Ubuntu and I – Beauty Isn’t Enough

I’m not a new Linux user. Actually, I’m about as far away from being a new Linux user as you can get. I’m perfectly comfortable getting down as low as you want to go, rolling in the grease, re-routing the pipes and wiring, or smashing about in the subatomic.

So you Arch Linux cutie dilettantes, you go have your fun running your scripts and googling for what someone else did to fix something, and feel all big about yourselves. That’s wonderful. It’s good to learn. Maybe you’ll be solving some problems some day too, that other people will benefit from. But don’t think I need to hear anything about how wonderful Arch Linux is.

I don’t want my main workstation computer to be used for tinkering. I want it to be no hassle at all – no time sinks. I want it to look nice, function well with the developing “ecosystems” on the net, and be stable. I want it to be a no-brainer. My brain and time is needed for other things. The workstation is merely the conduit. I don’t want to waste time fiddling with it.

This is why a few years ago I started using Ubuntu. They just gathered up all the stuff and slopped it into a pretty package that worked, for the most part, without me having to hunt down drivers, recompile, decide which messaging client was going to work best now with the ever-evolving technologies, etc., etc. They gave me the no-brainer for my workstation. Yay for them, yay for me. And they embraced Free Software! Mostly.

Ubuntu replaced Debian on my workstation. It made me feel ok because they drew from the quality of Debian, taking the latest developments, and packed them up nicely. I didn’t have to wait 2 years for updated software on the workstation. Joy! Of course, where servers are concerned, I am very happy for Debian’s more careful release cycle…

Lately, however, Ubuntu begins to irritate. A little like a beauty who turns out to be insanely controlling and utterly self-centered. Sure, I admit, I haven’t shown a lot of love back, but I just assumed we had an understanding that our relationship was a marriage of convenience.

Now, I find myself increasingly inconvenienced. For example, a couple days ago the Ubuntu boot process started to hang, telling me my Windows partition was horribly corrupt. I won’t deny that. But the filesystem really is fine. So I have to take out the Windows partitions from fstab if I want Ubuntu to boot, then add them back when I want to mount them later (in the specific way I want them mounted). Or write some scripts to mount and unmount them. Yeah, so what, you might say. Easy. Yes. But it means my workstation is requiring my attention and work.

And sound… sometimes the soundcards are detected, sometimes they are not. I can reboot until they are detected. Then sometimes the volume is locked all the way on, or all the way off. Despite muting. Despite levels. I can select a soundcard used for the speakers, or for the headphones, yet often times it doesn’t matter which I select. Sure, I can troubleshoot pulseaudio, alsa, or whatever else might have been thrown into the works. But that requires my attention, and my work.

The point is, if I were using Debian’s workstation right now, I wouldn’t have to worry about minor updates breaking things. I wouldn’t really have to worry that any of my customizations within the OS would break my boot process. I would, however, have to deal with a glacial release cycle, which is wonderful for servers, but annoying for desktops. Then again, I would have the same software versions to work with on the workstation as I do on the servers.

Ubuntu is beautiful, no doubt. Visually, I prefer it hands down over Windows 7 or OSX. Functionally as well. One of the worst things for me when working in Windows or Mac is that I feel trapped within what they’ve provided for me. Anything unique I must research and work to get past their many “easy” abstractions, and even then I am often locked out due to a proprietary nature. Though this is not the case with Ubuntu, I certainly have to dig through much fluff at times.

Also, I happily pay Canonical for Ubuntu One service. I do it more to thank them, than for any benefit – though it is nice having my music and documents automatically sync to my laptop. But I can’t easily use Ubuntu One with any other Linux distribution. It’s not like syncing files remotely is even remotely difficult! But this kind of “lock-in” isn’t compelling enough for me to remain true to them. In fact, it pushes me away.

Also, the noise around Shuttleworth’s directional intent for Ubuntu does not sit the best with me. Actually, it hasn’t from the beginning. I’m not fond of any person or business taking from another, then calling it their own. I’m looking at you, too Apple, especially. And of course, Microsoft.

