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 distribution from Canonical, provides a 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. For one thing, get ready to use different software applications than what you're used to.
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. Under Accessories we found the usual suspects including a calculator, a character map, and notepad. We also found a built-in dictionary app.
We found far more free games within Ubuntu than in the in current release of Windows Vista. Pictured here are Klondike (Solitaire), Chess, and Blackjack. Also included are Sodoku, Mahjongg, Mines, and Robots.
Ubuntu includes several Internet-friendly apps pre-installed. For example: the Firefox browser. It also provides Evolution as an e-mail client, Gaim for Instant Messenging, Ekiga Softphone for VoIP service, and a terminal server client.
One bonus is that Ubuntu includes the OpenOffice suite pre-installed. OpenOffice provides a word processor, a spreadsheet application, a presentation application, and a relational database application. All of these open-source productivity apps are compatible with Microsoft Office 2003 and earlier.
Like Windows and Mac OS X, Ubuntu includes apps to help play and create new music and video files. Included are Totem Video Player, Rhythmbox Music Player, Serpentine Audio CD Creator, Sound Juicer CD extractor, and a sound recorder.
Should you want to add new applications to Ubuntu, the Add or Remove Applications feature includes a list of available applications supported by the Ubuntu community. Instead of performing a Google search to find these, simply check the box of the app you want and it'll be added.
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.
Another new feature in Ubuntu 7.04 is a better graphical environment for the desktop. It is optional, depending on which graphics card you have installed. Microsoft spent years developing the Windows Presentation Foundation so they could roll out translucent windows within Windows Vista and 3D stacking. Ubuntu has this, along with a way to make windows "wiggle" when moving. We disabled the wiggle effect after a short time.
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 application--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.