I'm not one to write reviews of things like desktop Linux systems typically. In fact, any of you who read my blog for Reia should probably just stop now. But I just tried desktop Linux for the first time in two years, and my experience was anything but pleasurable.
My Background (a.k.a. chance to be a blowhard)
For the past several years OS X has been my desktop of choice. I get a beautiful, slickly animated GUI interface, seamless 3D compositing of all UI elements, nifty commercial software, and Unix underpinnings. Sure, it's proprietary, but I don't give a crap.
That said, I am no stranger to desktop Linux. My first desktop Linux experience was using FVWM on a Slackware 2.3 system back in 1995. So yes: I'm one of those Linux users that survived the transition from a.out to ELF and from libc5 to glibc. I'd try a few different distributions, next RedHat and finally Debian before becoming a Debian person. I tried RedHat 5.0, when they made the switch to glibc, and it was such an unmitigated disaster I destroyed the install CD (purchased from a store) out of rage. That is the lowest low I think I've ever seen Linux reach.
I remember trying out an early Enlightenment, which leaked memory so quickly it completely consumed the 16MB of RAM I had installed at the time. Eventually I would discover WindowMaker, which would be my standby window manager for years to come. I flitted about with OS choices after that, running FreeBSD as my primary desktop for quite some time.
Around 2001 I discovered the Synergy software which lets you seamlessly share a keyboard and mouse across two computers. From then on I loved running two computers, typically one with Windows and one with my *IX du jour. This has remained my standard configuration for quite some time.
Around 2006 I was given a new monitor for work, with a strange 1680x1050 resolution. I was running Debian at the time, ripping my hair out hand editing my X config trying to get it to work properly. I could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong, and this was after spending 5 years as a Linux sysadmin. I decided to give Ubuntu a go. I stuck in the install CD, and BEHOLD it booted straight into X and my monitor was automagically configured to the right resolution! I was awestruck.
I'd been against Gnome for years, but by now it seemed almost downright usable. I actually liked having things like desktop icons! It was pretty nifty.
However, shortly thereafter I would buy a MacBook and ditch desktop Linux entirely. I've been running an OS X/Windows Synergy setup ever since (although now I use OS X exclusively at home)
Fast Forward to Today
Amidst many of my coworkers setting up their computers to dual boot Windows and Linux, I figured I'd do the same. I thought it'd be pretty nifty to have OS X one one computer (which would remain my primary development computer) and Linux on the other.
First I installed Windows, which wasn't without its hiccups but when I was done I was left with a 30GB Windows partition and 220GB free for Linux.
I threw in the Jaunty Jackalope CD one of my coworkers had and started up the graphical installer. I missed the good old text-based Debian installer I had used for over a decade, but hey, it's the 21st century, nothing wrong with graphics, right?
I got to the partitioning step. Now, I've dealt with some pretty bad graphical partition managers in the past. Solaris's was particularly atrocious. At first glance Ubuntu's seemed fine... it recognized I had an NTFS volume and offered me the option to "Install Windows and Linux side by side". I figured this was such a common use case it would just naturally know the right thing to do.
So, I click OK and it pops up a modal dialog asking me if I want to resize my NTFS partition. WTF? Resize my NTFS partition? NO! You have 220GB of free space to work with there, why would you resize my NTFS partition? It offered three buttons I could click: one that said "Go Back" which was highlighted (and I guess the one I was supposed to choose), one that said continue/proceed or something, and the traditional "X" in the corner of the modal dialog window to close it. I clicked the latter, which was the wrong decision.
It then popped up another modal dialog window, informing me it was resizing my NTFS partition to fill the entire disk.
Seriously, are you kidding me? Closing a modal dialog window with the "X" button does NOT MEAN I WANT YOU TO PERFORM A DESTRUCTIVE ACTION. And furthermore, who installs Linux and wants it to resize their Windows partition to eat up the entire disk? Frustrated, I opened up a terminal, started gparted, shrank my Windows partition back down to 30GB, and rebooted to try again fresh.
This time I chose to manually partition my disk (although I still longed for cfdisk) and things seemed to go a little more smoothly for awhile.
After I booted into X for the first time I was prompted to install updates. I hit the "Check" button which prompted for a password. It downloaded a list of updates. I hit "Install Updates". Nothing happened. I clicked it again, some 30 times. Nothing. The button depressed, and that was it. I called a Linux-loving coworker over, he looked at it and shrugged. "I don't use the graphical updater". Yes, popping open a terminal and typing apt-get upgrade was seeming like the way to go here. I clicked "Check" again then "Install Updates". Magically it worked this time.
After all was said and done, my display was not at the right resolution. It popped up a little notification prompting me to install restricted drivers. I installed the nVidia drivers, which completed successfully, then tried to open my display preferences.
An error dialog popped up, saying that display preferences couldn't be launched, and I need to run my vendor tool instead. It said I could hit OK to do so, but when I did, it said there was an error launching the vendor tool, and I needed to run a particular command from the command line.
Are you kidding me? At this point I'm seriously confused: who is Ubuntu targeting? When was the last time Windows or OS X asked me from a modal dialog to pop open a terminal and type some shit on the command line? I tried running the command and got yet another error. Frustrated I rebooted.
Now when I try to go to the display preferences, at first I get an error saying I need to run the vendor tool, and then it launches the nVidia preferences. Only... the native resolution of my monitor is not listed. All of them are below the native resolution of my monitor.
I thought: oh well, I'll just edit my xorg.conf by hand. So I did. And I rebooted. I was still at the same resolution, and the changes I made to my xorg.conf were clobbered by something. I don't know. I reopened the file and they were completely gone. What process overwrote it? I don't have a freaking clue. I remember when Linux gave you a sense of control over what you're doing, but now I feel powerless.
Now, insult to injury: this is the exact same monitor which in 2006 I stuck an Ubuntu install CD into my computer and it launched straight into X at the native resolution. I didn't have to install any restricted drivers. I stuck in the CD and it just worked.
3 years ago Ubuntu had me excited that maybe, finally, desktop Linux was reaching a level of general usability. Now here I am, a power user, and I've run into seemingly intractable problems I can't solve.
Pre-Emptive Anti-Zealot Repellant
Did I go onto forums and ask about my problems? Did I post bugs on Ubuntu's trackers? No. Know what I did? I rebooted into Windows. And here I think I will stay. I freshly installed Windows the same day and had it up and running to my satisfaction in a few hours. Windows is working and I am happy, therefore I don't feel the need to try to help Ubuntu sort out their mess.
All I can say is, without a doubt, Ubuntu 9.04 represents a rather severe regression from my previous experience with using Ubuntu on a desktop. We still continue to run it on our servers at my place of employment and there I have few complaints. However, at this point I cannot see myself running it on a desktop, and worse I've lost my sense that desktop Linux is actually getting better over time.