Ubuntu and Canonical have come a long way since their 7.04 Feisty Fawn release, which followed Microsoft’s Windows Vista. Back then, Canonical failed to capitalise on Vista’s universal rejection by its users. But it's now 2012, and things are different. Does Ubuntu 12.04 have what it takes to position itself as a more usable alternative to Windows 8? We put both operating systems in front of 18 testers to find out...
The Ubuntu advantage
It’s ironic how the one feature in recent Ubuntu releases that might have lost it some users will now work in its favour and attract new users by the bucket-load. We are, obviously, talking about Unity.
Microsoft’s revolutionary Metro desktop is already facing criticism similar to that Canonical fielded when it introduced Unity on the desktop. They listened, learned and
Furthermore, Windows 8 is a major departure from how Microsoft does desktops – offline installations that could connect to each other. Now, with Windows 8, you have an online desktop designed to deliver the best of the cloud to your visually new desktop.
It can do things in a way that no version of Windows ever could before. And we in the Linux world know what that means, right?
Be it with KDE 4, Gnome 3, or Unity, suddenly introducing new paradigms and a dramatic new way of doing things displeases users.
And while the changes might be new to Windows, they have long been mainstays on the Linux desktop in general, and Ubuntu in particular.
In this feature, we’ll attempt to ascertain if Ubuntu’s maturity and flexibility, and its range of options will score
over Windows 8’s radically different new desktop paradigms.
Our test group...
There were 18 testers in our group. Although this was by no means expansive, we tried to mimic real-world usage patterns of these OSes. Of these, 15 testers used Windows either at home or in offices. Ten testers from the group used Linux alongside other OSes, including three who also used Mac OS, while only one used Linux exclusively.
Of the Linux users, six ran Ubuntu, and the other three shuffled between RPM-based distros, primarily Fedora and OpenSUSE, while the exclusive Linux user ran Debian. The group was dominated by non-technical users (11 in all), who used computers for every-day tasks. They were joined by three programmers, two power users and two enterprise users.
None of the testers had experienced Windows 8 or Ubuntu 12.04, although many had read reviews of Windows 8 and seen screenshots of the new features. Despite this, they had no idea about how deeply they were woven into Windows 8’s DNA. Only two testers were aware of the new Ubuntu 12.04 features, and understood their implications.
Both Canonical’s Unity and Microsoft’s Metro are unconventional desktops. So much so, in fact, that most of our testers first thought we were pulling a fast one on them when we invited them to give us their feedback for this feature.
Scrolling horizontally is still perceived as being pretty much a mobile concept, and it didn't go down well with the majority of our testers.
Unity vs Metro
Windows Phone 7 users did recognise the Windows tiles interface, but having to navigate it with a mouse negated their familiarity with the interface. Others were simply at a loss as to how to proceed. Everyone’s first impulse was to figure out a way to “get to the desktop”.
Unity, too, was different from what most Windows (and non-Ubuntu) users were used to. But it still didn’t appear to be as ‘outlandish’ as Metro. Many simply thought of Unity’s launchers as shortcuts mounted on a panel, and then used them as such to launch their apps. On the other hand, usability-wise, the Metro Tiles looked out of place on a 23-inch FullHD monitor.
Even after we familiarised the group with the basic operations of the Metro desktop, many didn’t discover some of its crucial elements. For example, most users didn’t realise that they could influence the tiles by right-clicking on them.
A lot didn’t know they could add tiles for things from within apps (such as their IM contacts), but they all appreciated the ability to do so when informed about the feature. Those who had read reviews knew about the Charms bar and how to bring it up, but others just discovered it by accident.
Obviously, not everybody had a smooth experience with Unity, especially first-time users. But their inconveniences with Unity’s way of doing things were resolved easily after a quick glance at the Ubuntu Features page (www.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/features). The most common issues were spotting the Lens icons at the bottom, especially on larger displays, and finding apps that weren’t already pinned to the launcher. The traditional-looking desktop in Windows 8 is labelled, aptly ‘Desktop’.
It behaves like Windows desktops have in the past, and looks almost the same, too – we say almost because it lacks the one crucial bit that most users identify with Windows, the trademark ‘Start’ button. Thanks to this feature most were as lost at the Start screen as they were on the Metro Tiles.
