Hands on With Wubi

This is a guest post by Taylor Douglass

From the official Wubi website:

“Wubi is a Ubuntu installer for Windows users that will bring you into the Linux world with a single click. Wubi allows you to install and uninstall Ubuntu as any other application. If you heard about Linux and Ubuntu, if you wanted to try them but you were afraid, Wubi is for you.”

For what Wubi claims to be able to do, I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t heard more about it. Basically, you can install Ubuntu from Windows and then boot to Linux or Windows without having to do any kind of Grub trickery or anything. Wubi even changes your boot.ini files so that you can choose between booting to Windows or Linux. It’s like having your cake and eating it too!

My first question, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, is how does it work? Wubi works by creating a stand-alone installation inside of a loopmounted device. A loopmounted device is a fancy word for a file that is recognized as a device. So basically Ubuntu thinks that it is running from a Live CD when it is actually running from a hard drive. Some have described Wubi as a virtual machine. This is not the case. No other partitions are created on your hard drive.

So, let’s get down to it. What I intend to do is install Wubi and document my experience along the way. So without further delay, let’s get to work.

Installation of Wubi

The Wubi installation begins by downloading an installer. This is a small file (1.1MB) that is used to setup Wubi on your hard drive. When you first run the Wubi installer it greets you with a few questions such as what hard drive you want to install to, how big you want the installation to be, what desktop environment you want (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu), language, and then a user name and password. I went for a pretty standard installation. 12 GB on my C drive with Ubuntu in English. After that the installer begins downloading the ISO for Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron. Hardy is currently in beta right now, and I have been wanting to try it out, so this is almost a double hands on experience for me. Once everything is downloaded and installed Wubi will ask you if you want to reboot now or do it manually later. I want to reboot now!

After the reboot everything was looking good. I got to choose whether I wanted to boot to Windows or Ubuntu. The new artwork for Hardy Heron came up. The installation started to go as planned. Things were being verified, partitions were being made (not real one’s), and configurations were being configured. And then, fail. The installation never got past 82% complete. It just hung there with a message box that said “Configuring APT – Scanning Mirror”. I gave it about 20 minutes before I rebooted. When I tried to boot back into Ubuntu I got into an error loop. Ubuntu told me that “no root file system is defined” and that I need to correct this, but when I clicked “ok” it just gave me the same error again. I then went back into Windows, removed everything from the C:\Ubuntu\disks folder and tried again. What this does is basically wipe your installation clean. I was hoping that it was just a little stumble, but again the installation got all the way to 82% and hung there with the “Configuring APT – Scanning Mirror” message. This time I got thinking about what this actually meant. I could move my mouse around and drag the dialog box around, so the computer was not locked up. The APT is a repository for different updates and modules. I began to wonder if there was some kind of problem with the connection to one of these repositories so I reached behind my computer and yanked out the network cable. Sure enough the progress bar started moving again, and the installation finished.

How is it?

One of the first things I wanted to know about Wubi was whether or not you got a clean boot every you re-booted. What I mean by that is does everything that you save get reset when you reboot like it does when running a live CD? The Wubi FAQ wasn’t really clear about this. So I changed a few things, installed some different software, installed a different theme, created some documents and rebooted. Sure enough, all of my changes were saved. In fact, I was having trouble finding much of a difference between a normal Linux install and a Wubi install.

One of the first things I noticed about Wubi is that it recognizes all of my hard drives. This doesn’t sound like much of a feat, but I have ran countless different liveCD’s that will not do this. I’m sure that with a little elbow grease I could have got them to, but with a Live CD I don’t really feel that it’s worth it. Anyway, what this means in a nut shell is that you can work on something in Windows, restart your computer, boot to Ubuntu, and continue working on it.

The overall speed of Wubi really impressed me. I just assumed that since Linux wasn’t running as it normally does I would experience an overall system slow down. That was not the case. My littleThink Pad laptop struggles at times to run XP, but with Linux I had no trouble at all. At one point I had Gimp, Blender, 10 terminal windows, Firefox , a few open office documents, and I was playing music. During this I noticed almost no drop in system performance at all. I so “almost no” because there was a little delay withCompiz window effects, nothing that I would call a serious problem though.

The Future of Linux?

I think that Wubi has a lot of potential to put Linux in front of users as a viable desktop operating system. This is something that Live CD’s and dual boots have tried to do and failed. Live CD’s failed because they do not allow the user to save data, changes, files, etc. They also run much slower than a Linux system that is installed. Dual boots didn’t work because it was very difficult for the typical user to setup a dual boot. Setting up a dual boot required the user to do several things that if done incorrectly, or in some cases correctly, would render both operating systems useless. What Linux really needs is to combine the good points of a dual boot and a Live CD, and that is exactly what Wubi has done. Setting up a dual boot with Wubi is completely transparent to the user, anything can be saved, and best of all it runs fast. The average user would not even know the difference between a standard Linux install and a Wubi install.

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