Curiosity recently got the better of me and I decided to have a look at the first alpha release of Ubuntu 11.04, both in a VirtualBox virtual machine and on a spare PC that I have. They always warn you about alpha releases of software and the first sight of Ubuntu was in keeping with this. The move to using Unity as a desktop environment is in train and it didn’t work perfectly on either of the systems on which I tried it, not a huge surprise really. There wasn’t any sign of a top panel or one at the side and no application had its top bar, either. It looks as if others may have got on better but it may have been to my doing an in situ upgrade rather than a fresh installation. Doing the latter might be an idea but I may wait for the next alpha release first. Still, it looks as if we’ll be getting Firefox 4 so the change of desktop isn’t going to be the only alteration. All in all, it looks as if Natty Narwhal will be an interesting Ubuntu release with more change than is usually the case. In the meantime, I’ll keep tabs on how development goes so as to be informed before the time to think about upgrading comes around. So far, it’s early days and there a few months to go yet.
Some curiosity has come upon me and I have been giving a few Linux distros a spin in fVirtualBox virtual machines. One was Slackware and I recall a fellow university student using it in the mid/late 1990’s. Since then, my exploration took me into Redhat, SuSE, Mandrake and eventually to Ubuntu, Debian and Fedora. All of that bypassed Slackware so it was to give the thing a look.
While the current version is 13.1, it was 13.0 that I had to hand so I had a go with that. In many ways, the installation was a flashback to the 1990’s and I can see it looking intimidating to many computer users with its now old-fashioned installation GUI. If you can see through that though, the reality is that it isn’t too hard to install.
After all, the DVD was bootable. However, it did leave you at a command prompt and I can see that throwing many. The next step is to use cfdisk to create partitions (at least two are needed, swap and normal). Once that is done, it is time to issue the command setup and things look more graphical again. I picked the item for setting the locale of the keyboard and everything followed from there but there is a help option too for those who need it. If you have installed Linux before, you’ll recognise a lot of what you see. It’ll finish off the set up of disk partitions for you and supports ext4 too; it’s best not to let antique impressions fool you. For most of the time, I stuck with defaults and left it to perform a full installation with KDE as the desktop environment. If there is any real criticism, it is the absence of an overall progress bar to see where it is with package installation.
Once the installation was complete, it was time to restart the virtual machine and I found myself left at the command prompt. Only the root user was set up during installation so I needed to add a normal user too. Issuing startx was enough to get me into KDE (along with included alternatives like XCFE, there is a community build using GNOME too) for that but I wanted to have that loading automatically. To fix that, you need to edit /etc/inittab to change the default run level from 3 to 4 (hint: look for a line with id:3:initdefault: in it near the top of the file and change that; the file is well commented so you can find your way around it easily without having to look for specific esoteric test strings).
After all this, I ended up with a usable Slackware 130.0 installation. Login screens have a pleasing dark theme by default while the desktop is very blue. There may be no OpenOffice but KOffice is there in its place and Seamonkey is an unusual inclusion along with Firefox. It looks as if it’ll take a little more time to get to know Slackware but it looks good so far; I may even go about getting 13.1 to see how things might have changed and report my impressions accordingly. Some will complain about the rough edges that I describe here but comments about using Slackware to learn about Linux persist. Maybe, Linux distributions are like camera film; some are right for you and some aren’t. Personally, I wouldn’t thrust Slackware upon a new Linux user if they have to install it themselves but it’s not at all bad for that.
Choice is a very good thing but too much of it can be confusing and the world of Linux is a one very full of decisions. The first of these centres around the distro to use when taking the plunge and there can be quite a lot to it. In fact, it is a little like buying your first SLR/DSLR or your first car: you only really know what you are doing after your first one. Putting it another way, you only how to get a house built after you have done.
With that in mind, it is probably best to play a little on the fringes of the Linux world before committing yourself. It used to be that you had two main choices for your dabbling:
- using a spare PC
- dual booting with Windows by either partitioning a hard drive or dedicating one for your Linux needs.
In these times, innovations such as Live CD distributions and virtualisation technology keep you away from such measures. In fact, I would suggest starting with the former and progressing to the latter for more detailed perusal; it’s always easy to wipe and restore virtual machines anyway and you can evaluate several distros at the same time if you have the hard drive space. It also a great way to decide which desktop environment you like. Otherwise, terms like KDE, GNOME, XFCE, etc. might not mean much.
The mention of desktop environments brings me to software choices because they do drive what software is available to you. For instance, the Outlook lookalike that is Evolution is more likely to appear where GNOME is installed than where you have KDE. The opposite applies to the music player Amarok. Nevertheless, you do find certain stalwarts making a regular appearance; Firefox, OpenOffice and the GIMP all fall into this category.
The nice thing about Linux is that distros more often than not contain all of the software that you are likely to need. However, that doesn’t mean that its all on the disk and that you have to select what you need during the installation. There might have been a time when it might have felt like that but my recent experience has been that a minimum installation is set in place that does all of the basics and you easily can add the extras later on an as needed basis. I have also found that online updates are a strong feature too.
Picking up what you need when you need it has major advantages, the big one being that Linux grows with you. You can add items like Apache, PHP and MySQL when you know what they are and why you need them. It’s a long way from picking applications of which you know very little at installation time and with the suspicion that any future installation might land you in dependency hell while performing compilation of application source code; the temptation to install everything that you saw was a strong one. The learn before you use approach favoured by the ways that things are done nowadays is an excellent one.
Even if life is easier in the Linux camp these days, there is no harm in sketching out your software needs. Any distribution should be able to fulfill most if not all of them. As it happened, the only third party application that I have needed to install on Ubuntu without recourse to Synaptic was VMware Workstation and that procedure thankfully turned out to be pretty painless.