Seven Minutes in Ubuntu

For a while now, I’ve been using my home machine with MAMP to develop a research prototype. But last week, I got my hands on a PC to use as a web server. Before I could get started on it though, I needed an operating system to install — ideally one that would get the job done with minimal setup and training on my part. After a bit of reading online, I chose Ubuntu.

What follows are my first impressions of Ubuntu 11. And I mean my very first impressions, after using it for just a few minutes, taking on the persona of a lifetime Mac user.

And these impressions come from someone who’s used mostly Windows at work and Mac at home. Sure, there’s a sprinkling of Solaris, IRIX, and Linux mixed in there, but I haven’t used Ubuntu, and haven’t had to adjust to the changes that Unity brings (such as moving the window controls). So I’m just the user that Ubuntu is targetting.

I hope you find this perspective of interest, whether you’re curious about an alternative operating system, or are a seasoned Linux user, developer, or advocate who wants to see things through a fresh set of eyes.

The Good

My greatest concern was that I’d have to do a lot of installing and configuring before I could get anything meaningful done. All I wanted was a standard setup, and to not derail focus from my work.

Fortunately, Ubuntu presents a familiar interface and is ready to go right out of the box. It doesn’t take much nowadays given how many of our applications are web-based, and on Ubuntu, Firefox comes pre-installed (more on that later). Remote desktop is built-in, which made it a breeze to set up VNC with my Mac. Window management a la Windows 7 Snap was a nice surprise; this requires a third-party app on the Mac.

The Bad

Like Mac OS X, Ubuntu puts the active application’s name in the menu bar. In OS X, this contains a menu of application-level functions like About, Preferences, and Quit. In Ubuntu, this is a non-clickable region (highlighted red), despite being nestled among and pretty much indistinguishable from the clickable ones (highlighted green). There’s something jarring about clicking something expectantly and not having it respond.

I can see that the designers are trying to establish a hierarchy here, from the Ubuntu menu (which aligns with the dock) to the active application to the application’s menus. Still, there should be a stronger visual indicator that the application name is not clickable. Or you could just turn it into a menu, taking a page from Mac OS 9.

You might have noticed that Ubuntu’s menu bar is more tightly packed than OS X’s. A problem here is that while trying to select an item from a drop-down menu, it’s easy to accidentally trip another menu. This is most problematic with the system menu in the top right corner.

Mac OS X’s Apple menu gives you a target of 45 by 21 pixels, compared to Ubuntu’s 28 by 23 pixels. These areas are highlighted green above. But as Fitts’ Law reminds us, these corner targets are both effectively infinite in size.

More important than size is the angle of escape — the number of degrees you can move the cursor out without activating an adjacent menu. You get 65 degrees in OS X versus 50 degrees in Ubuntu, as highlighted yellow.

In fact, Ubuntu should have an even bigger angle than OS X. Due to the placement of the icon on the right and the left-justification of the menu items, you can’t travel in a straight line to click the first few pieces of text — this will activate the next menu. Instead, you have to perform a loop-de-loop. Widening the clickable area would help somewhat.

Now onto my next set of gripes, which center around managing new software. As I mentioned earlier, Firefox comes preinstalled. When I checked to see which version was installed, I was presented with the window below.

Version 4.0 is several major bumps behind the other platforms, which are sitting at 7.0.1. Below that is the text “Mozilla Firefox for Ubuntu canonical – 1.0”. Is this the 1.0 canonical version of Mozilla Firefox for Ubuntu? Or Mozilla Firefox for Ubuntu canonical version 1.0? And how does that relate to version 4.0? Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds this confusing.

And worse yet, there is no obvious way to update. I’m still not clear on whether there’s a newer version available, and how to update if it’s the case.

Anyway, the main reason I opened Firefox was to install Google Chrome (sorry Mozilla!). Fortunately, the latest version of Chrome was available to download. Double-clicking the package doesn’t take you to a standalone installer, but to Ubuntu Software Center.

Here, software is listed at two level, technical items and what I presume to be applications. But what’s classified as each can be a surprise. In the application list are items like Input Method Switcher and Multimedia Systems Selector, things most would consider system extensions more so than apps. On the other hand, Google Chrome is listed in technical items with a nondescript icon and label, along with 1,303 other things. Can you spot it in the image below?

After installing Chrome, the natural next step is to open it. Yet, there’s nowhere in Ubuntu Software Center to do this directly. Contrast this with Windows, where you’re asked if you want to start the program, or the new way in OS X, where an application installed from the Mac App store jumps right into your dock.

The Beautiful

Despite these issues, I give the designers major props. Open source software has a reputation for being ugly and catering only to the power user. But based on my initial experiences, they’ve created a polished user interface that’s beautiful and user friendly in Ubuntu.

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