So my no-brainer workstation based on Ubuntu is now up for re-evaluation. Arch is out because the install processes won’t install /root on an LVM drive made of RAID. Sure I can get around that. I’m not going to bother, though. Debian, I could boot over into right now. I like the look of Fedora with Gnome 3, but it’s a chore to get all the drivers right. Thank patents and proprietary nonsense. Debian suffers because of this, too. But the process is faster/easier with Debian. And I swore off Gentoo after the last library dependency debacle I experienced. Arch users, Gentoo is where you’d really do some learning, btw.

At this moment, I’m considering trying Linux Mint – the Debian version. I do this because I had almost convinced myself to switch back to Debian on the workstation and follow along the “unstable” path. My thinking is, Linux Mint may filter out much of the riskiness in doing this, since it goes through them (using the “testing” branch rather than “unstable”, apparently).

Basically, I’m really not liking the more commercial feel of Ubuntu lately. And since my no-brain reason for using it isn’t exactly valid any more, I think it’s time to switch. The irony is, many of the things that make Ubuntu more accessible to the masses is making it more difficult for me. I think I am not alone in this.

So we’ll see what the Mint can do. And if it can’t, then Debian it is. Recreating the eye candy functionality is easy, if I want to bother. It will be nice having my panel applets back. Best of all, I can always count on Debian to be a solid rock. And any deviation from Free and Open will be mine, not theirs. This makes me happy.

Next in this series: Out of Ubuntu’s Bed to Hairy Arch Linux in a Dark Alley

  • It’s amazing how you wrote what was on my mind.

  • Well, it’s nice to learn I’m not the only one thinking this way.

  • Juliet

    Isn’t Mint based off Ubuntu? Logically it should have the same problems with hardware you just described…

  • Yeah, the main distribution of Mint is based off Ubuntu. But there is another they have, based directly upon Debian instead, called Mint Debian or some such. It’s on their main website. I suppose you could say, since Ubuntu is based off Debian, doesn’t that mean Debian would… etc… but Debian doesn’t flop of bunch of stuff together. I was hoping Mint might be a little more careful with the engineering Debian tries to do than Ubuntu.

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  • Funny, I exactly have the same kind of experience : http://ploum.net/post/so-long-ubuntu

    For now, I’ve tried OpenSuse, which seems to be a good compromise between latest stuffs (they have a rolling repository called TumbleWeed) and stability (it’s a lot better than Ubuntu in that regard). The bad point is that everything related to configuration (installing printers/packages/scanners) is handled by Yast and it brings you back in Win98 era.

    I’m interested by your feedback about any distribution you might try

  • I love your story. I used to have a lot of fun with FVWM configs. Always it seems we can get very close, but never quite there.

    This is pretty much the first I’m learning that people are thinking beyond just, Unity sucks! Gnome3 sucks! I never felt that way – all creations can become great. But always, what is behind it, what drives and motivates it – where they are willing to compromise and focus… that’s the more telling part.

    It sounds like you like OpenSuse ok, but aren’t elated. I’d be interested in anything you try, too. I suppose this major shift has been a long time in its coming.

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  • Anon

    Give Pinguy OS a try.

  • Interesting! I’d never heard of Pinguy OS before… Is is anything more than a slightly tweaked Ubuntu? Worth looking I suppose.

  • Holger


    interesting writing. I can see a lot of similarities between your thoughts and mine.
    I’ve been using Ubuntu for a long time (since 8.10 IIRC) but am testing other distributions as well. I never found those distri fanboys very valuable. Each distribution available has it’s strength and his weaknesses. In my point of view you need at least to give them a short try in order to find out if it suits you.

    I also used arch for quite some time, learned a lot about how the system works and then returned to Ubuntu.

    Since 11.04 Ubuntu has annoyed me with this eye-hurting Unitiy crap. I gave it a try (similar to Gnome Shell) but I am afraid that I am too old to adapt those new desktop pattern. This may be the reason why I still prefer the Win2k / WinXP classic GUI over Vista and Windows 7.