Once again, we jumped to the testers’ rescue and showed them the Windows 8 Hot Corners. The idea of Hot Corners seemed sensible only to users familiar with their implementations in either Mac OS or Ubuntu Unity. However, much to their disappointment, the Start Hot Corner button returns them to the Windows 8 tile-laden Start screen, from which they had just escaped. Not surprisingly, the first thing most Windows users tried to customise was to figure out a way to get back the traditional Start button and behaviour.
Despite the fact that Unity was as foreign to most users as Metro, they could find and launch apps they wanted, and use the desktop as they were used to, irrespective of the OS they came from.
All apps under Unity had the familiar window controls to minimise, maximise and close them – something sorely missing from the full-screen Windows 8 Metro apps.
Designed for touch
The fact that Windows 8 is designed with touchscreen devices in mind is pretty much obvious from the moment you boot up the OS. From the tile-laden Start screen to the Metro interface, the entire OS is designed to be completely operable by the five digits on each hand. So much so that even in the more traditional Windows 8 Desktop, browsing through open apps and switching between them requires you to junk how you’ve been performing these actions. To Microsoft’s credit, though, they have designed probably the best touchscreen interface we’ve seen to date. The actions and gestures to launch apps, cycle through open ones, close them, or send them to the background is pretty impressive on
Unity is designed with a touchscreen device in mind as well, but it’s still a few paces off Windows 8. For starters, the traditional window controls help it score over Windows 8 on a regular desktop, but are difficult to tap on a touchscreen. Cycling through open windows is another task that’s still not optimised for touch.
Even the notifications in Windows 8 are written for touch-based environments.
Customising the desktop
With 12.04, Ubuntu has refined further its simplified consolidated System Settings window. Users can now make the launcher
a permanent fixture on the desktop, as well as tweak its behaviour for multi-monitor set-ups, which was a much-requested feature by Linux users. This was well received by our bunch of testers, who had pre-conceived notions about the difficulty of setting up Linux.
Their experience with setting up Windows 8 was rather interesting. Their first instinct was to look for the Control Panel, which isn’t readily accessible, at least under the Consumer Preview. It shows up when you bring up the Charms bar under the Desktop view, but not under the main Start screen. This discrepancy wasn’t noticed by many users. Like Ubuntu 12.04, Windows 8, too, tries to simplify its settings options, with the most common settings accessible from under the
Other advanced settings, such as the BitLocker encryption, are still accessible via the Control Panel, or you can search directly for them from the Start screen. While most didn’t figure out the location of the Charms bar on their own, all our testers appreciated Windows 8’s style of segregating its settings, making commonly used settings more readily accessible than less frequently used ones.
Accessing hidden features
Another similarity between Ubuntu 12.04 and Windows 8 is their focus on making less visible features, buried beneath nested menus, easily accessible. Windows 8 is tackling this issue by adding an MS Office-like Ribbon to its Windows Explorer, while Ubuntu’s solution is the Heads Up Display (HUD).
Most testers thought of Ubuntu as being far more appreciative of traditional desktop navigation controls (keyboard and mouse) than Windows 8.
Still, most of our testers preferred to stick to the Context menu when working with Windows Explorer. According to Microsoft, Windows Explorer has more than 200 functions (a fact we shared with our testers), but many simply continued using it to just look at and launch files.
Surprisingly, HUD got more looks than we expected, even though it forces people to abandon the mouse and use the keyboard. Linux users in general, and Ubuntu users in particular, appreciated the time-saving facet of HUD and how it seamlessly performs system-wide settings, such as setting up VPN, as well as app-specific actions such as saving
a document or opening a bookmarked page.
Best Windows 8 features
We cherry-picked Linux users from our bunch of testers, and asked them to jot down their favourite Windows 8 features, which they think will enhance usability and productivity of the Windows desktop user.
Interactive tiles: The Metro app tiles do more than just open apps. They also display live data in the tiles. Our Linux testers agreed that this will enhance productivity, provided they can customise what information is displayed in the tiles. So, for example, while they like the Music app tile, which displays info about the current track, they would like to turn off the Mail tile, which displays snippets of their unread emails.
Improved task manager and File Copy tool: Both apps are more verbose than ever, and allow users more control. Most users liked the Performance and App History tabs of the task manager and the ability to pause file transfers in the File Copy window.
SkyDrive integration: Although Microsoft’s SkyDrive service has been around for some time now, its tight integration in Windows 8 is definitely one of the highlights of this release.
Split-screen apps: Metro apps can be stacked
besides one another neatly. Our testers
believe this will be a useful feature for users
Mounting ISOs: Starting with Windows 8, users will be able to mount ISOs on virtual drives simply by double-clicking them.
