Is Linux Ready for Prime Time?

Ubuntu DesktopMy problems with the CloudBook last weekend had me wondering, is there something wrong with me or something wrong with the CloudBook or, maybe, is there something wrong with Linux itself?

Last night, I tried installing Ubuntu 7.1 on my laptop, a two year old ThinkPad z60m with 1GB of RAM and a 40GB hard drive. I was really excited to get my first taste of Ubuntu, after having used RedHat a little bit back in the late 90s and early 2000s. The install of Ubuntu went smoothly enough, and the system seemed to detect all my hardware, from the sound card right up to the wireless card. However, the problems started almost immediately. In maybe two hours of use:

  • The display froze once. I could move the pointer but not click on anything so I actually had to pull the battery to reboot.
  • The screen resolution reverted to 640×480 for no reason. When I shut down the machine last night, I was running at 1280×800 (my laptop’s native res), but when I booted up this morning, the system had just “forgot” what kind of display I had and I had to change the driver.
  • The computer started ignoring the shutdown command. When I selected the shutdown button, last night, Ubuntu immediately popped up a screen with the option to log off, shut down, restart, etc. During this morning’s session, the shutdown menu would only appear after 30 seconds of loading. Of course, this problem seemed to go away as mysteriously as it had appeared, after a couple of reboots.

The inconsistent behavior of the OS reminds me of Vista and makes me wonder: is Linux ready for prime time? I’m sure there are explanations somewhere for my mysterious on-again off-again problems, though I’m having a hard time hunting them down. One thing Microsoft and Apple know is that users want their operating system to just work. I don’t think most home or business users would put up with this kind of schizophrenic behavior from their OS, even if they could find solutions to most problem sby googling support groups (presumably on a second computer that works) after every crash. As for me, I like the idea of Linux and I want to make this work so I’m going to keep trucking and trying to find solutions.

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Mike Cane Says:

    There are of course people who swear by Linux. My experience with Maemo on a Finnish Anti-Internet Tablet that was Linux-based had me swearing AT it. Which is why I’m not coy in saying whether I get an EeePC, CloudBook, or even hp 2133, I’ll strip off the Linux OS and put on XP. It’s just not the OS for me. I have Windows apps I need for blogging. I don’t want to be a wonk, opening the hood and sanding down spark plug heads or whatever. I don’t do that with a *TV*. I want to get work done.

  2. Mike Says:

    I have Ubuntu installed on three desktops – very new to very old – and a Thinkpad T42. Everything worked first time. My newest desktop would reboot itself for no apparent reason running XP. I always blamed XP. When it did it running Ubuntu my local hardware guy found the the on board video card was bad. Slapped in a new on and not an issue since.

  3. Baz Says:

    A modified ‘yes’ –

    But only on devices where the OS has been installed by the computer’s manufacturer (so, by theory at least, all the hardware works) but the various flavours of Linux still need to be a **whole** lot less geeky for the average user to use / update, install to and maintain.

    The average user should never have to go into Terminal to do things – exactly how Win3.1 is that? And peripheral suppliers have got to get their act together and start offering drivers. Its near pointless having a computer if you can’t print or scan, or retrieve/save files from a camera or external drive.

    Having said all that, my little eeePC running its default Xandros (in Advanced Desktop mode) generally runs programs faster and with more stability than my Vista machine. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to shoehorn (none too gracefully I’m sure, for I’m a newbie to Linux) a few programs and a driver for my printer. But jeez, what a palaver to do so….

  4. Mas Says:

    Short answer: no. Regrettably, most Linux distros right now are just way too buggy for the average user to deal with. As locked down and proprietary as Windows is, it at least works *most* of the time. Stability on XP right now is phenomenal.

    And yeah, I have tried out at least 8-10 different variants of Linux and am running xubuntu now. Linux is ultra-powerful, but not that user friendly.

  5. Bob Says:

    Yes. Even Fedora installs and loads quickly with detection of most hardware. Even my 90 old mother can operate it though I did the installation. She does not need a US$100-200 OS to surf the web securely.

    While I agree that XP is now quite stable, Vista is a wreck with little to suggest that Microsoft has a handle on its’ problems.

    Use of the command line is not a problem. With very little reading you can expedite things in Linux and Windows. Point and click is not the be-all-and-end-all of computing.

