A week in Ubuntu: The good, the bad and the ugly

I used to be a Linux user, all the time. Then the mass exodus to Ubuntu and Gnome started happening. And Windows 7, which was a very solid OS. As a KDE user, feeling sidelined at the lack of deep OS integration that Gnome was getting in Ubuntu, I was at a crossroads. I tried to love Ubuntu, but never could. Ubuntu always disliked something of my hardware – which openSUSE didn’t seem to mind. Kubuntu never felt well put together, not like Ubuntu. So I left it behind, bought a great notebook with Windows 7 pre-installed, and stuck to that.. for 3 years. Over a week ago, I decided to give Ubuntu another shot. Here’s how that went.

The Good

Some things about the OS are great. Ubuntu has come a long way, as has Linux, and desktop Linux may still have a bright future, especially with Steam on the way.

Installation of Ubuntu is amazing. It’s easier than any other OS I’ve tried. This has always been the case. Good on Canonical knowing that if it wasn’t this easy, people wouldn’t even try.

The OS is fast, bootup is quick, everything is responsive. The experience feels very optimized. There wasn’t a point where I thought, damn this might lock up, or that I might be taxing the system by opening Inkscape, Gimp and Spotify at the same time.

Unity desktop is stable, and does exactly what it should. All of the demos, with the HUD and launcher are exactly as expected. This is something I could really get used to, and hope to see all desktop environments going this way. I know Windows 8 does something similar, but without the HUD for alt+key combinations – something that’s really awesome.

Gnome 3 is actually a really nice desktop environment. I’ve heard so much hate about it, and although I can see why, I don’t agree. It’s quick, stable, and customizable. The extensions are ridiculously easy to install, and the only thing I couldn’t find is a button taking me to the extensions site. The extension installer even worked out of the box in Chromium.

This deserves its own point, although this aplies to Linux in general. I could change the desktop. This is something I still love about Linux, and it’ll always have a place in my heart. Even if Unity itself isn’t customizable, I don’t have to use it. I could install Gnome, XFCE, KDE, LXDE, or even – something that I still have a soft spot for – Enlightenment.

Apps on Linux are just getting better. Geany is great for editing PHP and Python. Eclipse always felt more native on Linux than on Windows. Spotify ( since I have a premium account ) worked like a charm. I even managed to develop a Spotify extension using only the Linux version. The games selection in the Software Center is looking much better too, with some top premium games. And with Steam and Unity 3D ( the engine ) support coming, that will only get better.

My laptop is a Dell XPS 17, with an Optimus chipset. Something that’s been in the media lately for NVidia’s lack of official Linux support. It turns out, there’s a project called bumblebee, which works surprisingly well. Once I followed instructions, things were working great. The little 3D sample app, GLXSpheres, went from 1,6 fps – using the intel card – to about 180 fps – using the 555M my laptop packs. I tried a few 3D games, without a problem. I even played some levels of Swords and Soldiers, a port of the Xbox/PS3/Steam version. This is where Linux shines, if NVidia won’t support it officially, someone will find a way.

The Bad

Before installing bumblebee, Ubuntu decided to use Unity 2D instead of the full blown default 3D experience. It was still really quick, but it had some quirks that made me install Gnome 3. It was only after I installed Gnome 3, I realised that my 3D drivers weren’t active, because I kept booting into Gnome Classic. This may have sullied my Unity experience – which it did to some extent – so I tried full blown Unity again. I still went back to Gnome 3.

Unity in general hasn’t won me over. I dislike single menu bar and the side dock. I’ve written about this before. Basically, the dock becomes annoying for me to use if there are more apps on there than it is high. I also find global menu bars annoying – this argument is roughly how I feel about it. I generally dislike the way OS X deals with window management, and since they’re adopting OS X style standards, I dislike that. Sure, it’s  an opinion, and some people might like it, but I don’t and if Ubuntu is going the way of the Mac, that will make sure I never use Unity as a default desktop – which thankfully in Linux you can.

Gnome 3 is pretty good, but I’m disappointed by the lack of a default window list/manager as quick as that in other desktops. I installed the Window List extension, which has worked around the lack of space on the bar. That said, this extension works well, but not something I’d recommend for the beginners.

I was pretty disappointed to find Gimp 2.6 in the repository. One of the reasons I wanted to use Linux was for this. It’s a shame since 2.8 is now stable for a few months already and I’d have expected it to be up streamed into the repo.

The Ugly

Something that really got me angry was the default notifications in Ubuntu. I had forgotten about this from my previous attempts at learning to use Unity, but it actually makes me lose my patience. I use my laptop – which is my main computer – for several things. It’s my primary development environment, my internet browser, and my primary means of chatting. The fact that you can’t click on the notifications means that for me to respond to chat messages, I have to either multitask ( 2 clicks ) or go to an annoying menu at the top of the screen and select the chat that the notification came from ( 2 clicks ). It even goes to the extent of blurring the notification when you mouse over it, almost taunting the user, “I know you want to click on this, but you can’t”. That actually made me find and install an alternate notification system, which integrated so poorly with Unity that I installed Gnome 3 instead. It turns out that this notification system is like this by design. That fact annoyed me even more. Every OSes notifications are becoming more functional, I only hope Canonical wake up to this soon.

Something more directly related to Empathy – the chat client – was that every time I woke up my laptop, I had to redo my 2 step verification on my Google account. That meant, logging into my account in the browser, regenerating a new per app password and entering it into the client. As a default chat client, this is very annoying. Linux users normally have higher security than other OS users, so the fact that this bug wasn’t fixed before release is amazing. I found a bug report for it over a year old. It seems like a minor thing, but having to come home from work every day to re-enter a password behind 2 walls of authentication is not acceptable usability. Sure there were work-arounds, and other apps like Pidgin, but I was tired of fighting the OS defaults.

