Slick, accessible and powerful all at the same time; it’s easy to see why Canonical’s Ubuntu is the most popular Linux for everyday desktop duties, although its rivals are now hot on its heels
Ubuntu is the world’s most popular Linux distribution. It was started in 2004 by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and his company Canonical, with the goal of creating a frequently updated, easy-to-use Linux distro.
The distribution is based on Debian, but uses its own front-end called Unity, which works quite differently to more established desktop managers. It has a taskbar at the top, with file menus integrated into it, and a launcher down the left-hand side of the screen for immediate access to frequently used applications and folders.
Clicking the Ubuntu logo at the top of the launcher opens a search interface called the Dash, which can be used to find more applications by typing search terms or clicking through various categories. Downloadable Lenses let you search online resources, too. The Wikipedia lens, for example, allows you to search the encyclopaedia from the desktop, with the web browser opening only when the desired result is selected.
The main attraction of Ubuntu is its simplicity. Although server installations are offered, Canonical focuses on creating an easy-to-use desktop that needs little terminal or technical knowledge to install, configure or use.
In our tests, Ubuntu largely lived up to these expectations. The standard graphical installer set up the OS perfectly, with very little user interaction. A few clicks was all it required to repartition our hard disk and set up a multiboot loader and default user account.
The default installation includes a large library of software and hardware drivers. Our wireless networking adapter, audio hardware and webcam were all automatically configured, and once we’d enabled the feature, we were able to use two-finger scrolling on our test laptop to browse web pages and documents. Even setting up a network printer proved no problem. A full list of currently supported hardware can be found here.
One area in which Ubuntu’s hardware support can stumble is graphics hardware. The built-in drivers will provide a working desktop on most systems, but the Unity 3D system that provides graphical effects isn’t always supported. Often the requisite drivers can be added via Ubuntu’s hardware menu, but for unusual hardware you may need to compile them yourself.
For basic desktop use, you may never need to install anything extra
Bundled software includes LibreOffice, Firefox and the Thunderbird email client. Media playback works out of the box with the Totem video player and the Rhythmbox Audio Player. The MP3 codec isn’t installed by default, but you can tick a box during the installation procedure to include it.
For basic desktop use, you may never need to install anything extra – although if you do find you need an extra tool or application, the Ubuntu Software Centre provides a welcoming experience. With its colourful graphical interface, friendly What’s New and Top Rated sections, and user reviews, it’s like a full-blown app store for Linux. Items deemed “technical” are available, but hidden by default so as not to overwhelm less experienced users. If you want, you can also install other package managers to take advantage of software that isn’t packaged explicitly for Ubuntu.
Ubuntu also includes the Ubuntu One cloud storage and syncing service, with a generous 5GB of free storage, which can be accessed not only from Ubuntu systems but also from Windows, Android and iOS. There’s no official support for OS X, though.
Ubuntu is updated twice a year, in April and October, with quirky alliterative zoological codenames for each one. This one is the Precise Pangolin, but it’s about to be superseded by 12.10, the Quantal Quetzal. You’ll be able to upgrade in place or stick with 12.04, since this is one of Ubuntu’s LTS (long-term support) releases, with full support until April 2017.
It’s clear why Ubuntu is so popular: it’s friendly to beginners but powerful enough for experts, and regular official updates mean that it’s easy to keep up to date with new technologies. The only notable point of contention is the user interface. Canonical claims most people are positive about Unity, but experienced Linux users may find its individualistic way of doing things frustrating.
Still, officially approved variants are available that use KDE, LXDE or Xfce, and while other distros may serve better for specific needs, as a general-purpose Linux desktop, Ubuntu is tough to beat.
Main wiki contributors: ActionParsnip, Bluriteboy02, Ct1003, Jroa, Monotok, Pjb304, Robsapenguin, Ynot 82.
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