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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).

System configuration. Everyone has to configure the OS at some time. Ubuntu wants you to scroll through a bunch of icons on the System dropdown menu, which is so old-school that it’s almost laughable. Good luck finding the right applet. Kubuntu has gotten away from the overly-complex but complete KDE Control Center in favor of the simplified and very Mac-like System Settings. Both solutions unify the control panels into one interface, with System Settings providing a user-friendly search function that definitely takes its inspiration from Leopard’s System Preferences. The main problem with System Settings is that not every control panel applet is designed to fit inside the container’s window, leading to scrolling and confusion when the user needs to authenticate into Administrator mode.

Apple’s System Preferences contains the control panel applets in a unified window, with a super-smart search box that highlights the preferences that best match the function you want to perform. The main window expands and contracts as needed to fit the functions, and those applets that were problematic in earlier versions of OS X (Network, for instance, was needlessly complex) have been fixed. With a little more work, though, KDE’s System Settings could match or even exceed Apple’s System Preferences.



FIGURE: Apple’s System Preferences

Web browser. Ubuntu ships with Firefox as the default browser, Kubuntu uses Konqueror, and Leopard has Safari. Of course, you can download and install Firefox on both Kubuntu and Leopard, which is a good thing. Konqueror and Safari are both decent browsers (and they share the same code base), and the most recent releases are very good indeed, but Firefox still offers more in the way of customizability and extensions. And its cross-platform nature means that users only need to learn one Web browser to use on Linux, Mac OS, and even Windows. My informal testing shows, though, that Safari truly is faster at rendering pages than Firefox and Konqueror, so I tend to use it quite a bit on my Mac.

Email and PIM. Ubuntu’s default is Evolution, which is actually a Personal Information Manager (PIM) that provides email, calendaring, contacts, to-dos, and notes. It sports impressive support for a number of different kinds of servers– POP3, IMAP, and Exchange just for starters– and its parts are well-integrated.

Kubuntu uses Kontact, which is also a PIM that supports everything Evolution does. The difference is that Kontact is really a unifying wrapper around the various components that make up the PIM, so you can run KMail, for instance, or KOrganizer (the calendar) separately. This is more in line with Apple’s method. Leopard provides Mail for email, iCal for calendaring, and Address Book for contacts. Separate apps, but they all work together. If you can get beyond that, and you’re cool with using different programs for different functions, then you’ll find that Leopard’s programs are very good, at least as good in many ways as Evolution and Kontact.

This isn’t to say that each solution is without annoyances. Mail in Leopard won’t allow you to specify a file for your signature; you have to actually type one in and that’s it. The new HTML email templates that Apple has provided in Leopard should never have seen the light of day, since HTML email itself is just evil. KMail has occasional problems with IMAP and really should integrate a Bayesian spam filter, while Evolution is just ugly and sometimes chokes on random messages. But overall, they’re all very good programs that work well.

Office apps. OpenOffice.org comes with Ubuntu, and it’s a nice, free office suite. In fact, if you want to run OpenOffice.org on your Mac, you can– it’s just called NeoOffice, and it’s still a nice, free, powerful office suite. If you buy a new Mac, it comes with iWork, Apple’s office suite made up of Keynote for presentations, Pages for word processing and document layout, and Numbers for spreadsheets. If you buy Leopard to upgrade an existing Mac, you have to buy iWork separately for about $80. I’ve used OpenOffice.org a lot, and I’ve also used iWork a lot. I understand both suites well, and I know the strengths and weaknesses of each.

If you’re typing a complicated document, OpenOffice.org Writer wins hands down. No argument here– use it. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to create a flyer, brochure, or fancy book report, Pages rocks the house, as its page layout features are top notch in a consumer-level app.

When it comes to big spreadsheets, OpenOffice.org’s Calc is great, and it will give you all the power and features you need. If you’re creating a pretty spreadsheet, without gazillions of rows and columns, Numbers would work splendidly, and will easily produce the nicest looking spreadsheets you’ve ever seen. When it comes to speaking in front of a group, it’s an easy win: Keynote is the best presentation software I’ve ever used on any OS, and I refuse to use anything else. It does everything right, and makes hard things so easy to do, while providing the little adjustments and help that make easy things even easier, that having to use Impress just feels like punishment. On my Mac, I go between NeoOffice and iWork as needed; on my Ubuntu box, I use OpenOffice.org unless I have to create a presentation, in which case I switch to Leopard.

