The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, August 29, 2008

Geek bleg

So, I've just had a Windows Vista Service Pack take an hour to install and another hour to revert changes, having failed to install. I'm reduced to teeth-grinding fury. (Especially as the latest Norton update for Windows Vista also just failed to install.)

So, I'm willing to consider Linux. I'm not interested in any version that requires endless faffing about under the hood. I just want software that actually fucking works.

Some of my readers must know what to recommend. What do you recommend?


I would download an Ubuntu ( live CD and have a play with it. If you like it, you can install off the same CD.
The Desktop linux distros (Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuSE) these days rarely require even the same level of tinkering that XP needs...

I concur, a live CD is the way to go. I'd recommend Ubuntu or Mandriva One ( No need to install just to try it out.

I would second Ubuntu - while it's the current 'trendy' Linux distro, it's also very good at just working.

for "it just works" go for Ubuntu. As other comments point out is actually easier than XP most of the time.

I'm running Ubuntu on my Desktop at work, my new work laptop is due today with it preinstalled and my home laptop (which is getting fixed right now) was running Ubuntu until it started smoking....

So personally I'd advise Ubuntu. BTW I read The Night Sessions the other day and loved it. Great job.

Ubuntu's a pretty good choice.

One thing I generally say to people is to think who you'd ask for help if something wasn't clear, and consider using what they use at least until you've got your head round it yourself. You'd get more relevant answers that way.

Ubuntu or Kubuntu (the later has KDE). Pain-free to install, runs fine in a Virtual Machine.

Ubuntu, from here...

Or if the whole linux thing is too terrifying, you could always try an Apple :)

I'm very happy with Ubuntu. The only thing I lose are a -few- flash websites, and it may be that this is due to my mucking with something I shouldn't have.

The most important google search string is "howto ubuntu $FOO", which you'd need to use, for example, if you want to get the codecs for DVDs to play properly.

While Ubuntu will work fine right out of the box (as you should see from playing around with a live CD), there are a few things which someone who's used it for a while could help you with... getting every kind of multimedia working, showing you the slightly-more-advanced way of getting new software, etc.

Wine has come a long way, I should add, and if you have some windows programs/games you need to run now and again it should work well for that.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but Ubuntu is what you're looking for.

Microsoft does make decent software but the care and feeding to keep it that way is a tax on your time such that I would not suggest it for the consumer.

Also Ubuntu.

It was quicker to install Ubuntu on my laptop last August than it was to just make a set of backup CDs for the pre-installed Vista - and then I'd have had to go though the hassle of registering and stuff. I did have to install a special driver to get the full screen resolution and had some hassle with setting up the WiFi but that was partly due to a stupid mistake on my part and has, at least partly, been fixed in the version released this spring.

I also second the suggestion of thinking who you'd get help from, though Ubuntu is so common that techies who use other distributions probably have some idea of the differences.

One of the reasons that Windows continues to limp along is that there are so many people who know (or think they know) something about it and can give free technical support for Microsoft's products. Linux has been gathering the critical mass in the last year or two that this is not such a differentiator now, though.

weeell .. I hear everybody suggesting Ubuntu and I have to slightly wince. Yes, it is quite painfree to install and it does a lot of things automatically, but once you get a bit farther along it can be quite frustrating in it's insistence on doing everything automatically. At least that's the way it felt to me. I, personally, am right now quite fond of arch-Linux, but wouldn't recommend it to a beginner.

To a beginner, my recommendation is always "use whatever the person who you'd turn to for help uses".

By all means try Linux. When you give up and go back to Windows (probably without a blog fanfare) make sure you don't install any shite-ware from Norton.

Norton removal tool here

Kaspersky anti-virus (just buy Kaspersky Anti-Virus, you don't need Kaspersky Internet Security because Windows already has a perfectly good Firewall built-in. And no, I don't have any relationship with the company).

If you want to minimize your future pain in the long term, and expect to be using computers for quite a number of years still, go with Linux, as the openness will mean that as you hit snags, as we all do from time to time, you can learn the more universal whys and hows, instead of being conditioned to push a certain button in this particular software version. Ubuntu is a good choice. Burn a live DVD to test your hardware compatibility. If it just works and all of your hardware is compatible, you're golden.

