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Reviewer finds Ubuntu good, but not good enough
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 3, 2006)

I can understand why many people love Ubuntu and its KDE-interfaced brother, Kubuntu. However, neither one is a perfect fit for me.

First, the good news: although they go by different names, there's really no fundamental difference between the Ubuntu brothers.

Ubuntu uses the GNOME interface, while Kubuntu uses KDE. Specifically, the newest version, Ubuntu 5.10, also known as Breezy Badger, is a Debian-based Linux distribution. On the GNOME side, Ubuntu uses The GNOME Project's GNOME 2.12, while Kubuntu uses KDE 3.4.3.

In short, you simply choose your interface, and you don't have to worry about the rest. Kubuntu 5.10, which is the one I worked with the most, can also be upgraded to KDE 3.5.

Package upgrading and management

The method you use to upgrade either one is a bit different. If you're using Ubuntu, you'll be using Synaptic. This is a graphical package management program for Debian's package management program apt. On Kubuntu, you'll be using Adept, which does the same job.

The name of the game is the same with both: They provide an almost mindlessly simple GUI front end to the apt-get program, so you can easily get both new programs and any and all updates for these programs.

People like to yak about how easy it is to download and install new programs and patches to Windows and its programs. Ha! With either Synaptic or Adept, you can get new programs and upgrade every program on your system with a couple of clicks.

Once the applications are in place, getting to the most commonly used applications is easy. Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org, and all your other favorite open-source applications are either already on, or can be quickly added to, the Kubuntu menu.

The applications, though, are a little behind the times. Firefox, which I downloaded in late December, for example, is only version 1.07, instead of 1.5.

Still, as my comrades over at eWEEK Labs observed in their Ubuntu 5.1 review recently, "Except for Debian, from which Ubuntu inherits its software catalog riches, Ubuntu 5.10 boasts more ready-to-install packages than any other distribution."

All of Debian's packaged goodies

And, for those in the know, one of Kubuntu's attractions has also been that it has all of Debian's goodies -- except they come out with release versions much more often than the very slow-moving Debian Project crew.

The Linux kernel powering up the distribution is as new as almost anyone could wish. It's running 2.6.12.

If anything, though, the interface is a little too easy.

One of my gripes about Kubuntu is when you want to get your hands on the command-line controls. Maybe everyone doesn't want a Linux distribution that has a default terminal window at the top interface, but I do.

A root-level problem

In addition, as it comes, Kubuntu doesn't let you run as the root user. Instead, to run most root-level commands, you need to use sudo.

Sudo, for those who don't know it, stands for "Switch User DO." It lets you, for a single command, run as some other user. On Kubuntu, you use it to run any root command.

So, for example, if I want to work on system configuration files, I'd run:
    sudo konqueror
and now, no file on my computer is safe from being deleted, moved, or copied.

On Kubuntu, you must also enter your password before you can run the command, not the user password.

The logic behind using sudo -- instead of just letting you log in as root or at least letting you run as root using the su (switch user) command -- is that it's a bit safer than letting users log in as root.

I don't agree with that school of thought. Hackers can play tricks with sudo almost as easily as they can with root.

In the meantime, when you have a user who really needs to be root -- say myself, for example -- it can be a real pain. When you're putting the Drupal CMS (content management system) together, for instance, and I have to enter my password every single time I want to work on MySQL, Apache, Drupal, or PHP configuration files, it gets a little old.

I prefer other ways of handling the problem. For example, I like how Novell does it with YaST, SUSE's graphical administration program. In YaST, when you need to do something that requires root power, you're prompted for the root password. Then, when you're done with the job of the minute, you're automatically logged out again.

Of course, you could do it the way Windows does, where the default user is the system administrator (aka root), but we all know the kind of security trouble that causes.

Putting Kubuntu to work

I'm currently running Kubuntu for my blogging Web server project on an older HP a250n.

This computer comes with a 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 processor. This chip's main claim to fame was that it was the first Pentium 4 to support an 800 MHz front-side bus. For graphics it uses an NVidia GeForce4 MX 440 AGP graphics board with 64MB of DDR memory.

This is all pretty ordinary stuff, but even so, I found that Kubuntu can do some very, very odd things with the graphics systems.

After using the system for several days, I rebooted it one day, only to find that my resolution was suddenly permanently stuck at 640 x 480.

To make a long story short, the heretofore friendly system settings interface now only displayed 640 x 480 and the hitherto never-seen-by-me-anyway 320 x 240 resolution. I finally fixed the problem by running
    sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg
and essentially reconfiguring the X-Window system behind the interface by hand.

Since there's a detailed "How-To" on doing this on the Ubuntu site, I suspect I'm not the only one to have run into this problem.

I'm not at all sure where the problem emanates, since I've never ran into anything remotely like it on other Debian-based Linuxes, such as Xandros or SimplyMEPIS.

The bottom line

My test box also has 512 MB of dual-channel DDR SDRAM, a 120 GB Ultra DMA hard drive, a Fast Ethernet NIC, and DVD and CD drives.

It's no hot rod, but Kubuntu ran well on it.

Still, when I get down to it, I find other Linux distributions like SUSE Linux 10 and Xandros 3.0 to be better desktops. As an experienced Linux user, I appreciate that they give me easy access to the kind of control I want to have over any of my systems.

For a new user, I also still find MEPISLite or SimplyMEPIS easier to approach. For my money, I also think that the best introduction to Linux is still Robin Miller's Point & Click Linux!, which comes with a copy of SimplyMEPIS.

Finally, Kubuntu, as I'm finding as I fight my way toward a Web server, really isn't a server distribution. You can try to make it into one, which is what I've been doing, but with distributions like OpenSUSE, why bother?

Better still, of course, would be to use SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) or the like. But Kubuntu, like OpenSUSE, is free, which SLES certainly is not.

So, while Kubuntu may not be for me, with a zero price tag and as much free software as one could possibly ever want a mouse-click away, it certainly is worth a look from anyone who's serious about giving Linux a try.



About the author: Ziff Davis Internet senior editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about technology and business since the late '80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.



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