Terminal. Kubuntu provides the full-featured and powerful Konsole, while Ubuntu has the anemic Terminal. Apple’s contender is also named Terminal, and it sucked in Tiger. In Leopard, it’s finally gotten good, with movable tabs, transparency, and window grouping. Since I always have a terminal open, I can now say that as long as it’s Konsole or Leopard’s Terminal, I’m quite satisfied.

Text editor. KDE goes overboard with the text editors (yes, I know they each serve a different audience, but still) and gives users three to choose from, while GNOME proudly provides Gedit. If you want limited options and stripped down features, then Gedit will probably fit your bill; if you want features and power, then try out KDE’s Kate. Leopard’s TextEdit is a bit of an odd beast to a Linux user. It’s basically an RTF editor that will also work with ASCII, and in a complete shocker from Apple, it will also read and write Word 2007′s so-called OpenXML format as well as OpenDocument text files. Whoa! So while Gedit and Kate are true text editors, TextEdit is a stripped down word processor that can be used for ASCII editing. However, real* nix users open Vim when they want to edit text, and since Vim runs on Ubuntu and Leopard, we’re covered.

Instant Messaging. This one’s easy– if your main goal is connecting to as many different IM networks as possible, then Pidgin for GNOME or Kopete for KDE, is your ticket. If you want extremely cool effects and excellent sound and video as well as text, and you don’t mind being limited to AOL, Google, and Jabber for your IM networks, then Leopard’s iChat will do the trick. Besides, you can always install Pidgin on Leopard, or better yet, Skype runs on Leopard and Ubuntu if you need secure IM and VoIP.

Music Players. GNOME’s Rhythmbox is just an Amarok wannabe at this point in time, so in that match-up, it’s no contest. Amarok vs. iTunes? Hmmmm. iTunes has some nice features, and it’s undoubtedly the better choice for working with iPods and iPhones (sorry, but it is), but it still makes OGG a second-class citizen for no good reason, and its inherent desire to rename and move your MP3s into new folders really annoys me. I have to give this one to Amarok. It’s the program I trust to manage my 55,000 song music collection, and that should tell you something right there.

Pictures. F-Spot is OK in its early stages, but it’s still pretty rough and lacks features. And requiring users to click inside a dropdown menu to choose each tag repeatedly is just sheer torture. On the KDE side, digiKam is slightly better than F-Spot, but it repeats the same tagging trick, and while it offers up far more features than F-Spot, it’s still not as smooth as iPhoto. iPhoto is easy to use, with very good integrated editing tools, but it makes one huge blunder: in Tiger, your pix were stored in the file system, but in Leopard, they’re stored in a pseudo-file that is somewhat inaccessible to other programs and the file system itself, forcing you to rely on iPhoto to view any photos that you’ve imported in iPhoto. A pox on all their houses!

Movies. When it comes to viewing movies, I’ve found Totem Movie Player for GNOME to be buggy and problematic. Kaffeine for KDE is much better in terms of stability and capabilities, but both will play far more formats than the stock version of QuickTime Movie Player in Leopard. If you install a couple of codec packs, like Perian and Flip4Mac, you’ll suddenly find that you can play just about anything in QuickTime Media Player, which is a polished, smooth player. If you spring for QuickTime Pro, you can also grab QuickTime movies that are embedded in Web sites and even perform some simple edits on the movies you’re viewing. When it comes to DVDs, QuickTime will play’ em, but it prevents you from taking screenshots and fully supports the DRM the movie studios want to cram down our throats. In cases like that, go with Linux and support your freedoms.

As for editing movies… well, Leopard’s iMovie is excellent for the kinds of simple jobs most people want to perform. There’s really no equivalent in Ubuntu in terms of ease of use and quality.

What’s missing in Ubuntu? Leopard has a few features and programs that simply do not exist as built-in options in Ubuntu. Quick Look is a new feature, introduced in Leopard, that allows users to select a file and then press the spacebar for a yes, quick look, at a larger view of the file. It’s a great way to tell quickly if a file contains the text or pictures you need.

