Travelling with Desktop Linux / 在旅游把Linux带走

This is a post for the geeks in the crowd. At the outset let me say, I don’t want to start an operating system holy war. It doesn’t matter to me what operating system anyone uses, I just thought I’d tell you about my experience carrying a Linux netbook with me on my travels.

I’m using a Dell Mini 10. It’s a fantastic machine, I highly recommend it. The successor is even better, with a much longer battery life. The only thing I had to add was a bluetooth adaptor as it doesn’t have bluetooth built in. It came with Windows XP installed but I decided I would install Linux instead. The reasons for this choice are now irrelevant. It turns out that I didn’t do what I thought I’d be doing with my computer, but that didn’t hurt me. I’m running Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) 10.04. This is a version of Ubuntu with a modified desktop, meant especially for netbooks.

While I’ve been running Ubuntu at work for several years now, at home I run Windows 7. Because I’m focused on software development at work, I don’t use the machine in the same way I do at home, so I don’t know how suitable Ubuntu is as a home computer operating system. On the rare occasions when I have installed Linux at home, I never really used it seriously, because I always went back to my Windows install for my daily work. Since I’ve been on the road since August, and this computer is all I have access to, I’ve been forced to make it work for all my daily needs. Now I have a better idea of how Ubuntu works for a home user. The quick summary: I’m impressed.

Ubuntu has everything I need for my daily use on the road, which is not that much different from how I use my computer at home. I have the usual Thunderbird for email, Firefox for surfing the web, OpenOffice.org for word processing, working bluetooth (sometimes a challenge with Windows) and of course, Tetris. OpenOffice.org, really annoys me, though it does the job so I can’t really complain. Also, it can read .docx files without any trouble, which is more than I can say for MS Office XP.

To help in my Mandarin study, I have a pinyin input system, so I can write in Chinese, and StarDict, a handy Chinese-English dictionary that I can use to translate words in any application simply by highlighting them with the mouse pointer. I also have a Linux version of Anki. Anki is a flash card program with the ability to calculate the best time for the next review for each card. It’s fantastic and I use it for all my Mandarin reviews as well as job interview preparation.

The software I have is pretty handy for maintaining my blog too. I have Audacity for recording and editing my audio posts, the Gimp for editing photos (that has way more features than I could ever need), and a tool to batch re-size my photos before uploading them.

I have Rythmbox for listening to music. Rythmbox includes a good podcast client, which I’ve never found for Windows. I have various chat clients, including Skype, QQ (a popular mainland chat client) and Pidgin for logging on to MSN and Gtalk. Yes, I have too many chat accounts. Logging on to MSN with anything other than the native Windows client is rather a nuisance, and logging on to QQ with anything other than the Tencent-produced client is, as far as I can tell, impossible. But the Linux QQ client isn’t maintained well by Tencent, so it crashes all the time.

For security reasons my user directory is encrypted automatically and only decrypted when I logon. With a netbook, since it’s portable, it can easily get lost or stolen. That means information that’s usually secure because it’s on your home computer, inside your house, is more vulnerable than usual.

Most of these applications are available, for free, from the Ubuntu package repository, so I don’t have to go looking for anything. Think of the package repository as something like Apple’s App Store, but for your desktop computer. It has everything. In addition, since Ubuntu is probably the most popular Linux distribution, there are plenty of online resources for those times when I run into trouble. In this regard I’m also impressed with the support networks that Canonical (the company that produces Ubuntu) has set up and maintains. Unlike a lot of documentation and support forums, it’s relatively well organized, up to date, and free of clutter.

One thing that does drive me nuts about Ubuntu is the software updates. I hate software updates. I like to get the system working, and then only install updates if I absolutely need them. Especially at work, I don’t need some random software update messing up my build system, for example. So I run the Long-Term Support (LTS) version of Ubuntu. That way I have access to the package repositories for a period of three years, before I’m forced to upgrade. Regardless of this, the update manager still bugs me regularly about installing updates. On Windows you can turn this off, on Ubuntu, you can’t. So I wind up installing a lot more updates than I really want.

In my estimate, Ubuntu is put together pretty well and it’s easy enough to use that you don’t have to be too tech-savvy to run it at home. It doesn’t have any more bugs than Windows, so it shouldn’t be that much more of a hassle to use. If you’re usually able to figure out computer problems on your own, then I’d say you can use whatever operating system you want. That could be Ubuntu or Windows. If you usually have to find someone else to help you figure out problems, then you should probably use an operating system that most of your friends are familiar with too. That will probably be Windows for most people.

I don’t know what I’ll do with my computers when I get home. I might switch my desktop over to Ubuntu, or I might switch this netbook back to Windows. We’ll see, I could go either way. Both are quite usable, and both have irritations and drawbacks. I guess it depends partly on what other projects I wind up working on when I get home.

AnkiAudacityChat-clientsDesktopGimpOo-mandarinRythmboxStardictTetrisWorld-time

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