Linux–Progress At Last

Over the weekend I spent some time playing with a old laptop which for licencing reasons had to have Windows removed (terms and conditions of use changed) and as I’ve detailed in another blog, I’ve been experimenting with installing Ubuntu Linux (version 12.04) – I decided to spend the time to learn more about this latest version of Ubuntu and what it can do…

Here’s where I’m up to – pretty darned amazing considering it’s not Microsoft…

For some background, last week I managed to get 5 used Dell computers working from a batch due to be sent off for dismantling… I put the latest Linux onto them and three of them are already being shipped off for use as simple online-joining machines to be used at Exhibitions and a further two 2 are on test for spares. I used the USB install of the latest Ubuntu.

Armed with the knowledge of savings made and savings to be made, I spent part of the weekend seeing how far it is possible to go in making an Ubuntu Linux machine into a general workhorse. Not many people get the opportunity to experiment like this – especially with more than one type of laptop.

The bad

  • Out of 3 different types of Dell laptop, none of them completely work with external monitors- one model don’t acknowledge the external monitor, two others get the resolution wrong. Clearly that part of the new Ubuntu still has a little way to go.
  • Right now email is having an issue with drafts, something that just should not be giving me problems – but then I am trying to load a LOT of emails onto this clean new installation. More on that later.

The good:

Ubuntu just works generally and the installation comes complete with a variation of “Open Office” that looks like a fine substitute for Microsoft Office as long as you’re only using the basics. The operating system also comes along with Firefox and Thunderbird (mail). Amazingly – if you only want to “give it a go” on an existing system, Ubuntu runs off the memory stick WITHOUT affecting your laptop! I went for the full install.

I discovered that Thunderbird as installed is out of date and updated it using the installation manager. I installed VLC, Skype and XBMC (X-Box Media Centre).

  • XBMC works as well or better than on the PC and is a great media centre for all types of media – video/audio/imagery – apparently it works with the standard Microsoft remote – I’ve ordered a cheap one one ($4.50 inc IR USB adaptor) to test. The remote monitor issue is a show-stopper for now however as you need to be able to plug the laptop into a TV to make great use of XBMC..
  • VLC works perfectly and plays videos smoothly.
  • Firefox works perfectly and the FLASH add-in can be installed as part of the base installation. But note – you cannot run NetFlix on Linux as it does not support the necessary Microsoft Silverlight.
  • Skype works so well, I plugged a Logitech camera into the laptop and Skype picked it up without any drivers! I doubt Skype will handle multi-user video however.
  • Dropbox works perfectly, making my centrally-stored files from Windows available in Ubuntu and vice-versa.
  • Thunderbird… here’s the potential game-changer… I installed the calendar add-in – all work with Google – none work with Exchange – or rather, not out of the box. I discovered something called DavMail Gateway – and after some fiddling it now sits patiently in the background – and enables Thunderbird to handle – wait for it – fsb email, calendar and contacts – not yet tried notes and I suspect that might be slightly harder to crack. I’ve not yet messed with shared calendars but it does handle normal calendar and appointments perfectly. Like Firefox, Thunderbird handles add-ins.

    I now have an iPad-style unified inbox (which is more than Outlook can manage) and once it’s finished importing the many thousands of emails in my Business and private Google accounts I’ll confirm if this is a waste of space or not – but up to now, it looks like competition for Outlook AT LAST – one reason being – the search WORKS. In addition, thanks to the plug-ins, I have properly threaded inbox options, HTML signatures, mail-merging, delayed emails and more. Thanks to a package called SHUTTER I can grab parts of the screen and simply paste into emails – just as I can in Windows.

I said that Linux would not handle Silverlight… well, as an old hand at VMWare Workstation, I didn’t hold out much hope when I read that the free Linux version of Oracle VirtualBox can run Windows 7 in a box for such emergencies… well, it can – and it does it quite well, good enough to run video on Windows 7 or other variations of Windows – in a window – or full screen right in Linux.

Thunderbird is not without issues and as yet I feel more “comfortable” with Outlook – but that could be simply habit – so  I’ll follow this up in a future blog…

Finally the program installation package – Ubuntu has a side ribbon and installing programs results in their icon appearing in the collapsible sidebar… with a download progress bar inside – exactly as you would find on an iPhone or iPad.

Amazing how things come on.

But what if you just HAVE to have Microsoft office 2010 and other Windows programs? Well this is not free but a package called CrossOver promises specifically that – running of Office 2010 and other Windows programs DIRECTLY in Ubuntu without an emulator or other “tricks” – how well THAT works remains to be seen.  For a free operating system I thought the cost of around $55 was a tad high for my CURRENT use.

More bugs?:  As well as the external screen issue (and this may well be limited to DELLs) I found that putting the machine into standby leaves the hard disk running – which kind of defeats the object as it will flatten the battery in a relatively short period.  That needs addressing.

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