If you want to minimize your short-term pain, and are willing to get some new hardware, try a MacBook. Don't buy their memory expansions, as they charge a premium. Just get the same stuff without the Apple logo - ask the retailer for the exact part numbers.

I've been exploiting Linux as my primary work platform for quite a while, because with the free and transparent stuff, the only limiting factor is your imagination and time. Just look at Amazon EC2. Not feasible without a complete free platform.

I used to use Red Hat, but switched over to Ubuntu a while ago; Ubuntu are doing a much better job of cutting down on the faffing about under the hood.

Ubuntu's about the best, but the reality is that there are still hardware compatibility issues, ease-of-use issues, and application issues. Perhaps a downgrade to Windows XP is in order?

I just installed Ubuntu on an aging Sony TR1. Had to install DVD-playing software separately (since they can't include it in the distro for legal reasons), and then Google to figure out why I wasn't hearing sound. (Probably machine-specific.) I'd say both of those were pretty over-the-hood.

Haven't used it enough to say much more than that.

Addition to my earlier Ubuntu rec.

As a Windows user, you will initially be frustrated and confused try to get productive on Linux. Everything is done just a little bit differently. What I found helpful in the same circumstance is the tremendously large and active forum on the Ubuntu website. A quick search there will usually answer any question you have (zillions of newbs have proceeded you down this path). On the occasions where I have had a unique question, I started a new thread, and often had two or three very complete, friendly, and cogent answers within ten minutes or so. The community there is active and helpful.
So, even though you will certainly find yourself frustrated, you can also count on a lot of TLC.
Best of luck to you.

Like everyone else I would recommend Ubuntu. However there are issues to be aware of and I'm afraid that some "faffing about" is probably inevitable.

I'm happy to take this to email or the pub for further discussion.

Kill your PC and buy a new iMac.

This comes from a 25+ year veteran of PCs. I've dismantled my humming closet of a dozenty-seven PC servers. All of them have been replaced with one 24" iMac, and my "nighttime tech support job" evaporated overnight.

And the best part: if you get too squidgy, or just plain miss a PC bit of software, you can run Windows IN MAC OSX. Tre cool. Seriously.

Good luck! Cheers, -k

Buy a Mac or downgrade to XP. Linux is a lost cause, that keeps destroying all the choice it once offered, and is increasingly becoming a poorly-working cheap plastic clone of Windows/Mac. Better use the real thing.

Anonymous seems unaware that his Mac runs Linux (BSD)...

B. Dewhirst seems unware that BSD is not Linux. BSD distributions is a lot of the same software that Linux distributions use, but the core is different (non-GNU base unix utililities, and non-Linux kernel). But OS X only uses the BSD kernel and traditional unix tools. All the GUI stuff and architecture is different on OS X. BSD is also lacking many of the recent idiocies in Linux architecture (except on the GUI side, which is the same shit).

... and I'm sure the advice of a software fundamentalist is exactly what he was looking for...

No matter my discontent with the direction Linux is taking -- trying to offer the same shit that OS X/Windows do, and at the same time killing off the power user -- OS X and Windows serve him better in offering an "idiot box", if that's what he wants. Linux is not there yet, but neither is it any longer a good OS for power users. It's just for the developers of the big corporate-sponsored projects and "idiot users" with very low standards.

yes, ubuntu,

I just installed it on old machines for which Windows 95 was new, they work better, faster. And you get email, firefox, open office and the gimp. I give them away to non-tech heads as their first computer, it all or more than they need.

Except for the Mac OS, the BSD distros may well have better kernel architectures, but are not for a noob.

Whatever open source you choose they all do allow am obvious pathway out of newbdom, and beyond advanced userdom, unlike proprietary windowappledom, the pfaffing under the hood allows the goldfish in a bowl to become a six foot carp in the Danube, assuming you have the time, that is

Yeah, another in the clamour for Ubuntu. I switched to it from Mac OS X after my iBook's logic board broke and required pressing on the case to make it function. I had been using Ubuntu and Xubuntu (a variant with a different desktop manager) on the iBook in a small partition, so I had some experience (albeit with the more difficult and no longer officially supported PPC variant). I'd also installed it on friends' computers and helped them with it. Ubuntu has gotten to the stage where you just turn on software repositories for the stuff that's either proprietary or in legal grey areas (mainly media codecs and encryption) and after the installation it becomes pretty much a one-click task.

