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Ubuntu Linux vs Windows Vista: The Battle for Your Desktop Is Linux finally ready to take on Windows as a desktop OS? An expert tried out both Vista and Ubuntu on individual PCs to see which works better. Here's who won.

The prevailing wisdom about Linux on the desktop runs something like this: "I'll believe Linux is ready for the desktop as soon as you can give me a Linux distribution that even my grandmother can run."

For some time, the folks at Ubuntu have been trying their best to make Granny -- and most everyone else -- happy. They've attempted to build a Linux distribution that's easy to install, use, configure, and maintain -- one that's at least as easy as Windows, and whenever possible, even easier. As a result, Ubuntu is one of the Linux distributions that has been most directly touted as an alternative to Windows.

In this feature, I'm going to compare the newly-released Ubuntu 7.04 (codenamed "Feisty Fawn") with Microsoft Windows Vista in a number of categories. To keep the playing field as level as possible, I'm looking wherever I can at applications -- not just in the sense of "programs," but in the sense of what the average user is going to do with the OS in a workday. Sometimes the differences between the two OSes are profound, but sometimes the playing field levels itself --, for instance, is installed by default in Ubuntu, but adding it to Vista isn't terribly difficult.

I tried to stick whenever possible with preinstalled software, although this rule sometimes had to be bent a little -- for instance, to see what backup solutions were available for Ubuntu through its own software catalog.

Also, while I was tempted to compare Vista's Aero interface to the Beryl window manager (which has a similar palette of visual effects), I decided that pretty graphics, while nice, had more to do with personal preference than efficiency. In addition, Beryl isn't installed by default in Ubuntu, and Aero isn't available on all PCs.

In each case, I've tried to look at practical benefits rather than theoretical ones -- what works, what doesn't, and what you have to do to get certain things done. I should also note that, despite being a big fan of Vista, I've tried to keep my enthusiasm for it from overriding my judgment. Everyone needs something different, and not everyone needs (or wants) Vista -- or Ubuntu -- so I've done my best to keep my mind, and my eyes, wide open.

Most people never have to deal with installing Windows on a new PC, since Windows typically comes as a preload. The few times you have to install it yourself, though, the whole thing needs to be as painless as possible. To that end, I installed both Ubuntu and Vista on three different test machines:

1. A Sony VAIO VGN-TX770P notebook computer, with 1GB RAM, an 80GB HD, and an Intel 915GM shared-memory integrated graphics controller.
2. A dual Opteron desktop computer with 2GB RAM, a 320GB HD, and an ATI Radeon 9550 graphics controller. (This is my day-to-day computer.)
3. A Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 session running on the desktop system, with 512MB RAM and a 16GB HD.

Vista and Ubuntu have roughly the same installation procedure. Pop in the installation disc, boot the computer, and run the setup process (which can take an hour or more). Both OSes let you manually choose disk partitioning schemes for an existing disk, or have the computer wipe everything down and sort things out.

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If you wanted to install Windows XP on a computer that used a mass-storage controller with no drivers available for it on the installation CD, you had to place the drivers on a floppy and go through a bit of rigmarole to get them working. Vista has improved this process enormously: You can read drivers needed for installation from any attached mass-storage device, like a USB drive.

This is particularly important in my case, since my desktop machine uses an integrated Silicon Image SiI3114 SATA RAID controller which has no drivers on the Vista setup DVD. I had to download the drivers from the manufacturer's Web site; once I did, I was able to provide them on a USB drive during Vista's setup routine. Ubuntu, however, detected the SiI3114 automatically at startup and had drivers ready for it. Other people haven't been as lucky, though: Folks who used the HighPoint HP370 controller under 6.10 had issues getting Ubuntu installed.

If you attempt to install Ubuntu on a system where Windows XP is present, the Ubuntu Migration Assistant will attempt to import your files and documents from your XP installation. IE settings, wallpapers, user avatars, and the contents of the My Documents / Music / Pictures folders can all be imported this way. Unfortunately, one key piece of the migration puzzle, e-mail (not just e-mail client settings, but the contents of one's e-mail), isn't fully supported yet. The Ubuntu people are working hard on it.

