My wife upgraded her laptop from an 8-year-old model. The new one, a Lenovo Thinkpad SL500, arrived yesterday with Vista SP1 preinstalled. I thought I’d help her get it up and running with the OS that was there, and then we could talk about migrating it to Ubuntu or Fedora after my deadlines this week.

However, even though the hardware POSTed fine, the preinstalled Windows software would not run more than about 5 minutes before crashing. I did manage to get an account set up, but after that it would BSOD randomly and usually within a minute or two of doing anything—browsing the filesystem, attempting to download software, etc. It may have been more than 5 minutes, actually, because it took Vista almost 3 minutes to boot to a login screen and another 3 or 4 minutes to load Internet Exploder. At first I thought it was a built-in reaction to visiting the Mozilla site, but no, Google made it BSOD as well. There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

So I dig out my well-worn collection of desktop Linux installation CDs and throw one in. Partitioning was an easy decision—I wiped Vista off the disk as fast as I could click the Format button. Ubuntu 9.04 gets partway through the installation procedure and hangs, must be scratches on the disk. Try Ubuntu 8.10, same thing only it fails faster, and same with Fedora and OpenSUSE… whatthe? Are they ALL scratched? Inspect.. yes, they are, and the SL500’s drive is obviously cheap enough that it can’t handle these disks that work fine on my desktop machines.

5 minutes later I have Ubuntu 9.04 ready to go on a USB key (thanks to unetbootin and a previously-downloaded ISO image), and 15 minutes later it is installed. Vista is gone forever. I proceed with setting up software and settings, but every now and then the whole thing freezes with the capslock light blinking at about 2hz. Oh nooo, don’t tell me it’s a hardware issue on this new system! We don’t want to send it back!

5 minutes after that, Ubuntuforums tells me the nature of the problem and how to fix it. The Intel network card has issues with drivers on Ubuntu. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vista had similar problems, but of course I had no way to fix it in Vista. In Jaunty the answer was to use the open-source wireless driver instead of the proprietary one, which took all of 20 seconds to implement.

The machine has not frozen or crashed since, and boots in 45 seconds (I timed it). Some judicious tweaking could cut that in half, but since the thing never crashes and seems to handle suspend/resume just fine, it probably won’t need to be booted often enough to justify the time to figure it out.

Are there things I wish were different? Sure. I wish that playing Flash and DVD media worked out of the box. On this machine, the hotkeys (volume buttons, etc) don’t work yet. I think customizing Nautilus is far, far too complex for the average person. However, it took a long, long time of struggling for me to finally realize that the preinstalled operating system would not function. Then it took about 20 minutes to get Ubuntu running and another 10 to debug. In my mind, there is no competition.

To sum up, in terms of OS vs. hardware:
Ubuntu: epic win
Vista SP1: send in the fail boat