Five years ago, the Dell OptiPlex GX300 I’m writing this review on was my wife’s brand-new desktop computer. She purchased it so that she would have something new and speedy to run her engineering software on while she started at Virginia Tech.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Tech’s engineering program convinced Melissa to switch both majors and schools. The Windows 98 system that the Dell originally shipped with convinced her to switch to Macintosh (only a few short months after I did the same—also prompted by a Windows 98 system).

The Dell eventually became our token Windows machine (after we updated it to a more stable Windows 2000 install). Its primary purpose was cross-platform website testing and running the rare Windows-only programs that we needed occasionally.

I have been experimenting with Linux here-and-there over the last few years, and have generally come away disappointed with the steep learning curve and how easy it is for me to destroy an install beyond my meager abilities to fix it. I’m no fan of Windows, but I had come to the conclusion that Linux—which sounds great in theory—was not a real contender for any desktop of mine.

But then, there was Ubuntu. Ubuntu Linux—funded by millionaire (and one-time space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth—was created from the codebase of Debian Linux, but with an increased focus on usability for normal people. Around the same time I obtained a copy of Windows XP Professional. So, with an Ubuntu x86 Install CD in one hand (it’s also available for Macs) and XP in the other, I sat down at the Dell for a day of installation.

Things went surprisingly smooth. The Dell has two internal hard disks—a 20gb primary drive and a 15gb secondary. I cleared both drives from the Windows XP installer and instructed XP to install on the 15gb drive. It required a small partition on the 20gb drive to handle booting.

After installing XP (and spending several hours installing updates, fixes, patches, anti-spyware tools, an anti-virus, etc.) I rebooted from the Ubuntu CD. (You can download a .iso CD image and burn it to a CD, or order CDs for free from the Ubuntu web site.) The installer was very straightforward, and included a convenient option to install on the largest empty space among the internal hard disks (which automatically put the system on the cleared 20gb drive, as expected).

I answered all its questions, and in a fairly short time I was rebooting from the hard drive. The Linux GRUB bootloader came up first, already configured with Ubuntu as the default and Windows XP as an option. Either system could now start as-expected when selected from the GRUB menu.

The default theme in Ubuntu is brown and, in my opinion, quite ugly. It was easily changed from the system menus. System updates arrive automatically via an update manager, very similarly to Windows Update in Windows or Software Update on Macs. Most important tools—the Mozilla Firefox browser, OpenOffice.org office suite (with excellent Microsoft Office compatibility), Evolution (a quality Outlook clone), and GAIM (a multi-protocol IM program)—were already installed. A ton of other things were available through the ‘Synaptic Package Manager,’ a tool that allows users to install and remove software quickly and easily. On the same hardware, Ubuntu feels noticeably faster and snappier than Windows XP; that said, Ubuntu takes much longer to boot (XP is the king of boot times).

A normal human being can, in fact, install and operate an Ubuntu system with minimal hassle—assuming that they don’t stray too far from the default setup and their hardware is fully supported. Thankfully, on the hardware front, you can download/order a ‘Live CD’ from Ubuntu that allows you to boot it from a CD (without touching your hard disk) and test how well your system works before you commit.

But Linux is still not ready for the mainstream desktop (although Ubuntu comes closer than any other Linux ever has). If you’re a Windows or Mac user who is not afraid to fire up a command line, troubleshoot the registry, edit a .conf file, or scour message boards for solutions to obscure problems, then you probably have the requisite skills to join the Linux world with Ubuntu. If command lines scare you and you don’t know how or want to search message boards, than you should probably get a Mac (the king of novice usability) or Windows XP.

As far as Ubuntu has come from previous Linux systems, I still need to use the command line to do too much. Too many options (especially for things like the VPN server, file sharing, etc.) can only be edited from modifying configuration files. Not enough has been moved to the front-end interface to satisfy users who want a powerful, flexible system without ever needing to type obscure “sudo gedit /etc/apt/sources.list” commands into a terminal.

Also, too many things that users expect must be installed manually. You have to go into Synaptic, activate or add several package repositories, and then find and install Adobe Reader, Flash Player, Java, the Microsoft core fonts, and more. This is the curse of open source—these proprietary products are a necessity for most users, but cannot be legally included in the default install because of license differences.

Installing these products is trivial for somebody like me, but a novice user would not necessarily know how to do it and get frustrated when Flash websites don’t load and the Times New Roman font isn’t available in OpenOffice.org. Also, a novice user would not know that they need to add several repositories to Synaptic that include the proprietary software (since the default repositories only include open source products).

If you are willing to take the time to learn a new system and have a sufficient level of computer knowledge, Ubuntu may be for you. It still has some rough edges, but it has reached the point where maintaining an Ubuntu system is not too much harder for a knowledgeable user than maintaining a Windows system. But while Windows maintenance involves defragging, anti-virusing, and removing spyware; Ubuntu maintenance involves editing configuration files and searching message boards to figure out what config file to edit. For a nerd like me, it’s a really a toss-up. For a novice, stick with Mac OS X or (if you must) Windows XP.

Ubuntu is headed in the right direction, and with strong financial backing and wide community support it stands the best chance at finally making Linux a desktop contender for non-nerd users—but version 5.10 is not there yet. There’s too heavy a reliance on the command line, wireless support needs drastic improvement (important for notebook users), strong financial software (like Intuit Quicken or Microsoft Money) is hard to find, too often I install a program to find that I need to add it to my menus manually, and there is no iTunes (a deal-breaker for Ubuntu as the primary machine in my universe).

But if you are a bit of a nerd and the drawbacks listed above don’t bother you—especially if you have an older system that is unpleasantly slow in XP or Mac OS X—Ubuntu can be a speedy, modern alternative worth looking into.

  • Nerds Like Me: 4 out of 5 stars.
  • Everybody Else: 2 out of 5 stars.