For the past few years, Aimee had been using an old Compaq Armada laptop running Windows XP. It started having hardware problems a few months back, so I hurriedly set her up with a loaner MacBook Pro. At first, she didn't like the interface, but she quickly adapted and grew to like the Mac. Eventually, the loaner Mac had to go back to its owner, but there was no way that I was going to shell out the Mac price premium to buy a replacement.
Rather than reinstalling Windows and enduring hours of patches, and fearful of the Windows Genuine Advantage program, I decided to give Linux a try. I have been a long-time supporter of Linux for servers (where I believe it is clearly superior), and lately Linux has been making good inroads into the desktop market. But up until now, my laptop experience has never been acceptable on Linux. I decided to see if the current batch of Linux distributions had made any progress.
I started with a vanilla Thinkpad, and split the hard drive into two equal-sized partitions: On one, I put XP, and on the other, Ubuntu Linux. The XP installed cleanly, but my video card and wireless card didn't work automatically (no drivers). Lacking the driver install CD, I still don't have the wireless connection working on the XP partition. I had only made the XP partition as a failsafe in case things didn't work out with Linux anyway, so I decided to move on with Ubuntu...
The Ubuntu experience really impressed me. To begin with, I was able to boot the install CD up in "live mode" where it actually runs the entire OS from the DVD, letting me test drive it without having to install it. The basic stuff seemed to work, so I went ahead with the full install, and rebooted. To my surprise, the wireless connection started right up (I had to enter my encryption key, of course) and I was connected to the Internet in under 30 seconds. The latest version of Firefox was already installed, along with the entire Open Office suite (word processing, spreadsheet, et cetera). So far so good.
With some trepidation, I hit Function-F4 to test the sleep functionality of the laptop -- and it worked flawlessly. This has always been a stumbling point for many Linux distributions (indeed, even Windows often has problems with power saving), so I was really impressed that the Ubuntu folks have it working out-of-the-box.
I left things at that point and Aimee has been surfing the web without incident for the last few days. Today, she took some digital pictures of a couch that we are selling and she wanted me to upload them for her. I decided to use this as an opportunity to see how well Ubuntu would handle the experience. She plugged in the camera on the USB port, and a window automatically popped up asking her if she wanted to copy the pictures from the camera. Score! She copied the pictures to the desktop. Mac is still smoother with the included iPhoto software, but Ubuntu is at least as good as Windows. I would even argue better, since the Windows installation on my Dell computer wasn't able to download pictures from my Sony camera when I first tried it earlier this year.
Next, the pictures were too large and had to be resized: Ubuntu comes pre-installed with the Gimp (sort of an open-source Photoshop), so it was pretty straightforward. I'm sure iPhoto makes this even easier, although I have never tried it so don't know first-hand. I'm pretty sure the stock Windows build doesn't have any convenient way to resize pictures... unless the user has installed Picasa, ACDSee, etc.
I view this as an experiment in progress... the scorecard so far is as follows: Basic laptop functionality: Check. Wireless connection: Check. Internet browsing: Check. Decent word processor: Check. Photo download and picture editing: Check.
I'll continue to post updates, but if you haven't checked it out, I encourage you to take a look at Ubuntu. I think it'll surprise you!