One of Ubuntu's biggest positives is its "live CD" mode. Boot the CD and you can run a full, working copy of Ubuntu directly from the CD without installing anything on the host computer. Obviously you won't get the full range of functionality possible with Ubuntu when you do this (you might not be able to persistently save files or settings, for instance), but you can get a very good feel for how things work without actually committing yourself completely to the OS.

You can also use this live-CD feature to perform system recovery to some extent. (Ubuntu 7.04 does have read/write support for NTFS partitions, although it doesn't support encrypted files or security groups.) The closest thing Vista has to something like this is the ability to install a full working version of the OS on a computer without a Vista license key, and to try it out for 30 days (extendable to 120).

Both operating systems include a few utilities on the CD itself. Ubuntu's install CD includes a self-test to determine if the disc has any burning errors and a memory test routine (the venerable Memtest86+). Vista includes a memory test as well, and the ability to restore the system from a backup, but no integrity check for the installation media -- for instance, if you downloaded and burned it as an .ISO from MSDN. You can also boot to a command prompt to do some basic recovery work -- get access to hard disks and CD/DVD drives, for instance.

Finally, I mentioned at the top of this section that most of us deal with Vista as a preload and will probably install Ubuntu manually. That said, it is possible to buy a computer through some PC vendors with Ubuntu preloaded. System76, for instance, offers Ubuntu 6.10 as a standard preload, and some of the other major vendors (Dell, for instance) are making noises that they might start offering some distribution of Linux as an option. It's not clear whether they'll offer Ubuntu, but it's one of the better candidates

The Winner: Ubuntu has a slight edge here, if only because it can be run directly from the CD and tried out non-destructively.

Hardware and PNP Support
Ubuntu makes it far easier to deal with hardware than previous, less user-friendly versions of Linux did, but only up to a point. The most common types of hardware and usage scenarios are handled the best, but the further you drift from that, the more complicated it gets. At its worst, Ubuntu's way of dealing with hardware often involves manual hacking to accomplish things that ought to be trivial (and in Windows usually are).

Vista's way of dealing with hardware is pretty centralized -- the Device Manager lets you browse all the installed hardware in a system, manage each device's driver and configuration, and so on. Ubuntu has a device manager, but it's just a static list, and can't be used for configuring devices per se. To do that, you often need to edit a configuration file, and the exact file to edit may depend on the type of device.

The way printers are handled in Ubuntu can also be tricky, but I think this part says at least as much about hardware makers as anything else. In my case, I was using the HP LaserJet 1000, which uses a non-standard protocol that had to be reverse-engineered by Linux users to make it useable in that OS. Ubuntu had drivers for it, but they didn't work -- I had to dig around in the Ubuntu wiki for information, then download and compile a properly-updated set of drivers before I could print. Vista, by contrast, simply used the existing XP drivers provided by Hewlett-Packard (since no Vista drivers are available).

I give the Ubuntu (and Linux) people points for completeness, but I have to retract them for the sheer aggravation required to get it working. To be scrupulously fair, a generic PostScript printer will typically work as-is, but those of us whose devices aren't that universally supported may have to go through a similar ordeal.

Generic Plug-and-Play (PnP) devices in Ubuntu fare a lot better, but there are still some shortcomings. Most devices like cameras, external hard drives, or storage cards are recognized as-is when you plug them in. Ubuntu also has a central interface for handling PnP device events: the Removable Drives and Media Preferences console. Here you can set behavior preferences for removable storage and CD/DVD discs, as well as many other classes of removable devices: cameras, PDAs, printers, scanners, and input devices.

However, it's not like Windows where you can pick a device type and then assign one of a number of predefined actions from a menu; each device action is just a reference to an executable. And the default action didn't always run: when I plugged in my scanner (a Canon CanoScan N1240U), the default scanning application, XSane, didn't launch. That said, I launched XSane manually and it identified the scanner immediately and worked fine with it. A Dell A920 multifunction printer (made by Lexmark), however, wasn't recognized by XSane at all -- so a lot of what is and isn't supported often comes down to how much information about the device is available or has been provided by the manufacturer.

