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Over the years, I've tried a number of Linux distributions. Some I've liked, some I've hated, and some I was neutral about. I've been through dependency hell, I've had the frustration of attempting to find a configuration setting that would make my mouse work smoothly, or get my monitor resolution right. I've had the times when something in my hardware just wouldn't work because a driver wasn't available, or the driver wasn't quite what it should be. I think at one time or another, I have seen most of the problems in one form or another. Having said that, over the past 8 years, I've seen Linux distributions get steadily (even drastically) better.
Despite my liking for Linux, I still have to work with Microsoft Windows. Windows is the "standard", and though I like Linux myself, I always had trouble recommending it to non-technical people. One look at the disk partitioning at set-up, and people would get really nervous, even when I assured them it wouldn't hurt their computer. Forget the idea of handing many of the people I know a CD and telling them to "just try it!" I'd do it if they were only going to use it as a LiveCD, but unless I could be there watching, not to install. Even then, if they didn't like it, they were going to have trouble removing it without help. There is only so much time I'm willing to dedicate for things like that.
However, a statement in a recent interview with Mark Shuttlesworth caught my eye: Ubuntu 8.04, "Hardy Heron" could be installed and uninstalled under Windows. If it were true, it would be one of the best ways to get people to actually try a Linux distributions. They could install it, and if they didn't like it, they could use the Control Panel and Add/Remove Programs to remove it!
With that in mind, once it was released, I decided to attempt this as if I were a complete newbie, who had only used Windows. I downloaded two Hardy Heron versions - Ubuntu 8.04, and Kubuntu 8.04. After burning the CD's, I put the claim to the test. I'll also admit that I've never used either of them before, so in a way I could be considered a newbie.
First up was Ubuntu 8.04. I put the CD in my Windows XP Pro box, and immediately an installer window popped up. After selecting "Install under Windows," it asked me the size on my hard drive I wanted to assign to Ubuntu, my user name, and a password. I put them in, and clicked the ok button. It proceeded to run an install, copying an image over (it told me), and at the end, it asked me if I wanted to Reboot.
On rebooting, I saw a menu choice: Windows XP or Ubuntu. I selected Ubuntu, and watched as Ubuntu went through its setup paces. It extracted its files, set up a swap ext3 partion, and then went through a hardware detection. It then cleaned up and booted. Within 5 minutes of starting, I was in! Now the fun part - just how usable is this?
It didn't take me long to browse through the menus, and see what programs were on there. I saw a little flashing icon at the top of the desktop, and when I clicked it, it asked if I wanted to install a "restricted" driver for my NVIDIA card. I said "yes", and it went and got the new driver, installed it, and after a reboot, I was on again. I started playing around with the programs. Firefox. OK, worked fine. Pidgin for IM. I put in my AIM account and password, and was on in a heartbeat. Open Office - great. Media players - I needed codecs, but they went and got them. They worked fine, until I tried to open a WMV file. Oops! I opened up Synaptic, and went looked to see if I could find anything. Nope. I then did some looking and found Medibuntu, a restricted repository which did have the codecs, so I added that repository to Synaptic.
Let me take a moment here to go over what's not quite right here. As someone who uses Linux regularly, I knew that I needed to add codecs (actually, even more so, that I knew what they were), how to go look up repositories, and use a package manager. I know the difference between "free," "non-free," and "restricted" packages. Someone who only knows Windows will not know any that. Opening a terminal, and going through the whole apt-get procedure(s) was not bothersome to me, but would confuse the heck out of someone not aware or used to it. Another confusing issue is that Ubuntu puts the Windows partition in a file folder called "Host". This is non-obvious to anyone. It took me a few minutes of stumbling around when I happened to trip across it. Despite that, it wasn't long before I had a nicely functional Linux distribution up and running. I could browse the web, check my e-mail using Evolution, IM, and play media files.
It was at this point, before getting into serious tweaking, I decided to check out the removal. I rebooted, went into Windows, then to the Add/Remove. I got the standard removal queries, along with an option to save my Ubuntu settings. I said no, and then went through with it. A few seconds later, it was uninstalled. A reboot put me right back into Windows - no grub menu, no Ubuntu. Gone.
In went the Kubuntu 8.04 CD. Once again, the Windows installer popped up. After again selecting a user name, password, and size of the partition, it went through a similar process to the Ubuntu install. After rebooting, I again saw the Grub menu - and chose Kubuntu. Again, as with Ubuntu, the process ran seamlessly, with the exception of having (or at least telling me) several more steps. Shortly later, I was looking at a standard KDE desktop
This came with most of the standard KDE software: Konqueror, Kopete, and so on. One nice addition that was not in Ubuntu was Wine. A head scratcher was the apparent decision to not synchronize application offerings with the parent distribution. No Firefox, Pidgin, Evolution, Synaptic, etc. Having not used either of these distros before, I had come in thinking that Kubuntu was Ubuntu using the KDE Desktop. Instead, it appears to to be a completely different distro. My overall impression was that this was a much "rougher" distro than Ubuntu. When I pulled up the installed media players, they didn't attempt to look for codecs for me as they had in Ubuntu. Instead, I had to go out and locate them, and install them. Then there was the problem when my sound card didn't work - yet it had worked perfectly in the Ubuntu trial.
After trying both, I have to say that that Ubuntu 8.04 is probably the single easiest install for Windows-only people who want to try out Linux. I feel this is a very big jump towards a Linux desktop that can be used by the Windows-only crowd, but it's still not quite at the stage where I'd just hand a CD to someone who's not technology literate and expect them to run with it. It doesn't need as much hand-holding as previous distributions, but it still will need some. So be prepared to answer some questions if you recommend this to your "non-techie" friends. Having said that, there are still some hassles to be worked out, particularly with Kubuntu. While I generally prefer KDE, and feel that it is an easier migration path to Linux for Windows users, I'm going to hold off recommending Kubuntu until they smooth out the rough edges.