    My $0.02

  6. rob Says:

    i have been using linux for almost 7 years now,from redhat to fedora and ubuntu in far and away the best disto out there..its a dream everthing works fine on my 2 laptops,from sound to wifi,but i think that a long time windows users will have a bit of trouble moving in the linux world,but after a few weeks you should be able to keep up with most of us…and yes some distros are very buggy..but hey thats half the fun…

  7. Nick Says:

    try pclinuxos as that is a lot more stable than ubuntu and has much better hardware detection. PCLinuxOS does not have a strict release schedule as all of its bugs are ironed out before it is released to the user which can not be said for ubuntu which releases its OS every 6 months “as is”. The most recent stable version of PCLinuxOS is 2007 (meaning it has been out for a year, and after installing, all of the updates available will correct any bugs which existed in the past year)…

    Also if you go for pclinuxos, don’t use the gnome community remaster, as there is a problem with the kernel on it, causing it to not boot for the majority of users (me being one of them)

    Lastly ubuntu is not the best distro, it is only the most popular and that only because of its commercial backing…

  8. sjinsjca Says:

    To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “Linux” is.

    Some distros, yes. PCLinuxOS, for example, is well-wrung-out, pretty, and nice to work with. The Eee is another well-done OS. But some of the others are, as you’ve found, not quite ready for primetime.

  9. Geert Says:

    Yes, but only with decent distros, tht provide you with integrated, performant administrative GUI tools.
    Although Ubuntu is wonderful in hardware recognition, it is too bad that in order to format and use a new drive on your system you must identify, install and use at least 2 different pieces of software, or go and edit some config files, and btw, if you type a comma wrong the system might stop working.

    The older distro’s like suse, fedora and mandriva have these tools in their distro.

  10. Justin N Says:

    Hey, the problem with your shutdown menu is an acknowledged bug in gnome-power-manager, it’ll be fixed in 8.04. In the meantime, the workaround is to keep the power manager applet running at all times. I was having the same problem and it worked fine for me. Hope that helps!

  11. Jon Gl Says:

    Odd discussion, really…

    I notice that most people complaining that “Linux” is not ready for the desktop are coming from Windows, and yet, at the same time, are saying “Windows _mostly_ works.” Well, guess what–Linux mostly works, too! The real problem for Windows users is that Windows “mostly” works in ways that they are used to being able to fix, yet, when things “break” in Linux, they are at a loss, simply because they do not yet know the system. It’s not a matter of Linux being worse than Windows–only different. It is the unfamiliarity of Linux that keeps people from garnering success in Linux. The real issue here is inertia. People took years gaining familiarity with Windows, and learning the ropes, so to speak. Yet, they expect Linux to behave exactly like Windows, or worse, they feel like a child again, needing to ask for help, when they should be proficient in “computers.” It just goes to show that there is not such thing as being proficient “in computers.” One can know Windows, or Windows apps, or Linux, or Linux apps, admin, programming, and so on, but “computers” embraces a lot!

    So, the question, “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” Is YES–Just as much as Windows is/was! The real question is “Are people ready for Linux?” Is Linux perfect? No–but as all the proponents for Windows above have hinted–neither is Windows! It’s just more familiar to most people.

    However, there is yet another question that those who have a hand in making Linux run. The question is, do you want to be like Windows? And by that, I mean, do you want to “mostly” work? or “just work?” You see, there is another contender for the desktop out there. That contender is the Mac OS. I have had a few friends switch from Windows in recent months, and none of them have had the configuration problems that either Windows or Linux users have. I have been surprised at how little technical support I’ve had to provide. Other than a gentle bit of steering in the right direction at moments of confusion, it has been smooth sailing for every one of them! Granted, Macs are all build by one manufacturer, and all that, but it is not so much about just that, as it is about the system allowing–no, encouraging exploration, about it being fun to explore and learn, and just plain working. This is the model that ought to be the goal–not to imitate the exact OS X experience, but that simplicity, reliability and plain pleasure. I see that the latest KDE 4 is just about correct for the pleasure of use, but under the hood is where the distros come in. Ubuntu has worked hard to get it right, and, even though I’m running an 8 yr old PowerPC laptop, the community has worked hard to keep us Ubuntu users working reliably–at least up to Feisty. I fear we may be gone with Gutsy, but I have been playing with Fedora 8 of late, and find it to be a wonderfully stable and capable distro. In fact, none of the kernal issues of the Feisty upgrade, and no need for the command line to adjust the mis-judged resolution issue. It was all done on the desktop, with the Gnome interface… In fact, I have yet to need the command line in Fedora 8. (Not that I don’t use it–I prefer it on occasion, but one ought _need_ to use the console–only to speed things up, not to do basic tasks. Actually, Feisty has been about as good at not requiring the command line on my aging Mac. In that respect, I find Linux very good–better than Windows in all the most important areas–installing and removing software, system stability, and portability of documents. Granted, one of my printers is not really recognized, but of the 4 printers I use, it’s the only one–a Canon MP printer that didn’t last long on the market. And Ubuntu recognizes it fine–my only problem is in Fedora.