Power management, in both Vista and Ubuntu, is another topic about which there's been plenty of controversy. I could name about as many people in both camps who have had power-management issues, and I could name about as many more who haven't, so I will simply describe my own experiences. With Ubuntu, suspend and resume, as well as hibernate and resume, did work on my notebook, albeit very slowly. In Vista, the same functions worked as well and took a great deal less time. My desktop would not enter sleep mode in Ubuntu, although it did hibernate; Vista, however, slept and woke up without a hitch. So I suspect people's mileage will vary across the board.

The Winner: On the whole, Windows still deals with hardware more elegantly and efficiently than Ubuntu.

Software Installation and Networking
Ubuntu has two basic ways to deal with adding software: the the Add/Remove Applications tool (easy) and the Synaptic Package Manager (for experts). Add/Remove Applications lets you search the entire directory of applications recommended for Ubuntu -- dozens of programs in 11 categories -- and install them with little effort. I added applications like Adobe Reader and the Thunderbird mail client without too much difficulty. It all compares pretty favorably to Windows's Add/Remove Programs system, which should be familiar to everyone reading this. (Linspire's CNR digital software delivery service is also set to be offered for Ubuntu in the future.)

Ubuntu also tries to simplify the process of adding programs that aren't installed through the above-mentioned package manager systems. For instance, if you insert a CD, Ubuntu attempts to detect the presence of valid packages on the disk, and offers you the chance to install them.

Another Windows-like feature in Ubuntu is the ability to set preferred applications for certain common functions -- your default Web browser, mail reader, or console application. Unlike the Removable Drives and Media Preferences console, though, the choices you can make are available from an existing drop-down list; you don't have to provide the name of a specific executable, although you can if you want to. Vista's way of handling the default programs issue is a little more central, via the Default Programs section in Control Panel; there, you can set defaults by program, file type, or protocol.

One thing I liked about Ubuntu was the way you could browse in the Add/Remove Applications list for free software hand-picked by the Ubuntu community. The closest thing in Vista is the Digital Locker feature, where you can purchase software online and download it in a protected fashion. In addition, a number of free / trial programs are available through their system (such as the free version of AVG Anti-Virus).

The Winner: It's a tie. Both operating systems show much the same centralization and efficiency in dealing with applications, protocols, and programs.

Networking / Web Browsing / E-Mail
Network setup in Ubuntu, both wired and wireless, was quite easy. My notebook's wireless adapter was detected and worked fine; all I had to do was supply my network name and I was in business. One thing that did worry me was how my unconfigured wireless card seemed to try and seek out whatever available connection there was without notifying me -- at first it attempted to connect to a neighbor's unsecured wireless base station before I redirected it back towards my own.

Both Vista and Ubuntu also let you create network profiles, although the way they're managed is markedly different. Ubuntu only lets you switch between profiles manually; Vista is semi-automatic (it makes a best guess to determine where you are), but can be manually overridden. Network connection sharing, though, is much harder to set up in Ubuntu than it is in Vista, since there's no GUI interface in Ubuntu for doing such a thing. I was able to connect to Vista's shared folders from Ubuntu, but you need to do so via a username/password combination that's valid on the Vista system you're trying to access.

Web browsing is another area where the playing field is relatively level between operating systems, thanks to the general success of Firefox. Firefox is loaded as the default browser in Ubuntu, and if you don't like Internet Explorer in Vista, you can swap it out for Firefox (or most any other browser written for Windows). The behavior of Firefox on both platforms is remarkably similar; in fact, I was able to get support for Flash plugins in Ubuntu by simply pointing Firefox at a Flash-driven page and letting it download the needed components.

Ubuntu's default e-mail client is Evolution, which connects not only to POP accounts and conventional Unix mailboxes, but can also talk to Exchange servers (via Outlook Web Access) and has a built-in PIM / calendaring / appointment system. Vista's Windows Mail application is a heavily rewritten version of Outlook Express, with a stripped-down calendar/appointment application, Windows Calendar, on the side, and integration with Vista's search system (see below for more on that). If you want more sophisticated calendaring or a full PIM, you'd need to upgrade to Outlook -- so Ubuntu has another edge here in terms of what's possible right out of the box.

