How Does Ubuntu 9.04 Measure Up to Mac OS X?

Bypassing Windows altogether, Mark Shuttleworth has stated that OS X is the operating system to beat. With Ubuntu's 9.04 now in wide distribution, we look at how it stacks up with the competition.

Bucking the historical trend of comparing desktop Linux with Windows, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth recently told journalist Bruce Byfield that he was looking to Mac OS X as the operating system to beat for future Ubuntu releases — particularly in the areas of usability and user experience.  Now that Ubuntu 9.04 is out, how does it compare to Apple’s latest offering?

The “overall usability” of an operating system is hard to assess because it is so nebulous, but by breaking down the subject into a handful of distinct areas, we can measure Ubuntu’s present status in more meaningful terms.

Hardware Support and Configuration

As we all know, Apple has a natural advantage in the area of hardware support and configuration because of its tight control over Macs’ component parts.  But Ubuntu has made great strides forward in simplifying the process of detecting and correctly configuring problematic components like wireless adapters and video cards.  Jaunty Jackalope introduces a new restricted drivers manager that automatically probes the hardware to detect devices that can be used with closed source and binary-only drivers. It is still a hassle to jump through the separate-installation-for-restricted-drivers hoop, especially since certain system options (such as Compiz-based “desktop effects”) silently fail if you use the default open source driver, but it has never been this easy.

Jaunty ships with a new X.Org release that makes manual editing of xorg.conf even more of a rarity.  Multi-monitor configurations can be detected and adjusted from the Display Preferences tool, and input devices like Wacom pressure-sensitive graphics tablets are now hot-pluggable and auto-configured.  Jaunty also makes great strides forward in webcam support, with most USB video cameras now correctly detected and configured automatically — a big strategic win.

There are still weak spots in Ubuntu’s hardware support, including Bluetooth and the PulseAudio sound server.  Both have made improvements, but still require some level of manual intervention to configure hardware for a great many users — as a quick search on the forums will illustrate.  Likewise, support for laptop power management is improved, but still imperfect, with suspend and hibernate varying in stability depending on the exact hardware. This is due in part to Ubuntu’s introduction of closed source drivers.

Considering that Ubuntu needs to be able to run on any computer, with any hardware configuration, it actually has much better hardware support than Apple’s offering. Not only that, but you can buy just about any wireless card, web camera and other peripherals these days and have them seamlessly work. Just try doing that on OS X.

Grade: B, for greatly improved X server and video camera support, but room to grow in Bluetooth, audio, and power management.


The flip side of Mac OS X’s natural advantage on hardware support is Ubuntu’s battle-tested installation process, which over the years has grown faster, smarter, and simpler.  Those who have never installed, re-installed, or upgraded OS X might be surprised; it is certainly point-and-click, but lacks many of the niceties of modern Linux installers: no live CD/DVD mode for testing, no live installation, multiple discs that require swapping out, and perhaps most troubling, you must take a separate installation path if you want to preserve documents and previously-installed applications.

Ubuntu 9.04, by contrast, is available in a wide variety of formats: live CD, live USB key image, and installation directly through Synaptic, for a variety of hardware architectures.  It is easier to install, particularly when you include important options like disc partitioning that allow you to install Ubuntu alongside existing operating systems without fear of overwriting them.  You can also configure separate partitions for the storing of user data or any other directory on the system. And that doesn’t even begin to address the options you have for the system itself, including the main Ubuntu, the KDE-based Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and all of the other remixes, including a netbook-oriented option.

The 9.04 installer does not introduce any significant changes to the install process, although it does give you the option of setting up your system with encrypted home directories (which OS X also provides), which the security-conscious will praise.  On the whole, the installer has gotten better and better over the years, and leaves very little to be desired.

Grade: A

Base System and Desktop

For day-to-day usage, the desktop, file manager, and system configuration tools contribute most of what we would consider the OS’s usability scenarios.  Ubuntu 9.04 ships with GNOME 2.26 plus an assortment of tweaks and additions from the team at Canonical.  The most widely publicized changes in 9.04 are the new notifications system and the default disabling of the Control-Alt-Backspace keystroke combination, which has historically restarted the X server — neither is a major change in its own right, but both are controversial because they break with precedent. 

The new notification behavior strongly resembles the Growl system for OS X.  Growl is BSD-licensed and not developed by Apple, but it is widely popular with independent application developers and users.  The Control-Alt-Backspace keystroke combination has no direct parallel in OS X; it is possible to force a restart using the power key, but that is not likely to happen accidentally.

A few desktop and system configuration elements have been renamed since the last release, notably the session manager which now goes by the far more descriptive “Startup Applications.”  The System Tools submenu has been removed from the Applications menu, which is an improvement, and the shutdown screen has been redesigned to better present the available options to the user.  Regrettably, the menu system is still saddled with the vaguely-named (and inaccurate) “Places” menu, so there is still work to be done. Overall, the changes represent a move in the right direction, but they aren’t fully cooked yet.

I doubt whether there is any way to succinctly explain the distinction between “suspend” and “hibernate” without delving into the technical details, but the explanatory text in the shutdown tool does a good job without getting in the way.  A new utility called Computer Janitor debuts in 9.04, offering to locate and optionally remove accumulated but unnecessary material like old Debian packages, simplifying a task all Ubuntu users have had to perform manually in the past or ignore completely.

Assessing Ubuntu’s desktop usability against OS X’s is tricky indeed.  Apple still uses confusing unlabeled red, yellow, and green buttons for its window decorations; a choice it should have abandoned long ago.  Ubuntu’s default Human theme is visually easier to understand while still looking nice.  For some common tasks, the Finder (OS X’s file manager) is easier to use than Ubuntu’s Nautilus, but Finder is not without its faults.  Finding available network shares is harder than it should be, and Apple’s attempt to mask the Unix filesystem is pleasant as long as you don’t need the filesystem, but aggravating when you need to locate a particular component. 

Nautilus still treats removable media in a confusing way, with multiple paths to navigate to same location, perplexing quasi-URL-like schemes in the location bar (e.g., computer:/// ), and vulnerability to failure caused by other applications (try cding to a mounted CDROM, then attempt to eject the CD in Nautilus — Nautilus can’t tell you what the problem is). On the other hand, manually umount removable media under OS X and watch the operating system get itself in a twist. At least Ubuntu is still maintaining the underlying power of the command line, which is part of the power of Linux.

Ultimately, OS X is still ahead of Ubuntu on desktop usability because Ubuntu’s flaws are more likely to interrupt or prevent the user from completing a task.  To cite a few unrelated examples: you may prefer the GNOME taskbar to OS X’s Dock for keeping track of open applications, but it is much more difficult to figure out why your printer suddenly stopped processing jobs in Ubuntu.  You might like the individual entries in Ubuntu’s System -> Administration menu better than OS X’s all-in-one System Preferences panel, but it is much harder to correctly configure Ubuntu’s Firestarter than OS X’s built-in firewall.

Finally, OS X’s built-in help system trumps Ubuntu’s in at least two respects.  First, it is written as a guide to troubleshooting the current problem, while Ubuntu’s leans more towards documenting the contents of particular windows, and second, OS X’s Help system can actually open the appropriate windows and assist, which Ubuntu’s cannot.  Attempt to get help configuring a Bluetooth headset in both systems for an example.  OS X guides you through the process step by step; Ubuntu returns a list of man pages.

Grade: B-, in spite of big steps forward, the problems that remain tend to be task-blockers.  Many are the fault of underlying components (HAL, CUPS, etc.) rather than the desktop, but the end result is the same.

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