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When Microsoft Corp. unveiled Windows Vista a bit more than two years ago, it produced more angst than the IT market has seen in recent history. Solution providers ran into problems upgrading systems from Windows XP. Driver support and application support—as typical for many new Windows releases—were markedly spotty and weaker than most would have liked.
In fact, the anti-Vista uproar has been so loud that Microsoft has been forced to keep Windows XP alive in many forms—including as "downgrade options" for OEM customers and, currently, as an option for the new class of PC called netbooks. But, to be fair, Microsoft did fix many issues and problems with Vista when the company released Service Pack 1, and driver and application support has noticeably improved.
But so, too, has Linux—and without the controversy or drawing the anger and wrath of a marketplace. In fact, while Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has stumbled over the past two years in gaining acceptance of Vista in the corporate world if not the marketplace in general, various distributions of desktop Linux have been gaining significant support. Lenovo Group, Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. now provide at least some client computers with Linux OS as an option.
So the time was right, following the release of the most recent version of the Ubuntu desktop Linux OS, for Test Center reviewers to take a side-by-side look at the two operating systems.
Ubuntu 8.10 Desktop Edition, nicknamed "Intrepid Ibex," provides so much functionality and ease of use, at zero cost of acquisition, that it is really impossible to ignore.
In previous years, there would have been no contest. For installation, Windows required disks. Linux required disks, line commands, support from online user groups, more line commands, more support and, well, you get the picture. But over the past few years that really hasn't been the case. Installing Ubuntu—or even other distributions of Linux from SuSE to Red Hat/Fedora to smaller distributions like Mandriva—has become a snap. (Customization is another story, though.)
For now, Microsoft has lost any advantage it once had in the basic installation process with Vista against Ubuntu.
Once each OS was installed during evaluation in the Test Center lab, Ubuntu 8.10 scored big against Vista in both performance testing and in wireless integration—areas where Linux has had some trouble in the past.
Using the same custom-built PC test bed loaded with, alternatively, Ubuntu 8.10 and Windows Vista Business, Ubuntu proved to be a quicker installation, scored higher in benchmark testing, managed wireless connectivity more easily and booted slightly faster than Vista. Keep in mind that less than two years ago, wireless integration with Ubuntu was pretty weak and nonintuitive—especially for Linux newbies— while Windows XP enjoyed nearly universal market support. Early results show Ubuntu has closed the gap dramatically.
The Test Center's PC test bed was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 CPU at 2.53GHz, an Elitegroup Computer Systems G31T-M motherboard with integrated Intel graphics and 2 GB of SDRAM. First, Windows Vista Business was installed on the PC; using Primate Labs' Geekbench benchmarking software the system rang up a score of 2,838. That's about on par with other Vista-based systems we've reviewed this year with similar hardware specs. Geekbench is a multiplatform benchmarking software and scans each system for elements of both hardware and software performance, including floating-point CPU performance and I/O.
We then did a clean install on the same PC with Ubuntu 8.10. Running Geekbench on the PC, the system returned a score of 3,367—a measurable and noteworthy performance spike. Even apart from the Geekbench score, the PC with Ubuntu 8.10 was noticeably faster when opening or switching between applications. Boot time with the PC running Vista was 56 seconds; with Ubuntu 8.10 it took 50 seconds.
Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on performance.
In Ubuntu 8.10, developers also have integrated a simple, intuitive console for managing wireless connectivity, including for Wi-Fi and broadband wireless. After installation, it took two clicks of the wireless console to hook up the PC to a wireless router. The PC was built with a Linksys Wireless-G PCI adapter, nothing exotic, and connectivity worked like a charm. No line commands were needed; no installation of drivers was needed. It just worked. Connecting to a network via Ethernet, Wi-Fi or wireless broadband is now possible with two clicks.
In a wired Ethernet connection, Vista will in most cases just connect—no questions asked. But to flip between Ethernet and WLAN, for example, does take some clicking back and forth and required additional navigation that isn't always the most intuitive.
Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on client connectivity.
Portability And Sharing
There are a few other noteworthy improvements in this Ubuntu version vs. the 8.04 release. With two clicks of the management console, a "guest" account can be created to permit more than one person to customize a desktop on the same PC. A guest account can then be saved to a thumb drive and loaded onto another PC. Developers also have provided a streamlined upgrade process to get from one version to the next. (The upgrade process was a little balky when we tried to upgrade from 8.04 to 8.10 inside a Sun VirtualBox virtual machine.)
Windows Vista does provide for sharing and guest use of the client, but it's a much less intuitive and much more restrictive process.
Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on portability and sharing.
This is where Microsoft does have an advantage with Vista—which supports all the major Web browsers including Firefox 3.0, Chrome, Opera, Safari and, yes, Internet Explorer 7.0. While there are early indications that Internet Explorer 8, which is now in beta, could have some problems unless bugs are resolved prior to launch, the wide array of popular browsers that run on Vista is an advantage for the folks in Redmond.
A number of niche browsers do perform on Ubuntu, which is bundled with Firefox. And some may even say that its inability to run Internet Explorer is actually an advantage. But a growing segment of users may find themselves switching back and forth between different browsers for different reasons (for example, iPhone users may lean toward Apple's Safari browser even on Windows for a number of portability and consistency reasons.) A limited lineup of browsers compatible with Linux and Ubuntu won't help anyone seeking to migrate. In this case, Vista gets the nod for browser support, but its advantage over Ubuntu is a relatively small factor in measuring the overall capabilities between the two operating systems.