I have a Logitech Performance MX mouse. I paid good money for it to do some serious gaming. It’s a great wireless mouse with a darkfield laser – so I can use it on reflective surfaces. I probably won’t replace it any time soon and if then, only with something similar. The problem is that Ubuntu keeps forgetting it. It happened 3 times in 1 week. I’ll start up, and the mouse won’t work. It requires me to unplug the usb adapter for it and plug it back in. Add that to the previous hassle, and starting up my laptop is ridiculously annoying.

Conclusion

So I sit here back in Windows 7. Maybe it’s stockholme syndrome that makes me comfortable with Windows, but my chat client isn’t complaining at me and my mouse works. That said, I will definitely go back to Linux occasionally. Especially now that Unity 3D is going to have a Linux exporter. My current Unity 3D games will get Linux ports, and I will be putting them in the Ubuntu Software Center. Although I may be in Windows, I haven’t deleted my Linux install, and probably won’t any time soon. Ubuntu is better than I remember, but it’s still got a long way to go before I can achieve the same level of productivity that I can in Windows. Given that Apple’s share in the desktop/laptop market is only growing, users will be more comfortable trying out Linux. And I can only hope that with more end users, more of these usability issues will be ironed out.

Is the Windows 8 hate justified?

When things change, people get unhappy. Except fan boys of course, but that’s to be expected. Microsoft are launching a new OS soon, and the tech blogosphere seems to love hating on Windows 8’s new Metro UI. I don’t understand why.

First I need to clear some things up. I am not a Microsoft fan boy. In fact, I am very much an open source geek, and ex-Desktop Linux enthusiast. I still love Linux, it just doesn’t like me, my profession or my hardware. I do love Android, and think Windows Phone is bland and ugly. Windows 8 doesn’t particularly appeal to me visually ( like Ubuntu 12.04 does ), but practically, I think they’re catching up big time. I feel like i can say this with confidence, as I’ve been using Windows 8 for the last 6 months as my primary work OS. Windows 8 comes with a large bevy of improvements, including (finally) a much better copy dialog that stacks with other copy dialogs and has a pause button, improved Windows Explorer with a ribbon menu that doesn’t suck, ridiculously fast boot times especially with UEFI ( which I’m not sure I agree with on a moral ground ) and much better performance and memory usage, improved default app handling and notifications. And then there’s Metro.

I love this copy dialog

I love this copy dialog

There are many articles expressing hatred for the Metro UI, often with tricks of how to get your start menu back. The problem with almost all these articles is that I can’t seem to see a solid reason for the dislike of it as start menu replacement. On a touch device, most bloggers seem to agree that Metro is great. And I have used it on a touch device regularly and it’s great. Snapping – the ability to run 2 windows docked side-by-side, one at 30% one at 70% – seems like a feature iOS and Android could do with. I could really see the use in having my chat window open on the side while reading my feeds or playing a game. The share and settings charms provide consistent, context based sharing & settings, and developers can register their apps for types of content. Overall, a good user experience.

That said, I don’t see myself using Metro apps on the desktop. Because that’s not what they’re intended for. Metro apps are for touch interfaces. Many next-gen ultrabooks will ship with touch screens, so that’s something that Windows 8 is built for. For hardcore desktop users, there’s still traditional apps with full desktop support. Removing it in favor of the clunky old start menu is, in my opinion, just going to far.

My main reason for writing this post, is that i think the Metro dashboard is arguably the best replacement for the traditional menu system i’ve seen so far – with Ubuntu’s latest Unity shell being the counter. Windows 7 introduced the pinned apps to the taskbar. This is something that initially i hated, but after using it, realised that it was Apple’s dock done right. You always know how many windows of that app you have open, and it replaces quicklaunch for the apps you actually use. If there’s something you need that’s not in there, hit Windows key and type. That’s how people work, right? At least that’s how I work in Windows 7.

Windows 8 takes this last bit a step further. Your start menu is now full screen, and centered around your keyboard. You simply hit the windows button and type. You navigate with your arrow and tab keys. You can instantly find control panel settings ( Metro and desktop ), apps ( Metro and dekstop ), and files that are in your libraries. Hit enter, and it launches your selection. Everything is navigable by keyboard. And yet almost every single blog has gone on about how it sucks for the pc. Rather than learn a bunch of obscure Windows shortcuts, you can now get any app, file, or setting open with the Windows key. Why would you – especially as a developer – not want this? It’s just as good as the current iteration of Unity, Ubuntu’s desktop shell. If only Microsoft added the functionality to get menu items with the keyboard!

Searching for Settings

Searching for Settings

I think people need to spend some time with Windows 8, use it on the desktop for day-to-day usage instead of messing around for 20 minutes and then ranting about why it’s unusable for PCs. Sure, it took me a day or two of adapting to the new way but once the mindset of Win+”what i want” was there, i struggled to go back to my Windows 7 home PC. A colleague of mine is running it on his primary home PC as well as his work PC. The only reason I haven’t upgraded at home is because I don’t want to reinstall when it’s actually released.

Windows 7 is a good, solid OS, but Windows 8 outdoes it by far. For touch devices, Metro apps and the Metro UI is good. I don’t like the visuals, but from a usability and developer perspective, it’s really solid. For desktop devices, the Metro dashboard is a more capable, super slick, lightning fast start menu replacement. I see the best of both worlds here, ready for dual input devices like some new Ultrabooks, and Transformer type tablets. If i’m missing something obvious, please tell me. Because i really don’t see what people dislike.