Running PC Pro on Ubuntu: the verdict

11 Feb 2011

Yesterday, something remarkable happened. Our entire editorial team migrated to Ubuntu overnight and – by and large – it was business as usual. The website ran as normal, magazine copy was still written, we (just about) fulfilled our day jobs. (You can see how PC Pro's Ubuntu day unfolded here.)

Several of the many excellent comments on yesterday’s live blog suggested our day-long experiment wasn’t a fair test; that no IT manager worth his space in the car park would migrate an entire office to a new operating system with almost no preparation or staff training. They were right. Yet what our somewhat reckless experiment revealed is that Ubuntu could cope. On a rag-bag selection of laptops and desktops, installed as a Windows “app”, a dual-boot or within a virtual machine, Ubuntu worked (sometimes at the second or third attempt) every time.

What our test also revealed is that the underlying operating system is becoming less and less relevant: what really matters are the applications. So much of our working lives are now spent in the web browser – updating the web CMS, scouring websites – that it really doesn’t matter if it’s Windows or Ubuntu propping the browser up. The Chrome and Firefox sync tools are so well implemented that you’re up and running with familiar bookmarks, extensions, search history and passwords within minutes.

What our somewhat reckless experiment revealed is that Ubuntu could cope

The single biggest complaint was the lack of viable alternative to Outlook. The built-in Evolution was too unreliable, and Thunderbird refused to play ball with our Exchange server. Tim even attempted to install Outlook 2010 using WINE, but hit a brick wall (earlier versions apparently work better). Could we work long-term without a decent way to search our bulging inboxes or to schedule a team meeting? No. But solutions exist if we did plot a permanent switch to Ubuntu, such as running Exchange email and calendars via Google Apps.

So are we going to take the plunge, wipe Windows, and make PC Pro an Ubuntu shop from now on? No. For starters, it would be irresponsible for us not to run on the operating system used by the vast majority of our readers, and so much of our day jobs involve testing Windows-only software and hardware that it simply wouldn’t be practical.

But are the team breathing a sigh of relief and wiping their Ubuntu installations? Or are they tempted to keep experiment with Linux in their professional and personal lives? I’ll let them answer for themselves.

Tim Danton, editor, writes:

My day on Ubuntu can be summarised in three words: liberating, fascinating, frustrating. Liberating because it was actually enjoyable to be forced to use a different OS than Windows. Several weeks ago I downloaded 10.04 and burned the CD, but hit a problem (I can't now remember what) when I tried to install it on a home system. Yesterday's experience will make me try again with a little more determination!

And it was fascinating to see a different way of doing things; you realise the gaps in your knowledge, between being a computing expert and a Windows expert. I wouldn't describe myself as either, but yesterday definitely filled in a few gaps.

Ultimately, though, it was frustrating. I generally get through all my email in a day, dealing with it then deleting it or filing it away. Because Evolution proved so slow as to be unusable, and Outlook Web Access on Firefox or Chrome so aggravating, there are 50 extra emails sitting in my inbox. When Outlook popped up on my screen this morning, I gave a very satisfied sigh.

Darien Graham-Smith, technical editor, writes:

I already use the netbook edition of Ubuntu at home, and I've been using Unix-type systems on and off since my university days - so I was expecting to breeze through the experiment. But even if you're au fait with the basics, switching from Windows or OS X to a fresh Ubuntu Desktop installation is a disorientating experience.

The problem isn't the OS so much as the applications. The lack of familiar office and productivity software doesn't feel like a big problem on a netbook, but on a full-fat desktop you naturally want to make full use of your computer's potential, and it's painful to have to abandon industry standard applications in favour of more, shall we say, homely alternatives - if indeed such alternatives even exist. I love the responsiveness and stability of Ubuntu, and I'll definitely be keeping it as my netbook OS; but if it's to become a real general-purpose alternative it needs more support from outside of Canonical.

David Bayon, deputy reviews editor, writes:

The core Ubuntu experience was really rather refreshing. The interface is so clean and the workspaces so intuitive, and I love that the Software Centre gathers useful applications to pick and choose from - with no messy installations either. For a home environment, where a lot of what I do is browser-based, Ubuntu can certainly do the job, and I have every intention of putting it on my home laptop. I'll dual-boot at first, but we'll see how it goes.

Alas, work wasn't quite so rosy, with one big barrier: email. Evolution proved sluggish and unreliable, and lacks all of the surrounding features that I've come to rely upon so desperately. Outlook is my email client, calendar, to do list, contact book and Twitter feed integrator, and - as I don't delete things - an indexed directory of everyone I've ever had dealings with at PC Pro. I simply have too much invested to do without it. I also had big problems with the ATI graphics drivers when I tried to move Ubuntu to my work PC, meaning I couldn't get my two monitors working properly.

Is it simpler to setup than Windows? I don't think I could hand a clean install to my parents and expect them to get the kinks ironed out, put it that way, but I think they'd get used to the environment very quickly. And issues aside - or perhaps because of them - Ubuntu restores something that the ranks of sealed boxes in PC World are rapidly killing off: a genuine sense of exploration. And that's priceless. Yet Ubuntu is free.

Jonathan Bray, reviews editor, writes:

Ubuntu day was a rollercoaster ride for me: up on top of the world in the morning, down by lunchtime, feeling sick by the end of the day. For the most part, I'm perfectly happy using it - at home it's installed on a couple of laptops, the family has no problems with using either - but when it came to work everything fell apart.

I never managed to get the Evolution email client to play nicely with the office Exchange server, severely hampering productivity. Video playback is poorly supported - I had to boot back into Windows 7 to view footage from a camcorder I was testing. I managed to get it playing smoothly via MPlayer and the command line, but it never looked right.

So am I more or less likely to use it as a result of our experiment yesterday? At work, definitely not - I felt a joyful jolt in my chest this morning when that Windows symbol first appeared on my screen, not something I thought I'd ever admit to feeling. But at home, I'm going to continue experimenting. It's quick, usable and nippy. I think, in time, I could even be persuaded to consider letting my dad loose on it.

Mike Jennings, senior staff writer, writes:

One day with Ubuntu taught me more than I'd ever known about the most popular open-source OS around today. It's far more user-friendly than I'd ever given it credit for: the initial install was easier and quicker than Windows 7 and, once that'd finished, I found it incredibly easy to get going thanks to Chrome's bookmark syncing, the range of pre-installed software and immediate internet connection.

Ubuntu certainly has its idiosyncracies, though. Every change I wanted to make to my PC was heralded by a little box that asked for authentication, and it sometimes wouldn't disappear - and trying to activate the existing graphics driver meant my system wouldn't boot. I wasted too much time  fiddling with drivers and the Terminal trying to get software to install, tutting at its strange UI quirks or simply rebooting my machine to see if an update had worked.

One thing that also struck me was the friendly, supportive community that rallied around the #ubuntupro hashtag. I was tweeting throughout the day, and every message was greeted with suggestions, tips, popular apps and more, with several problematic posts prompting three or four different solutions from knowledgable users. It's by far the busiest day I've ever had on Twitter, and there was nary a negative message among the dozens I received.

It might be tricky for a novice, but Ubuntu is definitely getting better, which is why I'm considering installing Ubuntu's lightweight laptop variant on my netbook, even if it won't displace Windows on my work or home machines.

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