Ubuntu as Intended. My Experience Of Using the ‘Default’ Ubuntu

Like many so-called “power users”, the first thing I do after installing Linux is customize it. I set it to my preferred desktop settings, applications and configuration because I know what I like, and I normally go to great lengths to get it just right. Recently, after setting up a new Ubuntu Maverick install for my wife, I began to wonder what it would be like to run a system on the defaults. To try things their way – to use Ubuntu’s desktop settings, Ubuntu’s preferred applications and configuration. This meant I could not install any of my favorite applications (Chrome, VLC, Exaile…) if Ubuntu already provided an equivalent (Firefox, Totem, Rhythmbox…). How did it turn out? Frustrating, but with some surprising results. (Note: This is not your usual Ubuntu review, but my miscellaneous ramblings, and some praises. Read on for details.)

MeMenu

I’m a creature of habit, and I’ve kept a GMail tab open at all times for the better part of the last 4 or 5 years. One of the newer features of the Ubuntu desktop is the MeMenu, which aims to combine chat, email, and social networking into the Gnome panel, thereby hoping to remove the need for a browser tab.

ubuntu-as-intended-memenu1

The concept is simple and clever. The applet monitors incoming notifications (such as IM chat), displays the text using the builtin notification system, and changes color to indicate a pending message.

ubuntu-as-intended-memenu2

As far as actual usage, I personally found it a bit lacking. Half the functionality is found in the applet shown in the first screenshot, while the rest is split to the Indicator Applet. Oddly, it’s the Indicator which actually holds all the setup for both.

ubuntu-as-intended-memenu3

Between the confusingly split application controls, and the fact that neither applet provides a quick and simple way to sign on and off, I’m forced to give the current MeMenu a completely subjective grade of C+. Great idea, but mediocre implementation.

Multimedia Applications

As I’ve shared before, I’m very picky about my multimedia applications. Since beginning this experiment a few weeks ago, a few of the applications have grown on me. One of those is Rhythmbox. Previous experiences never left me feeling very good, but after forcing myself to use it a bit more I’ve grown to appreciate some of its design.

ubuntu-as-intended-rhythmbox

With the built-in burning, flexible smart playlists, and fast media import, I’ve been rather impressed with Rhythmbox, at least much more than I was expecting to be. I’d give it a solid B.

I’ve got mixed feelings, however, about Brasero. It burns discs and all, it does the basic job, but in a way that’s the problem. For quick and common tasks, it’ll probably let you do what you want, quickly and easily. Once your tasks become more complex, and you begin to have preferences about how the job is done, Brasero might not meet your needs.

For example, I put a lot of effort into making compilation albums for my nephew. It takes me an entire year to put each one together, and each track is precisely cut, faded, and normalized to my liking. If I attempt to burn the CD with Brasero, it will automatically apply its own normalization to all tracks anyway, ruining the manual volume adjustments I had already made. I have yet to find a way to disable this. For having some great features but lacking in control, I’d give Brasero a C.

Finally, while a few applications surprised me (in a good way), the one I still can’t stand is Totem, the video player. It supports almost nothing out of the box, and to get even basic playback you’ve got to jump through codec install hoops. Even once everything’s up and running, Totem still lacks the feature set of more capable players like VLC.

ubuntu-as-intended-totem

I understand that Totem as an application is consistent with the Gnome look and feel, but I can’t help feel that it can’t be that hard to include a more capable player. Sadly, Totem gets a D.

Conclusion

While I can’t speak for anyone else, my experience with the stock OS was better than expected. The MeMenu has not yet fully replaced my GMail tab, and I still prefer Exaile to Rhythbox, but the stock Ubuntu isn’t really meant for me, it’s meant for the casual PC user. Other than perhaps Totem, the standard applications are well suited for that type of person. The stock setup may only get a “meh” from me, but it’s got more than one interested “oooohh” from my wife. With the Unity desktop taking over in future Ubuntu versions, we might begin to see a shift away from some of the Gnome-centric applications, perhaps to something new. So far, just about every Ubuntu release has improved upon the last, so I for one am looking forward to what comes next.

But for the record, I personally wish they’d stuck with Gnome Shell as originally planned.

24 comments

  1. Nice one;)
    I pretty much hate Totem, the only thing I UNINSTALL from default Ubuntu :) VLC gets all the cheers here. Rythumbox is definitely one of the best apps:):) Banshee will replace it, and it will replace Totem(as far as I know…)
    But what I like most about Ubuntu is the ease of use. I run it on my x40 Thinkpad, which comes with XP installed. I have to update it for hours just to get wireless manager working right:( To add some real Bulgarian keyboard support I have to install some files… and so on. In Ubuntu all is in, easier to set up and more stable :)

    • Yeah I’ve tried to get used to Totem, but I always end of missing VLC’s features and playback support.

      Sounds like you’ve had good luck with Ubuntu. As another reader commented, Mint is even better when it comes to having everything out of the box.

      • Mint is definitely good for a newbie, but I don’t need it. But I agree that a couple of the default apps should be changed.

  2. codec hoops? Gstreamer bad and ugly packages and libdvdcss aren’t that difficult to get – and for various codecs sudo aptitude install ubuntu-restricted-extras

    • I wasn’t trying to imply it’s insurmountably difficult, just that some other quality video players do not require a new user to know whether or not packages with names like “bad” and “ugly” are a good idea.

