Switching My Dad to Linux--Part One

You might think that, as a Linux guy, I spend all my time converting friends and family to Linux. This is an epic cliche of the Slashdot-like Linux people, who will often post a comment like: "I switched my grandmother to Gentoo and she's never looked back! I had to teach her to use the optimization flag when compiling code, but now her system is running sweet!"

Mind boggling!

In fact, I take a live-and-let-live approach to computers that aren't mine. If you choose to run Linux then I'll help you, but I'm not going to force it down your throat. It's your computer. Run what you want!

But this changed a few days ago when my father got a new laptop that had Vista pre-installed. He asked me to set things up for him and, to cut a long story short, he got Ubuntu 9.04. This is simply because Ubuntu is a better choice in this situation. FWIW his old computer ran WinXP, and he was pretty happy with it.

There's two parts to my reasoning here, and in this two-part blog posting I'm going to first explain what's so bad about Vista, and then move on to explain why we've got to the stage now where Ubuntu in simply a better choice in many situations.

Honesty is the name of the game. I'm not trading in hype, or bullhonkey. I will show how Vista and it's software ecosystem works against users, but I also intend to be perfectly honest about what was a difficult Ubuntu installation -- about as difficult as it gets, in fact.

So first here's the problem with Vista.

Updates, updates, updates

Is it just me, or is Vista obsessed with updating itself? As soon as I boot a Vista machine it wants to immediately reboot to install some kind of update. This is extremely disruptive to workflow. The user has to start, and then stop instantly while the machine takes care of itself. If you ignore the reboot demand, it nags, nags, nags you to reboot, until you capitulate or throw the machine through the window in a fit of rage.

Back when Vista was still under development I seem to recall Steve Ballmer telling us that reboots wouldn't happen as much. You know what? I think he might have been hyping things up. The fact is Vista is even worse than XP.

On more than one occasion, I've rebooted to install updates, and then had to reboot again to install another set of updates! I suspect somebody at Redmond knows this and giggles like a maniac whenever they think about it.

Where is everything?

Not only do I think Windows XP is a decent operating system, but I provided support for an office full of XP machines for several years. I know XP backward. If XP is a storeroom with shelves full of goods, I can tell you exactly where to find an item.

Nothing in Vista is where it should be. The Microsoft engineers mixed up everything on the shelves, for no reason other than Vista is new and therefore they felt that's what they should do. I remember spending a few annoying minutes the first time I used Vista trying to figure out how to change the screen resolution.

Not only that but everything in Vista just seems to take longer to get at -- there's just more clicking around compared to XP, and more fuss. (That's a key feature of Vista they never mention in the ads--"100% more fuss!")

All of this means that, short of spending painful hours learning Vista (why?), I'd always have to sit in front of my dad's computer should I need to fix it, so I can poke around. Too much trouble! I need to be able to fix things over the phone.

Confirm or deny?

I don't want to get into the faults of Vista's User Account Control (UAC) system. You can read about that elsewhere. It's just a dumb idea implemented very badly. It's also the kind of thing that causes my father to reach for the phone and my speed-dial button as soon as it appears: "The printer program said something about updating and now the screen's gone dark. It's asking me if I want to confirm or deny. What do I do?" To be honest, dad, I've no idea. It could be a genuine printer driver update, or it could be malware pretending to be a printer driver. I'll have to stop what I'm doing and come and take a look.

The problem with UAC is that it isn't actually informative or helpful. All it does is force the user to be responsible for bad things that happen on his/her computer. It's about shifting the blame, rather than tackling the cause of the problems.

Printer drivers

Talking of printer drivers... What the hell is happening in the world of printer drivers? Why am I afraid to install a printer driver on a Windows system nowadays? Why do I know I will have to spend time afterwards cleaning up all the crap?

Do I really need Yahoo! toolbar as part of a printer driver package? Do I need a constantly-running program to sit there in the system tray and nag me every five minutes, seemingly just so I know that it's still there? Should a printer driver consume a huge chunk of my system resources? Do printer driver zip files really have to weigh-in at 100 megabytes considering the driver itself is just a few hundred kilobytes of DLLs?!

There's something very wrong there. It's just one example of how the software ecosystem surrounding Windows is choking the life out of it.

Antivirus programs

Antivirus programs are as bad as the viruses they protect you from. Worse, even. Definitely more annoying.

My father's laptop Vista installation came with McAfee installed. Whenever the computer boots, this insists on showing a splash screen that won't disappear for five seconds. Then, a few moments later, it pops up a window informing the user that it's virus definitions have been updated. To make this extra annoying, it makes a "PING!" sound effect too. Remember: this is just the software doing what it should do. It doesn't require any user intervention.

Following this, it will nag about how the security of the system isn't what it should be. That's an alarming message, but what it means is that a system scan hasn't been run over the last few days. No surprise there, because a system scan slows the system to a crawl to the extent that it's practically unusable. Wait 10 seconds for a file browsing window to appear while the disk grinds away? Sure! I've nothing better to do!

Sometimes, the updates installed by the antivirus program mean the computer has to be rebooted. Combined with Vista's own updates, this means that a lot of the time the first thing that's needed on starting the computer is to immediately reboot it.

In my humble opinion, antivirus programs have got an ego problem nowadays. They truly believe that they're the most important piece of software running on your system.

Ridiculous Wi-Fi program

This is a feature unique to my father's laptop, which is a Fujitsu-Siemens model (an Li2727). Every time the laptop boots into Vista, it's necessary to manually enable Wi-Fi using a piece of software. If we had gone for Vista on the laptop, my dad would have to double-click a program and click the "Enable Wi-Fi" button every time the computer boots. It's just crazy. There's no way to make this program automatically enable Wi-Fi (I checked).

The laptop always boots with Wi-Fi disabled. There's no BIOS option to override this. Apparently, this is to avoid Wi-Fi being accidentally activated during flights. I'm still waiting for that news story about how Wi-Fi caused a plane to crash. I suspect I'll be waiting a very long time. Some planes have Wi-Fi built-in nowadays, folks!

I chalk this one up to the weird software ecosystem around Windows, in which manufacturers feel the need to add-in software that just gets in the way of the user. The average new Windows computer comes with a tonne of add-ins that's just aren't needed. It's like buying a new car and finding there's already a soda in the cup holder, and an air freshener dangling from the mirror, and a fluffy steering wheel cover fitted. Why? Just get rid of all that crap. If I want it, I'll take care of it myself.

The Wi-Fi software switch was so damned annoying that it was actually one of the biggest factors in the decision to ditch Vista on this particular machine. Under Ubuntu I was able to get Wi-Fi working automatically on each boot, with no user intervention necessary, as I'll explain in Part Two of this series.

Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference .

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