While Windows has always shipped with some pre-installed apps, no Windows version has ever been as usable out of the box as Ubuntu. That’s all set to change with Windows 8, which ships not only with a wide gamut of apps, but also an Ubuntu Software Center-esque online
Windows 8 supports two types of apps: those that are designed for its new Metro desktop, called Metro apps, and the legacy apps that do not conform with the Metro guidelines. The Consumer Preview has several of both.
One of the apps that most impressed our testers is the Windows Reader, which can read PDFs. It has also got several view modes, and even enables users to highlight text and add notes to documents.
For enterprise users
Both Ubuntu 12.04 and Windows 8 ship with features that’ll appeal to the enterprise desktop user as well. For starters, they aim to cut down on tool proliferation by baking several common enterprise functionalities in the OS itself,
such as mounting ISO and Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) images.
Microsoft has tweaked its forced restart policy when applying security patches. It’s also increasing its notice period before it automatically restarts the system from, the default 20 minutes for Windows 7 to three days for Windows 8 – and that, too, if you have no apps running in the background.
Then there’s the most talked-about enterprise-centric feature of all, known as WindowsToGo. With this feature, companies will be able to provide a streamlined Windows 8 installation to their mobile users on an encrypted USB thumb drive.
Ubuntu’s biggest advantage for enterprise users over Windows, however, is that it doesn’t distinguish artificially between the home user and the business user. In addition, Ubuntu
12.04 is a Long Term Support (LTS) release, which is designed to align with a typical enterprise’s long support cycles. Still, in addition to the regular release, Canonical is also working on a special Ubuntu Business Desktop version of the distro.
On the other hand, the app that our testers were most disappointed with was Internet Explorer. To be fair, they weren’t disappointed by the app itself, rather by its implementation. IE is bundled both as a Metro app and a non-metro app. Unfortunately, the apps look and behave differently depending on which version of the app you’re using.
This turned off users big on standardisation, and confused others, who just couldn’t figure out why the address bar jumped from the top to the bottom of the screen. On the Ubuntu desktop, it was business as usual – it bundles apps for handling all types of files users throw at it. For media files it couldn’t play, it offered to download the respective codecs with one click, which was something all our testers could do.
Despite Windows 8 having an expanded collection of apps, it still lacks several important options, such as a fully-fledged office suite. All of which can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Centre, of course.
Starting with Windows 8, users will be able to download and purchase Microsoft-certified Metro apps directly off the wires – something we Linux users have been doing for a long time.
All our testers had a positive experience with the Windows 8 Store, which worked as advertised. It’s still under development, and although its repository of apps is nowhere close to Ubuntu’s, expect a lot more apps when it nears release.
Although there’s little difference between the online stores in Windows and Ubuntu, the more advanced users noticed that there’s no provision to install Metro apps from other sources by adding third-party repositories, as with the Ubuntu Software Center.
One major advantage of Ubuntu that every tester noted was the integration of USC within the Applications lens in Unity.
The ability to directly download apps without launching another app was a hit with first-time users.
Maximising real estate
One of the main ideas behind both Metro and Unity is to best utilise the available screen real estate – which is why the Metro apps in Windows 8 run full-screen with no window controls. To close Metro apps, users need to grab them from the top and drag them towards the bottom of the screen, before releasing them into oblivion. This is something none of our users could figure out intuitively on their own. They tried the Alt+F4 key combo and, thankfully, it still worked.
Unity in Ubuntu 12.04 also hides the window control, but testers who were used to the global menus in Mac and previous Ubuntu versions were able to find them with relative ease. Also, while Unity now doesn’t auto hide the launcher by default, this behaviour can be tweaked easily enough from within the
All our testers preferred Unity’s way of giving apps maximum screen real estate. They’d rather sacrifice a sliver of the screen, and have the global menu with the window controls and the familiar file menu.
Since both OSes now run apps in full-screen windows, they’ve had to devise ways of alerting users when an app in the background requires their attention. This is one area where Windows 8 scores partially over Ubuntu.