I'm running Ubuntu on a 64-bit processor (most new processors are), and that can be a touch more complicated, although still relatively simple.

Also, the Ubuntu Forums are very helpful.

If you must run Linux, use Ubuntu. But don't expect a smooth ride. I switch to Ubuntu about once every six months to see how it's coming along, and generally speaking I get pissed off and switch back to OS X within a week or two. It simply isn't a seamless desktop OS yet, and I don't think it's even moving in the right direction right now. And I say this as a person who has been in open source for a very long time, and would really like a good, usable open source desktop.

I'd second the recommendation for Mac OS X. It provides the functionality you requested. You don't have to mess with it. It Just Works.

Macs Just Work. But if you want to go Linux (cheaper and more flexible)...

Ubuntu has a good reputation for nice look'n'feel, good hardware support and just working. I'm a Fedora or Gentoo person myself, but mostly because I'm familiar with them.

Remember that the desktop you get is not mandatory; you have a lot of scope for getting your desired "feel"
(click-to-focus vs focus-follows mouse, etc etc). The two "main" desktops are KDE and Gnome, but you can run other things, and run KDE-ish apps under Gnome and Gnomic apps under KDE, should you like one desktop but prefer particular apps.
I recall that KDE has a more "Windows-ish" feel out of the box.

FYI, I've been using a Mac for the last six months (for work, but since it's UNIX under the hood I am ok). The Mac is definitiely the winner of the "it just works" stakes. I have my gripes about some things, in particular the click-to-focus,
the focus-raises-the-window/app and the "mouse-selection is not "cut/copy", and under X11 (Linux, other UNIXen) I run the opposite of all of those.

Ubuntu, definitely. My kids (three and eleven) use it with no problems, and -- yes, it just works. Plus it took about ten minutes to install and set up.

IHNTA, just another vote for "Macs Just Work". I got my first PC in 1989 and my first Mac in 2005; I've never looked back.

My vote goes to the Apple Mac.

Ken, Last March I bought a Toshiba laptop with (of course) VISTA already installed. Although I had been warned by friends, I was dismayed and frustrated by seeing just how crappy the program is. Nothing helped. Glitches over and over again, together with functions whose workings are hardly intuitive. Since I had some extra money I splurged and bought a beautiful MAC BOOK PRO, with which I have not yet had one problem (not counting lousy providers).
I hear there's an organization out there for dissatisfied VISTA users. Perhaps you should look into it.

Thanks, everyone!

Next week on The Early Days of a Better Nation, "Religion: Which is the one true faith?"

Add me as another vote for PC to Mac. As soon as my desktop becomes full of fail, it's getting replaced by a Mac. I see my son spending too much time faffing around with his Linux installations.

Charles, here's ammo for those of true True Faith:

Each OS has its strength, really, but for plug-n-go, Mac should be your choice. For my own part, live between the three OSes (Win, Mac, Linux) and switch to whichever one is best for the task at hand.

Give ubuntu a go Ken. It should keep the faffing about down manageable levels :)

If you consider a Mac, try one first. They make a one-size-fits-most set of human interface device assumptions that, well, fits most. If you're not in most, the user experience will range from unpleasant to mad, inhuman furry.

Kubuntu is probably the least difficult Linux distro for someone who is transitioning. I use Fedora, and the AfterStep window manager; then again, my job involves administering Red Hat servers, and I like messing about under the hood. (N.B. the amount of fiddling one can do, and the amount one must do, are very different in any Linux distro. People who like to fiddle/are having a voluntary learning experience shouldn't be used as the metric for the minimum necessary effort.)

I think you should know that Vista is widely held to be far worse than XP. Also Norton anti-virus is one of the worst you can get - it's so bad that Norton actually give away a free uninstaller to clean their awful products off your computer once and for all!

