When comparing operating systems people tend to roll out the same old reasons every time. I think those of us who use Ubuntu are already aware that we have less viruses than Windows, less malware, it’s free of cost and so on. I’m sure we’ve pointed out plenty of times that you’re legally entitled to copy the CD and even create your own remix.
However I wanted to look at some of the things I’ve done recently on Ubuntu that under Windows would be costly, difficult or impossible. So without further ado here’s my:-
Top ten things you can do with Ubuntu, that you’d find hard, costly, impractical or impossible with Windows, which clearly makes Ubuntu better (in my humble opinion)
Snappy title huh?
Hardware support is better than you think
In the last year I have added the following hardware devices to my system and they were all fully supported out of the box with zero driver installations, no reboots, no 3rd party downloads. Truly plug and play.
- HP Printer/Scanner/Copier/Fax – everything worked including the memory card slots and network auto discovery.
- Logitech USB headset – microphone and headphones worked with pulseaudio, and even enabled me to switch music playback dynamically from speakers to headset with the ‘pavucontrol’ utility.
- Bluetooth dongles – never had a single one fail, and I’ve bought some really dirt-cheap devices here, where ordinarily I’d be wary about hardware support.
- Ortek infrared remote control – again, I just plugged in the USB infrared receiver and it was working before I’d put batteries in the remote control.
- 3G dongle – this was surprising but again, plug in the USB dongle and network manager on Ubuntu spotted it and let me use it for internet access. The same happened with my Android based cellphone
- USB Apple Ethernet adapter – amusingly on the bag it comes in it says “Only compatible with Macbook Air”. This runs the internal half of my firewall
- Nintendo Wii USB Ethernet adapter – the list goes on
Of course it’s not perfect, there are still some hardware manufacturers who fail to support Ubuntu, but the point stands, it’s better than most people think. Your mileage may vary, I don’t doubt that, but this is my blog outlining my experience.
Access more than 4GiB RAM on a 32-bit install out of the box
Many 32-bit operating systems including Windows XP, Vista and 7 support a maximum of around 3GiB RAM. With Ubuntu 9.10 the 32-bit install detects how much RAM the machine has and if it’s more than 3GiB you should get a ‘PAE-enabled’ Linux kernel. With no additional work required on your part, you get access to all the RAM in your PC. So you don’t have to switch to 64-bit Ubuntu if you don’t want to, and still access all your RAM. If you’re already running Ubuntu and you upgrade your RAM you can just manually install the above named kernel to get access to all that lovely memory. Om nom nom.
Easily create a bootable, functional operating system on a USB stick
Ubuntu ships with “USB Live USB Creator” which takes an ISO image and creates a bootable USB stick from it. Simply download an Ubuntu ISO image from http://ubuntu.com/download and start the USB creator application on Ubuntu from System -> Administration -> USB Creator.
Tell USB creator where the ISO image is, and it can prepare and write the contents of the ISO image a USB stick of at least 1GB in size. If you have a CD already and not an ISO image then you can use
mkisofs to make an ISO image, and then make a USB stick from that, which will save a 700MiB download.
Find out where each file comes from
The typical desktop PC has many thousands of files on the boot disk. Much of this will be your own data in your home directory, but there’s a lot that’s required by the system to boot up and function. Sometimes you might want to know where a file came from.
It may be that you’re a curious user, wanting to know how things got onto your machine, or perhaps you’re diagnosing a problem with an Ubuntu installation. Either way it’s trivially easy to find out where files came from – if you stick to installing packages either from repositories or manually downloaded .deb files.
For example I might be diagnosing a problem with my system – maybe a program is eating CPU – and I want to know where the culprit came from. Knowing which package the process lives in is a good way to find out why you have it (because the name and package documentation may describe it well enough). Also if I wanted to file a bug against that program, I’d need to know what package it’s in. Lets say in this example that my system is sluggish. I might use the System Monitor to identify the process eating up CPU time.
I can use the command line to discover where that file is located on the file system using the
$ which skype
I can then use the
dpkg command to find out which package installed this program:-
$ dpkg -S /usr/bin/skype
We can even combine the two commands:-
$ dpkg -S `which skype`
Tip!: If you use zsh instead of bash as your shell you can apparently use ‘=’ instead of ‘which’. So that would look like this:
$ dpkg -S =skype. Thanks to Scott James Remnant for that tip via IRC
So this tells us that the ‘skype’ package installed the ‘/usr/bin/skype’ program. Not surprising really, but you get the idea. Also worth knowing is
dpkg -L which lists all files installed by a package.
Email me when system updates are available
I have an Ubuntu PC behind my TV which I use to watch streamed video via Boxee. More often than not the TV is switched off, and when it’s on it’s showing the Boxee user interface and not the Ubuntu desktop. So I don’t tend to see any update notifications – in fact I don’t want to see them – especially if I’m watching telly.
