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Ubuntu Linux's Achilles' Heel: It's Tough To Install On Laptops

The wildly popular Linux distro isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially if you try to install it on a laptop, our reviewer Alex Wolfe finds. Come along on his Ubuntu safari, as he hacks his way through bug-fraught installation attempts.

Ubuntu Safari

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I started my Linux journey wanting to like Ubuntu. It's pitched as a great operating-system option that's ideal for newbies and experienced PC users alike. Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth is, like Bill Gates, both an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. And there's something appealing about joining a community that's built up such a robust ecosystem in so short a time (Ubuntu was introduced less than three years ago.) What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, none of the Ubuntu stories--no Linux reviews, for that matter--talk about the inevitable problems many people run into during the installation process. Yet online forums are rife with traffic on stumbling blocks, which often cause people intent on converting to the open-source operating system to give up and go back to Windows.

When Ubuntu starts up from the LiveCD, it commences by loading the Linux kernel.

(click image for larger view)

When Ubuntu starts up from the Live CD, it commences by loading the Linux kernel.

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Things go most smoothly when you pick the plainest of plain vanilla desktops for your Ubuntu install. Selecting anything else--like the reasonably standard HP laptop I chose--could be an invitation to a software nightmare. Sadder still, the average homebrew Linux newbie will falsely feel that it's his technical ignorance that's the problem.

By now, you can guess what my conclusion is: Ubuntu isn't all it's cracked up to be. Indeed, if you're an individual user--and even more so if you're supporting an enterprise--the only path around problems is to use a heavily tested, commercially supported distro. My preference is SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (though Red Hat is probably fine, too). I don't doubt that many fanboys will take issue with this (leave your comments below), since you'll have to pay $50 for SLED 10, and that's counter to the "free" open-source ethos.

Now that I've told you where I'm going, let me show you how I got there. Come along on my Ubuntu safari.

My test bed was an average machine, picked at random from the computer detritus lying around the house. The salient detail for our tale is that it's a laptop, not a desktop. Notebooks are always harder to work with, whether you're talking Linux, Windows, or hooking up add-on hardware. That's just a fact of life, because of the unusual variety of specialized drivers and hardware permutations you'll often find in downsized systems.

Preparing For Liftoff

My laptop guinea pig was an HP Pavilion ze4200 laptop, running Windows XP, purchased new in January 2003. The 6.6-lb laptop has a 14.1-inch display and is powered by a 1.53-GHz Athlon XP-M 1800+ processor. It's also got 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 20GB hard drive, a DVD/CD-RW drive, and two USB 1.1 ports. While this might seem like a light configuration today, it's more than capable of running Ubuntu. The 20-GB drive is well above Ubuntu's 4-GB disk-space requirement. The 256-MB of memory exceeds the 64-MB minimum posted on the main Ubuntu installation page, though it only just meets the minimum spec on the 7.04 release notes, so I'm primed to accept a slightly longer installation time.

True, my HP laptop has nowhere near the heft of the four systems Dell is offering with Ubuntu. Dell's machines include two notebooks--the 1.73-GHz Core 2 Duo-based Inspiron E1505 N and 1.5-GHz Core 2 Duo Inspiron 1420 N--and two dual-core-based desktops, with 1.6-GHz and 1.8-GHz Intel processors.

When I requested a review unit from Dell in June, they said they didn't have anything immediately available. (Dell's reps recently told me they should have a tester available in about a month. I'll review it then.) That's when I decided to install Ubuntu out on my own machine.

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