I'm Back!

Hi. My name’s Jack.

“Hello Jack.”

I’m a distrohopper.

“We’ve all been there, brother. You can lean on us.”

I say this all tongue-in-cheek but I really have been hopping from Linux distribution to Linux distribution. I had stopped doing this for a long time but, lately, I started up again. There’s a reason for my madness, though. Really. There is.

You see, I like watching some TV shows through my laptop on my big screen (see this post for more insight into what I’ve been watching). And Ubuntu has been a flawless experience. No hiccups at all. Nada. Zilch.


But I’ve been wanting to try out the latest version of Gnome Shell, the desktop environment (DE) for Gnome 3. The DE is the graphical part of your computer (aka, the GUI or graphical user interface). It’s what you see when you turn on your computer - the desktop, folders, icons, mouse pointer, etc. When Ubuntu got wind of Gnome leaving their old DE, they had a decision to make - either use a version of Gnome Shell (like they did with Gnome 2) or go a different route. At first, they tried working with the Gnome developers and keep using that as the DE for Ubuntu. However, as time went on, it was soon clear that both teams had very different visions. So, Ubuntu decided to go with a different DE altogether. And they just so happened to have one already in place. It was the environment they used for netbooks (very small laptops with roughly a 10” to 11” screen). But in April of 2011, with version 11.04, Ubuntu introduced that netbook interface to their regular “desktop” version of Ubuntu.1 This was labeled “Unity.”

Now, a lot of people didn’t like Unity (or Gnome Shell, for that matter). And they weren’t quiet about it either. I found this funny. It wasn’t like Ubuntu developers had a lot of choices in the matter. Gnome 2, the foundation for the entire previous 13 releases was obsolete; no longer supported. Sure, they could have decided to take the code base for Gnome 2 and continue to build that (and some developers have done just that. That’s one of the values of using FOSS - Free and Open Source Software). However, they would be building upon old technologies. Another other option could have been to use a completely new foundational DE but that would constitute a complete rewrite of their operating system and all of their tools and applications. To me, they made the best choice - use the latest technologies of Gnome 3 but build a different user interface that would best meet their vision. Unity, in my opinion, has done just that.

“So why did you start trying different distributions?”

The reason I started looking at different distributions was because I wanted to try a plain, vanilla version of Gnome Shell. Now, I could use it Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (the version I’ve been using since it was released in April of this year) and I have. But, when I tried watching TV from my computer, the video was really choppy. I figured the reason for this was because I added Gnome Shell to Ubuntu (it’s not part of the native installation) and there could be hardware resource issues. So, I started looking at different versions of Linux that natively use Gnome Shell as its DE. And for the last week I tried using Fedora 17.

Fedora is the community branch of Red Hat Linux, one of the oldest Linux distributions out there (in fact, it was the first Linux OS I tried). If anyone could get my particular kink worked out, it would be Fedora. Or so I thought.

Fedora 17 was easy enough to install. I just downloaded the image and burned it to a CD. I then rebooted by laptop and selected the CD-ROM drive to start using Fedora 17. I then installed it by clicking on the install icon. It was after I installed it when things went south.

Trying to install all of the tools I normally use was a little difficult (even after I went to the Fedora forums, I had to Google specific questions to find answers). These tools include things like codecs for viewing movies or listening to music, specific applications (Skype, Banshee, Chromium, etc.), and whatever. With Ubuntu, I just have to open the Software Center and start searching. Fedora 17 has a similar tool but it was all listed as individual packages and I had no idea which ones I needed (some were listed twice with all of the exact same information). I tried figuring it out, but when I couldn’t, that’s when I had to start looking at their forums and Google.

After I finally got everything installed and configured the way I wanted it, I browsed over to my television show, selected an episode and let if buffer a little bit. To my surprise, it was still choppy. Again, I thought the only reason it was choppy when I was using the Gnome Shell interface in Ubuntu was because it wasn’t its native interface. It turns out I was wrong. In disgust, I stopped the show and started looking again for tips on how to fix my video issues. It turns out, for my hardware, there isn’t one. In fact, I’m not even sure there’s a solution for any hardware.

The issue could be the window manager for Gnome 3. It uses Mutter. Whereas Ubuntu’s Unity uses Compiz for its windows manager. This means that the DE’s use different technologies to “draw” the windows on the screen, as well as handle the “special effects” like shadows and transparencies and such. It seems that Mutter takes a lot of resources when it’s used. No, my system isn’t a top of the line system but it’s decent enough. It has a dual core Intel processor with each core running at 2.16GHz. Plus it has 4GB of RAM. When running anything else in Gnome Shell, it works alright. But not when it comes to watching those shows. And, it’s that one little thing that irritates me. If the computer experience isn’t going to work the way I need it to, and work well, then I’ll go back to using something I know works flawlessly.

So, I’m back to Ubuntu and Unity. And it’s a great feeling! Especially since I saw a video featuring Mark Shuttleworth.2 The video was Mark’s presentation at this year’s OSCON (Open Source Convention) in Oregon. In it he described some new features that are coming in Ubuntu 12.10, the next version which is available in October. One of those features is called “Web Apps.” That is, instead of just having a computer, whether that’s a laptop or desktop, be a web browser (I’m looking at you Google and Firefox), Mark understands that people want to keep their data on their devices. Certainly one can back them up to the cloud, but people still want their “stuff.” So they set out a way to integrate web apps with the desktop. Now, when going to say, Gmail or Google Docs or Facebook, a bar pops up asking permission to integrate that web app directly to your Ubuntu desktop. Once you click “Allow,” it now appears as an “app” within Ubuntu. Furthermore, it can be added to the Launcher (the list of icons on the left side of the screen) and searched for in the Dash (a metadata search feature), just like other applications installed on your computer. While this is a coming feature in the next version of Ubuntu, it can be installed in 12.04, which I quickly did! And it’s fantastic!

The innovation, the vision, and the simplicity of use with Unity is quite astonishing. And speaking of vision - Ubuntu and its Unity DE are coming to Android phones and TVs. Plus, as Shuttleworth announced, Ubuntu will be shipping on 5% of all PCs sold in the coming year. Right now, there are shops in China and India selling Dell computer featuring Ubuntu. And Dell has just announced that their developer laptop, codenamed “Sputnik,” will be available for purchase in the US (it’s the laptop Shuttleworth used during his presentation - you can read more about it here). With more and more people using Ubuntu and its Unity DE, there will be more of a demand that it gets proper support in IT infrastructures. Last year, I had the privilege of installing it on three student systems for a particular class they were taking (and once for a friend of another student just because she liked it).

Another thing Shuttleworth pointed out in his presentation is that Unity the second easiest computer OS to use (Windows was first, and, much to the dismay of Apple users everywhere, Mac OS X came in third). That’s been my experience with it as well. At work I use both Mac OS X (primary) and Windows 7 (for enterprise tools). I find that I try and do things I know I can do in Unity on both of those systems (they make logical sense to me) but they don’t work that way in the other systems. It’s similar to the experience one has when working on a Mac and then trying to use a Windows computer. How things “should” work but don’t is so frustrating. That’s my experience when moving from Unity to any other DE. Once you start using Unity, all other DEs pale in comparison. To me, it’s the best DE out there. Period. (Shaking my head) I don’t know why I ever left it.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br Jack+, LC

1 “Desktop” is here used to mean the version of the operating system (OS) used in laptops and desktop towers.
2. Mark’s the person who founded Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. He’s like the Steve Jobs of Ubuntu. He’s charismatic. He’s a visionary. He’s driven.


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