The latest version of this free alternative to Windows has an improved interface
Ubuntu is an alternative operating system to Windows and Mac OS X that costs nothing to download and use. It has it's own distinctive look and comes with tools for social networking and cloud storage built in. With an installation option from within Windows it is easy to try.
Installation is the easiest we have ever seen for a linux distribution. The first option screen checks for enough hard disk space and that the computer is connected to the internet. Wireless connections will work at this stage if the wireless adapter is supported.
This screen also has options for downloading updates during installation and to install third party software. The latter is important if you want to play MP3 music files or use Flash in websites.
If another operating system is installed on the computer, the installation wizard will check if you want to install alongside the existing one with a menu on startup or wipe the computer and start from scratch.
In a rather clever move, the next settings are chosen while the files are being copied onto the computer, a big time saver.
You can opt to log in automatically or show a list of users. If the latter is chosen your home folder can be encrypted to keep the files safe. Either way, don't forget the password you set as it will be needed whenever you want to install software or make important changes to the computer as there is a similar tool to User Account Control in Windows 7 and Vista.
The look of Ubuntu has changed since 11.04 and for the better in our opinion. The Dash button (roughly equivalent to the Start button in Windows) now has a permanent place on the left-hand shortcut bar. This makes it much easier to access. The bar will disappear when windows are maximised or moved over it and then appears when the mouse is moved to the top left-hand corner of the screen.
Clicking on the Dash button shows a search box that can be used to start programs and find documents. It even shows programs that have not been installed but are available in the Software Centre. It is possible to browse for software but search is quicker. It does mean learning the correct search terms for software.
The Software Centre has an improved look and includes official software from Canonical for Ubuntu as well as programs that don't have direct support from Canonical. There are some paid for programs available as well.
Thunderbird is now the default email software rather than Evolution. Evolution can be installed from the Software Centre if you want it. Libre Office is installed giving a complete office suite, including a word processor and spreadsheet.
It comes with Ubuntu's own online storage service, Ubuntu One. You can download the Windows client to access your files from here. There are also programs to access files from iOS and Android devices.
A backup utility called Deja Dup that can either back up to the hard disk or an Ubuntu One account. Given that the free account includes 5GB, a paid-for account is probably required for this. It is possible to exclude individual folders from the backup and it is easy to change all the settings.
Uniquely for an operating system there is a web based demonstration at www.ubuntu.com/tour. It isn't the full thing, but it gives a good idea of how Ubuntu 11.10 works, in particular the Dash menu.
This download is the CD image for Ubuntu. You will need to copy it to a CD using an ISO burner program.
The best possible performance is gained by installing Ubuntu by booting from the CD once it has been made. There is an alternative that is slightly easier and has the advantage of being easier to remove if you don't want it called Wubi. Double-click on the CD in Windows and then select the option to install in Windows.
This installation is supposed to be slightly slower than a normal installation but on a fairly modest computer, it was still quick.
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A significant improvement of Ubuntu 11.04. As it's free and can be installed within Windows, there's no reason not to give it a try
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