was very nice.  I used to have this hilariously involved series of things I would do in debian/knoppix to get apt-get working properly.  Occasionally, it would border on comical, how long the dependency train would go when trying to install something.  Conversely, installing apps through Gnome's "add/remove programs" interface was a no-brainer.  As I understand, this interface is basically a front-end for apt-get, with some kind of automated dependency-resolution algorithm running in the background.  Regardless, it was completely trouble-free, and I didn't have to worry about dependencies once, which was a very big improvement!  A corollary to this however, was that downloading these apps to be installed was unimaginably slow, and there was no way to change which repositories were being downloaded from, which was annoying.  Obviously you can configure this from the command line, but once again, this fails the test of whether it's ready for the mainstream.

One point of interest for me was a 3D window wrapper called Beryl.  I recently discovered the it has been folded into Compiz, and a simple install of the Compiz-Config package would enable all that amazing 3D desktop goodness you can see by searching for Beryl on youtube.  Unfortunately, the package was simply not downloading, so I canned it.  This leads to a second deal-breaker for me - out of the box dual monitor support.  I tried to configure my dual monitors from the gui for changing screen resolutions, but it simply wasn't possible.  This was something that was scheduled to be included by default in the ubuntu "Hardy Heron" release, but it looks like it didn't make it in.  Obviously you can hack around in the xorg.conf file and get it working that way, but once again, this is not something the mainstream would be willing to do.

So, in conclusion, Gnome has taken a "uge" lead over KDE in terms of out-of-the-box usability and nicities.  That's not to say that KDE's new Dolphin file manager isn't nice, or that Gnome's involuntary mouse arrow movements aren't incredibly irritating, but just that Gnome is more ready for the mainstream, meaning it's better without any configuration.  Alas, the lack of basic necessities for the power-user continues, such as out of the box media support, dual monitor support, and a seemingly never-ending list of minor nitpicky irritations are the reason I must conclude that Linux is still "not ready" for the mainstream.

Thanks for reading.

- Erik Neff
Last Updated ( Friday, 02 May 2008 )
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