- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Two new items arrived this week. They haven’t been on hand long enough for a full review, but here are some first impressions.

Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) carries a subtitle, “Linux for human beings.” That’s a refreshing concept. Six years ago, you could put Linux on a desktop computer but it required advanced computer skills or a techie to get the job done.

The applications available for this “open source” operating system — one whose basic code is available to anyone to use, modify or improve — were not as plentiful as they are now. Nor were they as good, at least compared with the Windows and Mac alternatives of the time.

Much has changed since then. OpenOffice.org has, as noted here once or twice, released several revised versions of the Microsoft Office-compatible productivity suite.

These programs work quite well, as compatible with the current versions of Office, and have a raft of good features. The Firefox Web browser is available on Linux and runs as well as it does on the other platforms. If you want to edit photos in Linux, try GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program; it works very much like Adobe Corp.’s great (and expensive) Photoshop.

OK, you say, but you don’t have a Linux computer. You do now: Get the appropriate Ubuntu Linux distribution (for PCs, for Macs or for 64-bit processors) free via download or postal mail, sent free when you order online. Pop the CD into your machine. Restart the computer. And, if all goes well, you should be running Linux; the original OS remains undisturbed. Of course, you can also just install Ubuntu over your existing operating system, wiping away the operating system and the data, or you can repartition your hard drive to support both systems.

I’ve used Ubuntu on two Macs, booting from the CD. Both work well; you can run Open Office or Firefox easily. On my home Mac, the software to play movies and music files didn’t do as well; at the office, I didn’t go that far. But the price, which is zero, is right, and if you back up your files from an old computer before moving to a new one, you might well find new life for the old box using Ubuntu. I’ll keep working with it and let you know my progress.

Research In Motion takes its name seriously. Creators of the BlackBerry hand-held communicator, they’re continuing to research smaller ways of packaging their technology, such as the $349-list-priced BlackBerry Pearl, available through T-Mobile.

It’s tiny — not much taller than a credit card — and it’s delightful in many ways. The phone’s call quality is very good, you can use a Bluetooth headset with it, and there’s a built-in camera that takes 1.3 megapixel images. There’s e-mail, of course, and the BlackBerry, messaging is a delight.

The phone does take some getting used to. Navigation includes a built-in trackball, and getting acclimated to that may require some effort. The dial pad is nestled inside a “QWERTY” keyboard, and while there’s a form of predictive analysis to help complete words based on letters pressed, there’s a learning curve.

But overall, the phone, currently marked down to $199 after instant and mail-in rebates for new T-Mobile contracts, is rather attractive.

My greatest fear would be losing something so small. For more on that, and other device features, stay tuned.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Technology blog on The Washington Times’ Web site at www.washingtontimes.com/blogs.zz