I want to put forth a question I was asked a few months ago. A friend of mine managed to once again impress me with a new and interesting way to break Microsoft Windows. After a brief discussion, I gave my friend two choices: 1) He could leave his laptop with me for a day or two so I can attempt to repair Window XP. 2) He could give me 30 minutes to replace Windows XP with Ubuntu 10.10.

Ubuntu to the Rescue?!

I was mentally preparing my well-rehearsed responses, when he finally asked me, “Why should I give this Ubuntu thing a try instead of fixing Windows?” Albeit a simple question, I had not been asked this in the five years I have been using Ubuntu as my laptop’s OS. Lets take a moment to look at Ubuntu and what it offers a user without comparing it to other operating systems.

All operating systems now come with a package of software ranging from the basic requirements (file browser, Graphical User Interface) to advanced tools (instant messengers, Internet browsers, word processors). In my opinion, Ubuntu currently offers one of the most complete software packages included with an operating system. As this software pack includes a fairly large selection, I will just highlight some of the more interesting and new features that set Ubuntu 10.10 apart from any other operating system.

New Super Powers!

Ubuntu attempts to provide quick easy access to key software with varying degrees of success. Rhythmbox appears as part of the sound controller on the top right menu. One click access to my music even when a full screen program is running is very convenient. On the flip side, Empathy and Gwibber also can be quickly accessed in much the same manner as Rhythmbox; however, this very feature prevents me from ever logging out of Empathy once logged in. Even when I exit Empathy completely, the menu button still lists me as online. I find this to be very inconvenience as it complicates the simple task of logging out of my IM.

After years of using Ubuntu, the new and improved Rhythmbox is truly something to behold. Inspired by iTunes, Rhythmbox evolved from a media player to a media management system. The first improvement I noticed was the new Ubuntu One Music Store, an iTunes-like source of digital media backed by 7Digital (a world leader in independent digital music). Rhythmbox will also stream Internet radio to give you the listening in your car feel while you browse the web. And if that isn’t how you like your Internet radio, it provides one click access to Last.fm. This is an Internet radio platform like Pandora that provides control over what you listen. Its feature list is rounded out with 3 additional sources for free independent music, support for all Apple and Android based devices (as well as most other music devices on the market), and Ubuntu One connection to get a media management system with style.

I am sure many of the readers have already seen the “To the Cloud” commercials on TV. While most still list Cloud as an upcoming feature, you can get some of those cloud features right now with Ubuntu One. Ubuntu One is an off-site storage system similar to DropBox, Mozy, and iDisk. You can get started with a free basic account (2 GB of personal storage).

It currently can be used to keep a backup copy of some personal data, contact list from Evolution, personal notes, and audio files purchased through the Ubuntu One Music Store. These backup files are available for download and/or use from the Ubuntu One Web interface anywhere you have Internet access. Ubuntu One will also stream the music stored in your account to your smart phone or media device via a free app. This cloud storage integration is a great concept and is executed well. You can also rent additional storage space either monthly or year at a reasonable price.

Ubuntu’s Kryptonite

While these two new features are at the top of my list of awesome, the OS has its downfalls as well. All of the software provided by default in Ubuntu is developed by organizations, groups, and people outside of Canonical, the business face of Ubuntu. While this is the norm for Linux based operating systems, it still means they have virtually no control over software being closely integrated with the OS or with the Ubuntu One cloud.

While alternate software choices can provide a feature you want, you will often have to sacrifice other features to gain them. I wanted to use Amarok over Rhythmbox as I find it has a better interface, better audio quality, and one button lyrics downloading. In the end, I decided not to replace Rhythmbox because I was unwilling to give up the Ubuntu One Music Store, Internet radio, and Ubuntu One cloud features. I don’t believe I should have to give up one set of features for another.

As with almost all Linux based operating systems, updating all of your software automatically or at the click of a single button is a great feature, but remains unrefined. Kernel updates still leave pointless access to obsolete kernels in the Grub boot menu. I understand some members of the Linux community feel better with this security blanket, but why can’t I disable this? The sudden appearance of the boot menu (as this menu only appears when there is a choice) can confuse and scare people who are new to Linux. These same users will also have trouble removing these choices, which will lead to needless boot menu clutter.

The update system is further complicated by the recommended distro updates. A new version of Ubuntu is released every six months, and the updater will insist you install it even if the new version will create problems. The recommendation can be annoying since a pop up reminder seems to appear every hour. This is an irritation I, quite frankly, disable immediately after installation.

The Final Verdict on Ubuntu

As with any operating system, Ubuntu has its strengths and weaknesses. Overall, the provided software package has plenty to offer and plenty to improve upon as well. Unless you are a hardcore gamer, I believe you should give Ubuntu a spin around the block.

They offer several simple ways to try their OS without altering your computer’s HDD. With no risk and a $0 initial price tag, you have nothing to lose. You may even find yourself shopping in Canonical’s Ubuntu Shop for accessories and gear before you can say Open Source Community.

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