    A desktop environment should follow my workflow and I should not need to adapt my workflow to the desktop paradigma, shouldn’t I ?

    For this reason I moved away from Ubuntu to Sabayon (gentoo based with a large variety of desktop environments). I found XFCE resambling the old Gnome 2 style best. Esp. with those Thunar custom actions I can easily mimic my Nautilus shell script used to do various tasks. After some minor glitches I decided to move back to Ubuntu in XFCE flavor. Currently Xubuntu 11.10 x64 gives me “the best of both worlds”: Pretty recent versions of software plus a desktop environment I can work with.

    Similar to you I want a “out-off-the-box” experience with my desktop OS. I do not mind to tinker around a bit to get everything working but from then on I expect the system to support my work and not waste my time. It is amazing what ammount of time you can spent playing around and learning with Linux. This is not distribution specific. You can learn as much from an Ubuntu as you do from arch or Debian.

    Similar amazing (in a negative way) are those folks who think that they are “l33t” only based on the fact they are using Arch, LFS, Gentoo or that other are less “l33t” simply because they decided to use a distribution which provides the out-off-the-box experience (e.g. Ubuntu, Sabayon, Suse).

    Let me put this straight:
    Ubuntu might attract a higher number of people which have less Linux knowledge but still requires the same skill to analyze / solve issues that you would need when running arch.

    A distribution which seems to be pretty unique for me is Aptosid (formerly know as Sidux). You get a Debian-based rolling release distribution featuring either XFCE or KDE as default desktop. It provides a good stability and similar to the most rolling-release versions you get the bleeding edge of software.

    To me rolling release distributions never meant an unstable system. Why should they ? You can run pretty similar into an un-usable system when doing the average Ubuntu software update now and then. Neither arch, nor Aptosid or Sabayon were unstable for me. You are not forced to do an update if it doesn’t suit you. Wait a few days after new programs are released to dish out the latest bugs, choose a timeframe which leaves you some extra time to fix eventual errors such as the weekend and you are set. If one needs a perfectly stable system then grab Debian stable with the well known disadvantages (old versions, long release cycles).

    Sorry for the long rant,

  • I have to say that I lost all respect for someone that takes a big hit at ArchLinux users with no provocation or reason behind it. But whatever, I’m bored at work and continued to read, only to chuckle at myself that the very issues you bring up about ArchLinux needing more than 5 braincells and manual work, you are in that exact same issue with Ubuntu-bloat-alot-Linux (6 tools installed to do one job!).

    Having spent months on Ubuntu, Mint, Debian (stable and testing), and a few others (BTW I run ArchLinux as my main…) I think you’ll only come across similar issues with any of those debian based distro’s.   Why not try something fresh, like SUSE or CentOS (which I run on my server and its very good).

    But to be fair, if you’re concerned about one issue that you don’t like, and you’re willing to give up on a Linux distro just for that one issue, I recommend you stop using Linux full stop really, or PC’s. My job brings up fresh issues in Windows all the time, if I got to work with Linux at work, I wouldn’t be silly enough to run them on duel boot, but instead run Windows in Virtual Box as there shouldn’t be a reason for you needing to reboot.

  • Well that’s some thoughtful stuff – I really appreciate the “rant”. 😉 I was actually thinking about Sabayon earlier today. I spent a good amount of time in Gentoo for a workstation, too. A couple years at least. In the rolling releases, for example, it wasn’t terribly uncommon for a software package to get upgraded without, say, a library it depended upon getting updated. So when the new version installed, it crashed because of library dependency problems. Or a library that depends upon another library. There can be a lot of dependency issues in OS’s, and rolling releases keep rolling and rolling, so you have to hope that someone is keeping it all together well. 😉 Every so often stuff fell through the cracks. Usually no biggie. I don’t mind rolling releases at all, and love the benefit. I’m going to have to check out this Aptosid you mentioned. What a great name, btw – very apt. 😉

  • Well, your respect means such a great deal to me – particularly when it can be lost so easily, based upon your own misunderstandings of the subject to which you speak. Read the piece more carefully. You’ll find I’m attacking nothing, and, in fact, said that Arch is a great way for people to learn. You’re a smart guy. Use that intelligence, and enjoy the technologies for what they are, and the people who have used them. And who will.

