So, after reading an article that I found in eWEEK about Open-Source and Mac Alternatives to Windows 7 I thought I’d try out a few “flavors” and see what’s new. One of the main reasons for this idea is that I’m tired of having my kids come and ask me why windows keep popping up and asking them to install stuff when they are browsing for things online. I even got rid of all the shortcuts to IE8 and only left a shortcut to Firefox (which has helped). I’ve been running Windows 7 since the first beta and I’ve had the RTM version since it was released, but I’m just not that impressed with it. Sure it’s a lot nicer than Windows Vista but there’s really nothing all that new and exciting for the typical end user. So, after reading some favourable reviews about some of the versions of Linux I thought I’d give a few a try. I chose Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Mandriva for my tests. Why you ask, because they seemed the most “main stream” and the most similar to Windows when it comes to adding/removing programs and managing updates.

Now, I just have to preface this by saying that I’m in no way a Noob when it comes to Linux. I started out with FreeBSD years ago and learned how to setup and manage websites, email, DNS, etc., for hosting websites. I then moved on to Red Hat and I’ve also worked with Debian. Keep in mind that this was mostly for server and not desktop use. I did dabble now and then with the “desktop versions” but I was never really all that impressed with them: they always seemed a little too difficult to get up and running for my tastes at the time. Please don’t get me wrong, I love having a command line and the control that Linux gives me over everything, that’s one reason why I’ve liked Linux for servers so much…and then there’s the hack factor 😉

Anyway, on with my impressions of the different versions. I do have to say that this wasn’t any kind of a”lab” experiment and evaluation to see which one was better. I simply thought I’d give them all a try and this is what I ended up doing…

I tried Mandriva on my laptop (an IBM Lenovo R60e) and I couldn’t even get it to install (it would lock up) so I gave up on that. I wasn’t at home when I tried it so I’m not sure what would have happened at home on my PC. Yeah, I probably didn’t give it much of a chance, but on hardware that’s pretty “standard” I would expect it to at least install. Nix Mandriva as a replacement for Windows 7 in my book…at least on my systems.

I then tried OpenSUSE 11.1 on my computer at home (Core2 Duo E6600 and GeForce GTX 260 core 216) with an nForce 680 SLI chipset. I have two drives mirrored with the on board RAID and then one drive that’s not. I tried to install OpenSUSE on the single drive because I had Windows 7 on the mirrored drives. Well, that was a bit of a disaster. The install went fine and I really liked the OpenSUSE 11.1 installer. However, when I rebooted I got a GRUB error 21 and after trying to fix that error with the utilities on the install disk (it did recognize that there was a problem) I got a GRUB error 22 and my system would not boot to anything. To fix it I had to boot with the Windows 7 CD and run the following commands:

bootrec.exe /fixmbr
bootrec.exe /fixboot

Once I did that I was able to boot back into Windows. I had the thought, prior to installing OpenSUSE, that I should just disable the mirrored drives but figured it would be ok to leave them enabled. Well, I should have listened to that though. 😉 I also had Super Grub Disk ready to go in case the above didn’t work, but I didn’t need it. The problem appeared to have something to do with the RAID array not being recognized correctly during the install and/or boot process so it couldn’t find the correct disk to boot from. I suppose I could have tried Super Grub Disk to fix the problem but a major snafu like that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth so I moved on to the next “flavor”. Yeah, yeah, yeah, all the OpenSUSE fans will probably cry “Foul”, but it is what it is. Oh, and just to add fuel to that argument, I did disable the array when I installed Ubuntu…;)

