Review: Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon vs. Mac OS X Leopard

Scott Granneman referees a technological cage match between Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) and Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard).

Today we have a technological cage match involving two operating systems, both UNIX- based, both mature, both with passionate detractors and even more passionate defenders, and both released just a week apart. I’m talking, of course, about Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon), with its final release on October 18, and Apple‘ s Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which was available for purchase on October 26.

The stereotype for each OS is well known: Mac OS X is elegant, easy-to-use, and intuitive, while Ubuntu is stable, secure, and getting better all the time. Both have come a long way in a short time, and both make excellent desktops. So we have two great desktop operating systems out at roughly the same time. Let’s see how they stack up against each other.

Hardware Support

Ubuntu will run on pretty much any computer with an Intel-compatible or PowerPC CPU. The distro claims that you need a bare minimum of 256MB of RAM, but expect glacial performance. In reality, you’ll want at least 512MB of RAM, with 1GB even better. You’re told to expect that the OS will take up about 4GB of space on your hard drive, which is nothing in terms of today’s ginormous hard drives. My main Kubuntu box has 756MB of RAM, with a Pentium 4 CPU, and while certain tasks can be kind of poky, overall it’s quite usable.

You can install Leopard on any computer made by Dell, HP, Lenovo, or… just kidding! You install Leopard on Apple’s boxes, or you buy a new Mac, and it comes with Leopard pre-installed. That’s it. According to Apple, you can install Leopard on any Intel-based Mac, as well as any PowerPC G5 or G4 box, as long as it has a 867 MHz or faster CPU. You’ll need at least 512MB of RAM, a DVD drive for the installation disc, and 9GB for the OS. My main Mac is a first generation MacBook Pro, with a 2 GHz Core Duo CPU and 2GB of RAM. Leopard screams on it, with the dreaded colored beachballs almost entirely a thing of the past.

The bottom line: if you have an old PC sitting around, it’s gonna run Ubuntu or Windows. No Leopard for you. If you have a Mac made within the last five or six years, you can probably run Leopard on it, as well as Ubuntu.


Most operating systems have improved their installation routines over the last few years, and this is certainly true for both Leopard and Ubuntu. In fact, both are incredibly easy to install. If you’re dual-booting with Windows, the easiest line of attack in the case of Linux is to install Ubuntu after Windows, while the opposite is true for the Mac– install Windows using Boot Camp after Leopard is completely set up.

Leopard bests Ubuntu in one area, though: multiple monitor support. It just works like it’s supposed to in Leopard, and I shuttle my laptop back and forth between a huge variety of monitors and projectors. I’ve never had an issue. Contrast that to Ubuntu, which touts its better multiple monitor support. It may be getting better, but it’s still not there yet, and I’m just glad I had my trusty xorg.conf file backed up and ready to fall back on. Both Leopard and Ubuntu are excellent when it comes to installation.

FIGURE: Configuring Graphics in Ubuntu

Ease of Use

From the usability standpoint Linux’s greatest strength, choice, is also its weakness. Ubuntu is no exception. With two major desktop environments, KDE and GNOME, that look and act much differently, along with different window managers, and with the whole shebang sitting atop X11, and Compiz if your video card supports it there’s a lot of room for variation. When it comes to apps, Ubuntu tries hard to simplify matters, but users still face an astounding array of choices.

On the one hand, this is great– you can pick the exact app and appearance that suits your needs and desires best. On the other hand, this can really confuse the heck out of users new to Linux. Not to mention, simple things like different Open and Save dialog boxes, depending upon whether you’re using a KDE or GNOME app, can prove to be annoying and deadening in terms of usability.

The Mac, on the other hand, is just the opposite. Apple has invested millions of dollars and man hours to ensure that its usability is, overall, the best in the business with a few major missteps, which I’ll cover shortly. Its look and feel is unified throughout Leopard, including even the programs that come bundled with the OS. This uniformity means that everything acts the same way– open one app’s Open or Save dialog box, for instance, and you now know how virtually every single Open or Save dialog box will work. Grok the unified menubar, and you just absorbed how every Mac app works.

The problem comes if you don’t like the way Apple decided to do something. Too bad, bud. It’s Apple’s way or the highway. Case in point: the new translucent menu bar. It’s awful. Someone inside Apple thinks it’s a great idea, though, so that’s what we get. But here’s the kicker: there’s no exposed way to turn off the translucency and go back to an opaque menu bar. Three weeks after Leopard’s release someone figured out how to change the opacity of the menu bar by using an arcane command in the terminal. So while there are usually ways to” fix” things the way you’d like them, don’t always expect Apple to make it easy to do so. It’s a good thing that the majority of Apple’s UI decisions are excellent, thoughtful choices that make the Mac a productive joy to use.

