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Review: 3 top Linux distros go for different users

December 16, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Ubuntu 9.10

This newest version of Ubuntu remains remarkably easy to use. When I need to give a home user a nice, simple OS, Ubuntu is my operating system of choice. It's safer than Windows can ever dream of being, but makes simple to read e-mail with Evolution, browse the Web with Firefox and write documents and the like with OpenOffice.

If they need more than the basics, the Ubuntu Software Center offers the easiest way ever to find, download and install mainstream Linux software. By using a Tucows-style program, Ubuntu makes it easy to find an application.

You can also use it as a business desktop. IBM, in partnership with Canonical, will be more than happy to help you set up your Ubuntu business desktop with a complete suite of business software.

In this latest version, the interface has been spruced up. The changes are all minor, but the overall effect is to give it a smoother and more consistent look.

Another feature that I think everyone will love is free cloud backup, called Ubuntu One. This service enables people who run Ubuntu 9.04 or later to upload files to an online storage space. Ubuntu users can store up to 2GB for free, and up to 50GB for $10 per month. Besides using this as a backup, you can also use it to sync files from one Ubuntu system to another.

A more noticeable change is that the default IM client has been switched from Pidgin to Empathy. Empathy integrates better with the overall desktop, and while that functionality isn't really used to any great purpose in this release, being able to IM someone from within the Evolution e-mail client could be quite handy.

Ubuntu
The Ubuntu Software Center make it easy to install Linux software.
Click to view larger image

The bad news is that Ubuntu has real trouble with two types of hardware: some Intel graphics chipsets and some hard drives.

The Intel graphics problem is a real pain -- I would sometimes start my session and then the screen would freeze up as solid as a block of ice. In theory, Ubuntu tried to speed up Intel integrated graphics, but the reality is that Ubuntu often brings graphics to a complete stop. The surest way to avoid this seems to be to revert to the older Intel graphics driver. It worked for me -- but such a critical problem shouldn't have made it into the final release.

In addition, there seems to be a problem in some systems with how the Grub2 boot loader interacts with hard drives via the BIOS. What happens here is that the boot loader comes up, but when you try to choose between different operating systems, the computer will sometimes lock up. The only solution is to power your PC off and on again. Ubuntu is working on this problem, but there is no single fix yet.

I like Ubuntu a lot. But until Canonical cleans up some of these fundamental problems, I can't recommend this version of Ubuntu for general use. If Canonical doesn't improve Ubuntu's fit and polish, it will quickly lose its spot as the world's most popular desktop Linux.

Conclusions

If you're a Linux expert, Fedora is for you. If you just want a good, general-purpose desktop for home or work, then openSUSE is your best pick. And if you're new to Linux, and your computer gets along well with Ubuntu, Ubuntu is still a good choice.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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