So, better late than never here are my thoughts on Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron. It’s been about 3 weeks since the release now and I’ve been running Hardy on my Dell XPS m1330n notebook without much trouble. I thought it was about time I knuckled down and wrote about my experiences with the Heron. I found Gutsy to be a bit buggy initially and I was slightly disappointed, with it’s LTS (Long Term Support) tag, how would Hardy perform? Let’s find out…
Distro base – Debian
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.24-16-generic
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.22.1
My Hardy Heron adventure actually began a few days before the release day when I downloaded the daily build for 19th of April, just a few days before release and obviously not the finished version but there weren’t many major updates leading up to release, I was very happy with the stability of the system. I heard the usual horror stories you see around the place with any release and I’m sure some of them are true but I can only comment on my personal experience, which was good. Now this laptop was purchased from Dell with Ubuntu 7.10 installed and the hardware is obviously designed to work well with Linux so I didn’t expect any driver problems. If you’d like to read more about the laptop itself please checkout my in depth review from a couple of months back.
I decided to go for a fresh install with Hardy but it’s a personal choice. I don’t like updating systems as it can often be messy, I’ve done it in the past with Edgy to Feisty and it didn’t really work for me, plus for some reason I love that feeling of a fresh install, kind of makes you feel like you have new computer again. That could be a hangover from my Windows days however, where reinstalls were needed every so often just to keep the thing working I don’t know. I had my machine set up with a separate partition for my home folder as I normally do, so wiping the root partition and installing a new version of the same distro is usually painless and I can keep all of my application settings in place, they’re stored in hidden folders within the home directory. This works really well for me and it’s what I recommend to everyone who asks me… you didn’t ask but I’m gonna telling you anyway, I do that sometimes sorry. This is how I partition my hard disk:
/dev/sda1 – 12gb – Root Partition ( / ) – This is for the system files and the kernel etc. It doesn’t use anything near 12gb but I figure it’s better to have too much space than not enough. The closest I’ve come with Linux was 9.5gb for Sabayon.
/dev/sda2 – 140gb – Home Partition ( /home ) – This contains all my personal files and also a lot of application and system settings.
/dev/sda3 – 4gb – Swap Partition – Linux purists will laugh at this and say that’s far to much swap but I was always told to make the swap partition twice the RAM on Debian systems. It’s hardly a sacrifice on this size of disk anyway.
Armed with my freshly downloaded Hardy CD I set about installing it, I was pleasantly surprised to find there is now an option on the boot menu to install directly rather than forcing you to boot the live OS and then install. You can still choose to boot the live CD and test out the software and then install from there if you like, this just saves a bit of time for frequent users and it may seem like a small thing but it’s a nice touch. After a minute or two I was greeted with the familiar Ubuntu installer. It’s not too flashy and there’s no reason why it should be, it just does it’s job. In fact it’s an installer that’s often copied in other systems and it’s very easy to navigate. I progressed through the screens entering my details and setting the correct mount points for my partitions. It only takes a couple of minutes to do this and there are no real changes that I can see from Gutsy in this department. I guess if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. The installer went about it’s business and took about 10mins to complete. This is the same kind of performance I got from Gutsy and it’s actually towards the quicker end of the scale when it comes to install times on all the numerous distros I’ve tried.
I had no real issues with the install process but I’m a pretty seasoned Ubuntu user now and this hardware was purchased with Ubuntu so I would expect it to work. If you’d like to see some detailed pictures of the install process please checkout the installation slide show below.
INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW
Configuring The System:
As I explained earlier setting up the system was pretty easy because I managed to save my settings from Gutsy in my home folder. It meant I didn’t have to do much to set up things like Firefox, Rhythmbox, Pidgin and the programs I use most often, everything was in the same place. I was prompted to install the driver for my Nvidia graphics card by the Restricted Driver Manager which I’ve become well used to now and I miss sometimes on other distros. I don’t want to sound like too much of an Ubuntu fanboy but it’s true, it seems like such a simple idea that I’m amazed more distros don’t do it. I’ve seen a few which just install the driver for you without even asking and this has been the subject of some debate in the Ubuntu community. Mandriva 2008 does this and I think for new users it’s a great idea. The reason people don’t like it is because the drivers are not free software or open source and a lot of people don’t like the idea of tainting their system with proprietary drivers. I admire this stance and the argument is that these people would be forced to install the driver and then remove it, so the Ubuntu work around is a prompt letting those who want to install the drivers do so without offending freedom crusaders. I think it works well and it drives me up the wall when people say this is too hard and Windows is easier, Windows does not include things like the Nvidia drivers for you or make them easy to install, you have to go to the website and find them. I admit on some distros it can be tricky but here it’s a check box and a few clicks so get over it. I’m veering wildly from the point here. Anyway I got my drivers installed easily but the Nvidia Settings tool I normally use for switching from my internal display to an external one was not included. I don’t know if this is a modification to the Nvidia driver package itself but it’s been included for quite some time now, it seems strange to remove it and this may be nothing to do with Ubuntu itself but a word of warning if you’re looking for it you’ll need to install it with apt-get like so:
sudo apt-get install nvidia-settings
After that you shouldn’t have any problems running it. The correct resolution for my laptops 1280×800 screen was detected and used automatically, it was all very painless. I was also able to switch to my external 1440×900 screen very easily with Nvidia Settings. Whatever your feelings on software freedom you can’t help but agree that installing drivers for Nvidia cards is a far better experience than ATi under Linux. I was very pleasantly surprised to find the driver for my Intel Pro Wireless 3945 wi-fi card is now in the Linux kernel and does not need to be installed with the restricted driver manager, as it had done in Gutsy. I had experienced wireless stability problems under Gutsy with this card and wi-fi is vital on laptops these days. I’m happy to report it’s solid as a rock now under Hardy, the fact the driver is now in the kernel suggests it was an up stream development but this is the first distro I’ve tried with it in. A nice improvement.
Setting up Ubuntu in software terms has become something of an automatic action for me these days, I still don’t think it’s the easiest distro to use for complete Linux newbs because you have to know how to install little things like media codecs and DVD playback. I can hear the gasps from the Ubuntu fans at me saying that but having spent a lot of time looking at different distributions in the last year I think Linux Mint and Mandriva 2008 are both easier introductions to the platform. The strength of Ubuntu is always the community and the sheer volume of documentation around though. I was able to get all the Gstreamer plugins I needed installed to enable playback of pretty much any format you can think of without fuss, it’s a very easy process these days. When I first came to Ubuntu I would have used something like Automatix or Easy Ubuntu to do this but I think those tools are largely redundant these days and a quick look at the Ubuntu documentation should tell you all you need to know. The Firefox Conundrum:
Now to a more serious point and even something of a criticism. I voiced this concern on episode 35 of Linux Outlaws and some people disagree but I’m going to give you my opinion and you can make up your own mind. Hardy ships with Firefox 3 beta 5 as the default web browser and I’ve found it to be pretty problematic for me. It is of course pre-release software and I found most of my favourite extensions haven’t been updated to work with this version yet which is a little disappointing. That’s nothing to do with the Ubuntu developers or even the Firefox developers, it’s down to individual extension developers to update their code but it doesn’t help me as a user. Hardy is a Long Term Support release and as such should have the most stable set of software possible in my eyes, I’m not expecting the ultra conservative stability approach of something like Debian but I find the inclusion on FF 3 beta 5 somewhat puzzling. A lot of people will say that even as a beta Firefox 3 is more stable than version 2 but I haven’t found it so. I find it really hits my system resources, the CPU and memory seem to struggle when I have the program open and this is a powerful notebook. I’ve also found I get quite regular crashes and it can be frustrating, so much so that I’m going to move back to Firefox 2 for the time being. I think the new version will be great when it’s ready but crucially it’s just isn’t working for me right now. A lot of people have said to me “but it’s easy to just remove it and install FF2 if you want, stop complaining”, maybe it is but I’m sorry saying that it’s not that hard to fix this supposedly stable release of a distribution and install your own browser is not a defence, you shouldn’t have to do that. Maybe I sound like I’m whining but I think including this pre-release software was a laudable gamble, it just hasn’t paid off. There are numerous reports of problems with this version of Firefox in all kinds of different distros and I’ve certainly found it to be as flaky as a tub of fish food. That’s just my opinion.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 4/5
