Long gone are the days of having to compile your own kernel in order to run the open-source operating system. Ubuntu, a free Linux distro from Canonical, provides a near Microsoft Windows-like experience for those new to Linux. We're reviewing this particular Linux distro because PC manufacturer Dell now ships some new models with Ubuntu already installed. But before we extol its many virtues, we should note there are also steep trade-offs when using Ubuntu. Linux is not Windows, nor is it Mac. Programs written for those other operating systems will not run under Ubuntu. Instead, be prepared to abandon your Microsoft applications in favor of equally fine although less well-known open-source products such as OpenOffice (included within Ubuntu), Evolution (e-mail), and Ekiga (VoIP). That said, some popular software, like Firefox and Opera, are written for Linux as well. If you only use your computer to check e-mail, surf the Web, and maybe view the occasional YouTube video, and are program agnostic, Ubuntu might be just right for you. And if you're an advanced computer user, by all means, try Ubuntu; Linux is designed for you. But if you're an average computer user who is partial to a specific applications, say, Apple iTunes, GarageBand, or Adobe Photoshop, then you'll need to pass for now. In general, we came away impressed with the Ubuntu package. For a free operating system, Ubuntu 7.04 is solid and extensible, although not without fault.
When installing a new operating system, especially on an existing Windows machine, we recommend first running a disk partition program such as . On a Mac OS X system, we recommend using a virtual system such as Parallels. This way you keep your current operating system and can boot into the new operating system while testing it out. Once you have decided where you want to install Ubuntu, you have two choices. One is to download the Ubuntu.iso file (it could take a while) and then burn this file to a CD. With the CD inserted, boot your PC and you can run the operating system with or without installing it. That's one way. The other is to install Ubuntu 7.04 via a third-party app such as Wubi. Wubi is a free Linux installer, and on our machine it both downloaded and installed Ubuntu in about 20 minutes. One word of caution: remember the user name and password you enter into Wubi before installation--you'll need it once Ubuntu is installed; otherwise you'll be locked out.
The Ubuntu gnome interface accessed our existing Windows XP Dell MPX wallpaper automatically so our desktop immediately had a familiar look. Other Windows settings can be ported over easily. The feel under Ubuntu, however, is different. Applications are available via pull-down menus in the upper right corner, along with built-in search and system configuration settings. For Mac OS X users, this will be intuitive, but Windows users will need to adjust.
In the upper left we also found icons for Evolution (e-mail client), Help, and Firefox, which comes preinstalled on Ubuntu. Date and time appear in the upper right along with the shutdown icon. The garbage can is in the lower right, adjacent to the workspace spaces icon. In the lower left is an icon to bring the desktop to the forefront immediately; helpful when wanting to launch a new application in the middle of a work session.
With this free operating system, you get the basics--utilities, graphics, built-in search, a calculator--and a lot of extras, such as VoIP, an entire office suite, a variety of multimedia applications, and a ton of free games. This alone is enough for most people to thoroughly enjoy Ubuntu without ever having to install another application. Should you want more, the Add/Remove Applications feature compiles downloads, including those from third parties, sparing you the effort of searching online. Ubuntu makes adding software convenient.
One of the first applications you should install from Add/Remove Applications is Firestarter, a firewall supported by the Ubuntu community. It's unclear why this interface to the firewall compiled within the kernel isn't included within the basic Ubuntu install. Once installed, we found we didn't need to tweak Firestarter much. For protection against malicious software, the Ubuntu community recommends Grisoft AVG, a free antivirus application. While threats against Linux are rare, they're not unheard of, so you should exercise the same caution as you would on Windows or Mac OS X.
In general, a safe operating system is one that runs in a nonadministrator mode. Like Windows Vista's controversial User Account Control, a security feature that freezes the desktop screen and asks for a password in order to access administrator-protected features, Ubuntu also darkens the screen during its security prompts, calling your attention to the admin password request prompt. Unlike Windows Vista UAC, Ubuntu asks for an administrator password only once, allowing you to tweak several administration features without additional prompts. Mac OS X also prompts for administrator access.