I’d like to know when there are updates pending on that system, so I have configured it to send me an email when there are updates available. Installing a package called
apticron. Just edit
/etc/apticron/apticron.conf and maintain the “EMAIL” setting, placing your own email address in the quotes, and remove the # from the start of the line:-
Then wait. Each day apticron will run and you’ll get an email telling you what packages need updating.
root@revo1 to me
show details 9 Mar (2 days ago)
apticron report [Tue, 09 Mar 2010 21:12:09 +0000]
apticron has detected that some packages need upgrading on:
[ 127.0.0.1 127.0.1.1 10.10.10.124 ]
The following packages are currently pending an upgrade:
--- Changes for gnome-screensaver ---
gnome-screensaver (2.28.0-0ubuntu3.5) karmic-security; urgency=low
* SECURITY UPDATE: information disclosure via monitor hot-plugging
- debian/patches/11_CVE-2010-0285.patch: make sure to show windows that
are added in src/gs-manager.c.
* SECURITY UPDATE: locked screen bypass via monitor hot-plugging
- debian/patches/12_CVE-2010-0422.patch: improve window handling logic
-- Marc Deslauriers
--- Changes for micromiser-beta ---
micromiser-beta (2.1.2-0karmic1) unstable; urgency=low
* Initial release
You can perform the upgrade by issuing the command:
as root on revo1
Note: You may need to some basic configuration of the mail system on the machine sending the mail. The default mail transfer agent is ‘postfix’ and it can be configured with:-
sudo dpkg-reconfigure postfix
Once that is done you can look forward to receiving mail whenever your system needs to be updated with details of the updates required.
Go from blank disk to fully installed in under an hour
On most moderate hardware these days a standard installation of Ubuntu takes around half an hour. Getting all the apps you need for daily use might take a little longer. However if you take note of what apps you use regularly the additional applications can be installed pretty quickly, and in one big hit.
Whenever I’m installing Ubuntu 9.10 whether for myself or friends, there’s a set of things I tend to do post-install that rarely changes from one machine to another. This usually consists of installing audio/video codecs, fonts, updated video driver, flash, java and a few other bits and pieces. Some of that comes from the standard Ubuntu repositories, and some from 3rd party repositories or PPAs. Once the installation of Ubuntu is complete and all updates have been installed there’s just a few lines to paste in and then I leave it to run for a while.
# Add repo for Lifesaver screensaver
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:cmsj/lifesaver
# Add repo for chromium daily build
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:chromium-daily/ppa
# Update local package lists
sudo apt-get update
# Install all the stuff!
sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras \ # Installs flash, codecs, java, fonts
chromium-browser \ # Installs daily build of Chromium
lifesaver \ # Install lifesaver screensaver
gtk-recordmydesktop \ # Install app for recording screencasts
gnome-do \ # Install Gnome-Do
vlc \ # Install VLC media player
openssh-server \ # Install SSH server for remote access
smbfs \ # Install samba client for accessing Windows shares
gwibber # Install microblogging client
Building a list like this can significantly reduce the amount of time taken to get up and running with Ubuntu. What’s especially cool about this is there is no need to visit any third party websites or download external installers. Those applications listed above are the ones I use regularly, you will have your own set of “must have” packages. What are they?
Move a hard disk
Ubuntu has no direct equivalent to “Windows Genuine Advantage” fortunately. This is the tool that seeks to reinforce the Microsoft End User License Agreement for Windows users by causing havoc when system hardware changes. Windows also has quite a fit when you move a hard disk from one system to another as it detects and installs new drivers for all the newly found devices.
Ubuntu does most of its hardware detection automatically at each and every boot-up with no user interaction. As a result you can take a hard disk containing a standard install of Ubuntu from one system and put it in another and expect it to work without much effort. The only time I have had an issue is when I have made some manual configuration changes for the specific hardware in the computer.
For example if you have installed and enabled the nVidia binary driver and configured it in /etc/X11/xorg.conf and the target computer doesn’t have an nVidia graphics card then it might fail to start the graphical environment due to it being forced to load the ‘wrong’ driver. In this instance probably the easiest thing to do is backup and remove the /etc/X11/xorg.conf and restart the machine. At that point it will automatically detect the video hardware and should work much the same as a standard install.
Compiling and packaging applications for older OS releases
With the 6-month release cycle some people can feel left behind if they don’t upgrade to the next release promptly. Ubuntu has a Long Term Support (LTS) release every two years to cater for many users who wish to stay with one stable release. Ubuntu 6.06, 8.04 and the upcoming 10.04 are all LTS releases, with all other releases being non-LTS.
There will always be some users who are not on an LTS release, but have still chosen to stick with their currently working system rather than upgrade. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it can lead to users wanting a newer version of a package to be ‘backported’ to their release of Ubuntu, whilst the rest of the development community have moved on. There are developers who backport applications from newer releases to older ones, but they don’t backport everything, and there is a finite resource of developers available to do this task. The good news is that with a little time and effort, you can do this yourself.