One thing I did have a fair amount of trouble with on both platforms was importing mail from another program -- especially e-mail from Windows. Evolution was allegedly able to import a .CSV mail file exported from Outlook, but the import somehow ended up reading everything as contacts, not e-mail. I eventually used a third-party program called Outport to move e-mail from Outlook into Evolution -- with some limitations, so I'm not sure if the problem lies with Outlook's CSV export or Evolution's importing.

Microsoft Mail had its own share of problems: The only way to import e-mail from a file was by importing from an Outlook Express store directory, or from a copy of Outlook already installed on Windows. If you have existing e-mail stores, be prepared for a migration hassle in both cases.

The Winner: Windows, but only by a hair. Windows has a bit of an edge in terms of sharing network connections -- but both platforms have possible mail migration complexities.

Word Processing and Search
The widely-touted suite is installed with Ubuntu by default. OpenOffice's strongest points are that it provides many of the features of Office ( if not the latest-and-greatest features) without the price tag. Most of the problems that people have reported with OpenOffice involve translating existing Office documents that have a lot of complex elements in them.

To that end, if you're considering moving to OpenOffice from Office and working with existing files, make sure the documents you want to work with can be read first. I tried a variety of documents exported from Word 2003 and had no trouble opening and re-saving them in OpenOffice's native formats, although admittedly they weren't very complex.

One other thing that Office migrants might need to be aware of is some slight behavioral differences in OpenOffice. For instance, in Word, the default action for the Ctrl+Up Arrow / Down Arrow key is to move the cursor up or down a paragraph. In OpenOffice, it moves the current paragraph up or down. Granted, this can be changed, but it means that much more retraining. I also toggled off some of OpenOffice's other default features, like the function that attempts to automatically guess what word you're typing and suggest a possible completion for it -- it's more annoying than handy for someone like me.

On the Vista side, it's not hard to add OpenOffice manually -- especially since the only word-processing program that comes with Vista is the relatively feeble WordPad, which hasn't been updated in any significant way for years. It's suitable for only the most basic of word processing tasks. I've wondered for a while why Microsoft doesn't just include Word 97 or one of the other out-of-support-lifetime versions of Word as an installable freebie with Windows. I also hardly need to mention that the full version of Word (or Office) is a major expense.

The Winner: Ubuntu, because it comes with OpenOffice -- although that can be added to Windows easily enough.

Indexing / Search
A criticism that's been leveled at Vista is that the indexed search system is not really exclusive to Vista, and that it's been possible to do the same thing in XP by adding easily-available third-party software. True, but with Vista you don't have to do that; it's shipped with the OS; and the search function is integrated with the OS in many useful ways.

I can't count the number of times I've used Vista's integrated search to look for something I knew was somewhere in my mess of mail or documents, and I usually had what I was looking for in seconds. The other great thing about this feature is that it's a framework onto which other applications can build: Adobe Acrobat, for instance, can register PDFs as a searchable document type with the system. Searches can be saved and reused, and files synchronized for offline storage can be added to the index.

Ubuntu's indexed search system, called Desktop Search (it actually uses the Beagle search engine), is not installed by default but can be easily added through the program manager. Once installed, it augments the Ubuntu's default search function, and indexes and searches a fairly broad range of document types. The indexing includes metadata (i.e., ID3 tags or image tags) and the results come up quite fast.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find out how far along the indexer is (i.e., whether or not the search you're conducting is incomplete) without dropping to a command line. Also, one thing I missed in Ubuntu -- and which was in Vista from the git-go -- was the ability to edit or examine a file's extended metadata directly in the shell, and that metadata is a big part of how I find things with the file system.

I'm willing to concede that not everyone will use or get the most out of Vista's native search system, but those who do (me included) will find it hard to live without once they've gotten used to it. Ubuntu's version of this is also quite impressive and useable, though.

The Winner: Vista, for having its search function integrated from the ground up through the shell and the OS.

Multimedia and Image Management

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 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

(c) 2000-2007 CMP Media LLC. All rights reserved.

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