From Windows XP to Vista to Ubuntu Linux

As you may or may not be aware, Microsoft has something of an “open beta” going on for Windows Vista. Basically, a time limited version (good until mid 2007 I believe) known as “Release Candidate 1” can be signed up for and downloaded for free from their website.

Despite being called a “release candidate”, this product is by no means ready for release. Things do look promising, but there are still a few things that have to be worked out. For one, it’s still got a lot of bugs that need to be ironed out. The interface could use some work as well – some of the changes are good, but others are just terrible. I’d actually prefer if they scrapped the new interface and started again from scratch, but Microsoft’s run out of time, so I’m sure they’ll simply “refine” what they have.

Anyway, debate as to what’s good, bad, ugly, and what needs work has been covered in depth and discussed to death by others. I’ll give you my impressions, as well as why I made the transition from XP to Vista RC1 to Ubuntu Linux.

XP to Vista RC1
I have to commend Microsoft on making RC1 available to the general public. It’s a win-win situation. Customers benefit because they get to find out what Vista is all about, what applications will still work, and where they might run into problems. Microsoft benefits because a large test base helps them to figure out what needs to be fixed, what needs to be fixed first, and what changes need to be made. Vista’s a pretty big upgrade, and opening it up to the world before the finished product is made and goes up in the stores was a very smart move.

I ended up installing Vista on 2 machines at home. The 64-bit system got a clean boot-from-the-cd-and-wipe-the-c-drive-first 64-bit install. The 32-bit system got an “upgrade” install. One thing that impressed me about the “upgrade” install is that it told me which programs were incompatible, and which would have issues. One thing that didn’t impress me about the “upgrade” install though was the system stability after the install. Despite uninstalling every single program that the installer said would have issues, I ended up with the most unreliable installation I’ve ever had. The system with the clean install has had 1 or 2 program crashes so far. The system with the upgrade install has had about 30 program crashes and 10 complete system crashes. It seems that a clean install is the best way to go if you’re looking to try Vista.

I think I can sum up the Vista experience by saying “a few steps back, a few steps forward down a different path”. Ease of use went down. Some programs won’t be supported. Drivers for existing hardware may be hard to come by. Users are going to be bombarded with “Windows needs your permission” screens. Some will hate the new interfaces and the new ways of doing things. On the other hand, security has gone up. There’s a “program compatibility wizard” so that you can run programs that otherwise wouldn’t run under Vista. Even more current and older hardware has basic driver support built in. And some will like the new interfaces and features.

As far as the interface goes, I’m not thrilled with the changes. Now it’s no secret that Microsoft lacks any sort of innovation in the UI department. The best they can do is rip off an aspect of an existing UI, and implement it in the most clumsy way possible. Take the new Windows Sidebar for instance. It strikes a remarkable resemblence to the Mac OS X Dashboard/Widgets. They just made it clunky looking, and then decided a great place to put it was on the desktop (in case your desktop isn’t cluttered enough already). I’m perfectly fine with them taking ideas from others. But if they’re going to steal ideas from Mac OS X, could they at least steal some of the eloquence of the OS X UI as well? And make things intuitive. Removing the “back” button during wizards in favor of the IE-style back button at the top left is not more intuitive. It’s less.

As far as features and functionality goes though, Microsoft really did some good work. As I understand it, the video card does all the work now for rendering the new Aero interface. I like how they brought the “Enable Advanced Performance” option for hard drives over from Server 2003. I appreciate how when you adjust power settings, there are extremely detailed options in the advanced section, allowing for even more tweaking. I also understand that you can use a USB stick as additional memory (although I haven’t tried it yet). Really, a lot of good things have been added that make Vista a true “upgrade”.

Vista RC1 to Ubuntu Linux

So why the change to Linux?

  • Vista on multiple computers will be a relatively large expense. Linux = free.
  • New programs may require Vista. Vista may require me to buy new versions of existing programs. Again, more money. Again, Linux = free.
  • Despite the advancements in Vista, it’s still playing “catchup” to other OS’s.
  • Now is a good time to examine alternatives to see what OS is the best choice in the short term and in the long term.

Of course, Linux isn’t without it’s issues:

  • Setting it up, installing programs, etc is typically more difficult than with Windows.
  • Windows programs won’t run. You must either obtain a Linux version, or run the Windows version through WINE (many, but not all programs will work).
  • Less software is available for Linux.

I could go on about pros and cons, but you get the idea.

Ubuntu seems to be quite popular, and for that reason, I chose it. I had actually tried it once before, but didn’t have the time to learn how to use Linux very well. This time, I decided I was going to learn.

One of the nice things about Ubuntu is the LiveCD. ¬†For those who don’t know what a LiveCD is, it’s basically a CD that will boot the operating system, load drivers, and let you run programs. You can put the Ubuntu LiveCD into just about any computer, boot from it, and run Firefox, browse the web, listen to music, etc, without it having to install to the hard drive. To get back to your old operating system, you just remove the CD and restart the computer. This is obviously a great way to try out Ubuntu and get a “feel” for it before installing it. The LiveCD is dual-purpose – you can also install Ubuntu to your hard drive from it.

I installed Ubuntu to the hard drive. I was able to access shared Windows XP (but not Vista) printers and folders through the network. The first computer I installed to was more or less a “family” computer, and since most of my family plays Warcraft III over, I had to get Warcraft III running, which meant I had to run it through WINE. I eventually got WINE up and running, and after some time got it to run Warcraft III through WINE in opengl mode. Unfortunately, the video was choppy. I managed to botch the system trying various ways to get nVidia drivers installed (as it turns out, installing drivers isn’t as simple as in Windows where you simply go to the hardware vendor’s website, download a file, and run it). After a few more reinstalls (I did get the nVidia GLX drivers loaded, but botched other things), I finally came across a program called Automatix ( which installs WINE, nVidia drivers, and oh so much more.

Assuming things go well, Ubuntu will probably stay for quite some time. Not all the computers are going to make the switch, but at least a couple for now.

I have learned one thing about Ubuntu Linux. It’s easy to use. In fact, it’s just as easy as any version of Windows. Setting things up on the other hand can be dead-easy (a basic install), or it can be relatively difficult (mainly because if you end up having to do anything outside of the GUI, it becomes a learning experience).

Now only time will tell if Ubuntu stays, or if I’ll end up going back to XP (or even Vista). Each has their pros and cons. Fortunately, it will probably be some time before Microsoft finishes Vista. By that time, maybe I’ll have changed my mind completely and buy a Mac ;)