An engineer considers the pros and cons of using Ubuntu for hobby engineering after 18 months of hands-on time.
Early in 2012, my off-lease Lenovo T60 notebook computer's hard drive finally decided to give up the ghost.
For whatever reason, I wasn't able to properly reinstall windows XP, so on a whim I decided to use the Ubuntu disks that I'd downloaded months before. As an avid maker and part-time blogger, I wasn't sure what was in store for me. I questioned whether or not Ubuntu would have the necessary tools to get what I needed done.
Image courtesy of Ubuntu.com
I'm a mechanical engineer, so technology isn't entirely foreign to me, but I'm not a good (non-PLC) programmer either. After 18 months, I finally bought a new computer with Windows 8 on it. Though Ubuntu is not nearly as bad as some people would have you believe, but there are definitely things about it that I miss.
As far as programming for the "hobby world," the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are probably the most well-known packages available today. I can say from experience that you can use the Arduino under Ubuntu with no problem. With a little work, I was even able to use it as a programmer for the Attiny. I didn't try this myself, but the Raspberry Pi reportedly can be manipulated under this environment. Finally, I also tried a little Python-based device called the PyMCU, which works great under Ubuntu.
One reason the PyMCU worked so well is that the programming language Python comes with the system. I had no experience with this language, but seeing all the cool stuff that others had done using it, I decided to learn it using "Learn Python the Hard Way." This really highlighted one of Ubuntu's cool features, which is the capaability to use multiple workspaces. Keeping the website open in one screen while your programming window is open in the other is really helpful. I really miss this feature, and it baffles me as to why Windows hasn't implemented it.
As a mechanical engineer, CAD is my purported forte, and I had my doubts as to whether or not there would be a useful package available under Linux. A Windows emulator named WINE allows one to run some Windows programs under Linux, but there are issues with some programs at times. Not being a programmer or IT professional, I needed an easy solution. Two options that I considered were Google Sketchup, but it isn't available natively. I tried using OpenSCAD, which is a really interesting program, but it didn't seem suited to the subtractive manufacturing that I normally do.
Fortunately, the AutoCAD clone Draftsight is available natively under Ubuntu and several other flavors of Linux. I really can't believe how similar it is to an older version of this ubiquitous CAD package. It's not 3D, but it's free to use non-commercially.
After a year and a half using Ubuntu, I came to really like the system. Like any new OS, including Windows 8, which I use now, it did have its learning curve. What ultimately led to my switch back to Microsoft was the fact that I upgraded to a much newer laptop and I wanted a better video-editing package than Linux had to natively offer.
For hobbyists, especially those with a computer near the end of its useful life, I would definitely recommend at least trying Ubuntu out. Not only is it free, but you can download a CD to boot from that lets you explore the operating system without actually installing it. The system doesn't seem bloated, and could possibly keep your aging computer functional for a little longer. For those in industry, the lack of software will most likely keep you from using this excellent OS. At my place of employment, I can only imagine the maniacal laughter if I were to call Allen Bradley, PTC, or nearly any other industrial software vendor inquiring as to why I was having trouble running their software under WINE.
— Jeremy Cook is a manufacturing engineer with 10 years experience as his full-time profession, and has a BSME from Clemson University. In his spare time he enjoys writing for DIYtripods.com.