Distro Review: Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala
Today’s victim… *ahem* I mean guest of course sorry, is the new version of Ubuntu. 9.10 to be precise, the Karmic Koala. The names seem to keep getting worse but is the distro itself getting better? I wanted to find out. So I installed the latest daily build in the lead up to release and got to work kicking the tyres, investigating and randomly tutting while stroking my beard. I’ll try to be fair in describing any rough edges as I realise this testing version is pre-release software, but the final version has actually been released today. So I think it’s fair to give it a look. Here’s how I got on…
Distro base – Debian
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.31-14-generic
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.28.1
I started by grabbing the latest daily build of Karmic from here. In the past I’ve found that a good way to avoid the inevitable rush and server overload on Ubuntu release days. Get the daily build a few days before, and then just add any updates as you go. It works very well for the most part. Of course there can be the rough edges in these pre release versions, they’re meant for testing purposes only. Canonical would never recommend installing them on a production system and they warn that updates may cause breakage, but I’ve always had a positive experience and I accept a certain amount of risk. Besides, you can be doing the developers a service by reporting bugs and testing things. I burned off the live CD image, fired it up and got to work. There’s been a lot of talk about the boot and shut down screens on the new Ubuntu. While most distributions are moving towards the Plymouth bootloader, Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) have taken another route, opting to use Xsplash instead. I’m afraid I’m not a distro developer and I can’t give you a low level run down of either approach really, or their pros and cons, I just know the issue caused quite a fuss. The initial boot time of the liveCD was really slow for some reason. It sat at a completely blank screen for a good 15mins but I left it going because I had a hunch. I noticed the HDD light on the front of the laptop was blinking furiously and I assumed it must be running a filesystem check. That takes a while on my machine so I left it in hope and crossed my fingers. Sure enough, after a while the live session booted up normally. This may have just been a rough edge because of the pre-release nature of this install disc. It might be fixed in the final release, but there should have been some kind of indication on the screen that a disk check was in process. That’s certainly how it used to work. (Edit: I’m pleased to confirm this is fixed in the final release).
Upon loading the live session I noticed a few nice design changes. It’s a lot more black and orange now rather than brown. They’ve been saying this for the last few releases, “it won’t be as brown this time, honest”, but invariably on booting a new release you see enough brown to make a chocolate factory jealous. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with it and I don’t see what all the fuss is about, but there’s no doubt the visual appearance of the distro has improved again here. That has to be a good thing I guess. Following the install link on the desktop I was greeted with the very familiar Ubuntu Ubiquity installer. It seems not much has changed here but as I’ve said of previous releases, it didn’t need to, it’s already a great installer. I proceeded through the usual steps picking time zone, keyboard language and entering user details as normal. I like little conveniences such as the way it suggests a keyboard language based on your time zone. You can still change it should you need to, but it’s a nice little bit of polish. Partitioning was simple and I used the same scheme I always have, you can find details of that in other reviews. I noticed a new option on the final screen to require a password for decrypting your home folder. I decided not to use it but that’s an interesting development for the more security conscious perhaps. It does worry me a little that encrypting your whole home directory could be problematic if you ever lost the key, as I would be likely to do. I have my home directory as a separate partition too, so this would mean the whole disk partition was hosed if anything went wrong. I prefered the old system of just having an encrypted sub folder in the home directory. Anyway, back at the point. With the all the information entered I set the install on it’s way. There’s a new slide show to watch while you install. I like that, it’s another nice bit of polish but bloody hell I needed something to keep me entertained. The install took about 40mins, almost double what it used to on this hardware. Again this may be attributable to the beta nature of the software, but I have to report as I find. Once the install eventually finished I removed the CD and was left with a system hang. Just a load of funky coloured lines on the screen and no response from the mouse or keyboard. I had to power off manually. Now, to be fair I don’t think this is Ubuntu’s fault. There’s a long standing ACPI bug with my machine and this problem has surfaced on other distros. So I wasn’t too worried about that. The install had worked fine and I was happy.
INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW
Customising The Koala:
I was pleased to see the machine boot a lot quicker the 2nd time around. I guess my theory about the disk check was right. The default Gnome desktop looks pretty much the same as always with Ubuntu. I like the addition of the new system icons by the clock, they’re very slick. A lot of people will say they have a Mac-like look and that might be fair. The idea was to standardise the look of the desktop a little more I think. The message notification icon ties into programs like Evolution, Empathy, Pidgin, Gwibber and more to give one standard messaging area. I’m not sure if I like this but that’s a personal preference. I find the notifications sometimes aren’t obvious enough, and having them all hidden under one menu I miss messages. That could be my fault for having the attention span of a goldfish though I suppose. Some of the default packages have changed in Karmic. A good example is Empathy replacing Pidgin as the default instant messenger program. I was told this is because Empathy can do both im and voice chats, it also integrates more tightly into the Gnome desktop. I tried to use it for over a week but we just didn’t get along. I still love Pidgin and find it much more intuitive. Luckily Pidgin is only an Apt-Get away, so it’s not like you’re barred from using it. They just seem to be steering people towards Empathy.
Getting all the software I wanted was quick and easy through the extensive Ubuntu repositories. I installed Audacity, Easytag, Abiword and all the other assorted tools I like with ease. Next I decided to customise the layout of the desktop a bit. I usually remove the bottom toolbar in Gnome and replace it with the Avant Window Navigator, this is very easy to do. I move the desktop switcher and window list to the top toolbar and then just delete the lower one. You’ll be able to see this from the screenshots. I also changed the theme to New Wave, which is a bit darker and looks very funky. Settling in on Karmic was easy, mainly because I’m so familiar with Ubuntu now, but also because adding drivers and apps is simple. I felt pretty comfortable in no time.
