It must be a year or two since I last used Ubuntu on a regular basis. Today I decided to install the Intrepid Ibex on my high end desktop (CPU 2.8 GHz, 512 Mb RAM, Asus P4PE mother board, Geforce 7600GS) as the openSUSE 11.0 would anyway soon be replaced by 11.1. Now I'm not so sure about installing openSUSE even if DHL should deliver the box sometime next Monday.
The installation went without problems as is usual with all mainstream distros today. In fact I have not encountered any big problems since 2001 when I had a brand new desktop at the university. My own desktops are always old and cheap hardware so usually there is no problem with hardware drivers. Even the sound device is nowadays not usually muted by default. Seven years ago it took me some weeks or months of reading about Linux before I learned how to turn the sound on.
After reboot I installed the driver for the graphic card I just added to the computer. Some old card made by Ati was replaced by an almost modern Geforce 7600GS that can even cope with Compiz desktop effects. I am not a great fan of desktop effects but I must admit that the effect for changing the virtual desktop is cool! Furthermore, Ubuntu does not overdo the effects: transparency and shadows are kept to the minimum and they are not disturbing. I only needed to turn on the subpixel smoothing to get nicer fonts on my LCD monitor (System -> Preferences -> Appearance -> Fonts tab).
One small thing was missing from the GNOME menu, namely Firefox web browser. I tried to add an application starter for FF in the panel, but even then the system seems not to find an icon for Firefox.
I encountered one more small annoyance when I tried to add a second user to the system. Ubuntu did not accept a user name that already had a home directory under /home (created by the old openSUSE system). There was no problem in continuing to use the old home directory for the first user created - the problem seems to exist only for further users. I could of course have tried to add the second user with command line but I decided just to use another username for the second user and consequently also another home directory. Then I copied the files and changed the owner, group and permissions to match the new user name.
There should be a more obvious solution but this quick and dirty solution is always available regardless of the distribution. It is quite possible that all the problems I encountered are caused by the fact that I wanted to continue using the old /home partition and the old configuration files for each user. Usually there are no problems when one just upgrades the distribution but there are always some slight hiccups when one changes the distribution as well.
Next I installed the ubuntu-restricted-extras and some other packages like Emacs to be able to edit text files comfortably. It is true that Emacs is not the lightest editor available, but I like the way it can be configured for editing text files with longlines-mode. It is almost like writing with a word processor I've been looking for Linux console for many years with no luck. It seems I'm the only person on this planet who would like to write with a text mode word processor with Linux...
One thing I like in Ubuntu is that the default applications are pretty well chosen for an ordinary desktop system. My non-geek partner has no difficulties in using either GNOME or KDE as long as she can easily find the icons for Firefox and OpenOffice.org. She needs terminal only for a ssh session to the university's Unix system where she receives her email. So Ubuntu seems to be a rather good system for someone who just needs the ordinary office applications. I myself prefer to use some more lightweight applications even with this pretty fast computer. Usually Abiword is good enough for my needs, sometimes I stay with Emacs or use LyX if I want to get a decent printout that is typeset with LaTeX.
I've been quite happy with the latest incarnation of the most famous and popular distribution today. Of course, it should have come as no surprise to me or most of my readers! It remains to be seen whether there will be any problems later or not. But I like what I've seen now and I will certainly be able to recommend Ubuntu 8.10 to any newbie who is looking for a distribution to be used with a computer that has at least 512 Mb RAM, a decent processor and a good graphics card.
On the other hand, I am not going to install either Ubuntu or openSUSE on my 1 GHz desktop. I just think that the amount of time needed for tweaking and optimizing either distro to be run with a computer that has a 1 GHz CPU and 256 Mb RAM can be better spent doing something else. I might, for example, write another blog posting or study some economics.
I will, however, try to have time for testing some lightweight distribution on that old box during the next week. Just for fun.
But I would like to read about your experiences with Ubuntu on old computers. Is it worth the trouble?