Distro Review: Ubuntu 9.04
It’s an unscheduled stop today on my never ending distro tour. I had planned to look at Chakra Project next as regular readers will know, but due to a strange series of events I ended up sidestepping onto the recently released Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope. So, it would seem odd of me not to take a decent look and see what improvements have been made in the last 6 months. The last time I looked at Ubuntu in depth was actually 12 months ago with the 8.04 release. I found it to be a solid enough but somehow lacking a little in ambition. Would Jaunty jump forward with new features? I decided to find out…
Distro base – Debian
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.28-11-generic
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.26.1
I actually ended up installing Jaunty while sat in a bar in Liverpool. It’s not the usual place to find someone formatting their computer, but then I’ve always been a little eccentric. I needed to install something quickly and get some writing work done; so in many ways this was a real test of Jaunty’s ease of use. I used a standard Jaunty i386 install CD found in my bag, and with a little help from a power socket and free wifi in the bar I was away. I’ve installed Ubuntu so many times over the years, I was confident of what to expect from the installer. The test candidate was my trusty Dell m1330n laptop, which seems fitting as I originally bought it with Ubuntu 7.10 pre-installed. The process itself was almost exactly the same as it has been for the last 2 or 3 years with Ubiquity (the Ubuntu installer). That isn’t a criticism, it works very well. There have been a few minor tweaks to the series of dialogue boxes but not many. The time zone map is much improved and isn’t so hard to navigate, it used to be very frustrating just trying to convince it you weren’t in the middle of the Atlantic. Partitioning hard drives is still easy enough and I chose my usual method of installing the root (/) on one partition, while leaving another for the home directories. I find this approach works very well for a compulsive distro hopper like myself. I can wipe the root partition and install a whole new OS while keeping my personal data intact. The only slight thing to beware of is correctly removing all the hidden settings folders before moving.
Working my way through the install screens probably took less than a minute, but I suppose prior experience has to be taken into account here. I set the install in motion and sat back to sip my drink. After about 20mins the progress bar was complete and I was ready to reboot into Jaunty. The process was quick and smooth on this hardware, but then you’d expect that of a machine bought with Ubuntu in the first place. Canonical say hardware support has been expanded with 9.04, and I hope this helps a few of the people I’ve spoken to with troublesome boards. That’s not a medical condition, I’m referring to motherboards unsupported by Ubuntu. After half an hour I had the base system installed and I was ready to go about the serious business of making it feel like /home.
Configuring The System:
As with the installation, my prior knowledge of Ubuntu meant I was able to quickly set things up. I always start by installing the restricted Nvidia drivers for my graphics card, Ubuntu makes this easy. The Restricted Driver Manager pops up an alert prompting you that drivers are available, and in a couple of clicks they’re installed. I was pleased to see that the nvidia-settings tool has been bundled back in with the main driver package. I had to install this separately on Hardy and I need it to switch between my laptop screen and external displays. As a Debian fan I’ve always liked how software packages are managed by Apt, and Ubuntu of course inherits this. They took graphical tools like Synaptic and complimented them with Add/Remove long ago, but it’s still a great system. Next I installed the Ubuntu Restricted Extras meta package, much to the horror of all Free Software advocates reading this. Clearly I hate freedom, but I also like to be able to watch DVD’s on my computer without hassle (only illegal in the US as far as I know anyway). This one-stop package containing Flash, Java, MS fonts, multimedia codecs and more, really speeds up the process of setting up a system for new users. In some ways I wonder if Ubuntu should have a sister tool to the Restricted Driver Manager called the Restricted Format Manager. People new to Ubuntu, or even Linux in general don’t know they can install all the things they want quickly and easily. It could pop up a dialogue box asking if you want support for restricted formats or not, you could even do it in the installer. People will point to the fact that Ubuntu already asks you to install codecs if you click on an mp3 file, but I think this could be simplified. A lot of distros such as Linux Mint install all this stuff out of the box. That’s really handy but obviously not ideal from a Free Software advocates point of view. A quick prompt with an explanation of what this really means would satisfy Ubuntu’s commitment to Free Software, but also make things easier for newcomers. Many will think that’s a truly awful idea, but I thought I’d share it.
