Going Redmond Free

I wanted to write up something about my recent experiences of migrating my every day computing platform from Windows XP to Ubuntu.


I have been using Windows and Microsoft as my primary work PC software for years – in fact since before Windows 3.x. In my current computer(s) storage I have lots of tricky Excel spreadsheets with array formulas and multiple workbook/worksheet linkages, loads of images (not what you’re thinking BTW!) hundreds of Word documents, as well as PDF files and HTML files too.

Before I go too far, I should explain that I have also been using Linux for ages too. Using and developing server applications (mainly for the LAMP stack). I learnt most of what of I know about the OS by doing the fantastic Linux From Scratch, and subsequent Beyond Linux From Scratch, projects. In fact I still follow their mailing lists and contribute from time-to-time. So as a user of Linux I am happy to build source code, patch it, edit files by hand and use the command line, Bash especially. But, until recently, I had not found a total Linux “experience” which i felt would allow me to do everything I needed/wanted to happily. (Although that doesn’t mean I was happy with Windows most of the time, especially when it crashed or just hung for no reason…)

I had played with Ubuntu a few times and the recent releases looked very good indeed, so, last month I finally decided enough was enough. Time to go ‘Redmond free’.

Ubuntu installation:

My main PC is nothing special; a home built AMD 64 3200+ with 1G DDR RAM and a couple of Hard Disks (1 x 80G SATA II and 1 x 200G SATA I) and a DVD-RW and a DVD-RAM. Being used to Linux and partitions, the disks were heavily partitioned anyway so I just found a spare 6G slot and installed Ubuntu 7.0.4 from the Alternate CD (this gives you more control over how things are done IMHO and is faster as the UI is text based). I kept Windows where it was, on the first disk (/dev/sda on Linux), and installed Ubuntu on the 2nd drive in partition 11 (/dev/sdb12). As I already had grub installed on the 2nd drive I didn’t let Ubuntu over-write that. I just added a new section to the menu.lst file for my Ubuntu installation.

title Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty)
root (hd1,11)
kernel /vmlinuz root=/dev/sdb12 ro quiet splash
initrd /initrd.img


Because I like “clean” systems with minimal crud on them I did not get Ubuntu to copy over my Windows account and it’s data. I dealt with that manually. On my Windows system I was already using Mozilla’s Thunderbird for my mail/news/rss reader and Firefox as my main browser. So I just used the synaptic package manager to install Thunderbird and removed the default mail client which is Gnome’s Evolution. I also installed NTFS-3G – a userspace NTFS filesystem driver.

Now I could safely mount my Windows NTFS D: drive (where my Docs & Settings folder and all my data lives) in read/write mode. Using the initial command thunderbird -Profilemanager I told it the profile (along with all 12,000+ of my emails) location was on my old Windows partition. It worked flawlessly (and still is actually). It also found that the add-ons I had set-up in Windows, such as the Webmail extension for accessing Hotmail and Gmail accounts, were correctly identified too. I had to change the port settings to be above 1024 but this is well documented in the mailing lists etc. The neat thing about this solution by the way, is if I have to go back to Windows (for some weird reason) I can, and my all my email accounts and folders will still be active and up-to-date as both versions of Thunderbird are using the same store!

Office Applications:

OpenOffice.org was next… Could I open, edit, save my complex spreadsheets and still be able to open them in Excel afterwards? Yes – no problem at all. I would be lying however if I said the transition from Excel to Calc was totally painless. It was actually the little things to do with the User Interface and mouse control that annoyed me initially, but now I am getting used to Calc it doesn’t worry me in slightest. It is just a bit different that’s all and takes getting used to. As far as functionality is concerned I haven’t missed anything yet.


One service I use on-line here in the UK (A parcel company called ParcelForce) requires Internet Explorer and Adobe Acrobat Reader 6 or higher to work properly with their barcode system. A quick google led me to IEs4linux. This really quite excellent script, you must install WINE first, installs IE6 (and optionally 5, 5.5 and even now 7 with the Beta) on your Linux desktop. A note in one of their mailing lists suggested setting Wine to emulate Win98 and getting an older version of Acrobat (5) from here to use as a plugin. This worked perfectly too and with no headaches to set up or use.

I have a Logitech MX1000 laser mouse which features very fine granularity of movement, horizontal scrolling and 12 buttons! It wasn’t difficult finding a link which showed me how to get pretty much everything working as it should do!

Eye Candy:

I did install and play about with Beryl for a while but it wasn’t stable enough to be used permanently. However, the Beryl and Compiz teams have recently made-up and joined back together to form the CompComm team. In the very near future we shall probably have a desktop experience that will make Vista look old and tired.


Printing was a breeze really. I have two main printers: a regular HP LaserJet monochrome job on my parallel port (no issues whatsoever) and a new, network attached Konica Minolta 2530DL colour laser. For this one, I really just followed the instructions on the driver software and it has worked ever since. In fact with my Windows system, it used to “disappear” some days for no reason and I’d have to re-install the whole bloody thing. Funnily enough, it was this, finally, that motivated me to go for the switch-over. Of all the aspects of modern computing to make me want to switch to a Linux Desktop, PRINTING was the last thing I’d have expected it to be.


I have now not had to go back to my Windows installation for over three weeks. And I use my PC every day. I do find Skype for Linux a bit behind the times (although it works fine) and so does everyone else by the sound of it so I am looking forward to them putting a bit more energy behind that, but to be honest – that’s is about the only gripe I have. Although the audio quality is not quite as good as under Windows, my Polycom Communicator works fine, and their Win32 software drivers do a lot of the echo cancellation! Maybe I’ll try them under WINE one day. My digital cameras and other plug and pray gear all seem to work perfectly too.

All in all, I can recommend Ubuntu 7.0.4. It is easy to use, VERY STABLE, works and, oh yes, IT’S FREE! Need I say any more?

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