Windows 7 or Ubuntu 9.10 – battle of the operating systems
Whether you're a die-hard Windows fan or a Linux evangelist, here is the lowdown on the latest updates
Operating systems have become like buses: you wait ages for an OS update, and then three turn up at once. Apple let Snow Leopard out of its cage in August, and then, last Thursday, Microsoft released Windows 7, a major update of Vista. At the same time, Canonical chose to release "Karmic Koala" – which is otherwise known as the open-source operating system Ubuntu 9.10.
In the five years since its launch, Ubuntu has become one of the most popular Linuxes; though popular for servers or embedded systems, it remains a minority as a desktop operating system. Some put the figures as low as 1%, though the enthusiasts put the figure closer to 12%.
Taking the vital aspects of an operating system into account, which is better, Ubuntu 9.10 or Windows 7?
In terms of speed, if you've got an older computer that is starting to feel sluggish but you either don't want to or can't afford to buy a new computer, give Ubuntu a go. You'll get an up-to-date operating system running quite smoothly on your out-of-date computer.
Verdict: Windows 7 is much better than Vista on older hardware, while Ubuntu always has been strong on a wide range of hardware.
Drivers and hardware
Ubuntu is generally good at recognising hardware. Windows needed a driver downloaded for my vintage 3Com Wi-Fi PC Card, but it worked right away with Ubuntu – and even improved from 9.04 to 9.10. Ubuntu added extensions to take advantage of special keys for my laptop, and when I plugged in a spare Mac keyboard, it handled special Mac-centric keys too such as the CD eject button.
If Ubuntu doesn't automatically install a driver, it can be quite a bit of effort getting something to work, and not all hardware and peripherals will work with Linux. Sometimes you'll have to go to the command line, which is terrifying territory for most users. It's worth checking to see if Linux drivers exist for your printer and other key peripherals.
Windows has always had issues with drivers. I still am baffled why Windows forgets hardware that I have installed previously. Windows 7 doesn't seem to have completely solved these issues.
Verdict: Both Microsoft and Ubuntu could improve how they handle drivers.
Looking at the default applications that come with both Windows 7 and Karmic Koala, Ubuntu installs the Rhythmbox player for music and the Movie Player for video. Both are capable, and anyone familiar with Apple's iTunes will find the application easy to navigate.
Because of licensing restrictions and Ubuntu's own philosophy, it does not ship with the ability to play commercial DVDs. It's relatively easy to add commercial DVD support by adding Ubuntu Restricted Extras in the Software Centre.
Most versions of Windows 7 come with Windows Media Player and Media Centre. The Media Centre is impressive and polished. It organises your pictures, video and music files, and it gives you the kind of 10-foot interface that works well from your couch in the lounge.
Verdict: Microsoft wins this one with its Media Centre, though Linux enthusiasts will be quick to point out the digital-rights management issues of Windows.
Software and applications
In terms of software, Ubuntu is like the iPhone. Almost anything you'd care to do, there's an app for that. However, you'll have to learn to translate from the applications that you're used to on the Mac or Windows. For people looking to make the switch to Linux, osalt.com is a good directory of open-source alternatives to common commercial software.
Windows 7 users will need to buy Microsoft Office, or you can also download OpenOffice and Gimp. Windows users will be used to Outlook to handle their email. Ubuntu ships with Evolution, which handles email and also has calendar software.
Ubuntu 9.10 comes with Firefox 3.5 as standard, and it now ships with the Empathy multiple protocol instant messaging client. Empathy works with most instant messaging systems including AIM, Gtalk/Jabber, MSN and IRC, just to name a few.
Windows 7 has Windows Live messenger and ships with Microsoft's internet Explorer 8, which is a vast improvement over previous versions. You'll have to download Windows Live messenger as part of the Windows Live apps. To install other applications, Ubuntu 9.10 changed the Add/Remove Software application with a refreshed tool called Ubuntu Software Centre. You can search the directory full of hundreds of applications.
Verdict: Ubuntu wins this hands-down with a huge range of free software packages ready to download.
Ubuntu 9.10 brings cloud storage to the masses with its Ubuntu One service. It's simple and well integrated. Whenever you save a file, you have the option to save it directly to Ubuntu One. Up to 2GB of storage is free, and you can pay for higher amounts of storage.
You can also share files with other people, and your files are easily available on other computers, even ones not running Ubuntu. The service is in beta, though, so I'd expect a few glitches.
Microsoft has a remote storage and remote desktop service in beta called Live Mesh and SkyDrive, which offers 25GB of storage for free. It's not yet integrated into the operating system and Microsoft is under scrutiny about what it integrates into the OS because of its market dominance.
Verdict: Ubuntu wins this as well. Live Mesh isn't as well integrated yet as Ubuntu One is immediately from startup.
Ease of use
This is subjective. I've spent the past two years using Ubuntu, and find it relatively easy. However, just like any new operating system, there is a learning curve, and Linux advocates often gloss over this. Ubuntu has made great strides, but average users will still struggle with it at times.
Adding new software sources so that you can easily install applications such as Skype or Google Earth will be beyond most average users. User interface design still lags behind software on Mac OS X and Windows 7.
Windows 7 will be an adjustment for XP users. Vista users won't notice a change apart from a faster, smoother experience and fewer annoying pop-ups second-guessing your choices.
Verdict: Windows still is easier to use than Linux for some key tasks. Ubuntu is making a lot of progress, but Microsoft has stepped up its game as well.
Windows 7 is a worthy successor to Windows XP. Vista had well-known flaws, which meant it never replaced XP for most users. For those with a lot of investment in Windows software, there probably will be no reason to look elsewhere.
For those not that tied into the world of Windows, Ubuntu is certainly worth a look. Consumers have never had more choices for capable, powerful and easy to use operating systems, and Ubuntu is only one Linux distribution.
I had tried Linux frequently as soon as I got broadband almost 10 years ago, but I always gave up after a few days until the arrival of Ubuntu. It is a relatively easy-to-use, modern operating system, and one that will only cost you the time to download it.