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  • If I was you I would give LMDE a try. If I understand there PACKS are essentially their own repos overlaying Testing. Then they do updates to them were there is not breakage. Example: Running debian testing I coulld not install k9copy because it was tied to a new version of mplayer and the dependent packages had not been released from Sid into Testing.  With the new PACKS. Both K3b and mplayer would be pinned to older versions till the other packages moved from Sid to Testing. At which point they would update the Multimeida Pack and all will be well. if they pull this  off it makes LMDE very attractive.

    I am running Ubuntu/Kubuntu, LMDE and Arch on various systems. ArchBang gets me a decent Arch system in about 20 minutes. I like all of the above execpt for Ubuntu. I just LOVE how Shuttlworth has reminded me over the years that I have a stake and part in Ubuntu until what the users want and what he wants differ. Then it is his way or the highway. We are told if you are a power user, you may want to find another distro and mockingly that I am “too cool” to run Ubuntu because it is stable, easy to use and slick.

    Ultimately what is driving me away from Ubuntu is them trying to convert me from a user into a monitization channel. Every time I search for a song on my hard drive being offered a chance to buy it online. Having both free and paid apps offered to me when I type in program names in the lens. I see where it is going and if I wante to be prompted to hand over my money every time I use my computer. I would have stuck with Windows.

  • Ah, Fred, you’ve captured tangibly what I was feeling about Ubuntu, more than anything. You know, I think it’s fine for people to make money off what they do. But like you, I’d rather not have to deal with ads in my day to day experience.

    I don’t know much about Shuttleworth at all, except for all that comes second-hand. I suppose if he wants to push for mass adoption, all the more power to him. But I hope he manages to keep the good spirit alive along the way.

    LMDE sounds wonderful, particularly if they can deal with those pinning issues you mentioned. That’s a great approach if you can keep it untangled. Ages ago I got the bright idea to try that myself, but it ended up being too much to cope with. A team devoted to it could work wonders I bet!

    So do you like what LMDE has done? Is it a comfortable place for you? How about ArchBang? I’ve heard of it, but not tried it.

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  • Morazan

    Most Arch users are not your traditional desktop users so why complain about getting your hands dirty in the command line? If people use Arch is because they WANT to get their hands dirty and its gratifying, why beech about it? Also, you may be right that using Gentoo is better if you really want to learn how linux works, but waiting for gnome to compile in 2 days is just ridiculous. Arch’s simplicity with a BSD style init scripts makes everything tidy and easy to work and understand. Most Arch users are not running traditional full blown desktops, they use WM, mostly tiling which makes a lot of normal desktop users hate linux. The point is stop complaining about Arch community (and others) and use what works best for you.

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  • Thanks Morazan – yes! What works best for the individual is the key. And Arch users should remember that, too. 😉

    And really, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty at all. But when the store is 10 miles away, I don’t want to have to assemble a kit bike before I can eat. I’ll just grab one from a neighbor, or buy one. I’ll tinker later when I’m not starving. I’m not attacking Arch. It’s a great kit. 

    I’m just sharing my experience and impressions as I try to leave Ubuntu, and am exploring the options. Give TWM a try sometimes for window management. 🙂 Those were fun days.

  • Jack

    My thoughts on Ubuntu are similar.  🙂   I’ve run Ubuntu on most of my systems (other than Arch on one and Chakra on another) for years.  I moved my main work laptop from Ubuntu to Mint Debian (LMDE) In January and have had no complaints at all.  My wife got fed up with Ubuntu a while back and I moved her to LMDE also and now she’s happy again.  