But not always. For instance, Leopard introduced a new, reflective Dock that many people find ugly. Again, after some searching, users figured out a command that gets rid of the ugly and goes back to an easier-to-view 2D look. Or take Stacks. In previous versions of Mac OS X, you could drag a folder to the Dock and then right-click on it to access a hierarchical menu of the folder’s contents. In Leopard, that isn’t even an option. Apple instead calls folders on your Dock Stacks. Right-clicking on a Stack produces a contextual menu instead of the contents of the folder; to view the folder’s contents, left-click on the folder.

However, left-clicking shows you the contents either as a fan that leans to the right or a grid of about 30 or so items. More than that, and you have to open the Finder, thus negating the whole point of clicking on the Stack in the first place. Once again, users have solved the problem with third-party apps that restore pre-Leopard functionality. It’s just too bad that Apple doesn’t give users more options in cases like these.

But, keep in mind, the fact that I’m reduced to complaining about the opacity of a menubar and related items should tell you how good the Mac UI really is.

However, I’m not going to let Ubuntu get off scott free. It still needs to fix many ease of use issues. The difference is, however, that since Ubuntu is open source, it’s usually a bit easier to fix the problems. Usually, but not always. Let’s talk specifics.

One problem that affects both KDE and GNOME has to do with how programs are launched. Ubuntu uses the default GNOME and KDE menus to start programs, access control panel applets, and manage other system functions. These don’t seem too bad until you check out what openSUSE has done to the K menu and the GNOME panels. The openSUSE K menu offers five tabs– Favorites, Applications, Computer, History, and Leave– that logically divide the functions one would want from a computer’s” Start” menu. In the case of GNOME, openSUSE does away with the confusing mish-mash of a top and bottom panel (Really, does any new user see the logic in that? Does any advanced user?) for a unified bottom panel, with a single Computer menu that provides access to Applications, Documents, and Places. This is far more logical, usable, and daring than the alternatives, and Ubuntu should be willing to adopt such measures when it makes sense, and lead by coming up with its own innovative ideas when necessary.

Kubuntu has its own share of UI disasters, most of them due to rushing things into the distro while they’re only half-baked. Not nearly powerful enough for experienced users (where are the tabs?), and too buggy for newbies, the Dolphin File Manager is simply not ready for prime time, and is currently a mess that needs some serious attention before its proper unveiling in KDE 4. Desktop Search is a necessity in today’s operating systems, and no incarnation in any Linux distro has yet to match the power, speed, and accuracy of Spotlight as it is now seen in Leopard. Seen in that light, the Strigi Desktop Search found in Kubuntu is just an ineffective toy. One day it might be ready, but it’s not now, and it should never have been added to Gutsy Gibbon.

Tracker, found in Ubuntu, is much better, and is good enough to use on a day-to-day basis. Additional functionality is needed- sort results by date, for instance- but overall it’s usable and accurate.

Linux has come a long way when it comes to ease of use, and it’s definitely getting better all the time, but overall Leopard is still ahead of Ubuntu (and both are way ahead of Vista). Apple makes mistakes, but overall its system is more logical, simple, consistent, and unified than Ubuntu, which still has too many elements that are overly complex, inconsistent, and fractured.


Of course, what people really like to look at– and play with– are the applications that come with an operating system. Let me say again, both Leopard and Ubuntu blow Vista away when it comes to the default programs they each provide. Let’s split things up into the kinds of programs the LM audience looks for in an OS, and see what Leopard and Ubuntu each provides. This is a general list, so don’t look for the obscure program that you and ten other people use. We’re talking general nerd usage here.

File management. GNOME uses Nautilus, KDE uses Dolphin (although Konqueror still works), and Leopard uses the Finder. Nautilus has gotten better over the years, and Ubuntu stripped out the ridiculous spatial defaults, so it’s actually quite usable for managing files. I’ve already complained about Dolphin, but at least Konqueror is still available. Konqueror provides a maximum set of features, and does the job beautifully. Its KIO support for an immense variety of protocols is nothing short of astounding, so you can browse all kinds of remote filesystems with Konq.

Leopard’s Finder works well, and while the NeXT-based column views are extremely useful, the new Cover Flow views that let you slide through previews of your pictures, text files, and movies is something that will make you wonder how you lived without it. But the lack of tabs means that I’m often left wishing that Konqueror was available for Leopard.

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