Vista and Ubuntu

We’ve just bought a new laptop (Inspiron 1525) so I thought I’d give both Vista and Ubuntu an run. My old laptop was too under-spec’d to run Vista decently, and the hard drive was small enough that I needed to kill the Ubuntu partition to make room for data.

Firstly, the laptop itself: Dell seem to have come a long way in the last couple of years. Build quality and features are good, especially for an entry level model.  3GB RAM, Core2 Duo 2ghz and a 1400x900 truelife screen for AU$950 is a bargain in my books, expecially when it comes with a webcam, card reader, HDMI and firewire.

After quickly messing about with the pre-installed Vista, I decided that it was fast enough and pretty enough that I wouldn’t bother tri-booting XP. I re-installed Vista from the standard install disk, and without too much hassle was up and running.

One thing I found though - Vista will choose the largest partition when installing. Because I want a couple of small OS partitions an a large data partition, I needed to create a single partition as part of the Vista install, leave the rest of the disk unpartitioned. After the install, I created the data partition using Disk Management.

Because it was a bare-bones install, I had to install a heap of drivers that thankfully are provided by Dell. It was a bit of a painful and manual process though. I’m pretty impressed with Vista.  Aero looks great, and it overall seems stable and fast enough.

As with Vista, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve tried Ubuntu. Although I had it installed for a while, a couple of niggles kept me from switching and I eventually deleted the partition to make way for data. I decided I’d give the 8.10 beta a run, and my oh my was I impressed.

Firstly, the hardware detection. It was literally flawless. Not a single driver needed to be installed manually, not for my webcam, wifi card, touchpad, multi-card reader… nothing! The correct display resolution was chosen and even the ‘function’ keys for volume control, screen brightness etc work (along with a nice little heads-up display). In fact the only things I needed to do to get confortably up and running were enter my WPA key and adust the touchpad/mouse sensitivity. So we were off to a good start.

And then I started playing with Compiz, the 3D window manager. This is serously good - think Areo but configurable and prettier. This youtube vid does a great job of demo-ing the basics. The nice part is that it’s plugin based, so its very configurable. I’ve re-mapped most of the keyboard shortcuts the the ‘windows’ key (which actually works these days!) and I’m absolutely loving it. My wife liked the look of Aero over my shoulder, but when she saw some of the Compiz stuff she decided it was work making the switch to Linux.

It’s not just eye-candy either, some of it is seriously useful. My favourite plugins are Scale (re-sizes all windows on the current desktop so you can see them - OSX has something similar but I forget its name) and Expo (shows all desktops, allows you to drag windows between them etc). Then of course there’s the desktop cube, which is fluff, but damn pretty fluff. Plugins like Reflection add an extra bit of awsomeness too the others.

To get the most our of Compiz you really need to install CCSM (compizconfig settings manager) - available through Add/Remove.. (synaptic).

Then there’s the little things - like NTFS write support out of the box, and most of the major Aus ISPs that mirror Ubuntu being pre-configured in Software Sources. More so than ever before, Ubuntu makes things simple. Sure, not all the software I need is available in the repositories, but most of it is, and there’s usually .deb’s available for what’s not.

The one area where Ubuntu isn’t easy is colour management. It’s relatively niche, so to be expected, but as a photographer being able to at least partially calibrate my monitor is vital. With some reasearch, and using an profile already created in Vista, xcalib was able to relatively successfully load the profile. This is a big step up from 7.04, where I couldn’t get xcalib to work at all. That was the main thing that kept me from switching. That said, Vista has its colour management problems too - with UAC dialogs un-loading any loaded profiles.

So what’s the conclusion? I have to wait and see. I really like Vista, but I think it will be my fallback in case I run into some insurmountable problem in Ubuntu. Getting everything set up in either environment will be a bit of a task, with Ubuntu probably taking more effort because of the software differences. For example, I’ll have to use rsync rather than robocopy for backing up. But so far it’s just that much of a nicer place to be that it’s worth the effort.

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