Multimedia and Image Management
Ubuntu comes configured by default with several programs for multimedia: Sound Juicer, for ripping audio from CDs into the FLAC or OGG formats; Rhythmbox, for organizing music and creating playlists (the closest thing to Windows Media Player, really); Serpentine, for authoring audio CDs; and Movie Player and Sound Recorder, which are self-explanatory.
Playing MP3s, however, is not something you can do out of the box. It wasn't immediately clear what I could do to fix that, but after some research I found a separate codec pack (called the Gstreamer Plugins package) which solved the problem. Evidently Ubuntu can't be distributed with the MP3 codecs due to licensing restrictions.
Pop in an audio CD and Sound Juicer fires up automatically. By default it just rips CDs to your home directory (/home/), so you may want to create a specific music folder somewhere for it to copy to, which is what I did. Once I got everything set up with the right folders, though, it was a breeze to rip new music to the system and have it automatically identified. Discs that had Unicode metadata showed up correctly, too. This last part is actually pretty important to me, since I have a lot of music from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries that might use non-ASCII song or album titles. There's iPod support through a plug-in; other music devices are essentially handled as large removable drives.
Vista's multimedia components consist of Windows Media Player 11 (WMP) -- best for playing music or whatnot while doing other things -- and Windows Media Center, which is useful if you're using the PC as the center of your entertainment system. WMP has come a long way since its earlier, clunkier incarnations, and version 11 has a lot of things I have come to like. For example, I have a pretty large music library (over 100GB) that I keep ripped to the PC, and WMP's indexed search system lets you find a particular artist or song very quickly. One drawback to WMP is that out of the box it only rips to Microsoft's own WMA format, WAV, or to plain old MP3; the patent-free AAC and Ogg Vorbis formats aren't natively supported for ripping.
The Winner: Another tie -- the functionality of the default multimedia programs on both platforms is about even.
Image-Editing / Picture Management
One of the oft-repeated selling points for Vista has been dealing easily and readily with massive amounts of digital images, i.e., one's photo collection. You can do this by adding and managing industry-standard metadata to images, which is not only available through Vista's indexed search but through the included Picture Gallery application.
The best thing about the Gallery is also one of the best things about Windows Media Player: You can throw thousands of images into it, add tags to them en masse, and organize them quickly. There's also a great deal of usability and finesse in the way the Gallery works -- for instance, if you select a range of images that only have a certain tag applied to some of those images, you can apply that tag to all (or none) of them with one click. Some image types (like .PNG) are not taggable, however, but that's not Vista's fault.
Ubuntu's F-Spot photo manager has some of the same flavor as Picture Gallery, but it doesn't have the same level of polish yet (it's only listed as being revision 0.3.5). For one thing, F-Spot forces you to wait if you want to import a great many photos at once; with Picture Gallery, importing folders can be done passively in the background. It's also not as easy to attach tags en masse or select groups of images quickly, and while there are some nice things in the user interface (for instance, a timeline view for images), they're not implemented as effectively as they could be.
Vista still doesn't have a better native picture editor than the lamentable Paint. This isn't hard to fix, though; the excellent Paint.NET is free, installs with little hassle, and provides most of the features people need from an image editor.
For picture editing, Ubuntu comes with GIMP 2.2, a very powerful Photoshop-like application that unfortunately suffers from a very unfriendly user interface -- although a third-party add-on, GimpShop, fixes that issues fairly well.
The Winner: Again, 50-50 -- Vista for its Picture Gallery; Ubuntu for having a better native image editor than Paint.
Backup and Restore
It doesn't make sense to trust your data to any operating system unless you can back it up and restore it safely. Ubuntu and Vista have markedly different ways of handling backup. Vista has a native file-and-whole-system backup tool which has been the subject of a good deal of well-directed criticism. Ubuntu has a number of different backup tools in its software library, of varying degrees of polish and requiring different degrees of expertise.
The most straightforward of the user-friendly (as opposed to something invoked from a command line) Ubuntu backup tools listed in the catalog is probably Konserve, which sits in the system tray and backs up any directory to any other directory (including a remote network repository or FTP site) in the form of an industry-standard .tar.gz archive. You can set up any number of backup profiles and have them run on schedules or on-demand, and you'll be notified if a backup attempt fails (for instance, if the external drive you've been using for backups is offline).
One problem is that it doesn't seem possible to filter files to be backed up; it's everything in the source directory or nothing. Also, each backup set is complete; the program doesn't have an explicit option to perform incremental backups. (I also looked at the Keep Backup system, which had a similar set of options but also many of the same limitations.)
