Dipping my toes into Linux (again)

I’m no stranger to Linux. I went through a phase in the noughties of running it, partly inspired by the moves from Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow, and for a while, I used a boxy fat Dell Inspiron running Ubuntu. That wasn’t a great experience: Ubuntu was renowned at the time for its ease of use and friendliness to non-technical users, but all too often, I found myself having to dig into command lines and tweak drivers. Unlike Cory, I didn’t have a hotline into Canonical.

I headed back to using the Mac because there were just too many rough edges around using Linux, and the applications available weren’t as good as those I was used to. For example, I hated OpenOffice, which looked like an old and clunky version of Microsoft Word. In fact, most of the software I was using looked like something from the late 1990s, the time before user interface design was done by designers, rather than coders moonlighting with a copy of Paint.

Times change. An awful lot of what I do on a day to day basis can be done on Linux. The application I do most of my writing in (Typora) has a Linux version. Firefox has recently become my primary browser. Microsoft has a version of Teams for Linux, which means I can use a Linux machine for my day job.

When I recently bought a new Windows machine, I bought a ThinkPad X1 Carbon because I knew I wanted to try Linux out again, and it’s a great laptop to run it on. You can buy the model that I purchased with Ubuntu pre-installed rather than Windows (and I was pretty tempted at the time). It’s massively over-specified for a Linux laptop, with an 11th generation i7, 32Gb of RAM and a 1Tb SSD, but this means it’s also a computer which could last me a long time, especially if I’m not being driven along by the endless hardware upgrade cycle which Microsoft and its partners would love to see you on.

With all that in mind, I decided that the time was right to dip my toes back into the world of Linux. So, after watching a few videos about the various distributions available, I downloaded and installed Zorin OS, a pretty Mac-like experience. It’s also very beginner-friendly: it even includes an ingenious way of handling Windows applications by installing Wine and any required supporting files when you first click on a Windows installer.

The installation experience was as smooth as you would expect: Linux distributions are now mature and stable enough that installing on anything but peculiar hardware will be easy. It lets me quickly partition my drive, splitting it between Windows and Linux. It was then a quick task to customise the interface to look more Mac-like, install the applications I wanted, and away I went.

Then two days later, I changed my mind and decided I wanted to use the latest Long Term release of Ubuntu instead. Canonical issues a new long-term support version of Ubuntu every year, which guarantees five years of updates and support. LTS releases tend to be stable, which was also a selling point.

Ubuntu 22.04 LTS uses the latest version of Gnome, which has an updated display engine which is smoother than previous versions. I also wanted to work on something as mainstream as possible. I was sold on using just Linux on my ThinkPad and getting rid of Windows altogether. The overall experience had been more than good enough, and I’ve fallen out of love with Windows 11. So I installed Ubuntu, taking the whole 1Tb SSD for it. Goodbye, Windows 11.

As I had expected, I’ve had no problems at all with hardware. In fact, some of the hardware that I had expected to have to do some fiddling and driver installation with worked immediately. For example, the fingerprint reader, which I used to log in to the machine, works just as well with Ubuntu as it did with Windows. My CalDigit Thunderbolt dock, which I use to connect to the webcam, display and a few other peripherals, also works perfectly.

The only place where I tripped up a little was adjusting the display to get the UI sized correctly. The display on my ThinkPad is a 16:10 panel which runs at 1920×1200. Running at the native resolution makes text and UI elements a little small; I enabled fractional sizing and bumped it up to 125%, the same as Windows runs. That works, but it leaves the text blurry – not enough to make it unusable, but annoying. The answer was to leave it running at 100% but turn on Large Text in the Accessibility options. The text was now crisp and large enough for me.

And that is all the interface tweaking I’ve done, other than moving the dock to the bottom and making it look a little more Mac-like, all using the built-in options with no additional software installed.

Operating systems should get out of the way and let you get on with the actual work you do. If you’re worried about and twiddling with the OS, you’re playing rather than producing. There’s nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it. But for people who want to do some real work, the OS shouldn’t be something you think about much.

So far, for me, Ubuntu is doing precisely that. I’m writing, not computing. I’m creating, not being bamboozled by a thousand different options. I’m delighted with it, so I really can’t write much more about the experience. It’s just been simple.

One Comment

  1. […] Dipping my toes into Linux (again). When I bought my ThinkPad X1 Carbon last year, one of the thoughts behind it was to start using Linux again — and I finally got around to installing it a couple of weeks ago. I liked it so much that I nuked the Windows partition altogether, and since then, I’ve been using the ThinkPad much more. In fact, it’s probably become the device I use more than any other. […]



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