XP or Ubuntu?
December 22, 2007 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Help me decide whether to downgrade to XP Pro or move to Ubuntu from Vista.

I tried to give Vista a fair shot, but I can't take it anymore.

I have a Dell Dimension C521 Desktop, 1GB RAM, AMD Athlon 64 2.40GHz.

I'm wanting to try Ubuntu but I'm pretty much clueless when it comes to Linux, I've been wanting to change that. Knowing that, would it be better to stick with XP or is Ubuntu easy enough to use that I will be okay after the initial adjustment? Pros and cons?

Also, I would be downloading Ubuntu, would it work okay if I burned it with something like CloneCD and used it as a boot disc? Or no?

Oh also I'd be using this computer for general surfing, emailing, little to no gaming. Also, my internet is wired, not wireless and I don't have any weird peripherals that would require specific drivers. Sorry if I'm leaving anything out here!
posted by heavenstobetsy to Technology (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh also, I understand there are different builds of Ubuntu, is one maybe more appropriate for what I'm looking for than another?
posted by heavenstobetsy at 5:44 PM on December 22, 2007

Ubuntu is quite easy to use. You can download an ISO and burn it straight to CD and it will become a bootable 'liveCD'. You can run Ubuntu from the CD and poke around to see if you like it; if so, you can proceed to the installation, which is dead easy. Just get the latest release.

For 'general stuff' like what you describe Ubuntu will be fine. I would say it is no harder to use than XP (for day to day tasks) and the amount of software that is available for free and which can be downloaded and installed through the included package manager is a nice change from a Windows environment. You won't need to pirate anything!

You will probably find faster performance with XP but you will also accumulate cruft faster which will eventually slow you down. You may have to get used to different media players, but using Amarok for Ubuntu has been a better experience than anything I've had on Windows, once I got used to it. Even worked with my iPod perfectly.

I would say the only compelling reason to remain with XP is if there is software you need to use, such as Photoshop, that is not available in Ubuntu. Also if you deal with some of the more advanced features of MS Office, you may find that OpenOffice, the free alternative that Ubuntu comes with, isn't always perfect at importing and exporting MS documents. If these aren't issues for you, give it a try!
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:58 PM on December 22, 2007

As a longtime linux user, my vote goes for Ubuntu. You should be just fine with the most recent release (as of this writing that is 7.10, aka "Gutsy Gibbon"). Simply download the LiveCD iso image and burn, then boot from that CD.

From experience (I also own an Athlon 64-based machine) I would stay away from the 64-bit version of Ubuntu, due to incompatibilities with legacy software (mainly the flash plugin for firefox, and some video codecs). So the standard Ubuntu install CD is the way to go.

If you need some (direct) help, feel free to contact me via mefi mail - always happy to help a new free software user.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:02 PM on December 22, 2007

Well, you can try Ubuntu entirely for free. If it doesn't work out for you, then you can switch to XP. Pretty simple. All you're investing is your time, and you kinda want to do that anyway. Just download it, burn it, (CloneCD should be fine), and boot from it. It'll run slow, because it's coming from CD, but will otherwise be just like it would on a normal boot. If everything seems to be configured properly, you can install right from there and keep playing with it while it installs.

Overall, it's a perfectly functional desktop with lots of neat features. You can live there happily, given your requirements. But getting it going can sometimes be tricky. Much of the time, you just download, burn, boot, and go. But if you run into problems, sorting them out can be very frustrating. If you don't already know Linux, it can be hard to get a handle on where to start troubleshooting. The Ubuntu forums tend to be quite good, and of course you have AskMe available, but smooth sailing is not guaranteed. As long as you understand that Linux still has a definite air of DIY to it, and that you may have to invest time to bend it to your will, you should be fine.

One thing that worries me a bit is that you may have ATI graphics, which aren't that well-supported yet in Linux. It's getting much better, and within the next six months or so, I imagine you'll see pretty stable open source drivers for ATI hardware. (ATI just opened up their tech specs, allowing drivers to be written.) But they're not all that great at the moment.

Confusingly, the tech specs on the 521 seem to indicate that you have BOTH NVidia AND ATI. If that's true, the NVidia video will probably be better supported now, so if you have an option on install, choose NVidia graphics. If you install the non-open-source official NVidia drivers, you'll usually get the best speed. NVidia's Linux driver support is excellent... it's just closed-source, which drives the zealots mad.

If you can get your hardware working properly, which seems reasonably likely, I imagine you'll be perfectly happy with it. You can't buy off-the-shelf programs for it, but there's a wealth of free stuff out there, just a point and click away.

One thing you can be very certain of with open source, which isn't true of commercial OSes: the programmers absolutely have your benefit in mind 100%. It's totally about making your life better. You will find nothing that locks you out of your own machine (like Vista's DRM), or anything anti-competitive (like Apple's lock-in of iTunes and iPods). The polish in open source stuff is often lacking, but the functionality is usually there, and there are no hidden gotchas.

