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HolidayBuyer's Guide

A Letter from Linuxland -- Part 2

Crave's Rupert Goodwins takes us through the trials and tribulations of backing up Windows, installing Ubuntu and using USB peripherals with Linux

In part 1 of his letter from LinuxLand, Rupert explained why he decided to leave a lifetime of Windows and hop onto the penguin bus.

I was ready to Ubuntuise, but Windows had one final goodbye insult -- it can't burn a bootable CD.  Plenty of online advice recommended using a trial version of Nero that had recently been removed from distribution by the authors, so I used a free Windows utility, ISO Recorder. It's free, simple, does a useful job and its absence from Windows reminded me why I was quitting. I burned the disk, and pressed reset.

Ubuntu has put a lot of thought into its distribution CD. Not only does it come with a good set of free software for Windows, it'll run a pretty full version of the operating system off the CD, so you can find out whether you really want install it. In my case, I found out that on three different systems Ubuntu automatically installed all my peripherals and correctly configured itself -- or so I thought. Later discoveries sullied this perfect picture, but we'll get onto that later...

I soon found out that the Ubuntu desktop is just as easy to use as Windows. It doesn't matter how technical you are, we're all in the same boat when we're faced with a new interface for the first time. But five minutes of poking around at random got me all the important, useful things I needed to carry on. It was within those five minutes that I came across a nasty surprise waiting with multimedia, but a superb surprise waiting for everything else.

There was one last decision I had to make at this point: what to do with my old copy of Windows. The sensible thing would be to dual-boot it, so I could switch back at any point. The next most sensible thing would be to back up an image of the disk, so I could later rip out Ubuntu and carry on as if nothing had happened. However, realising that I had XP system CDs, back-ups of my data, and could download nearly all the Windows software I use regularly from the Internet, I decided to trade the potential inconvenience for the pleasure of erasing Windows from my computer. At least, that's what I did on my home machine -- I decided to dual-boot the work computer, where miserable failure would be more embarrassing.

And so I chose to install Ubuntu over the entire hard disk. This involved selecting a few default options by pressing Enter -- any deviation from these options involves understanding things like disk partitions and master boots, so isn't to be recommended for a newbie. If you need to venture into these areas getting help online is frustrating. Although there is plenty of help out there, most of it assumed I knew more than I did. The information on partitions, master boot records, device names, mounts and so on, was devastatingly confusing. However, it's important to remember that Windows' users benefit from it being the only system most people have used for 20 years, so a lot of problems that people come across have been isolated and solved.

None of the above mattered for my straightforward Ubuntu install. It really is as simple as rumoured -- you have to tell it where you are and what keyboard you're using, but that's about it. There's a burst of formatting, the choice of computer name and user name, a password to pick and you're in.

There are some traditions from Unix days that you'll pick up quickly. For a start, things happen silently. Plug a new USB peripheral into Windows, and it bongs, burps and blows text balloons like a childrens' party entertainer. When I plugged a random Bluetooth adaptor into Ubuntu -- expecting it not to work -- nothing happened. Although I know my way around the Windows control panel and device manager backwards, that wasn't much help here. Eventually, after I'd ground my few remaining teeth to stumps, I noticed a small icon had appeared on the task bar. The Bluetooth adaptor had quietly woven itself into the system, and I could move files between my Nokia and the computer without fuss. I could get to like this, I decided, but a slightly noiser option would be useful for the Windows escapee.

Likewise with wireless networking. I had expected it to be a problem, but the system spotted the Proxima card, loaded the right software and got everything running except the security. Once I'd typed in my key, I was online.

Three things rapidly made themselves clear. Firstly, Ubuntu is as fast, if not faster, than Windows XP for a lot of tasks, especially on older hardware. Secondly, going online and not worrying about exploits, hacks, spyware or trojans is magnificently liberating. Yes, I know there are a handful of Linux nasties out there, but the odds are so much better. But finally, Ubuntu out of the box sucks wet farts out of dead pigeons when it comes to multimedia. Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- works.

Why that is, how to fix it and what it means for Linux on the desktop will be explained in the next enthralling Letter from Linuxland. -Rupert Goodwins