    So, I believe that, in so much as “Windows” is ready for the desktop–and lots of comments here indicate that it’s only “barely” ready for the desktop ;-) –, that Linux is also. And now to go vote. ;-)


  12. Xero Says:

    Depends what you want from your OS I suppose. For me, I’ve tried many, and am quite happy with PCLinuxOS for the most part. Even if I do break it, it’s usually pretty straight forward to boot from the livecd and hunt down a fix.
    As for “Nick” above, saying “Also if you go for pclinuxos, don’t use the gnome community remaster, as there is a problem with the kernel on it, causing it to not boot for the majority of users (me being one of them)”. Bullshit. I’ve loaded it onto several machines, with no noticeable issue. Runs smoothly, and most enjoyable Gnome experience I’ve had in some time. I’ll be sticking with it barring anything catastrophic occurring. One VERY satisfied PCLinuxOS Gnome Remaster user. :)

  13. mahjongg Says:

    YES, linux IS ready for the desktop, (at least, the best desktop oriented distro’s are).

    There is just one problem!
    Hardware manufacturers still often simply refuse to support linux., and then the Linux community has to try to reverse engineer a driver for the hardware simply because windows users expect all hardware they buy to be supported by the OS, (and rightly so I might add). Because of lack of support from the hardware manufacturer, even to supply adequate technical information, these drivers are sometimes sub optimal, and this can lead to a user experiencing performance from his hardware that is sub-par compared to the same hardware working on a Windows system. Of course the user then blames the OS for the problem! But i’t not Linux’s fault, its the hardware manufacturers problem! Only the general public does not generally understand that.

    This is a catch-66 situation for Linux, and it’s amazing how far they have come with this cannon ball chained to their leg.

    At the moment for most types of devices Linux has an adequate driver infrastructure, only for WiFi adapters the situation is a bit chaotic and sub-optimal, but Linux kernel people are writing a new unified WiFi driver infrastructure to overcome this problem.

    WiFi hardware is a case in point, generally hardware (chipset) manufacturers almost never publish hardware details about their solution, and treat it like a trade secret. On top of that most WiFi hardware requires that the OS (windows) uploads firmware to the hardware to make it work, and they organise the windows driver so that it obfuscates the firmware, as they consider the firmware also as part of the same “trade secret”. This makes it very hard to write a Linux driver that supports the WiFi hardware on the same level as the Windows driver does. Especially as ideally the driver should also support “hibernating” the WiFi adapter, that is removing the power to the adapter, then reading all its internal settings, and the “secret firmware” too so it can be saved to disk, to be restored on power up. This is even more difficult to implement without any technical info. and chips that make reading the internal firmware impossible on purpose.

    For linux on the desktop to really “break through” hardware makers must resign to supporting a -third- platform (after Windows and the Mac ) which is not something they are willing to do if Linux is used by just 3% or so of all users.

    So Linux is ready, at least the better distro’s are, (it does not really help that some manufacturers rush hardware onto the market with an unfinished Linux distro) but for it to really become ubiquitous the hardware manufacturers need to start to support it too, and follow the lead of manufacturers like Intel, ATI and HP. They owe it to the users who obviously expect that the hardware they buy runs on the OS of their choice. I am convinced they no longer can ignore Linux. Linux is ready, and it -will- start to be used as a valid desktop alternative.

  14. Carla Says:

    I’ve installed Linux 6 times in the past 9 years. I like the idea of it but I never stick with it for more than 4-5 months due to various day to day problems.

    A couple of problems I’ve had recently:

    – I can’t synch data with my phone
    – The battery meter on my laptop is wrong (can’t be trusted)
    – My multifunction printer does not work (no color) despite the fact that says it does!
    – There are no good video editing tools (Cinelerra and Kino are horrible!)
    – Ubuntu sometimes crashes for no apparent reason (a fresh install didn’t solve things)
    – My laptop runs on one core instead of two.

    The Linux community I’ve come into contact with during my various Linux escapades wasn’t really friendly. Overall I’d qualify their attitude as being feudal and totalitarian.

    I’m thinking of buying a Mac. It’s cool, and things just work effortlessly. Plus the video editing tools are fantastic.