Nobody is using that code as a weapon to extract money from you. I find that very relaxing.

On preview: 7.10 is the most recent stable version.. just stick with that for now. The desktop versions are supported for 18 months, meaning you'll need to upgrade every year and a half. If you go with one of the LTS versions, it will usually last longer, but right now the only desktop LTS will expire at about the same time as the more current 7.10. So I'd just run regular desktop 7.10.

(and upgrades are usually pretty painless; you adjust your update sources to point to the new release, and run 'update-manager'. Everything from there is mostly automated. But you DO have to do this every year and a half to stay secure.)
posted by Malor at 6:08 PM on December 22, 2007

Ubuntu is a livecd, meaning you can boot to it from the CD without touching your hard disk. This is a great way to test things to make sure everything works before committing to a hard disk install. I would encourage you to download the ISO from ubuntu.com, burn it with CloneCD and boot to it. If you don't like it or there's a hardware problem, just reboot, eject the CD and you're right back in Vista. You shouldn't judge Ubuntu's performance too harshly when using the live cd, as load times are greatly improved after a hard disk installation.

You should get the latest stable version, currently 7.10. You'll also want the 64bit version.

Gaming will probably leave much to be desired, but there are literally hundreds of free small, solitaire like games that will keep you entertained. There are some commercial games available, but it's hit and miss.

If you use firefox and a web based email provider (gmail, hotmail, etc) you will have few problem switching to ubuntu.

Good luck!
posted by _aa_ at 6:11 PM on December 22, 2007

If all you do on your computer is web browsing and email, why are you unhappy with Vista?

Installing Ubuntu is not too difficult, and there is a large user community. If you've never tried Linux before, Ubuntu is the best place to start. I would agree with the other recommedation not to use the 64bit version. You would get a little more performance, but it's not worth the compatibility headaches if you've never used Linux before.
posted by demiurge at 6:27 PM on December 22, 2007

Ubuntu might work for you. It might not. But it's certainly worth trying.

Download the 7.10 Desktop cd image (aka Gutsy Gibbon). Burn it to CD. Boot your system with it in the drive, and you'll have a rudimentary Ubuntu desktop in front of you. If everything looks OK (it found your video card and such), go ahead and install it. For the cost of a blank CD, and some of your time, you can find out if you like it.

Strangers on the Internet can tell you that Ubuntu is definitely going to feel faster than Vista on your hardware, and that it's probably suitable for what you want to use your computer for. But we can't tell you whether you'd enjoy using it. For that, you've got to use it -- regularly, for at least a couple of weeks (you say that you gave Vista a fair shot... do the same for Ubuntu.

If you decide you don't like the Linux experience, you can always delete it and install XP -- you won't have spent anything but time.
posted by toxic at 6:30 PM on December 22, 2007

why are you unhappy with Vista?

The OP's got one gig of RAM (some of which is owned by her video hardware). This used to be plenty in a Windows environment. But Vista doesn't really come alive until you stuff at least another gig in there. If "Browsing and Email" means "A few windows with a few tabs each" and Outlook/Outlook Express with about 1000 messages in my box, Vista will seem astonishingly sluggish with 1G of memory.
posted by toxic at 6:40 PM on December 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd third the recommendation to stick with 32-bit Linux. It's debatable whether you'd actually see any performance benefit at all with the 64-bit version in desktop use, and in any case it's definitely not, in my opinion, worth the potential compatibility headaches.

Otherwise, basically what everyone else said; in this particular forum, most people are going to push Ubuntu, myself included. One thing I haven't seen mentioned is Xubuntu, a version of Ubuntu which uses the Xfce desktop environment (standard Ubuntu uses GNOME). Xfce is intended to be more lightweight and faster than GNOME, and you may prefer it depending on your tastes.
posted by enn at 6:44 PM on December 22, 2007

I also "upgraded" to vista. Now while I don't see why people really have a lot of problems with it I decided to dual boot Vista and Ubuntu. This was my first go ahead with Ubuntu and had heard good things about it. Installing it was pretty easy although I did have some problems but I guess thats because I have on of the harder computers to install on (HP laptop) There are some things your going to run into is if you have any restricted drivers that was my major problem.

