Saturday, 1 January 2011

Xubuntu desktop

I've lost count of the number of false-starts I have had with Linux in the last few years.  I really do want to settle on a Linux-based desktop for a number of reasons: zero capital cost, no licensing restrictions or 'product activation' steps and everything appears to run faster than on Windows.  Most of my development work is on the JVM platform (Scala, Groovy and Java) so I am not dependent on Windows.  I should add that I have no time for the anti-Microsoft movement: I still think Windows (especially 7) is a very good desktop OS and it's likely to remain my default fallback for a while. I'm still not completely comfortable if I can't boot back into Windows if Linux dies (or more likely, I screw it up) and there are still a few things I use which don't yet have Linux builds or good alternatives.

With Xubuntu 10.10 I'm daring to believe that I might have a stable enough platform to be able to make a bigger commitment to Linux, certainly as a development desktop. I've been running it alongside Windows 7, using the Wubi installer.  This is by far the best way to experiment with Linux: you get very close to the experience of a 'proper' installation (I don't think I have been able to detect the virtual disc performance hit) and you don't disturb Windows or the drive partitioning in any way.

I have two reasons for wanting to move on from a Wubi install:
1) Virtual drive size.  I went with the default (17GB or so) and eventually this will probably be an issue.
2) You cannot use Remastersys on a Wubi installation.  To use this handy utility, you need a real installation.  I know this, because I trashed my first Wubi installation when I tried.

Apart from creating a complete backup of your installation, Remastersys can also do something else: generate a new master ISO image of your installed OS, containing all the configuration changes you have made, so you can walk up to another machine and just deploy it.  That's worth having, because I don't want to have to go through the process of installing my stuff all over again (and waiting for the upgrades) and I will want to standardise the development desktop we use via a deployment image.

Happily, there is a way to move your Wubi Ubuntu to a separate partition, turning it into a full installation.  This thread on the forum provides a really good step-by-step guide, complete with downloadable script.  I plan to try this but only after I have made a drive image of my current Windows installation (because if I don't, then I know it will go badly wrong).

So what's left?  What are the things I still cannot do on Linux?  The final barriers to a complete switch?  There aren't many:

  1. Some digital devices, notably my Sony Walkman, just don't have drivers or companion software.  With the Walkman, the problem is Sony's truly dreadful SonicStage software.  Much as I hate it, it's the only way to convert and sync stuff to the device.  When I last looked, there were a few poor-quality tools which claim to work with the Walkman but when I tried them they messed-up the device's track database and filesystem. Not going that way again.
  2. My Vodafone USB wireless broadband device.  There's a Windows driver for this, but no Linux software, as far as I know.  
  3. VISIO.  I do need a decent 2D drawing / diagramming tool.  I have tried Dia, but I just don't like it and development appears to be stalled.  In the past I have almost ignored OpenOffice Draw (because I have Visio), but I think Draw may be just good enough, if I make a bit of effort with it.

There are a few other minor things, but these are the three I would pick as most irritating.  To fix (1), some might suggest I buy a different media player!  Maybe, but this is really just an example of a more general issue which only the passing of time will solve: manufacturers and software publishers supporting deployment to non-Microsoft environments.  And there's WINE of course: this does solve some problems, but unsurprisingly not everything runs under WINE (SonicStage, for example) and even the things which do run, look pretty awful.

Xubuntu (and I think the plain Ubuntu distro) also appears to have removed another barrier to adoption which I just could not work around before: poor font rendering.  When you spend so much time reading, editing and writing on-screen text, fonts (and rendering) really matter.  In the past, Linux font rendering was truly dreadful: inconsistent across applications, and never very good in any of them.  That seems to be over.  Java applications still leave something to be desired, but that's down to Java, not Linux.

Cautious optimism, then.
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