  15. Joe Says:

    Ubunto is the problem. Suse and Mandriva figured out how to make a functional working linux years ago. Gos linux is the reason the cloudbook sucks.

  16. Freedom Says:

    Jon GI hit the nail on the head…
    I have been using Linux faithfully since 2000. Originally, using Debian without a CLUE as to what I was doing installing it on my sister’s aging bondi-blue imac. Back then, it was more of “think”ing “different” (pun intended) than anything as Linux hardware support sucked, and was slow going. I am not an IT dude, never had prior computing experience other than dabbling with windows 3.1, win98, SE, NT, ME. 2000 and finally XP. Linux has ALOT to offer, no matter what the distro. Sure, I have my preferences (Debian and Fedora equally), and have my views, both pros and cons. But the reluctance of Linux going mainstream in the United States at least (I may be incorrect in my assumptions but it seams it is huge EVERYWHERE overseas) is partly due to “its too different i dont like it” or “it too hard to install my Microsoft programs” and mostly hard-headedness. Linux has grown by leaps and bounds, and in most cases, in my eyes has outgrown Microsoft’s OS, becoming more beautiful and powerful with each transition. There is NO doubt in my mind that the day will come (hopefully sooner than later) when the era of Microsoft will come to an end and not just Linux, but the whole open-source movement will be the standard. The biggest problem is all the distros out there. It is a daunting and confusing choice to make for a noob or company to make. (By the by, I will always consider myself a noob as in Linux I am continually learning something new.) The other is gaming. One of the single-most, biggest reasons or excuse for people to keep a WinOS, be it dual-boot, virtualization or for use with WINE is gaming. This is still slow going, but the pace has picked up nevertheless. There isn’t THAT much of a difference between Mac X and Linux. It is still Unix at the heart. They have changed the placements of files and whatnot, but it still is Unix. Yet, alot of people have and continue to gravitate towards it. Why? Apple is doing something right. It is a intuitive, beautiful and fun OS. But, its prorietory (yes u can compile an open-source version) and like Microsoft (the company dictates how it should be) you have to pay an arm and a leg for it. I stick with Linux because it is solid, I dictate how I want it to behave, how it looks, what it can do. I can install it to do things that Vista can do on an aging laptop or tower (try that with anything under Vista or XP) and all the while operating seemingly as fast as a new computer (try PuppyLinux or DSL), it is free as in “FREEDOM” (of speech,etc (I think as in “free beer” is stupid, everybody got there cups but they wont pitch in) (OK, so i have been up all night))) and I feel safer on the internet. These to me are good, solid reasons for why Linux IS ready for primetime… Or anything else Microsoft throws at it. (By the way, do not be surprised if one day Microsoft goes Unix. I doubt it but wouldnt b at all surprised. Apple did.) Thats my 2 cents. Live long and prosper.

  17. Chris Says:

    I only have experience with Xubuntu and Puppy linux , but have been researching other distros to read what the users say. All I can see so far is that everybody seems to have about the same experiences Ive had with Linux. Way too buggy for the average power up and go computer user. The problems and incompatibilities shouldnt be so frequent , users shouldnt have to go to the terminal so much , and spending weeks reading posts in online forums to find out whats wrong with their machine should not take up so much of our time. Linux is good , but we still have a way to go yet before its primetime.

  18. James Lehman Says:

    It is just not ready. Software not found already compiled for a system. I spent 30 minutes or so finding on how to install a program on my distro of Ubuntu. The Linux community needs to standardize software installations so any program will be immediately recognized and just work. It was cumbersome installing by command line. I could have been working for 30 minutes instead of typing in cryptic commands.

  19. Michael K. Says:

    It’s now 2012 and there are lots of things preventing enterprise Linux from becoming a Windows enterprise desktop replacement. The biggest problem (IMHO) is reliability. The code just does not work as well or as seemlessly as in Windows. I suspect the prime reason is limited QA. The second biggest problem is supportability. Unless a company intends to greatly expand it’s helpdesk (and I mean greatly), Linux desktop users will flounder. Windows just works. Linux….sometimes does, and sometimes does not. And it get it working usually requires lots of command line tweaks to this file, or that (something most non-technical end users are simply not comfortable with).

    I work for a very large company which is deploying Linux internally to the desktop. Right now it’s to the IT admins. The transistion has been painful. While I am somewhat technical and can cope with Linux better than most (even though the apps really suck compared to Windows apps), non-technical users will have trouble making the transistion. Once Linux “just works” like Windows, and installing applications becomes less painful, then maybe (just maybe) Linux will be ready for the prime time.

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