    I have the original LMDE (not based off of the Mint “Packs”) running on my main laptop and have it based off of the Packs on 3 other systems.  Both ways are running great (although my main laptop not using the Packs was just “upgraded?” to Gnome 3 yesterday)..
    😉   That was a shock, I typically pay attention to everything being updated – you would know that the first time I just hit “update” I would end up with something like that.  LOL

    Even so, it’s still running great.  Give LMDE a try, I think you’ll like it.

  • So is your wife much of a computer tech-head, or do you just have her running the Linux stuff? I keep waiting for that “Linux is too hard” or “Linux is only for techies” to go away. Cuz right now regular people can use it probably even easier than Windows and pretty on par with Mac.

    Yeah, the Mint stuff I can’t wait to try. I think they’re coming out with a new version here in the next few days, or at least a release candidate. I figure I’ll wait before really putting it to the test, as long as it’s a few days away…. but who knows?

    Have you found you’re liking Gnome 3 after giving it a chance? I wonder what people think after the shock of change goes away.

  • Jack

    No, my wife is definitely not a tech-head.  LOL  Just the opposite, she just wants something that works!  It’s been a few years, but I still remember all of the issues I had to deal with when she was on Windows.  I’ve had her on everything from Fedora, PCLinuxOS, Arch Linux, Ubuntu and now we’re pretty much sticking with LMDE.

    As to Gnome 3…   I’ve only had it for one day (but that 1 day has been on my main work laptop, so it’s definitely gotten some use).  It’s not as bad as I initially thought it would be.  It’s taken a little getting used to, but It’s growing on me.  I’ve used Cairo Dock for years and I actually closed it and I’m using the Favorites bar (or whatever they call it in Gnome 3) in it’s place; so other than conky, I have a “clean” Gnome 3 desktop now and it’s not too bad.

    One thing that had me a little peeved earlier was there was no minimize button, but I just found out a little while ago that by right clicking on the close window button you still have it (minimize, maximize, move, etc….).  So far the only slight issue I’ve had was dropbox (the move to gnome 3 removed it, but downloading a new version fixed that).

    So….yeah…..  It’s kind of grown on me a little.  Maybe it won’t be as bad as I thought – I sooooooooo hated that Unity desktop when I looked at it on 11.04 – I didn’t even try 11.10 (my only computer running Ubuntu these days is still on 10.10)..  🙂

    Good luck with your try at LMDE, I think you’ll like it!

  • Sweet! Yeah, I’m getting used to it, too, and starting to like it. The window control stuff bothered me, too. What I did was go into keyboard, to the bindings, and bound minimize window to alt_downarrow, so it just flies out of the way. 😉

  • Rahul Dsouza

    Wonderful read. It’s been little over a year since I first installed Ubuntu (I had wanted to try Linux out for 5 years but lacked the drive then). I must have spent a good 6 or 7 months completely enamoured with it and then its charm slowly began to fade away. What stayed with me, though, was that I began to absolutely love Linux (the freedom, the ability to tweek so much and most importantly the philosophy behind it). 

    There are several reason for why I began to fall out of love with Ubuntu. The primary one was Unity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Unity has its takers, it isn’t so bad, it’s just not for me. I loved the old Gnome and I was happy that I could continue to use it in 11.04. When 11.10 came along I discovered the new Gnome shell and decided that it was better for me than Unity. After a while though I began to feel that Gnome shell + Ubuntu just feels wrong. It was natural, since Canonical only concentrated on building 11.04 and 11.10 around Unity, and completely ignored the Gnome Shell. 

    This is when I decided to switch to Linux Mint. It seemed like the obvious choice, and without thinking I went ahead and installed the Ubuntu version (rather than the Debian one). Now I can see why LInux Mint appeals to so many people – it is a beautiful distro. My main problem is that the only difference (for me) is the addition of the bottom bar (a welcome addition). Everything else is like Ubuntu. This is when I started paying attention to KDE and XFCE (let me tell you, I don’t like MATE at all) and I seriously thought of installing the Debian version instead. 

