Tuesday, March 15, 2011

10 reasons why Ubuntu is better than Windows

It's been decades (two, actually) since operating systems based upon GNU and Linux started hitting the desktop, but early on the systems developed a reputation for being friendly only to geeks and those willing to invest time and effort into setting them up and learning how to use them.

As interest grew, so did the number of people working on it, and eventually Canonical picked up the popular Debian GNU/Linux system, cleaned it up, packaged it, and started work on turning it into the operating system for everyone.

I've said a few times that I believe Ubuntu is more functional and usable than Windows. But there are caveats. Ubuntu has yet to make much of an impact in the enterprise due to its lack of working integration with enterprise networks. But, for the rest of us, it's a great system. What makes it great?

1. Better hardware support

A quick review of the system requirements for both XP and Windows 7, vs Ubuntu, shows that Windows, not Ubuntu, is the one you really can't be sure will work on the computers you own.

This is a stunning turn of events - only a few years ago, the complete opposite was true! This has happened mostly because of two things: the relative efficiency of Ubuntu, and the community of relentless developers behind it who have been determined to make sure operating systems that use the Linux kernel will work on everything they own.

To be sure, there are limitations: PCs less than a year old frequently have problems with Ubuntu, but even there, many manufacturers are making sure their machines can run Ubuntu out of the box, because it's a platform they want to offer. Typically, a customized version of the system will be released with the computer, and the customizations will make it into the next official release of the operating system.

2. No crapware

Microsoft has been busy trying to prevent manufacturers from destroying their operating systems by bundling "free" software that slows everything down and makes it a pain to use. But the closed nature of Windows and the necessity to get around it means that's never going to happen. Most of us who have a Windows computer can see, just in our notifications bar, a long list of icons for applications we don't want or need, that have the annoying habit of popping up unexpectedly. And when our computers freeze unexpectedly or crawl, we're left wondering what we have to uninstall or switch off.

Not so Ubuntu. With a clean desktop out of the box, a community of developers willing to make vastly better software than any that a manufacturer might bundle - from video drivers to PDF viewers, and with the option available to download - for free - a completely untainted copy of the operating system if you're unfortunate enough to be given a machine with this garbage pre-installed, you never have to worry about software you don't want.

3. Great software, at no extra charge

Ubuntu comes with the best software already integrated and packaged. From OpenOffice.org to Firefox, the FOSS communities have released some superb productivity software over the years, and you don't have to do anything to get it, which brings us to...

4. The App Store before the App Store

You remember how awesome that Android Market thing seemed to be on your Android phone? Just use it to select the software you want and it'd take care of everything else. And if you didn't want a program any more, it'd take care of getting rid of it, without any trouble?

You probably thought the Android Market was copied from Apple or something. After all, Apple has an "App Store", and everyone's always claiming that Android is a clone of iOS.

Well, big surprise: The Android Market is based not on the Apple way of doing things at all, but the way the GNU and Linux does things and Apple's App Store, if anything, is a poor copy of that, not the other way around.

In Debian, the way to download and install software was through something called a package manager. The package manager would keep track of all of the resources a program needed and used, and if you ever decided you didn't want it any more, it would get rid of everything except those components you specifically asked for or still need. And that system is still in Ubuntu, both in its raw Debian form, called "APT", and a cleaned, polished, version called the Ubuntu Software Center, that runs over the top of APT.

What's the difference between the Ubuntu way and Windows? In Windows, you're at the mercy of the application itself to manage its own installation and removal. If the authors of the application decided they just didn't want to spend the time on helping users remove their own software, then tough, you can't install it. And even those applications that do include their own removal scripts very often have bugs that leave large quantities of their code behind.

To be fair, only applications approved by Canonical can be put in the Ubuntu Software Center, but to get around that there is a system called DPKG. When you download a file whose name ends in .DEB, you can install the software within it just by opening the file and giving your administrator password. When it's time to remove the application, you can use the standard tools to remove it, without being at the mercy of the application's developers.

Easy. It "just works". No wonder Apple is trying to copy it!

5. It's friendlier

No, really, it is! Compare a Ubuntu environment to Windows in real life, spend a few days using both, and you'll see what I mean. Both operating systems give you a cleanish desktop with integrated file manager, and a way to launch applications, but should you need to change anything, from connect to a wireless network to configure your email, the differences can be astonishing. Here's a few ways in which Ubuntu is easier, chosen because they demonstrate the philosophy:
  • On the Windows "Start" menu, applications are organized by software vendor. On the Ubuntu "Applications" menu, applications are organized by function.
  • Configuring email in Windows involves making sure you have the right client installed. When you run it for the first time, it will generally help you set up email, but if you change anything you'll be given a maze of "settings", "preferences", "information", "properties", and other dialogs to fathom as you try to work out where to go. In Ubuntu, the Evolution email client is already installed, setting up email for the first time is a matter of clicking on the envelope and selecting "Set up mail". Need to make changes or add accounts? Go to Edit->Preferences, and there are your accounts, in one place with all the other settings. And if you can't find that, it's also in System->Preferences->EMail settings
  • The scroll bar works. No seriously! You know how Windows has a bug in it that means that if you drift too far from the scroll bar (which you're going to do if you do a lot of scrolling), it'll "snap" back to where it was? Ubuntu doesn't contain that bug! There's a lot of garbage in Windows that makes you think "What were they thinking?!"; Ubuntu doesn't hang on to ridiculous ideas just because someone did it in the past.
  • I mentioned the Ubuntu Software Center earlier. Ubuntu also handles all updates for all installed applications by itself, using a centralized "Update Manager" tool. All of the software installed using Ubuntu Software Center is supported directly, and applications you download outside of USC can also register with it to make their updates available too. It's one place for all updates - no more mysterious dialogs from Java, Adobe, and your virus scanner, popping up when you least want it.
I've never met anyone who had problems using a Ubuntu desktop, no matter what their skill level was. I can't say the same about Windows!