  3. Simple solution…install Linux Mint instead which will continue to use the Gnome Shell and has all the codecs installed

  4. Josh, I was really tickled by you article. Having had the same experience installing my wife’s copy of Lucid Lynx, I too decided to try the vanilla installation – and I too was pleasantly surprised by the experience. In fact I have decided to stick with it and forgo the temptation of my usual heavy customization. Great article!

  5. There are much better default choices ubunut could make. A few examples are windows buttons back to the right, lighter theme, wallpaper, screensaver at random (and not blank) and not to lock and require a password when coming out of screen save . . .

    Here is the Ubuntu Saner Defaults Remix:

    http://ubuntu-sdr.sourceforge.net/

    • I personally like the buttons on the left, themes are easily changed, the screensaver is easy to change, and if you choose the auto-login feature on installation, no password prompt. Just 1-2 clicks in the system menu for most of that, in fact…

      • You are absolutely right, friend. These things are quite easily changed. However, this remix is especially gear toward first time users in such case the defaults are important. A first time user who just successfully completes an install would be quite perplexed and think something is wrong when the screen goes completely blank after a short 5 minutes of idle time (instead of going to a say “random” screen saver which indicated that the OS is still running) and then when the mouse is moved or a key is pressed this same first time user has to enter his/her password just to get back to his/her desktop. Those are clearly not sane default choices. Further, a new first time user will be coming from a MS Windows background and will be used to seeing the window buttons on the right side (let’s face it, Mac users are extremely loyal.)

        Default choices (even seemingly little one) do make a difference to new users.

        • Fair enough. I came from Windows and found the change quite strange and subtle, but it quickly grew on me, and it did take a little bit of chin scratching (actually, googling) to figure out how to change the buttons, but by then I started liking them better on the left. And the ambiance theme goes great with that grey wallpaper with the rope around the wood pole on 10.10. Of course, this is all opinion. One of the great things about Linux is the ability to alter and change as you see fit. And the effects… Wobbly windows? Sure. Burn the windows on close? You have it. Fold into an airplane on minimize? If you say so. Want a MacOS style dock? Why not? Gnome, KDE, XFCE, whatever? Your call. Want to use a command line system? I guess you can. OK, I’m done… I got a bit carried away, but whatever. You have a good point. I’m gonna suggest this to a friend of mine who uses Windows. Does the normal version use Gnome? I see Lubuntu and just SDR versions. I may not have dug too deep though.

          • Yes, the normal version does use Gnome (just like Ubuntu.) I recommend the DVD images as they frankly will require nothing additional for a complete experience. Like all ubuntus, jockey (hardware drivers) will help with the download and installation of any needed proprietary drivers for video and/or wireless.

  6. Totem….. Not my favourite, I used to use Kaffeine, but now like SM player as well, but of course VLC is a must!

  7. For me, Lucid was the first Ubuntu distro I managed to use without changing a single thing visually. I guess the design team’s work is beginning to bear fruit. The window theme, icons were very good and the wallpaper o.k. Even the decision to move the icons to the left made sense after a while. I did later install the beautiful Faenza icons, but Lucid and Maverick have been perfectly usable from the get go.

    I have been using the daily gnome-shell builds and I think it is spectacular, and I also the migration to Unity seems to be ill advised. But I bet it will not be that hard to `aptitude install gnome-shell`, so I don’t really care. OTOH, I haven’t tried Unity, so this may be an uninformed opinion.

    • My Unity experience has been somewhat limited as well. You and I seem to be among the few who really think Gnome Shell is a good direction. For me, the killer feature is the speed and ease with which virtual desktops can be created and destroyed.

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. I’ve tried Brasero, and found it to be unreliable and annoying (this may have changed in the meantime). On the other hand, I have found XFburn to be a reliable, lightweight burning application, and I tend to use it for old machines and when I am burning from a VNC session.

    I admit I’ve never been able to take the default desktop on “user friendly” distributions for very long. I usually end up using something different altogether. When I’m being lazy, I use XFce, because it’s about as close to Gnome and KDE as I can generally take (no offense to those projects). Sometimes I use Fluxbox, Openbox, or IceWM. I’ve experimented Window Maker as well. Of course I realize I am far from the target audience for the default Ubuntu install.

    For multimedia, I always have Xine and VLC available, and usually have Mplayer available as well. Music apps I have found something to like about include Quod Libet and Exaile, but sometimes I wish for something more lightweight that still can manage a library.

    • I’ve never really tried XFburn, I’ll have to give it a shot, thanks for the suggestion.

      Window Maker has been a favorite of mine for years. I’d be using it today, if it wasn’t for the fact that it hasn’t been upgraded in about 5 years now.

  9. I really liked your content and honesty. I have tried maybe 15 distros so far and used them as they were. At my age I really do not want to screw things up with attempting changes that I have not done or attempted for 30 years. Started with UNIX and was glad when GUI came out. NO MORE writing code! Using LINUX because I think MS has screwed the pooch, too much code (bloatware) and it’s prices are over the top. I like your article!

    • Thanks! The most real UNIX I’ve done is the BSD side of things, and not all that much of that. I was a convert from MS originally, and it was Linux’s amazing flexibility that got me hooked.

      Thanks for the comment

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