So, the final candidate was Ubuntu, version 9.04 (I had actually tried the beta version but there were some problems with sleep/hibernation so I went to the stable version). The install went fine and I have to admit that I didn’t have to download an image for it because I had one already from a previous weekend evaluation of Ubuntu. This time I was a little more motivated to try it out though. I will mention that one of the nice things with Ubuntu (unlike the OpenSUSE install disk) is that you can boot and run it from the disk, just like KNOPPIX (which I have used before…two words…”war driving” ;)). Anyway, the install went well and the installer is pretty decent. The first hurdle I had was to get my Broadcom B43 wireless card working. This was why I didn’t get far with Ubuntu previously, but I have to admit I didn’t really try very hard. Now, for all of those that are screaming that I’m being partial to Ubuntu and didn’t give Mandriva and OpenSUSE a fair chance, all I have to say is this, “I couldn’t even get them to boot up, so why bother?” 😉

Anyway, I had to connect a network cable and then I was able to get that working. Then I had a little problem with the network manager and connecting to my wireless network so I ended up replacing the default network manager with Wicd and that worked like a charm. I then started to play around with the Avant Window Navigator since I thought it would be nice to have an Apple like dock (the kids are used to that on the Mac my wife has). I got that all setup and working and then I tried to enable my second monitor. That’s when it got a little tricky. I tried to manually update to Nvidia’s latest driver but that didn’t work and I kept getting errors saying that compositing wasn’t enabled. Then, after tinkering a little, whenever I would try to enable Visual Effects I would get a message that said, “Desktop effects could not be enabled”. Also, in xorg.conf I would get “Failed to load module glx (loader failed, 7)”. I my googling I stumbled across a very well written post in the Ubuntu forums that detailed how to install the NVIDIA 185.18 Drivers in Ubuntu. That saved my bacon and I got it up and running in no time.

After I got both monitors up and running I started playing around with customizing the login screens, and everything else. One of the cool little things is the compiz visual effects that you can setup. Yeah, it’s just eye candy but Windows 7 has nothing on this.

Last but not least, “What do I do for backups?” After doing some quick searching I’m still mulling that over. tar works just fine but there appear to be some other alternatives that might be more effective when it comes to maintaining backups and their size. I found a good post with comments that mentioned several options. Click here to check it out. Back In Time or Areca Backup seem to be the favorites and I think I’m leaning towards Areca since it can compress the files it backs up. I’ll probably tar up everything though just as an initial baseline backup. I found a good article about backups with a link on how to backup using tar. You can find that here.

Anyway, long story short: at this point I’m leaning towards running Ubuntu rather than Windows 7. The only reason that I would keep Windows around is for the games. Other than the games, Ubuntu can do everything that I need it to do and a lot more than Windows 7 can do. Just to clarify, I really don’t use Windows for much more than games, Internet, graphic/image manipulation and simple document processing (Word, Excel, etc.). Firefox runs great on either platform. I love GIMP, so that’s a no brainer on Linux. OpenOffice can do what I need it to do. Also, I can VPN in to work if I need to (I haven’t set  it up yet but I know it’s possible with VPNC). Granted, there’s a bit more of a learning curve to be able to get this setup over Windows, but Linux has come a long way and it looks like Ubuntu 9.10, once it’s finalized, will make it even easier to use.

Then there’s the “a lot more than Windows 7” that I mentioned above. Those that aren’t familiar with Linux will probably throw up their hands and say I don’t know what I’m talking about and then go off on rants about who knows what. Those that are Linux fans will know what I’m talking about. I’ll just leave it at that. 😉

Frankly, given what I’m looking for there’s really no compelling reason to shell out cash for a new OS when Ubuntu can do what I need (minus the games, which I must say I don’t spend as much time playing as I used to and I must admit that if I was younger and single I might opt for using Windows 7 more for the gaming factor but that’s not a good enough reason these days). It should also be a lot less “kid” prone when it comes to them accidentally installing stuff or messing things up. But, Windows 7 does serve to calm that itchy trigger finger with a little Fallout 3 from time to time. 😉 So, I think I’ll probably have a dual boot system just for that. It does help that I was able to get a free, Ultimate version of Windows 7 though. 😀

However…I think I’ll finally ditch Windows.