Ive been using Ubuntu for about 4 months now and its been pretty smooth going. If I ever had a problem I would post on the Ubuntu Forums and they were always quick to respond and help even when I had really stupid questions, so that was one main point for me to stick with Ubuntu. So if you ever have any problems they are easily fixed and theres plenty of help.
posted by lilkeith07 at 7:05 PM on December 22, 2007

Vista works better with Intel than AMD. I have Centrino Duo and Vista Home Premium. It's flawless and looks great.
posted by wfc123 at 7:50 PM on December 22, 2007

I went from XP to Ubuntu and I never looked back. I had a relatively old box (PIII, 512mb RAM, 800mhz) and Ubuntu worked just fine on it, although it was a little slow after a few months of adding applications and playing around. If I had it to do over again I'd probably go with Xubuntu. XFCE is a fun and lightweight DE but the default GNOME environment that comes with Ubuntu is more intuitive to someone coming from Windows, I think, and your system shouldn't have any problems handling it. Everything worked right out of the box and I had very few problems. There was still a learning curve involved. Ubuntu is designed to "just work" but you're going to have to get familiar with the command line to take advantage of everything it offers. I found it a ton of fun, actually.

Pros and cons?

Pros: Fun if you're into learning the ins and outs of your system and the Linux way while still having an intuitive and nice looking desktop that "just works." Large package repository and the apt-get package management system, which makes it easy to install new apps and keep your system updated. Good security. Stability. I didn't have a ton of problems with Windows but I still found Ubuntu to be much more solid. It just sits there and hums along happily.

Cons: As comprehensive as the basic install and repos are, there are still probably going to be times when you find yourself wanting an application that has to be compiled from source. This is not as difficult as it seems but it takes time to learn the best ways to go about things. The Ubuntu Forums are a BIG help when it comes to stuff like this. I have found that, like Windows, Ubuntu has a tendency to slow down a little over time but my box was a lot weaker than yours so you might not have that problem. Even though you're not a gamer (neither am I - one of the things that made switching a much easier decision) there might be occasions when you want to use an application that is Windows only and no good open source equivalents can be found. You can run many under Wine but it can sometimes be a headache to get things working right. Still, lots of programs do run smoothly under Wine. Check the database.

And of course, the biggest con (?) of all - you get completely hooked on Linux and end up trying out every distro you can just to see if you can get it working and your computer starts sucking up more and more of your time. :)

Tips: look into EasyUbuntu and Automatix- scripts that will make your life easier post-install.
posted by LeeJay at 8:10 PM on December 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

A little off-topic, but I had no idea Vista was THAT memory-hoggish. I have a mix of Macs and XP boxes (almost all of them 1Gb exactly; some of the Macs are 512Mb) and they all perform very well even in my "power surfer" mode of 40 tabs and six other programs running.

Is Vista THAT much slower than XP or OSX in the same RAM config? If so:

(a) the OP might want to try 2Gb (?) of RAM before giving up on Vista and
(b) I'm definitely sticking with XP, thank you MeFi!
posted by rokusan at 8:54 PM on December 22, 2007

Try Ubuntu first, for all the reasons described above.

If you're going to completely blow away your current Vista environment and install Ubuntu fresh, I'd recommend partitioning your disk by hand during the Ubuntu install instead of using one of the "guided" automatic options. Make four partitions, in this order: A 20GB ext3 partition to be mounted as /, a 1GB swap partition, a 200GB ext3 partition to be mounted as /home, and finally a 29GB NTFS partition to be mounted as /home/windows.

Having separate partitions for / and /home means that if you want to mess with multiple distros (or even with multiple versions of Ubuntu), you can back up the entirety of / into some subfolder of /home, then blow it away completely and install a different distro or version in there, without messing up any of your own files in /home.

Putting the swap partition near the start of the disk drive maximizes its transfer rate, and physically positioning it between / and /home is a pretty good compromise to minimize seek delays.

Having a /home/windows partition available, formatted NTFS, and unused at the end of the disk makes it easy to set up a dual-boot Ubuntu/XP box if you want to do that, or to destroy that partition later and extend /home out to fill the space it used to occupy.

If you want XP for occasional gaming, doing a native install of it onto its own partition is your best bet. If you want it to run non-gaming Windows apps in, though, you don't need a separate partition - just install VMware Player into Ubuntu, and install XP inside a virtual machine.

And by the way: moving to XP from Vista, given the present states of both systems, is technically an upgrade :-)
posted by flabdablet at 9:13 PM on December 22, 2007 [6 favorites]

One final thought: after using Windows, doing your work in an environment where spyware and viruses are simply not an issue is a breath of fresh air.
posted by flabdablet at 9:15 PM on December 22, 2007

Yeah, try out Ubuntu. The only reason I'm still using a Windows machine is because I play games. If you're not going to do much gaming, no reason not to eliminate Microsoft from your life completely.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:16 PM on December 22, 2007

I've said it before and I'll say it again: these are Interesting Times for the Beast of Redmond, because it's the first time they've ever pushed out a new operating system into a marketplace containing a free (as in beer and speech) competitor that is easier to install and less hassle to use.

