It may have taken a while, but Linux is finally starting to inch its way out of the dark corners of hobbyist computing and onto the battlefield between Microsoft and Apple.
Sure, Linux has dominated the server market for a while now, but for the most part, its desktop and home computer offerings have, until recently, depended heavily on hacking and command-line skills. That's something the average computer user doesn't want to bother with at all, and can be a daunting task for even the brightest computer whiz kids.
Then came along Ubuntu, a Linux distribution promising to be "Linux for human beings," something even grandma can understand and use. Previous Ubuntu versions have tried to be as grandma-centric as possible, but have always lacked one or two features that would hold back the less technically-minded amongst us.
Finally, Ubuntu sponsor Canonical has released a version of Ubuntu that is elegant, fast, and easy to use straight out of the box. Ubuntu 7.10, also known as "Gutsy Gibbon," shows us that Linux can finally play with the giants and conquer some territory along the way.
Ubuntu 7.10 blends the best elements of elegant design and simplicity, and it's highly customizable. The most noticeable feature of 7.10 is that it now comes with Compiz as the default window manager. Compiz brings in 3D effects and customization that is similar to Windows Vista's Aero Glass setup, and if your computer is capable of running Windows Vista Home Premium, Compiz will start up by default, giving you a full arsenal of customizable effects. If you have older hardware, Ubuntu will recognize this and fall back to its original, simpler window manager.
Some of these Compiz effects include wobbly and sticky windows, four desktops navigable on a cube, genie window minimizing and more. If you add the Emerald theme manager, you can have transparent windows, and a program called Avant Window Navigator gives a Mac OS X-like dock. The effects list goes on, and everything is customizable and easy to use.
The Default Ubuntu 7.10 setup
The best way to try out Ubuntu 7.10 is by downloading and burning the Live CD. Running the Live CD allows you to see how Ubuntu works with your computer without installing it. But since it runs directly from your CD-ROM drive, expect it to run much slower than it will fully installed. Go ahead and use the Live CD session to customize the system however you like and try out some of the programs, it's all on the Live CD. When you are ready, click the install button and choose how you would like Ubuntu to run on your computer, including a dual-boot setup that will work well if you still need Microsoft Windows.
Once logged in, the default is the classic "human" theme of brown and tan with a brown OS X-like abstract background image. Yeah, brown is a little ugly, but this isn't Zune brown, it's more like Galaxy Chocolate brown. If you don't like brown, a few clicks will have the system customized however you want. There are two panels: the top panel gives access to your applications, system preferences, and logout options, the bottom panel has a recycle bin, desktop button, and window switcher. Plus, it has a panel showing your virtual desktops, freeing up desktop clutter. One difference in the new version, however, is the session switcher, allowing you to switch between users without logging off first. Additionally, Ubuntu has added a deskbar applet by default, allowing you to search your system easily.
In previous versions of Ubuntu, there were small annoyances that affected the average users chances of using Linux full-time. One of these annoyances was getting a correct screen resolution. Ubuntu 7.10 makes this process much easier, offering a "screens and graphics" program that allows you to test drivers, change the screen quality, and test it all out before you do damage to your system. Ubuntu 7.10 also improves plug and play functionality, and should detect everything from printers to your iPod without having to edit the dark caverns of you computer file system.
A highly customized system showing off the Desktop Cube effect.
Equally, Ubuntu 7.10 makes it easy to download programs. The "Add/Remove Programs" section is much more complex than its Windows equivalent, offering you alternative programs that are easy to download instead of merely monitoring your currently installed programs. Ubuntu offers the Synaptic Package Manager that will help you find thousands of open source programs over the internet. This saves time, and you won't have to click around Web sites to get the programs you want.
But Ubuntu is not for everyone. If you spend a lot of time using programs such as Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office, you may want to stick with Windows (although alternatives do exist on Linux). Also, if you are a high-end gamer, you won't get most games on Linux since game developers don't generally develop Linux versions. However, Ubuntu makes it easy to set up a dual boot system, allowing you to choose between Ubuntu and Windows on startup. Both systems can work separately from each other, with some interoperability available. After all, Ubuntu developers know they aren't going to take over Windows systems entirely (at least, not without a fight).
Cover Flow-esque window switching is another Compiz feature available on Ubuntu
With Windows Vista getting bad press lately for it's resource-hogging setup and Apple's delays with its latest release, Leopard, Ubuntu 7.10 suddenly seems worthwhile. Its Compiz effects are comparable to Windows Vista, yet on my testing (Using a Compaq Presario with 2 GB RAM and Nvidia accelerated graphics) it took up less resources, leaving more memory for the programs I like to use. Also, having more than one desktop helps control dektop clutter when I'm working.
Overall, Ubuntu 7.10 is worth looking into, and with a dual boot setup, it's not too crazy to switch. With its highly customizable setup, a quick click around the Ubuntu Forums will boost the "wow" factor above anything Windows Vista has offered yet, and the straightforward usability puts it up there with Mac OS X.
If you want to try out Ubuntu 7.10, head over to Ubuntu's website and download (or mail order) a copy of this free operating system. Even if you are just curious, it's worth trying out.