Windows 7 vs Ubuntu 10.04: Usability

Right from the point of installation, Ubuntu 10.04 dispels many of the traditional concerns about Linux’s usability. One of the damning accusations frequently thrown at Linux is that it’s too much fuss to install, especially on a PC with an existing Windows installation. That’s palpably untrue with Ubuntu’s Wubi installer.

This little program installs the Ubuntu OS with the ease and simplicity of any Windows app. Wubi doesn’t create a separate hard disk partition; instead it sets aside a user-determined chunk of hard disk space for the OS, creating a standalone disk image. When you restart your PC, you simply choose which operating system to boot into, just like a conventional dual-boot system.

There are a number of things about the Windows 7 desktop that we miss in Ubuntu

Using Wubi, it took between ten and 30 minutes to install Ubuntu 10.04 on our three test PCs, which is notably faster than a Windows 7 install (although strangely, our most well-specced laptop was the one that took the longest). Those wishing to go the whole hog and install the OS on a separate hard disk partition can burn an ISO to disc or a USB stick.

The smooth experience continues once the OS is installed. The necessary drivers are either loaded or offered automatically, we had no problems with either wired or Wi-Fi internet connections, and were up and running almost instantly.

Ubuntu 10.04 ships with Firefox 3.6 and a host of other preinstalled applications. These are all easily accessible from the Applications menu and neatly sorted into relevant categories, such as Internet and Office.

Ubuntu One Software CenterHowever, cracks start to appear when you venture beyond the preinstalled apps. Applications featured in Ubuntu’s extensive Software Centre usually install without issue, but when we attempted to install Adobe AIR (to allow us to run our favourite Twitter client, TweetDeck) we hit a barrier, and had to search Google for help.

On one of the many helpful Ubuntu forums, we discovered that we had to download the BIN installation file, then venture into Ubuntu’s equivalent of the command line – dubbed Terminal – and enter a couple of lines of code to start the installation. Hardly a user-friendly experience, and an unwanted throwback to the days of Windows 3.1.

Matters became worse when we instinctively unticked the box to put a TweetDeck icon on our desktop during installation, and then couldn’t find the software in the Applications menu the next time we went to use it (there’s no Windows-like option to search for apps by keyword). Only after a little help from one of PC Pro’s Real World contributors did we locate it in an obscure folder.


Whereas Windows 7 has a single desktop screen, Ubuntu has several, known as Workspaces. These allow you to run different types of app in different screens. You might have one Workspace with your web browser and email client running, another showing office apps, another games. Switching between workspaces is merely a matter of clicking on a thumbnail in the bottom right of the screen or using a keyboard shortcut.

When you have only a handful of apps running, there’s no real advantage to Workspaces over switching between different apps on the Windows 7 taskbar. However, it does come into its own when you’re running more than half a dozen active windows, making it easier to switch quickly between a web browser and a spreadsheet, for example.

That said, there are a number of things about the Windows 7 desktop that we miss in Ubuntu. You don’t realise how valuable time-saving features such as Jumplists and pinning apps to the taskbar are until they’re not there. The Windows muscle memory is hard to shake off, too: we constantly found ourselves butting windows to the top of the screen to maximise them, only to realise that’s a Windows-only shortcut.

There are also some bizarre inconsistencies in the design of Ubuntu apps. All the preinstalled apps have the Close, Maximise and Minimise buttons in the top left-hand corner of the window. Yet, others – such as the Linux version of Google Chrome – adopt the Windows convention of placing them in the top right. The blame may lie at the feet of the app designers for failing to adhere to the style guide, but it makes for a choppy user experience.

However, despite its foibles and inconsistencies, Ubuntu 10.04 remains an intuitive and largely enjoyable user experience. And with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth stating his ambition of one day matching Apple in terms of UI design, we anticipate that it may close the gap even further on Windows in subsequent releases.

Ubuntu: 7/10

Impressively easy to get going and we love Workspaces, but avoidable issues begin to emerge after a while.

Windows: 9/10

Features such as Jumplists and Start menu search offer a layer of sophistication Ubuntu can’t yet match.

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