Personally I'd suggest going for a copy of Windows XP and using AVG anti-virus - it's free and if you want a firewall, there are free ones of those as well - noteably CheckPoint ZoneAlarm.

I'd also very much reccomend a Mac if you have the cash up-front, as long you're not planning on playing any computer games, ever, or doing anything very adventurous for that matter (there are only five games for the Mac, and three of them are Myst). You'll save a lot of money in PC repairs and fear-sweat (although when it does break down you might have trouble finding someone who can fix it).

Good luck -Oh, and can we have another novel with a Soviet Europe in it?

I have an ancient which will run some slightly older Linux live-CDs without problems, but It's just that bit too old to work well. Chiefly, not enough RAM.

Current Linux distros seem to need at least 256 megabytes for the installation to run.

If you're used to Open Office, it's very much load-and-go.

I suppose that I am, in some ways, the worst case example. I cannot get Wi-Fi working on my old laptop, and don't have the RAM to install a current Linux version. An ethernet connection was no problem.

Something which maybe doesn't get mentioned enough: check what Linux support there may be for your printer.

I sympathise with your problems re: windows vista. Actually getting it installed is the least of the problems it causes - it's a fucking lemon.

A vote for Mandriva; it worked out of the box for me, and the Mandriva Control Centre is the best GUI config tool I've seen, but I left it due to laptop power issues.

I currently use OpenSUSE10.3; I've heard a lot of good things about the new version (OpenSUSE 11).

A Linux flavour that doesn't get the credit it deserves (IMO) is Mepis (

I've been using it for 3 years now, over 2 different machines. I found that the hardware detection and default set up were about as friendly as you could get, and it avoided all the hidden "gotchas" that you often find on Linux (mp3, DVD). It's the one I recommend to friends when they ask me about Ubuntu :)

If you have an older machine, it also comes in a "light" / minimalist version, Antix.

But I'd echo what Dave says above: hardware! Printers (especially Lexmark) can be a nightmare. So if you've the time, play around with 2 or 3 Live CDs to find the one that suits your machine and workflow.

Get a Mac, you'll pay more initially but profit in the long run.

Charles, why do you say that if I tried Linux I would go back to Vista?

Two other questions arising from charles pooter's post: what's the matter with Norton? and is Windows Defender enough on its own?

anon: Yesterday I actually managed to get Service Pack 1 to install - don't know what made the difference, because I didn't do anything different.

So far it's working fine. I actually don't haven't had many problems with Vista, other than its (or IE7's) tendency to lose right-click function when I've opened some (untracked but not outrageously large) number of tabbed sites, and to freeze everything when some website gives it too much to think about (such as opening a PDF). I've yet to find out whether the updates deal with these issues.

It may be a cliche but OS-X really makes for a pain-free IT experience.

I jumped to Apple about two years ago. It was a bit weird at first - as all the arcane XP experience one unwittingly builds up over the years is no longer required. I was worried that if things broke I would be all at sea.

My Powerbook has been on now almost continually over 18 months (in sleep mode when not needed) - re-boots are a thing of the past.

If money is tight - do what I did:

You can pick up the final top of the range iteration of the Powerbook for under £400 off US Ebay and have them ship it to you.

And Office 2008 for the Mac is excellent.

Even the most friendly of Linux distributions still needs to be carefully matched to your hardware if you want to avoid endless faffing. So, given that you're probably going to have to buy new hardware to avoid faff, I'd just get a Mac. Either a Macbook if you want a laptop, or a Mini if you want a desktop. Get as much memory as you can afford, and contrary to what other people tell you, get the memory from the same place as you get everything else. It'll cost more, but it reduces faff.

I tried mucking around with Ubuntu, but didn't really get anywhere, possibly because my old PC didn't have the necessary specs. I tried it on a better machine a while back and it simply didn't work. It just hung up, stuff like that, and gave me error messages rather than install.

I gave up and bought a mac. I now have two, and I don't know why I waited. You don't have to spend a lot of money - a Mac Mini is tiny and unobtrusive. It's true you can run Windows on newer machines (I have a pre-Intel ibook and mac mini, which won't), but once you have time with OSX you might find you vastly prefer it and don't want to bother with Windows again, even in virtual form.