I recently had a friend who was using Ubuntu 9.04 with an nVidia graphics card using the driver supplied, but he wanted to try the newer driver from Ubuntu 9.10. It’s generally not recommended to take a package built for one version of Ubuntu and just install it on an older release. It may work, but there’s no guarantee, and it can break the system in unpredictable and catastrophic ways.
So I took the ‘source’ code from Ubuntu 9.10 and used the tools provided in Ubuntu to rebuild the driver for 9.04. This was a trivial thing to do. The really cool thing is that I’m running Ubuntu 9.10 64-bit and was able to build the driver for Ubuntu 9.04 64-bit on my local PC. Once I was confident that it worked I uploaded it to my launchpad Personal Package Archive (PPA) where it was built for Ubuntu 9.04 32-bit and 64-bit architectures.
So not only was I able to backport a driver to an older release, but I also built it for an architecture that I don’t even run myself. The observant among you may have noticed that the package I built is not open source – the nVidia driver is proprietary code. Yet I was still able to take the packagable parts and in only a matter of minutes have it rebuilt for another release.
All the commands I used (
dput) are well documented tools for managing, building and uploading Debian packages (.debs) and their contents, and of course, they’re all freely available in the Ubuntu repositories. The Ubuntu Masters of The Universe (MOTU) are a helpful bunch and their pages can be found at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/MOTU and on irc in #ubuntu-motu.
Fixing a bug
Whilst it’s easy to dismiss this as an advantage only if you’re a coder, let me first say that I’m not a developer at all. I can just about read someone elses very simple code with some help and google, but I don’t really ever write anything myself. So if I can fix a bug, anyone can!
I recently discovered a very simple bug in the
ifdata command which I filed in launchpad – the Ubuntu bug tracker . With a little help from some of the Ubuntu developers – who were keen to help me – I was able to create a patch, test it and submit it to Ubuntu and upstream to Debian. The critical step that really made me consider even trying to look at this bug was that the source was available and easily installable. I was able to identify the package containing the buggy command:-
$ dpkg -S `which ifdata`
Once I knew the package name I could download and unpack the source code for that package very easily with one simple command:-
$ apt-get source moreutils
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree
Reading state information... Done
NOTICE: 'moreutils' packaging is maintained in the 'Git' version control system at:
Need to get 37.8kB of source archives.
Get: 1 http://gb.archive.ubuntu.com karmic/universe moreutils 0.35 (dsc) [822B]
Get: 2 http://gb.archive.ubuntu.com karmic/universe moreutils 0.35 (tar) [37.0kB]
Fetched 37.8kB in 0s (191kB/s)
gpgv: Signature made Tue 05 May 2009 20:19:33 BST using DSA key ID 788A3F4C
gpgv: Can't check signature: public key not found
dpkg-source: warning: failed to verify signature on ./moreutils_0.35.dsc
dpkg-source: info: extracting moreutils in moreutils-0.35
dpkg-source: info: unpacking moreutils_0.35.tar.gz
The tricky part for me is then actually finding the incorrect code in the program. With a lot of help from a good friend and after asking on-line I was able to create a patch. I tested my patch and submitted it to the developers for review. That process is all well documented and I was supported through the process by Ubuntu developers.
All in all it took me a few hours to get this done, spread over a week or so. Not a massive investment of time, and I’ll certainly be quicker next time, now I have learned how to handle bugs like this. Plus I now have a better understanding of the packaging system which helps me with other great things.
Re-install the OS and Applications without losing your data
A default installation of Ubuntu wil place all the operating system files and user data in one partition on the disk called the ‘root partition’ or
/, and a second partition for swap. Many users like separating their OS/apps from their user data, so they create a separate partition for
/home. This is useful for a number of reasons including allowing you to reinstall the OS on the root partition without touching your data in the /home partition. One little-known feature of the installer on the Live Ubuntu CD is that you can do this – reinstall the OS and not wipe your data – even if you dont have separate partitions for
Ok, so you want to reinstall the OS but keep your data in /home. Perhaps you want to upgrade but prefer a clean install, or maybe you’ve played with the system a bit too much and it’s become damaged, and you’d like to quickly ‘reset’ everything with a reinstall. Simply boot from the Live CD and run the installer. When you get to the partitioning step, choose ‘manual partitioning’ which takes you to the more advanced partitioning tool. Select your root partition for installation but don’t tick the “format” checkbox. Continue with the installer as normal.
The installer will recursively delete all files (except those in
/home) before copying the new install files onto the disk. Create the same first username during the installer and it will re-use the
/home/username folder as your home directory, with all your files intact.
Note: Some user data files (such as mysql databases which are in /var) may be stored in other folders than /home, so you will probably want to back the system up before hand in case there are any files you need to recover.
So those are 10 things I do with Ubuntu that I’d have a hard time doing on Windows. It’s arguable whether you’d need to be able to do some of this stuff, and that I accept.
I realise that there are Windows-based tools that can replicate/emulate some of these tasks, or maybe Windows Vista or 7 can do some of the above tasks. I kinda stopped bothering with Windows after XP, so my knowledge may be lacking. Feel free to correct me in the comments, or suggest what you can’t live without.