Why I Switched to Ubuntu

October 05, 2006 at 11:59 PM | categories: Computers, Programming | View Comments

In a comment to my last post, Installing Ubuntu on a drive with an existing RAID and LVM, Jay Parlar asks, "Why the switch to Ubuntu?" Well Jay, I'm glad you asked.

To answer that, I have to go back to the beginning, back to my first experiences with Linux. If you just want the executive summary without all the detail and witty prose, just skip to the end.

In my first year of University I had heard about this cool new OS called Linux (It was already 5 years old at that point, but what did I know). I of course didn't have a clue what it was or what I was getting myself in for but I decided the best way to understand it was to install it and take it for a spin. At the time I didn't quite get why people were giving it away for free, but after looking around at Red Hat, Slackware Debian and a couple others, I decided that the right one must be Debian.

Over the course of a week I proceeded to download a ridiculous amount of Debian 1.3 (bo) over dial up. Then I went through a not very friendly install process which eventually dumped me off a login prompt. After logging in I of course had no idea what to do because I had never touched any kind of Unix before. I played around with that with a bit of help from a Linux tutorial for DOS users, but generally that attempt was not very successful.

My adventures with Linux picked up when I took the McMaster University IEEE Student Branch Unix crash course in my second year of University. There, in one easy session, I got bumped from my computer and forced to be the typist for the demo computer attached to the projector. The second day the course was offered (two days later) I assisted in teaching the course by being one of the people who helped the students who were lost. The next semester I co-wrote the manual and taught the course.

For a long time I disto hopped. I was taking in all the cool new graphical features and installers and things that were coming out at the time and discovered that for the most part it was hard to get any new software on the system unless it got done during the initial installation. The exception to that was Debian. It seems that Debian figured out a lot of things between when I first installed them and when I eventually allocated them permanent space on my hard drive. In particular, they invented APT so that you could easily install and remove of software. Seemingly every program you could possibly want to use could be installed with the new APT system. They also seemed to have users that knew what they were doing.

Even though I mostly used Debian, I continued to use Windows and distro hope until after third year. When I went on internship, I gave up Windows went entirely Debian. I was satisfied with Debian for a fairly long time because I was using the unstable version. I decided that I had to do that because otherwise Debian was just too far behind on all the cool toys. Eventually I found myself being too often annoyed that unstable really meant unstable or that it took a really long time for the really cool new stuff to get packaged up and included.

When I started my Masters, I decided to switch to Gentoo. The source based distribution attracted me because it promised to be more agile about accepting packages and gave the opportunity to optimize what got compiled in or didn't. I also believed that machine specific optimizations were going to make a speed difference, something I never found a lot of evidence for.

I was already starting to be a bit dissatisfied with Gentoo before I moved to Ottawa, but the new living arrangements were the nail in the coffin. Suddenly my box was headless, and I had limited time to maintain my box because only one of Kate or myself could be using a computer at a time. I was also more interested in doing things with my computer than maintaining it.

I had had heard good things about Ubuntu, which is based on Debian. At work Pedro, a long time Debian user, said that he was using Ubuntu for desktop stuff and was really happy with it. Since I didn't have anything installed at work, I decided to take the Ubuntu plunge and was happy to find that it took little work to get it configured to my liking. It had the familiar Debian flavour with a new polished presentation.

It took me a couple months to get around to it but since I already wanted to redo my box at home I decided to go with Ubuntu. Thus far I have not regretted the choice and am even excited about some of the new features in the upcoming Edgy Eft which include Gnome 2.16, Firefox 2 and not having to muck with /etc/apt/sources.list to get Vim 7.

So far I have not been disappointed with my choice to move to Ubuntu. I think it provides all the features I liked about Debian and Gentoo, but with guaranteed regular updates and a usable desktop out of the box. And yes, I am using Gnome. It doesn't get in my way and at work, where I actually have a Linux desktop, I have enough processor and memory that I don't care that its a bit of a hog. I mostly only use Gnome Term anyways. At home I mostly ssh into my box. I use x11vnc to export a GUI when I need it, but I have been doing most of my graphical work on Windows (Firefox does work there ya know).

Ok, so lots of prose, mabey not so witty. Here is the promised executive summary:

  • I had a lot of experience with unmanageable distros
  • I found Debian and fell in love with its manageability
  • I wanted to be more cutting edge, especially in desktopy things so I switched to Gentoo
  • Gentoo was too much work and I wanted out
  • Ubuntu gives me the desktopy things I want while still giving me the Debian Manageability
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