For years, proponents proclaimed the Linux operating system would someday be a viable competitor on desktop PCs to its rivals, Windows and Mac OSX.
When someone on an internet message board says they’re having trouble with a Mac or PC, someone will almost inevitably tell them to try Linux.
However, despite the protests of its proponents, many of those daring to try Linux over the years have found it has needed a relatively high level of tech proficiency to get running. (And before I get a thousand complaints from Linux loyalists, let me point out I’ve never needed to edit “xorg.conf” in order to make a Mac work.)
But has that changed in more recent versions? Recently, Canonical released the latest long-term service release of its version of Linux, dubbed 14.04 Trusty Tahr. One variation of this is known as Kubuntu, which uses a user interface known as KDE.
What will the election mean to you?
Sign up to our free newsletter, including this weekend’s coverage of the election.
So will 2014 be the year of Linux on desktop? Is it now really so simple your grandma could use it? It’s time to find out.
Hardware and features
Kubuntu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr the latest long term support version of Kubuntu. The long term support means it comes with the promise of at least five years of support, including patches and bug fixes.
As I mentioned above, it’s based on Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux, with version 4.13 of the KDE platform, interface on top of it. While most of the preinstalled apps are also from KDE, it does use Mozilla Firefox 28 (rather than KDE’s Rekonq) as the default browser and LibreOffice (rather than KDE’s Calligra) as the default office suite.
Key features include Muon Discover 2.2 for downloading additional apps, improved touchpad support, a new driver manager, KDE’s new (Telepathy-based) instant messaging tools, and KDE Connect for integration between your desktop PC and your Android smartphone.
What’s the verdict?
The last time I installed Kubuntu on a computer, Canonical offered an installer program called Wubi. Basically, this allowed you to install and uninstall Kubuntu as you would with any other Windows app. Once it was installed, you’d basically have a dual-boot Windows and Linux machine.
So it was with some support that I noticed Wubi has apparently vanished – and installing Kubuntu has grown significantly more difficult as a result.
Instead, you have to use third-party tools (linked to from Canonical’s download page) to either install a boot image on a USB stick or a CD. Booting off the USB stick meant poking around in the BIOS settings of my computer to set it up to boot from USB rather than the internal hard disk.
Upon booting, you are given the options to either keep using the CD or USB stick on a trial basis, or install Kubuntu on your hard disk. As you can probably imagine, running your computer off a USB stick leads to slightly sluggish performance and isn’t a good long-term option.
So eventually you choose to install Kubuntu on your hard disk. By default, the installer is set up to entirely wipe your hard disk (including any copies of Windows or anything else you already have installed) and replace it all with Kubuntu.
Of course, you might not want to do this – you might want a dual-boot system with both Kubuntu and Windows.
If that’s the case, you first need to start the USB trial, set up a partition in KDE’s Partition Manager, then load the installer, then choose to do a manual install, then choose the partition you want (including choosing the file system the partition will be installed with) and which partition you want the boot loader installed onto.
Sure, it’s not as bad as in the ‘90s when you had to use the “Make” command from a BASH shell to build a Linux system. However, it’s still a process your less-than-tech-savvy grandma (or grandad) probably wouldn’t be comfortable with – and far more complex than it needs to be.
The good news is, assuming you get through the installation process, is that Kubuntu and KDE 4.13 does have a lot going for it.
Firstly, there are preinstalled apps covering most of what you’d need to do, from word processing, to playing CDs, to watching videos and surfing the web.
The KDE platform incorporates the underlying frameworks its apps are built on, including graphics (Qt), search (Nepomuk), email/contact management (Akonadi) and instant messaging (Telepathy). This means all the apps are tightly integrated.
In practice, what this means is that, for example, whichever KDE email app you choose, all your messages and contacts will appear in it automatically.
The desktop itself is highly configurable. It’s like a supercharged version of Android in the sense that everything on your desktop – from the launcher to the icons – is a widget, and you can create a menu bar along whichever edge of the screen you want.
With a little tinkering, you can set it up to look like a Mac (including each app’s menu bar across the top of the screen), or like Windows (with the menu bar across the top of each window). You can also set up multiple “activities” each with their own desktop layout.
Hidden away in the Activities menu is also the Search and Launch layout, which is perhaps the nicest tablet home screen layout never to have been used on an actual tablet.
There are also some nice touches in terms of the apps. For example, the email app – Kmail – now just requires your Gmail address and password to access an account. Likewise, you can use the instant messaging app to view your Facebook messages.
Having a look through Muon Discover, there are some nice additional apps such as the Twitter client Choqok, video player VLC and also – of course – the Calligra Suite that I’d highly recommend downloading.
On the downside, Muon Discover – the app installer – often feels slightly more sluggish than its predecessors.
Compared to previous versions of KDE, there are big improvements in how multiple screens are handled. It’s now literally a matter of dragging and dropping to have two connected screens mirroring each other, or having one to the side of the other.
Another long-time issue – the lack of third-party drivers – appears to have mostly been fixed by now. As far as popular commercial printers and other devices, KDE certainly has gotten far better at finding and installing device drivers.
Also, while there are countless cloud storage options for Kubuntu, none of them are as easy to set up and use as – say – Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s OneDrive.
Overall, there are a number of good points about Kubuntu – but at the end of the day, to get the most out of it, you really need to poke around and tinker. This is far easier to do than in past versions of Linux – you can do a lot of tinkering without ever using the command line – but this also limits its appear for those who want a computer that “just works”.
Should I get one?
Linux on the desktop has its niche. And, to be fair, there are many good reasons why so many techies swear by it.
For those who are willing to tinker, KDE and Kubuntu are fantastic. But here’s a crucial point many Linux evangelists overlook: Not everyone is.
Realistically, if you want a computer that just works, Kubuntu is just not for you.
And, especially when it comes to initial set up, it’s still a long way from being so simple that your iPad loving grandparent could use it.
Despite some big improvements, 2014 still won’t be the year of Linux on the desktop.