For example, while Windows was busy downloading an app using the Windows Store Metro app, users switched to other Metro apps. When the app was downloaded and installed, Windows briefly flashed a message that the app was installed. If a user hadn’t been on the computer, they would have missed
But if the background task is on the traditional-looking desktop, for example a file copy operation, then it behaves much as in Windows 7 – the progress is tracked by an animated icon in the taskbar, which starts flashing and changes colour when the task is completed, and continues behaving this way until the user brings the window in focus.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, notifies a user of a completed activity by wiggling its icon in the launcher. It looks nice, and grabs your attention if you’re looking at the screen. But the animation lasts only a couple of seconds, and users who aren’t at the computer won’t be any wiser when they return.
Microsoft has devised a new way of switching between apps using the mouse. To reveal all open Metro apps, you have to first move your mouse to the upper-left corner of the screen. This will reveal the most recent app. If you then move the mouse alongside the left edge of the screen, you’ll be shown all your open apps.
Instead of rewiring their neurons, most of our testers decided to continue using the Alt+Tab keyboard combination, which was unanimously voted as the faster way to switch between apps.
Also, our bunch didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t switch between Metro apps and
non-Metro apps at the same time. That’s because the Desktop is a Metro app itself! So in the app switcher, the Desktop shows up as
a single window, even if it has multiple apps running inside it.
Native applications for Windows 8 use
Our testers liked the fact that Windows 8 now enables them to update all Metro apps at the same time from within the Windows Store.
Many of our testers wondered if they’d be able to install and run legacy Windows apps, and if so, how these apps would behave in this new environment.
To test this out, we downloaded
a couple of freely-available Windows 7 apps, and tried installing them on top of Windows 8. Much to the delight of our testers, they all installed without a hitch. Although not designed for Metro, these apps do install a tile in the Windows 8 Start screen, which more or less acts like a shortcut to launch these apps in the traditional-looking Desktop.
Microsoft also claims that it has put effort into making the classic desktop more touch-friendly, especially to account for the fact that fingers aren’t as accurate as the traditional pointing device – the mouse. This works well for legacy apps which, although designed
for a keyboard and mouse, work well with touchscreens, too.
On the other hand, app integration in Ubuntu’s Unity has matured quite a bit since it was first introduced last year. 12.04 flawlessly ran all non-Unity apps our testers threw at it, and even KDE apps feel at home in Unity, and even adhere to the global menu.
Reset and refresh PCs
Two features that almost brought tears to the eyes of most of our testers who used Windows regularly, were the options to Reset and Refresh their Windows 8 installations.
As the name suggests, the Refresh feature leaves all the user’s files, settings, Metro apps, and apps downloaded from the Microsoft store and clears out the rest – system hogs such as toolbars, adware and unwanted apps.
The Reset function is a bit more severe –
it wipes a Windows 8 installation completely. It’s advertised as an ideal solution if you’re planning to give away the PC.
Again, like most things Windows 8, the ability to zap the installation to its factory defaults isn’t exclusive to Windows, but is more involved in Ubuntu, and definitely not as newbie-proof as on Windows 8.
Windows 8 is being hailed as the most revolutionary Windows release ever, not just because of its interface, but because it’s redefining how Microsoft looks at Windows installations. One of the most widely talked-about features is its acceptance of the cloud, and how it’s used to deliver synchronised installations, much like Ubuntu.
Starting with Windows 8, users will now be able to create online accounts that will associate their settings with a Microsoft account. Their settings go with them when they sign in to any Windows 8 machine with the credentials of this online account.
Not all our testers could wrap their heads around the concept of online accounts, especially the every-day Windows users. They had been creating offline Windows user accounts forever, and it wasn’t a surprise that many chose to do so, even with Windows 8.
Ubuntu 12.04 is big on privacy.
The geekier of our testers went ahead and created themselves an online account, and didn’t have any complaints when navigating the Account Creation wizard. They also appreciated the control they had over what settings are synced.Although Ubuntu doesn’t yet have such levels of user account synchronisation, its OneConf mechanism is integrated with the Ubuntu Software Center and its Ubuntu One Cloud service to replicate installed apps across Ubuntu installations.
Windows 8 is big on the cloud. In addition to its online account feature, it also enables you to connect to various cloud-based services, including its own SkyDrive file-hosting service.
Windows 8’s cloud integration was well received by all our testers. But as with other aspects of the OS inspired by Linux, online storage was something that made more sense to Ubuntu users who had been using Canonical’s Ubuntu One service since the last few releases.
SkyDrive offers 7GB (although 25GB was offered before April 22) of free space compared to Ubuntu One's 5GB.