Community & Documentation: 5/5
Overall I think it’s more a case of evolution than revolution with Ubuntu these days. This release is undoubtedly an improvement on Gutsy and there are some nice new additions but there’s nothing earth moving here. It’s an LTS release and I suppose that makes it more focused on stabilising the existing software and making everything work as well as it can. The system seems very stable with the exception of the Firefox beta and it succeeds in taking the distribution a step further but perhaps not a giant leap. Ubuntu is so proficient at most tasks these days that I suppose it’s so good at all the basic things we used to struggle with I take it for granted now but I think there’s more to be done, there’s always more to be done, I’m a perfectionist. I should highlight a couple of the notable new features of Hardy. I like the improvements brought by Gnome 2.22 and the work they’ve done on the Nautilus is great, it’s vastly improved. The GVFS file system is also a new addition and it seems to improve performance a fair bit. Pulse Audio has been added now which allows you to route your audio in interesting ways and create virtual ports, it all looks very promising but there’s not much information on how you actually make use of it that I can see. I can select some Pulse Audio devices in my mixer but it seems you need to install additional software to do anything meaningful. This is my fault for not having the time to properly learn about Pulse Audio probably I admit. It’s the sort of thing that could really help me as a music producer so I should do some reading up.
Policy Kit is another new addition which makes user and file permissions a lot more granular which has to be good. It allows you to run only the specific parts of a program which need them with root permissions without needed to run the whole program as root. This should tighten up security and I think it’s a nice improvement. Looking at the list of new features it seems to me that a lot of them are below the surface and may not jump out at you straight away. Maybe this befits an LTS release. There’s a lot made of the virtualisation possibility’s in Hardy but I wasn’t really impressed, you still have to install everything so I don’t see how they can say virtualisation is included. I installed the Virtual Machine Manager with libvert which is a Red Hat development. I tried to use it with both Qemu and KVM but in my case neither worked. I got a lot of errors and even after following various setup guides I got nowhere. I found KVM wasn’t supported on my system even though I know my CPU can handle it. I also made sure it was enabled in the BIOS and I just kept being told my processor didn’t support kernel virtualisation. I would suggest just installing VirtualBox or something like that for creating VMs that’s my personal preference.
Looking at the direction Ubuntu is going with this release I think maybe they’re aiming to pick up more business users. They’ve done very well with home users and I think now Ubuntu wants to start biting into the enterprise market because that’s where the money is, they’ll have their work cut out with giants like Novell and Red Hat firmly encamped in that domain. There’s been a lot of talk of expanding Ubuntu in the server market with the likes of Dell getting involved. I wish them well but it remains to be seen how they fare against the big boys.
To summarise, this is a good improvement on Gutsy and a solid release but it’s not going to set the world alight I don’t think, not the domestic world anyway, perhaps the corporate world which is what I think Cannonical wants. That’s fair enough and makes business sense. For the home user this is a more polished and refined version of what you’ve seen before which is of course no bad thing. I use Ubuntu a lot as my main distro on my laptop and I’m definitely a fan but I still think for the absolute Linux beginner something like Mandriva or Mint comes more equipped out of the box, it’s not hard to get Ubuntu to that level though and the community support is strong. I will be watching keenly to see how Hardy fares in corporate waters on both desktop and the server. It should be noted also that all flavours of Ubuntu have been updated to 8.04 so all you Kubuntu, Xubuntu and even Mythbuntu fans can get your fix too. Dig in 🙂
YOU CAN GET UBUNTU HARDY HERE Up next…
I’m not sure exactly what I’ll get to look at next but I was really disappointed to lose all the work I’d done on Arch, I have some extensive notes of my experiences so I’ll find a way to do another install and get a review to you ASAP. I’m keen to look at Fedora 9 and a new OpenSuse is around the corner, I’ve also downloaded the new OpenSolaris release which I’m interested in largely because of Ian Murdock’s involvement. Plus there are so many other distros out there it’s far too late to stop now. If you think open source stops at Linux you’re wrong and if you think Linux stops at Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSuse I urge you to dig a bit deeper. Take that red pill and together we’ll just see how deep this rabbit hole really goes…