6. It's fast

Part of what makes Ubuntu a pleasure is that even on machines with relatively little RAM, Ubuntu is optimized for speed. Much of this has to do with the lack of anything installed or running that you really don't need. And much has to do with the community of developers who work tirelessly on optimizing the system for every possible hardware configuration they see people wanting to use.

7. It's more functional

With GNU/Linux's Unix inspired origins, software has been developed for the platform since the mid-seventies, and much of the Internet was built on the frameworks Ubuntu is based upon. With the world moving over to the Internet, you can imagine that Unix-inspired operating systems are coming into their own, and Ubuntu is benefiting from that movement.

Ubuntu also benefits from a massive community of developers who want their system to be more functional than the proprietary competition, and over the years we've seen that come to fruition, with a mix of software clearly inspired by proprietary designs (Evolution, for example, is a great alternative to Microsoft Outlook, and Rhythmbox is a great alternative to iTunes), to software you just will not find anywhere else, including MPlayer, and the GIMP.

By themselves, this mix of tools would be good, but not enough to overcome to volume of applications available for Windows, but Ubuntu, through its Unix origins, adds an extraordinary command line environment that makes it easy to perform amazingly sophisticated tricks using collections of much smaller tools. And Ubuntu has those tools. While some like FFMPEG have been ported to Windows, they're still more functional under Ubuntu because they can be scripted in ways that Windows users can only dream about. There are some fantastic utilities you can throw in the mix, including a remote shell environment, that I'll get to in a moment, that means you can do extraordinary things over a network merely because the command line itself is this sophisticated.

Talking of which...

8. It's the Network

As I noted above, Unix, the platform Ubuntu is ultimately inspired by, was the system used to build the Internet. As you might imagine then, Ubuntu is a great networker. Let's cover some of the ways Ubuntu is network ready:

Ubuntu supports an amazing remote access system called ssh. ssh allows you to make connections to other machines that are encrypted and that can use authentication schemes not possible under telnet. But replacing "telnet" barely covers what ssh can do. ssh can be used as a wrapper for other services, allowing you to gain full access to a computer if you're authorized to use it. Want to transfer files? ssh will do it. Want to set up a tunnel so you can connect back to a machine hidden behind NAT? ssh will do it. Want to access that machine's desktop (via VNC)? ssh will do that too.

ssh is like a swiss army knife of network access tools. You can even use it to mount other computer's file systems (via a tool called sshfs.) And unlike the Windows equivalents, it's secure - if you're an admin you can let users use it, knowing that hackers will not find it significantly easier to hack into your computers if it's enabled.

Ubuntu also has available servers to implement almost any network protocol, and clients to test and debug virtually any network protocol. Want to implement an LDAP server? Just install it via the Ubuntu Software Center, and find some tools in the same place to manage it. Need to provide email, and don't want to build a separate server or outsource it to the cloud? IMAP servers are available to install at the click of a button. Ubuntu doesn't just support these servers, they're - in most cases - the industry standard implementations.

9. It's FREE

It might sound obvious to you, but "free" has advantages all in itself:
  • You don't have to worry about upgrading to the latest version, because that's free too. You're not on an upgrade treadmill having to hand over cash every year.
  • You don't have to worry about licence keys. If you have to re-install the operating system for any reason, you can just download a copy over the Internet, there's no need to hunt for the manufacturer's customized Windows install disks to ensure your OEM key will work.
  • The different versions of Ubuntu are based on use, not ability to pay. The Netbook version is optimized for netbooks, using a netbook sized screen. The desktop version has all the desktop tools you'd want, and the server version contains as little as possible, so that there's nothing to impede the applications that run on it. With Windows, the editions are based on ability to pay, and in some cases the operating systems are suboptimal because Microsoft needs to justify you, for example, paying more for a server operating system than a desktop system. With Ubuntu, install the best available to you, there's no reason not to.
  • There's no need to worry about legalities. Licensing is so much easier in the free software/open source world, when you know that you have a right to install and use any software you have a copy of.

10. It's OPEN

I said this about Android, but I'll say it again: Ubuntu is so much better because it's open. It has an enormous community of developers working on making it better - faster, more powerful, and easier to use. And when Canonical wants to do something they see as better for their users than the things others in the community are doing, they can go their own way, because the technologies they're building their system upon are also open.

What other reasons can you think of for using Ubuntu over Windows? Or do you prefer Windows? Let me know below!


  1. Actually I consider that scroll bar 'bug' a feature. I use it all the time when I want to scroll around looking for something and still be able to come right back to where I was in the document without having to hunt.

    1. Me too. It's annoying how Ubuntu misses this important feature. At first I thought there is probably a different way to cancel a scroll action. For example pressing escape or the second mouse button or anything like that. But now I've come to the conclusion that the original position isn't saved at all.