Vista's backup tool has a few things I hate and a few things I love. The biggest problem is the way it defines backup sets -- what you're backing up -- which is not very flexible. When I wanted to back up everything on my main drive except for a certain kind of file, I found I couldn't do it. But what does work, works well -- I've kept rolling backups of my main drive for several months now, and it's saved my bacon more than a few times.
Also, Vista's backup function now has a feature people have demanded for a long time: a full-system backup and restore utility. I've used it and it does indeed "just work"-- all you need to do to restore the backup is boot the Vista CD and plug in whatever media you backed up to.
One other function in Vista which I've grown fond of is shadow copies -- the ability to revert to an earlier point in time for a particular file on a given drive without having to dig out a backup. Shadow copies do take up space on a drive, but Vista reserves space for shadow copies based on the total amount of available free space, and you can always erase old shadow copies if you don't feel you need them anymore. I don't believe Ubuntu has anything similar to it.
I should point out, however, that restoring shadow copies and the full-system backup and restore are only available in high-end editions of Vista. In Home Basic, for instance, you don't even have the ability to schedule automatic backups.
The Winner: A tie, but only because both platforms fall short in some ways. Vista's roster of backup features aren't available in every SKU of the product; Ubuntu doesn't have anything like Vista's shadow copy system and its user-friendly backup tools are pretty rudimentary.
So how do Ubuntu and Vista shape up against each other?
To be honest, there's a lot about Ubuntu that impresses me. The out-of-the-box software available with the OS is well-chosen, and the Ubuntu community folks have made a good effort to support the vast majority of the things people do with their PCs. The fact that Ubuntu is free is of course another big motivator, especially if you've already blown your budget for a PC on hardware alone.
But there's at least as much about Ubuntu that I find disheartening or frustrating. There are still too many places where you have to drop to a command line and type in a fairly unintuitive set of commands to get something done, or edit a config file, or -- worst of all -- download and compile source code. For a beginner, this last is the kiss of death, because if compiling code fails, a beginner will almost certainly have no idea what to do next.
To be scrupulously fair, the situation isn't always much better in Windows: Most people find the idea of spelunking the Registry to be about as unappealing -- although the Registry does enforce at least some degree of consistency in the way configuration data is stored.
What Do You Think? If you're a Windows user, are you considering Linux or is Vista still in your future? If you're a Linux user, do you think more individual users would be comfortable switching to an open-source operating system? Leave a comment at the InformationWeek Blog and let us know.
Another area where Ubuntu still needs improvement is documentation -- not just the online help manuals, but Ubuntu's own prompts and dialogs. Some of the wording in the installation texts assumes knowledge of Linux that might not be in evidence, and some things are so skimpily documented they scarcely seem to be present at all. For example, the entire section on printing in Ubuntu's online documentation for version 6.10 is essentially a link to LinuxPrinting.org and the Ubuntu Wiki Printer page. The user-prompt problem has been improved a bit since 6.10, but it's still something that needs continual attention. Ubuntu's user-contributed Wikis are often useful, but they're inconsistent in terms of what's covered and how, and they also often assume knowledge on the part of the reader which may simply not be there. By contrast, Vista's own plain-language documentation for many common system functions has been improved a great deal since XP, and they've implemented a system where contextual help can be supplemented with newer on-line material. (That and they've also made it easier to access the discussion groups used for peer-to-peer support.)
Ubuntu works best at handling the ordinary task-based day-to-day stuff, the kinds of applications that don't need a particular operating system to run well. Admittedly, the applications themselves aren't tied to any one OS anymore; you don't need Windows (or Linux) to run a good word processor, and you don't need Linux (or Windows) to have a good Web browser. Vista, on the other hand, has a level of completeness and polish in many small respects that some people find it hard to do without -- the way hardware devices are handled, for instance.
The very best thing about Ubuntu, in my opinion, is the fact that you can boot the CD and try it out in a totally non-destructive way. If you're curious about whether you can make a clean break (or at least a partial one) from the Windows world, burn yourself a copy of the CD, boot it, and try it out. Just remember that there's still a fair amount about Ubuntu that doesn't quite pass the Granny Test -- but they're working on it, and for some people they may have already passed it.
The Last Word: Ubuntu's best strength is handling the ordinary task-based day-to-day stuff. Vista has a level of completeness and polish that some people find it hard to do without.
- Serdar Yegulalp, Information Week
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