I added the Medibuntu repository to install Skype and a few other things. I used to install Skype straight from the website but this approach means I get automatic updates. Installing all the software I needed was quick and simple with the Add/Remove tool and I believe even novice users would find this trivial; once you get over the Windows mindset and realise that Add/Remove will actually add software and not just remove it like XP. I noticed some minor changes to the default Compiz 3D desktop set up, the effects seem more subtle. Switching workspaces no longer slides the whole screen to one side, but only the application windows. I guess the developers felt this was more elegant. One thing I still fail to understand about Ubuntu is why they include things like Pulse Audio and Compiz, but not the actual tools required to configure them. You have to install CCFM yourself if you want to tweak the 3D effects beyond the kiddie options in the admin tools. Maybe they think it’s simpler and less confusing, or perhaps it saves vital room on the CD. Who knows?
New Eye Candy Notifications:
One of the new features that’s caused a lot of fuss in Jaunty is the sexy new notification system. You can see a Flash demonstration of this on Mark Shuttleworth’s blog. It’s a custom development by Canonical and I hope they will push it back upstream to the Gnome desktop in due course. I’ve been told it looks very similar to Growl on Mac OSX, but not being very familiar with Macs I can’t confirm that. The new transparent bubbles which pop up to tell you the state of the battery for example, do bring some extra polish to the desktop. At first I wasn’t sure I liked them, but after a couple of days they felt very natural and they look great. I suppose this is the main aim, one in which they succeed.
However, I don’t like the new system update pop under. In the past an orange arrow would appear in the status area next to the clock, telling you there were system updates available. It would remain there until you applied the updates. That’s no longer the case with Jaunty. Instead the update notification window pops up underneath whatever other windows you might have open at the time, hardly much of a notification. The argument in favour of this is that the orange arrow didn’t mean anything to new users, and they will now see the update window as they close other programs. This philosophy is similar to the Windows XP method of asking you to install updates as you shut down. I find in practice it’s too subtle and not as effective as the old update system for me. If the window popped up on top of everything else then it would make more sense. Proponents of the pop under argue that this would be a disaster on something like a MythTV box, but isn’t this why we have install profiles? Mythbuntu could easily customise this behaviour without much effort. All it takes is a boolean parameter in the config somewhere, “popup=false”. The new update system is not a disaster, far from it, but I do think it’s a slight faux pas. Maybe in time I’ll grow to like it but there’s no sign of that yet.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 4/5
Stability & Speed: 4/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
All in all I was impressed with Jaunty, it’s a very solid release. There have been a lot of minor improvements and tweaks. The new notification system looks good. There have also been some major performance improvements under the hood. I found my laptop would boot up and shut down a hell of a lot quicker. It feels like a case of evolution rather then revolution as I’ve said with the last few Ubuntu releases. It shows how polished Ubuntu really is as a desktop these days I suppose. The overall look has improved and while a lot of people will still cry “it’s too brown!” I think the new themes look good. I particularly like the New Wave theme and would enable this by default, but I suppose beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.
One aspect I haven’t really looked at in this review is the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, I don’t have a netbook to try it on at the moment. We did discuss it at length on Linux Outlaws 91. It’s been around for a while but it seems Canonical are now happy to push it a bit more, listing it on the main download page alongside the Desktop and Server editions. It might be worth trying if you’re a netbook owner. The main edition of the distro is as strong as ever and I can see why it’s so popular. There are some elements in the FLOSS world who resent Ubuntu’s popularity, but it’s a solid distro and the supportive community is really a winning feature. As the old saying goes “there’s strength in numbers” and this is certainly true of Ubuntu. Lots of software is available pre-packaged, even from 3rd party vendors, and you can usually find a detailed how-to article for any task you should wish to accomplish. The power of that can’t be underestimated. Jaunty is well worth a look for new and older Linux users alike. I distro hop a lot as you know, but I do find whenever I come back to Ubuntu it quickly feels comfortable, like an old shoe. I’m sure the Canonical press office will be rushing to quote that line won’t they? “Ubuntu: It’s like an old shoe”. For absolute beginners I still think Linux Mint is a little easier to get started with, I can’t wait to see what they do with this Ubuntu release. You could do a lot worse then Ubuntu as an entry point though. Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.
I’m going to get back onto Chakra Project ASAP, I actually installed it but then had to reformat due to user error and time pressure. It’s still aplha software so I won’t judge it by the same standards as a finished distro, but I do think it warrents some attention. After that I think Fedora 11 might be worth a look. If you have any suggestions for things you’d like me to look at, please do leave a comment or send an email. I’m happy to oblige, unless it’s Windows 7 of course. So, I’m off over the hill again but as always you’re more than welcome to join me for the ride…