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Ubuntu Linux Vs. Windows Vista: The Battle For Your Desktop

The prevailing wisdom about Linux on the desktop runs something like this: "I'll believe Linux is ready for the desktop as soon as you can give me a Linux distribution that even my grandmother can run."

or some time, the folks at Ubuntu have been trying their best to make Granny -- and most everyone else -- happy. They've attempted to build a Linux distribution that's easy to install, use, configure, and maintain -- one that's at least as easy as Windows, and whenever possible, even easier. As a result, Ubuntu is one of the Linux distributions that has been most directly touted as an alternative to Windows.

In this feature, I'm going to compare the newly-released Ubuntu 7.04 (codenamed "Feisty Fawn") with Microsoft Windows Vista in a number of categories. To keep the playing field as level as possible, I'm looking wherever I can at applications -- not just in the sense of "programs," but in the sense of what the average user is going to do with the OS in a workday. Sometimes the differences between the two OSes are profound, but sometimes the playing field levels itself --, for instance, is installed by default in Ubuntu, but adding it to Vista isn't terribly difficult.

tried to stick whenever possible with preinstalled software, although this rule sometimes had to be bent a little -- for instance, to see what backup solutions were available for Ubuntu through its own software catalog.

Also, while I was tempted to compare Vista's Aero interface to the Beryl window manager (which has a similar palette of visual effects), I decided that pretty graphics, while nice, had more to do with personal preference than efficiency. In addition, Beryl isn't installed by default in Ubuntu, and Aero isn't available on all PCs.

In each case, I've tried to look at practical benefits rather than theoretical ones -- what works, what doesn't, and what you have to do to get certain things done. I should also note that, despite being a big fan of Vista, I've tried to keep my enthusiasm for it from overriding my judgment. Everyone needs something different, and not everyone needs (or wants) Vista -- or Ubuntu -- so I've done my best to keep my mind, and my eyes, wide open.
Most people never have to deal with installing Windows on a new PC, since Windows typically comes as a preload. The few times you have to install it yourself, though, the whole thing needs to be as painless as possible. To that end, I installed both Ubuntu and Vista on three different test machines:

  1. A Sony VAIO VGN-TX770P notebook computer, with 1GB RAM, an 80GB HD, and an Intel 915GM shared-memory integrated graphics controller.
  2. A dual Opteron desktop computer with 2GB RAM, a 320GB HD, and an ATI Radeon 9550 graphics controller. (This is my day-to-day computer.)
  3. A Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 session running on the desktop system, with 512MB RAM and a 16GB HD.

Vista and Ubuntu have roughly the same installation procedure. Pop in the installation disc, boot the computer, and run the setup process (which can take an hour or more). Both OSes let you manually choose disk partitioning schemes for an existing disk, or have the computer wipe everything down and sort things out.
If you wanted to install Windows XP on a computer that used a mass-storage controller with no drivers available for it on the installation CD, you had to place the drivers on a floppy and go through a bit of rigmarole to get them working. Vista has improved this process enormously: You can read drivers needed for installation from any attached mass-storage device, like a USB drive.

This is particularly important in my case, since my desktop machine uses an integrated Silicon Image SiI3114 SATA RAID controller which has no drivers on the Vista setup DVD. I had to download the drivers from the manufacturer's Web site; once I did, I was able to provide them on a USB drive during Vista's setup routine. Ubuntu, however, detected the SiI3114 automatically at startup and had drivers ready for it. Other people haven't been as lucky, though: Folks who used the HighPoint HP370 controller under 6.10 had issues getting Ubuntu installed.

If you attempt to install Ubuntu on a system where Windows XP is present, the Ubuntu Migration Assistant will attempt to import your files and documents from your XP installation. IE settings, wallpapers, user avatars, and the contents of the My Documents / Music / Pictures folders can all be imported this way. Unfortunately, one key piece of the migration puzzle, e-mail (not just e-mail client settings, but the contents of one's e-mail), isn't fully supported yet. The Ubuntu people are working hard on it.

One of Ubuntu's biggest positives is its "live CD" mode. Boot the CD and you can run a full, working copy of Ubuntu directly from the CD without installing anything on the host computer. Obviously you won't get the full range of functionality possible with Ubuntu when you do this (you might not be able to persistently save files or settings, for instance), but you can get a very good feel for how things work without actually committing yourself completely to the OS.

You can also use this live-CD feature to perform system recovery to some extent. (Ubuntu 7.04 does have read/write support for NTFS partitions, although it doesn't support encrypted files or security groups.) The closest thing Vista has to something like this is the ability to install a full working version of the OS on a computer without a Vista license key, and to try it out for 30 days (extendable to 120).

Both operating systems include a few utilities on the CD itself. Ubuntu's install CD includes a self-test to determine if the disc has any burning errors and a memory test routine (the venerable Memtest86+). Vista includes a memory test as well, and the ability to restore the system from a backup, but no integrity check for the installation media -- for instance, if you downloaded and burned it as an .ISO from MSDN. You can also boot to a command prompt to do some basic recovery work -- get access to hard disks and CD/DVD drives, for instance.

Finally, I mentioned at the top of this section that most of us deal with Vista as a preload and will probably install Ubuntu manually. That said, it is possible to buy a computer through some PC vendors with Ubuntu preloaded. System76, for instance, offers Ubuntu 6.10 as a standard preload, and some of the other major vendors (Dell, for instance) are making noises that they might start offering some distribution of Linux as an option. It's not clear whether they'll offer Ubuntu, but it's one of the better candidates