Ubuntu holds its own

A chance encounter with the free operating system gains it a new fan.

Tarryn Giebelmann
By Tarryn Giebelmann, Sub-Editor
Johannesburg, 05 Jun 2013

My mother is the ultimate bargain hunter. Her cellular contract decisions are not based on device, data bundle or minutes, but rather on what she gets for free... an extra phone, perhaps a TV, maybe a gaming console. As long as it's free, it doesn't really matter if she already has five phones; you never know when a sixth will come in handy.

A few weeks ago, she produced a netbook she had received with her most recent contract. "I don't know how to use it," she said, as she handed over the gadget. The reason she couldn't figure it out was because her limited computing skills meant she was familiar with Microsoft, and only Microsoft. When I pointed out that the netbook ran on Ubuntu, I got a blank stare in return. "Okay, well, you can have it then."

Unlike my mother, I'm happy having one functional laptop, even if it is five years old, but I was intrigued by Ubuntu, as I had never used it before and was keen to test-drive it. I was pleasantly surprised.

Ubuntu is a free operating system available for desktops, notebooks, phones, tablets, servers and even TVs. For the individual, it offers a simple, intuitive interface that can be customised on many levels. For the business user, Ubuntu offers access to legacy applications, remote management, and, with a full office suite, it eliminates the need for costly software licences. For a support fee, businesses can manage thousands of devices. Furthermore, it's certified for hardware including Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba and HP, and for software including Centrify, Likewise and LibreOffice, among others.

Above and beyond

It took a few minutes navigating the unfamiliar interface, but after a quick read through the user guide, which is written in plain language, I was able to do a lot more than I was expecting to and was suitably impressed.

A pop-up menu, or "Launcher", to the left of the screen provides shortcuts to the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client, which allows users to link an Internet e-mail address, ensuring mails are readable via the client, as opposed to through a Web browser. The File Manager groups documents, music, videos, downloads and pictures (powered by Shotwell). From here, users can also link to other PCs on the same network, with the system picking up my husband's PC immediately. Users can also customise the Launcher so that most-used applications are within easy reach.

With Ubuntu, users have access to office functionalities (OpenOffice by Oracle was installed on the netbook, but Ubuntu also runs LibreOffice), including a word processor, dictionary, spreadsheet and presentation program; an e-reader; games, including Solitaire, Mines, Chess, Sudoku and others; as well as apps like a calculator and the option to download others from the Ubuntu Software Center.

Settled in

Before I knew it, I was typing this article, browsing the Web, kicking it old-school while playing Solitaire and browsing tons of apps to improve my computing experience.

I was a bit concerned about security, as the netbook did not have any anti-malware software installed, from what I could tell. However, after a bit more research, I discovered that, with Ubuntu, users don't have to worry too much - security is built in with automatic updates ensuring users' information is always safe.

Ubuntu offers a simple, intuitive interface that can be customised on many levels.

Just when I was really on a roll, linking my e-mail account, downloading social media apps, personalising my home-screen, I got an SMS from my mother. "And? Have you figured it out?" it read. To which I replied: "It's amazing once you get used to it. It has everything you need for basic computing, and it's fun having a new interface."

Her reply was annoying. "Oh okay, so maybe dad can use it?"

I'm annoyed, because I have to give the netbook back. I'm annoyed that I hadn't discovered Ubuntu earlier. And then I remembered: my current software is up for renewal! Hello, Ubuntu; watch out, Windows.

For those looking for an operating system that supports all common computing functions, and who aren't keen to cough up the licence fees, Ubuntu is definitely worth considering.