Walt Mossberg

Linux’s Free System Is Now Easier to Use, But Not for Everyone

This column is written for mainstream, nontechie users of digital technology. These folks aren’t necessarily novices, and they aren’t afraid of computers. They also aren’t stupid. They simply want their digital products to operate as promised, with as little maintenance and hassle as possible.

So, I have steered away from recommending Linux, the free computer operating system that is the darling of many techies and IT managers, and a challenger to Microsoft’s dominant Windows and Apple’s resurgent Macintosh operating system, OS X. Linux, which runs on the same hardware as Windows, has always required much more technical expertise and a yen for tinkering than average users possess.

Lately, however, I’ve received a steady stream of emails from readers urging me to take a look at a variant of Linux called Ubuntu, which, these folks claimed, is finally polished enough for a mainstream user to handle. My interest increased when Dell began to sell a few computer models preloaded with Ubuntu instead of Windows.

I’ve been testing one of those Dell Ubuntu computers, a laptop called the Inspiron 1420N. I evaluated it strictly from the point of view of an average user, someone who wouldn’t want to enter text commands, hunt the Web for drivers and enabling software, or learn a whole new user interface. I focused on Ubuntu and the software programs that come bundled with it, not on the hardware, which is a pretty typical Dell laptop.

My verdict: Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users. While Ubuntu looks a lot like Windows or Mac OS X, it is full of little complications and hassles that will quickly frustrate most people who just want to use their computers, not maintain or tweak them.

Before every passionate Linux fan attacks that conclusion, let me note that even the folks who make and sell Ubuntu agree with it. Mark Shuttleworth, the South African-born founder of the Ubuntu project, told me this week that “it would be reasonable to say that this is not ready for the mass market.” And Dell’s Web site for its Ubuntu computers warns that these machines are for “for advanced users and tech enthusiasts.”

So, what do I mean when I say Ubuntu is too rough around the edges for average users? Here are some examples.

There is no control panel for adjusting the way the touch pad works, and I found it so sensitive that I was constantly launching programs and opening windows accidentally by touching the thing. Every time the computer awoke from sleep, the volume control software crashed and had to be reloaded.

When I tried to play common audio and video files, such as MP3 songs, I was told I had to first download special files called codecs that are built into Windows and Mac computers. I was warned that some of these codecs might be “bad” or “ugly.”

To get the computer to recognize my Kodak camera and Apple iPod, I had to reboot it several times. When it did find the iPod, it wasn’t able to synchronize with it. Playing videos was a bad experience, with lots of flickering and freezing. Oh, and there’s no built-in software for playing commercial DVDs.

The Ubuntu-equipped Inspiron 1420N starts at $744, but the configuration that Dell lent me for testing sells for $1,415. The same unit equipped with Windows Vista costs $1,524. The Ubuntu version includes OpenOffice, the free office suite that competes with Microsoft Office. Dell charges an added $149 for Microsoft Office.

Ubuntu and other versions of Linux have several advantages. Unlike Windows and OS X, they’re free. Unlike Mac OS X, they can be run on the least-expensive popular hardware configurations. Unlike Windows, but like the Mac, they are essentially free of viruses and spyware. And unlike Windows and Mac OS X, they are built and constantly improved by a world-wide network of developers, professional and amateur — the so-called open-source concept that produced the excellent Firefox Web browser.

It makes sense that all the best software brains can’t be located in just two places: Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is based, and Cupertino, Calif., Apple’s base. And plenty of people reading this have had lots of frustrations with the two better-known operating systems, especially Windows, whose latest iteration, Vista, is disappointing in many ways.

But open source is a two-edged sword. While it draws on smart developers from many places, nobody is ultimately responsible for the quality of the product, and open-source developers often have an imperfect feel for how average people use software. A European company called Canonical is the “commercial sponsor” of Ubuntu and provides support. But it’s largely focused on corporate and techie users. Average Ubuntu users are likely to have to wade through online forums, often written in technical language, to get help.

Dell and Canonical tell me there are complex workarounds for some of the problems I encountered, and that built-in improvements are planned for others. But for now, I still advise mainstream, nontechnical users to avoid Linux.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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