Also, if and when you get a mac, you can then purchase (it's cheap) a copy of Scrivener, which is mac-only writing software, and in itself sufficient reason to own a mac if you're a writer. Tobias Buckell, Justine Larbalestier and William King have all raved about it, the first two on their blogs (I've raved about it on mine, and wrote my last couple with it).

Try before you hit the main Apple site if you decide to go this way - I got my ibook from them for about £400. I'd highly recommend a mac mini; the basic £400 model is all you'll ever need.

sounds like an old ubuntu Gary.

I actually prefer the mac only jer's novel writer over scrivener, but these things are very personal.

And of course I forgot to mention that Ubuntu will also run on Macs. So you'd have a choice of three different flavours of operating system all in one box.

Yeah, I vote for getting rid of Norton before you do anything else. McAfee works just fine.

And if you don't want to have to buy a new computer, I vote with the people who say to use what the person who will be helping you uses. There's just no point in using Linux if everyone who can help you runs XP or Vista.

Norton is infamous for causing problems. How Symantec manage to keep going, I just don't understand.

There are a couple of good free antivirus products. My favourite is Avast! AVG Free works fine too, though it's gotten a little bloated since the previous version. The Windows firewall works just fine, as far as I can see.

I would love to use Linux, I really would. However after trying 8 different distros over the last 12 months, I had to conclude that a lot more work is needed. In particular, if not one of these distros could give me decent sound on my laptop, then Linux is in real trouble. Playing mp3s is not rocket science - even Windows 98 did that without any fuss.

BTW, you can still buy Windows XP, and it runs so much faster on the hardware designed for Vista. That would be my choice. Good Luck!

Codecs for MP3s are proprietary, some distributions will therefore have nothing to do with, them except as a downloaded extra. Non-proprietary audio formats include ogg and flac files ( and which are not necessarily supported by your favourite proprietary personal walkpod.

This comment has been removed by the author.


I've responded here as my comment was quite long.

"I just want software that actually fucking works."

Software that works; is that science fiction or fantasy?

To be fair my vista service pack installed okay but it did take over three hours. Linux? Now that's asking for trouble. I don't care how many nerds jump up to defend it Linux and its variants are still a few years away from being considered usable by the vast majority of the computer owning public.


(If necessary, prod me and I'll come round with a disk and set it up for you.)

Thanks, charlie. (And thanks to the other charles!)

Good Gods no! Don't get me wrong, I do like Linux and Ubuntu, really. Once I even replaced my wifes windows-machine with it. It worked well. But last year I got an offer I couldn't resist: being the main director for an all new tv-channel. Well, I got an pretty expensive Dell notebook as well, and after unwrapping it I nearly dropped it. This was the ugliest machine ever invented. I flatly refused to take such a thing while directing a show. How could I probably argue with the camera or lighting crew about an aesthetically satisfying setting while carrying such a thing?

But I needed something portable. I still had an old iBook, bought in summer 2000. And it still worked.

I expect you to imagine what I would recommend...

I got a $400 Compaq laptop last year. It came with Vista. I think it was slow; anyway, I've heard plent of bad things about Vista and DRM, I wasn't putting up with that.

I tried FreeBSD, having used OpenBSD before, then PC-BSD a supposedly more user friendly form of Free. Neither installed well. Then Ubuntu. A breeze!

Not a perfect breeze: wireless didn't work right away, and sound and power management had problems. All except the power was fixed quickly with information I found online.

I recently borrowed someone's eee PC. That comes with Xandros Linux, which works, but was icky to use. I installed eee-Ubuntu, and it generally works better than with the manufacturer's software.

I'm a programmer and capable of being a power user of Unix, but Ubuntu tempts me to be lazy, the GUIs are that good.

But the biggest Linux, or free Unix, advice is to google about your hardware and the Unix, because hardware variation and availability of drivers can be a problem, especially for laptops. I bought this thing specifically because I'd seen evidence online that people had gotten Ubuntu working with it, so I knew I had some MS option.



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