There are several similarities between Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Canonical’s Ubuntu One service. Although our testers could upload files to the SkyDrive service, they couldn’t figure out how to back up their computer to it automatically, as with Ubuntu One and Deja Dup. Add to this the fact that the Ubuntu One service has a new control panel and
a streamlined setup wizard, which all our testers could navigate easily to add and remove folders for automatic synchronisation.
Another aspect of Windows 8’s cloud focus that surprised several testers is its new ability to hook users into their online life. After setting up their online accounts, users in Windows 8 could connect to their accounts on online services such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
On Ubuntu, this same functionality is extended by the MeMenu. The only difference is that, while Ubuntu users knew the app that was passing on the IM conversations or bringing in and broadcasting messages over Twitter and Facebook, on Windows the users knew these apps only by their function, such as mail, or messaging. Needless to say, this ‘dumbing down’ didn’t please the more advanced users.
Even more surprising is the fact that despite being easy to set up and configure, Windows 8’s social desktop was turned down by some existing Windows users. While some still found it all a bit too complex, many said that they shunned it because they weren’t used to interacting with their friends in this manner.
The one app that was appreciated universally by both Windows and Ubuntu users was the Photos app, especially its ability to email photos directly off the app itself, without configuring traditional emailing programs such
as Outlook. Also, no one could point fingers at the implementation of the various online apps. Even novices could compose messages using the Mail app, add contacts from the People app, and include attachments from the local disk along with files from SkyDrive or from within the Photos app.
Various apps in both Ubuntu and Windows store lots of information about their users and how they’re working with the computer. Most of this info is used for convenience purposes, for example to get you quickly to the last-used file, or to send anonymous usage statistics to the developer for improving the app or the OS itself. One of the highlights of Ubuntu 12.04 is its Privacy Control Panel. All our testers could use the panel to delete their activities. Advanced users appreciated the control they had over which activity is logged and which isn’t, based on applications, file types
In comparison, Windows 8 has fewer privacy control options, and these are scattered all over the place. Under the Privacy options in PC Settings, users could stop apps from accessing their location, as well as their account name and picture. But they couldn’t customise the behaviour for individual apps, as they could in Ubuntu. It only gets worse from here. Very few could figure out how to clear their personal info displayed in the tiles of the various online apps, such as email. And no user was even aware that they could tweak their right-click Jumplists to hide recently opened items and programs.
One thing all our testers agreed on with respect to Windows 8 is that it’s an impressive touchscreen OS. Even Ubuntu users couldn’t deny Metro’s usability edge over Unity, on
a touchscreen in its current form.
But as a desktop OS, Windows 8 got
a universal thumbs down from our testers.
They didn’t like being forced to use an OS designed primarily for touchscreen devices with limited real estate, such as a tablet or phone, on their multi-core desktops with wide-screen FullHD displays. Ubuntu’s Unity had pretty much the same criticisms in its early incarnations, but they have evolved since. In fact, much to our surprise, existing Ubuntu users had a much smoother experience with Windows 8 than existing Windows users!
When all is said and done, while existing Windows users were amazed by Windows 8’s new-found cloud antics, our Ubuntu users
were far less excited, since they have been using their Linux distro in this fashion for quite
a while now.
Despite the fact that Windows 8 does some things better than Ubuntu (user account syncs for example), most agreed there wasn’t anything jaw-dropping about Windows 8’s implementation of age-old Ubuntu tricks.
Sync and backup with Ubuntu One
1. Install Ubuntu One
Ubuntu One has a new setup wizard and control panel. The app isn’t installed by default. When you launch it for the first time, from the Launcher or from System Settings, click the Install button to download the app.
2. Create an account
After the app has been downloaded and installed, you’ll need to create an account with Ubuntu One. The free account gives you 5GB of space. After registering, use the authentication details to sign in.
3. Select cloud folders
Once you’ve signed in, the app will display the existing folders in your online account, if you have already been using the service. From the list, you can select the folders you want to sync locally with this computer.
Using the Check Settings button, you can control how your files are synced. You can ask the app to sync new folders that are created in your account or shared by others, and restrict upload and download speeds.
5. Choose local folders
Select the folders on this computer that you’d like to sync with your online account. The app displays the default Ubuntu folders, but you can also add custom folders from anywhere on the computer.
6. Hook up Deja Dup
You can set Ubuntu’s default backup app, Deja Dup, to back up your files to the cloud. Go to System Settings and click the Backup icon under System. Go to the Storage tab and set Backup location to Ubuntu One.
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