    Now however I am enthusiastic about Arch Linux and will be installing it instead. I actually understand your reason for not wanting to go with it. I, on the other hand, am just enthusiastic about being able to assemble the whole system together. I have time and I do no important work on my desktop (so far) so I am really happy to give it a go. 

    I hope that LMDE works for you. It looks like a better way to use XFCE than Xubuntu, though the differences are minimal, the added Mint goodies clinch it. Oh and one last thing, I can’t understand why the Mint Menu repeats the favourites list found in the Gnome Shell list. Just doesn’t make sense and it irritates me every time!

    Best wishes,

  • I’m really happy you decided to try Linux out, whichever way you came to it! I think Ubuntu has been especially good at bringing people to something “friendly” to use, and even better in many ways, than proprietary alternatives like Windows and OSX. Were you just curious when you first decided to try it out?

    Actually, I just installed Linux Mint on a laptop last night, and plan to write about it. I have to install it on the workstation, though, for the evaluation, since the rest have been installed there. They have done a great job.

    You know, I’m going to go back when I have some time and at least put Arch on the laptop, to play around with it. With a simple setup like that (one drive) the install shouldn’t be a hassle at all. I’m curious about MATE in Mint, too – I had never heard of it before. It seems an awful lot of trouble to go to, just to “undo” stuff that was done in the direction of gnome-shell.

  • Rahul Dsouza

    I started off with computers fairly early, my dad thought it was a great way for me to cope with my dyslexia. Now computers in Bombay in 1998 cost a small fortune and as you can imagine we all turned to piracy. Besides ethical and moral questions there was the constant threat of the computer crashing. My initial interest away from a Windows based PC was to be fascinated by Apple (I still like many things about their operating system – a system perfectly tailored to people with Learning disabilities) but at that time I had first heard about Linux. Now even though I had started of on computers fairly early I never really got into anything technical. As you can imagine the articles I came across at the time were very very technical so I thought nothing about it. Then I heard about a distro – I can’t quite remember which one (Debian, Fedora, Red Hat or Mandrake are likely candidates) and it momentarily held my interest, but at the time I couldn’t find anyone to help me with installation (community documentation is so much better now) and so I just kept thinking about it from time to time. Finally I saved up and bought a macbook and this completely transformed my academic life (until someone stole it). This is when I realised that I could not go back to Windows. This is when I decided to take a chance and try Linux. After I found Ubuntu it’s been fairly smooth sailing and I don’t think I can ever look back. Now what’s left is to find a good second hand Thinkpad T series laptop and say good by to proprietary software for good. 

    To go back to the original reason my dad bought me a computer, I do find the libre office dictionary to be lacking in quality correction, unlike the one on word, something that I hope will change as it goes from strength to strength (hopefully with that beautiful Citrus UI mockup)  

  • Rahul Dsouza

    I’m sorry, while posting the previous one I completely forgot about what you said about MATE. Yes it is quite an interesting development. I would still much rather use XFCE but MATE is much better than MGSEj (though I like Gnome Shell’s expose like feature). My dream though is that someone listens to Linus T and forks Gnome 2.x (but it probably will not happen). 

  • Anonymous

    Very nice article. There must be a lot of people with your exact experience. I’ve tested a lot of distributions lately because sooner or later something about each of them started to really annoy me. Even the new Mint with its Gnome3/MATE(?) mash I found really annoying because it’s not exactly straight forward to customise. 

    I ended up using Xubuntu but got frustrated with LightDM so I installed an extra partition with Arch which is a lot of work as you mentioned. However, if you do have the time it’s a great learning experience and you do eventually end up with exactly what you want. I like fast and minimal OS so my current favourite is somewhere between Xubuntu and Arch. Give Xubuntu a try if you liked the Ubuntu-Gnome2 kind of feel.

  • Yeah, there seems to be a strange problem – the move to unified desktops seems to mean that easier customization goes out the window. Whereas if you go with something very customizable, you seem to end up sacrificing some of the niceties that come with unified experience. It’s certainly a challenging architectural design problem….