Life without Windows

by Chin Wong - Date: 2006-12-13 - Word Count: 770 Share This!

Ubuntu, a user-friendly version of Linux, has been running so nicely on my home PC that I decided to do an experiment. I wrote down a list of tasks I normally do with Windows XP and decided to see how many of them I could do on Linux.

Here's what my list looked like: 1) Write this column; 2) Browse the Web; 3) Get new software and install it; 4) Download files; 5) Play music and video files; 6) Burn CDs; and 7) Print my documents.

Of all these, the first was the easiest. Ubuntu comes with 2.0, an excellent personal productivity suite that works much like Microsoft Office, with its own word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation programs. It reads and writes files in MS Word, RTF and a variety of other formats, so sharing your files with colleagues who use Windows or Mac PCs won't be a problem. Unlike earlier versions, too, the program seems to load and run much faster. 2.0 seems to run much faster now. I open up XMMS to listen to some music while I work.

Browsing was just as easy. Ubuntu lets you take your pick from several Web browsers, including Firefox. I experienced some glitches initially with YouTube - the videos were playing without sound - but that worked itself out after I rebooted the system.

For Windows users, downloading and installing new software on Linux can be rather daunting. Where's the .EXE file? What do you do with the downloaded file (called a package, in Linux)? What file do you run? Fortunately, Ubuntu takes care of most of these problems for you. A program called Synaptic Package Manager takes care of finding new programs and installing them for you. These are sorted by program types, but the sheer number may be overwhelming. When I ran Synaptic Package Manager, it happily reported that there were more than 18,808 programs available, only 1,221 of which I had installed.

Downloading music and videos? Check. My favorite BitTorrent client, uTorrent, isn't available on Linux but KTorrent, which works much the same way, already comes with Ubuntu. I put the program through its paces and found it held up quite nicely against my trusted file-sharing utility.

To play music and videos, Ubuntu comes with a number of multimedia players. For MP3 files, I like XMMS, which looks like WinAmp. Downloaded AVI files won't play properly on the default Movie Player, but installing VLC Media Player (using Synaptic) will take care of that.

Burning CDs proved to be trickier.

Ubuntu is smart enough to detect a blank CD when it's inserted and will ask if you'd like to burn a data or an audio CD. If you choose data, it will open a window into which you can drag files you'd like burned. Burning a data CD in this manner is simplicity itself, but it might be a bit too simple. The program, Nautilus, doesn't even tell you how much disc space you're using.

If you choose to burn an audio CD, Ubuntu will start a program called Serpentine, which enables you to add audio files to an audio CD compilation. The puzzling thing is, Serpentine will not accept MP3 files by default! All is not lost, however. You need to install the LAME encoder for the Gstreamer package (gstreamer0.8-lame), again using Synaptic. Once you've done that, Serpentine will burn your MP3 files into an audio CD without a hitch.

Serpentine burns an audio CD.

Burning a VCD from AVI files is even trickier. In very broad strokes, you'll need to install K3b, a CD burning program, and a package called VCDimager, and tell K3b where it's located. You'll also need a command-line program called FFmpeg to convert AVI files to MPG, which is the format that K3b uses. Sounds complicated? It is, but it's doable.

Finally, I wanted to print documents on my Epson Stylus C50 inkjet printer. Simple as it sounds, this last task almost stumped me. Even though Ubuntu detected my printer and said it was using the correct printer driver from a program called Gimp-print, my C50 kept spewing out garbled, unreadable text. Hours of online research about Gimp-print only confused me further with what seemed to be gobbledygook. Many sheets of wasted paper later, I remembered a snippet of information from a mailing list. It was written before the C50 driver was available and suggested that the driver for an earlier Epson model, the C44UX might work. I went to Ubuntu's printer setup utility and told it to use that driver and - voila!-I was finally able to print. Frustration faded away and a sense of satisfaction set in. I had survived the weekend without Windows.

From Digital Life by Chin Wong

Chin Wong has been covering the technology industry since the 1980s, starting as a reporter for Business Day, Southeast Asia's first daily business newspaper. He is now a lecturer in journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines and associate editor for the Manila Standard Today. Before that, he also served as technology editor of the Manila Times until October 2004.

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