Front Row allows Mac users to view movies and photos, and listen to music, from across the room utilizing the included remote control that now comes with virtually every Mac. Think of Front Row as an easy to use media center that works smoothly (Yes, I know there’s MythTV, but it’s still a bear to set up, and it’s not included by default with Ubuntu). Finally, due to Apple’s control of both the hardware and software, things like the built-in wireless support and videocamera just work flawlessly. Generally, this is something beyond the control of Ubuntu, since Canonical doesn’t make hardware, but now that deals are starting to appear with the Dells of the world to include Ubuntu as a pre-installed option, we hope to see improvements in these areas.

What’s missing in Leopard? Every Linux distro today comes with built-in support for BitTorrent, but not Leopard. This is a major drag for those of us who rely on BitTorrent for a variety of needs. And why, oh why, doesn’t Leopard support SSH and SFTP support in Apple’s default GUI apps? I can use the Finder to access machines via AFP (Apple File Protocol) and FTP, but who the heck uses FTP any longer? SSH is available via the terminal in Leopard, so why in the name of all that is nerdy isn’t it available to me in the Finder and elsewhere? C’mon, Apple!

Advantages and Disadvantages

Let’s look at a few final advantages and disadvantages that each OS brings with it. In the case of Ubuntu, APT– and its GUI tools like Synaptic and Adept– is far beyond anything other operating systems have to offer. The fact that I can install any of more than 19,000 packages easily and quickly, and then get updates to any of those packages automatically every day, is a tremendous and beautiful advantage that Ubuntu has over Leopard. Sure, Leopard has Software Update, but that’s only for Apple’s stuff. It works, but it ain’t no APT!

Another advantage Ubuntu has: read AND write support for NTFS. If you work with Windows at all, you need this. Leopard can read NTFS, but it can’t write, unless you install 3rd-party apps. It’s great that such functionality is built directly into your Linux box.

Finally, Ubuntu is almost entirely open source, and this is important, for all the reasons that open source is important. Yes, Ubuntu includes proprietary, closed drivers where it has to, and yes, Leopard’s core is open source, but clearly the open source advantage lies with Linux here. At least both are UNIX.

The update schedule is worth noting, too. While Apple takes years to release an OS, Ubuntu happens every six months like clockwork. Linux users don’t have to wait years for new features in browsers, terminal apps, mail clients, instant messaging clients, and so forth.

Leopard’s strong advantage is that you can easily run any major OS on it that you want to. Now that Macs are Intel-based, you can dual boot using the built-in Boot Camp, or choose from several software packages free (VirtualBox and Q) and commercial (VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop) that will let you run Windows and Linux in virtualized environments.

If you want to run X11 apps, just use the X11 included with Leopard, thus opening up almost the entire world of UNIX programs. If you want GNOME or KDE apps, or even more UNIX toys, install Fink or MacPorts, and the world is your oyster. On my Mac, at any time, I can basically run the best software for the job at hand, no matter if that software was written for Bash, Mac OS X, X11, GNOME, KDE, or Windows. You can’t say the same about Ubuntu. Sure, Linux has virtualization solutions aplenty– more than for the Mac, easy! — and you can dual boot all you want, but you can’t legally run OS X on a Linux box. Of course, it’s unfair to ding Linux for this, since it’s Apple’s choice to restrict users to their hardware.

Finally, the stereotype is true. For working with multimedia, there’s nothing like a Mac. Graphics, audio, and video work better on Leopard. Again, as I’ve said so many times already, things are getting better on Linux, but at this time, Macs rule this space.

A Clear Winner?

So does Leopard eat up Ubuntu? Or does Ubuntu trounce Leopard? It depends on your needs. If you’re a student with no money, go for a decent cheap PC and put Ubuntu on it. If you value freedom above all else, then it’s obvious– Linux is the only way to go. If you’re heading into a future in multimedia, you’re gonna want a Mac. If your life revolves around your iPod and your iPhone, you need a Mac.

Ideally, though, you’ll have both, since each offers features the other lacks. I use both every day. If you have the money, I would recommend buying a Mac with at least 2 GB of RAM and then immediately installing a virtualization solution that will let you run Ubuntu (and Windows, for when you just have to run Windows), as well as any other Linux you desire. That way, you can run two of the world’s best operating systems at the same time, on the same machine, and bathe yourself in yummy UNIX-y goodness. And that, my friends, is just amazingly cool.

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