Ubuntu Software Centre:
One new feature in Karmic that’s received a lot of attention is the Ubuntu Software Centre. Basically it’s an attempt to simplify managing your installed software and applications, that’s how I’d describe it anyway. I have to admit when I first heard about the idea I thought it was terrible, I was sure I’d hate it. The old Add/Remove Software tool was good and didn’t need changing I grumbled to myself. After using Software Centre for a while though I must say I’m a total convert, it’s great! It seems to be modelled on the new “app store” type approach people are becoming used to with their phones, Android, iPhone etc. You can install stuff in the background while still searching for other things and getting stuff done. In the old Add/Remove system you had to make a list of things to change and then once you set it off it was a matter of waiting until it had finished before you could add anything else. A few times I’d start installing a list of programs and then realise I’d forgotten one. Now when you click to install something it just starts and there’s a progress bar in the background. You can still get on with hunting down more new software or even removing stuff without breaking stride. A lot of people have commented on the fact that there’s a price label on each application, and they’re quite upset about it. The righteous indignation is overflowing. It seems pretty obvious to me that Canonical would want to make a new revenue stream out of this. The applications are all marked as free right now, but again it links into the growing “app store” mentality. Some see this commercialisation as evil and with my political views you’d expect me to agree, but I don’t. There’s nothing inherently evil about charging people money for software, lots of GPL software is sold all the time. Despite the confusing name it doesn’t go against the ideals of Free Software at all. As long as the source code is available in some reasonable manner it’s all good by Stallman. It might actually encourage some outside software vendors to start porting their apps to Linux, if there’s a market. I don’t wan’t to be overrun by proprietary closed source apps of course, but I think choice is a good thing and if people can get the apps they want on Linux because of this, that’s a positive isn’t it? Also, if it helps Canonical to make some money back and keep giving us such great free software (both in the beer and speech sense), more power to them. There have been attempts to do this kind of thing in the past with mixed results though, Linspire’s Click’N’Run store springs to mind. I hope this works out for Canonical, as long as we keep the focus on Open Source applications, the monetary side doesn’t bother me.
Easier PPA Access:
One thing I really like about Karmic is how adding PPAs has been simplified. A PPA is a Personal Package Archive, and they’re basically an additional little repository of Ubuntu packages you can add, usually hosted on Launchpad.net. They’re useful because it means developers can provide newer versions of their software and you can subscribe to get the updates, rather than wait for the main repos to catch up, if the package is even in there. A good example of this is the Chromium web browser which I added via a PPA. I use the daily development build of Chromium from Launchpad and it works surprisingly well. Previously, you had to add the source location to your system config file, then go and get a key file for the PPA, import it and verify everything. It was quite a protracted process. Now it’s been made much quicker. They’ve created a new PPA namespace so you can just add something by typing “ppa:chromium-daily/ppa” in your software sources, and the rest is all taken care of. I love this, it’s really handy, but I do have to wonder how hard it would have been to use something like AptURL to automatically add the PPA with one or two clicks. It seems like they’ve come so far and stopped just inches short of the finishing line. Maybe that could be added in the next release. Some people may say it’s dangerous making experimental or development repos so easily available for even novices to install, but I think it would be a step forward and could add more eyeballs to test new packages. You could have a confirmation screen when people click a “ppa://” url.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 4/5
Stability & Speed: 4/5
Community & Documentation: 5/5
I’m impressed with Karmic, it’s a very solid release with some nice improvements over Jaunty. The Software Centre is a great addition and I hope it will be pushed up stream to the likes of Debian. Canonical have been criticised in the past for not contributing enough back to the upstream projects they depend on, but I think that’s a little harsh. Let’s see what they do with this and then judge. I also hope the new model of bringing in commercial applications and giving easy access in an “App Store” setting works for them. The new icons and overall look of Karmic is really slick, probably the best looking Ubuntu yet. There were a few rough edges in the version I tested but it was pre-release, now that the final release has hit the web today I’ll be interested to see how many of those have been fixed. Ubuntu has evolved a lot over the years and I think it’s still in a strong position looking forward. Unlike some I’m not a raving fanboy, but I’m also not an Ubuntu hater either. There seems to be a lot of those around, success makes you unpopular in a lot of quarters I suppose. I appreciate what Ubuntu brings to the Linux world, just as I appreciate what Fedora brings and all the other great distributions out there. Ubuntu is making good ground into the mainstream consciousness and we can all benefit from that I hope. Yes there’s a long way to go, but the next few years are an exciting time to be a Linux fan.
I would recommend Ubuntu Karmic to new users without much hesitation. I still like Linux Mint and Mandriva for the complete novice, but Ubuntu is a good option too. The documentation and support around it are certainly a force to be reckoned with. There are plenty of good sources of help online and help are never too far away. Different distributions suit different users and situations, but Ubuntu has proved itself very versatile. It’s going from strength to strength and I think it has a bright future. Check out Karmic for yourself and let me know what you think int he comments.
Onwards and upwards…
I’ve been so busy travelling around, running live events and god knows what else in the last 2 months. I’ve hardly had any time to do proper in depth reviews. As the winter draws in and things calm down a little though that should change. What better way to spend the cold months than wrapped up indoors on a comfy seat warming yourself by the glow of a blazing laptop. There are quite a few big releases due out soon. Fedora, OpenSuse and many others. I’ll aim to get into them all. If there’s something you’d like to see here, please leave a comment or drop me an email. I suspect my next stop may be the new Fedora. So if you’d care to join me you’re more than welcome, bring a warm coat and some sensible shoes…