I fix a lot of broken Windows installations around the town where I live. Some of them, mainly those where the parents are relatively tech-clueless and the 15-year-old house male is the default sysadmin, are just irretrievably broken wastelands - no matter how well or often I go round there and clean them up, they will be loaded down with adware and keyloggers and Christ knows what again next time I visit. So in those households where the parents want to be able to do stuff like Internet banking without worrying about having their accounts randomly sucked dry by Russian identity thieves, I've started setting them up with dual-boot XP and Ubuntu systems, and told them they can just let the kids keep driving the Windows half into the weeds.

So far, the response has been uniformly positive. People who want basic computing facilities that Just Work are pretty much always happy with Ubuntu.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 PM on December 22, 2007

A free operating system is great if your time is worthless. If you need something to work well with your Dell computer, go with XP. With your system stats it will preform fine (many times better than Vista.)

If you want to "play" with your operating system then by all means while away your weekends and evenings on Ubuntu.
posted by wfrgms at 11:53 PM on December 22, 2007

Ubuntu is easy. If you've never touched a computer before, I think it's easier to figure out than Windows. The problem is that you're most likely a windows power users. You know your way around your computer, and you have particular routines for doing things quickly and easily. You are sufficiently familiar with Windows that you don't have to explicitly think about how to do things, but can concentrate on the content of your work. Initially, this won't be the case with Ubuntu. Switching to a new operating system will break up your flow. It will be some time before you work with the same fluidity.

In my opinion, it's worth it, and you sound curious enough to actually enjoy the process of learning. But be sure this kind of frustration is something you can tolerate for a week or so, until you reach a certain level of fluency.

If, one the other hand, this type of frustration drives you up the wall, avoid Ubuntu, and stick to XP, which is at present a pretty solid platform.
posted by limon at 12:08 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you need something to work well with your Dell computer, go with XP.

Dell is selling laptops pre-loaded with Ubuntu.
posted by limon at 12:13 AM on December 23, 2007

A free operating system is great if your time is worthless.

wfrgms, two years ago I would have agreed with that advice. It's not even remotely correct today. Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) takes less time to install than any version of Windows, doesn't need additional software installed before you can actually start being productive with it, needs less maintenance than any version of Windows, and is far, far less annoying to administer than any version of Windows.

It supports a vast range of hardware (including graphics cards, sound cards and wireless networking cards) out of the box, with no additional manufacturer-supplied driver installation necessary. Printer installation involves (a) - plugging in the USB cable and turning on the printer (b) - there is no step (b). It has full read/write access to NTFS partitions, which makes dual-boot installs very pleasant things (you can get at all your old Windows work from Ubuntu, but Windows malware can't screw up anything in the Ubuntu side).

The amount of support available via the Ubuntu forums and IRC channels means that you will have finished finding and implementing the solution to whatever Ubuntu problem you have before your Windows-using friends have even got Microsoft to take them off hold.

If you're looking for fuss-free computing, Ubuntu 7.10 beats XP hands down, and is so far ahead of Vista that Vista isn't even in the rear view mirror. The *only* reason why Windows might be a better option for some people is that they are tied to specific Windows apps for whatever reason, and at the rate Wine is improving, even that reason isn't going to last more than a couple more years.
posted by flabdablet at 12:20 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the way: the learning curve involved for an XP power user to feel comfortable with Ubuntu is of the same order as that involved to move to Vista.

I've been forced to find my way around Vista simply because staff members at the school whose network I manage have started turning up with Vista laptops, and it amuses me no end to see just how many superficial resemblances it bears to Ubuntu. Looks to me like the Vista team has been paying at least some attention to the Gnome user interface guidelines... fonts are still crap though.
posted by flabdablet at 12:24 AM on December 23, 2007

Every person's learning curve is different, and expertise in one software can hinder mastery of another software, ironically (or not). I remember it took me a long time to figure out how to use a Macintosh because I was a hardcore DOS/Windows user at the time. A free liveCD is the best possible option in trying something new with no risk.

Slightly off-topic: I don't know what version Vista you have on your PC, but it's worth noting that certain Vista licenses come with a free downgrade (Business/Ultimate), so those users wouldn't need to pay for XP either. But I'm sure the process would be very painful between the PC vendor and Microsoft.
posted by Ky at 6:31 AM on December 23, 2007

Consider Kubuntu. I actually like it more than Ubuntu because it uses the KDE desktop, rather than Ubuntu's preinstalled gnome.
posted by JaySunSee at 10:59 AM on December 23, 2007

My computers dual boot XP and Linux (either Fedora or Ubuntu). If you can wait, you might consider leaving your Vista partition in place, installing Linux on another partition, and then installing the Vista service pack, which is supposed to come out in the next three months. Vista may work better after the service pack.
posted by lukemeister at 3:48 PM on December 23, 2007

According to this article on CNET, with the upcoming service packs applied to both XP and Vista, XP is more than twice as fast doing Office tasks. So I retract my previous suggestion to stay with Vista.
posted by lukemeister at 8:07 PM on December 23, 2007

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