Welcome back to another issue of my reviews of Linux distributions. Not really surprisingly, this time I decided to take a close look at the second version of the most popular Debian offshoot, Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu’s performance probably was the biggest surprise that 2004 had in store for Linux users. Just 9 months ago, almost noone even knew that there was a new project underway, but then things went really fast: after a preview version in mid-September, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, released version 4.10 in October. Being based on Debian, Ubuntu has a solid base and, despite not being supported officially, all the (18.000) Debian packages available. Ubuntu 4.10 proved to be a decent operating system (especially for a first try) and had overall pretty positive reviews (here’s mine). But development of course didn’t stop there: soon enough, a subproject called Kubuntu was formed, with the goal to produce a KDE-centered version of Ubuntu (the original project decided to use the Gnome desktop exclusively). Now that six months have passed, the next version of Ubuntu Linux has arrived. Ubuntu 5.04 comes as a live CD and as a single installation CD. It is available for Intel/x86 architecture, for Apple (PowerPC) hardware and for AMD64, as is Kubuntu 5.04. The live CD was available for 4.10 too, but has improved significantly over the last six months (back then it merely was a version of the Gnoppix project with some Ubuntu artwork).
Let’s have a look at this new version of Ubuntu. Screenshots galore can be found, as usual, on shots.osdir.com. Even though Ubuntu 5.04 has only been around for a few days, I have used it since the preview version was released some weeks ago, so I really feel prepared enough to write a short article about it. Here we go:
Installation is still text-based, Ubuntu uses the new Debian installer, which is really fine (partitioning is always a bit tricky but you can ruin your harddrive with Fedora’s Anaconda too, I guess…). The Ubuntu developers have refined the installation here and there: the installer now asks for the correct keyboard layout and when you select a language other then English, Ubuntu asks if it should download the according internationalization packages. This was the first time that I didn’t have to do any further configuration regarding localization. Of course you need a fairly decent internet connection to do this (language packages are about 25MB). Ubuntu 5.04 comes with Linux kernel 2.6.10, x.org 6.8.2, Gnome 2.10, OpenOffice.org 1.1.3, Firefox 1.0.2, The Gimp 2.2.2, and Gaim 1.1.4 (KUbuntu features KDE 3.4 instead of Gnome 2.10). Overall, Ubuntu looks a lot like its predecessor. Artwork has not changed much, and Gnome 2.10 doesn’t look much different than 2.8. Also, Ubuntu 5.04 feels a lot like a refined version of Ubuntu 4.10. After using it for some time, you’ll notice the small tweaks here and there.
System stability is outstanding: I can’t recall seeing any application of the core Ubuntu system crash during the last weeks. This, however, does not extend to "Universe", the unsupported Debian Sid packages. Many of them will work flawlessly, some will make minor problems, some will not work at all (after all, these are just a snapshot of the Debian unstable tree – so you can’t really expect them to work). One very intersting task for the Ubuntu crew will be if they can stay close enough to Debian development, especially because Debian still has not released Sarge and is therefore stagnating a bit. Thus far, the concept to "take a snapshot of Sid and build upon it" has proved to be viable, but I think the long stabilization work on Sarge opens a gap between Debian and Ubuntu that gets larger every day. Debian will profit of Ubuntu far more as soon as they release Sarge and start development of "Etch", the next Debian version.
The most obvious change is startup time: Ubuntu 5.04 boots from Grub to GDM in 45 seconds on my notebook, plus another 22 to start Gnome. That’s 67 seconds combined, just over a minute. With Fedora Core 3, it took almost two and half minutes to start the same computer, Ubuntu 4.10 needed around two minutes to complete the boot process. Ubuntu 5.04 boots equally fast as Windows XP on my notebook. A very welcomed improvement!
After loggong in, the first thing I noticed was that the Ubuntu team changed the way Nautilus behaves: it closes every folder-window as soon as you double-click a subfolder in it. I don’t really like this because I think, to be really efficient with spatial browsing, you need to have menu structures that are so flat that you never have more than 3 windows open at the same time. Going back one level is more difficult now: instead of just closing the second window, you have to click in the left bottom of the window and select the superior folder level. Then the current window closes and the window with the superior level reappears. Strange and not very intuitive. I’d still say: either spatial all the way or no spatial at all. But I had to switch back to navigational browsing anyway (yes, after writing a very pro-spatial-browsing article last year): nowadays, I manage two websites and I have to keep local copies of them on my harddrive. I didn’t create these websites in the first place and they both feature really stupid and deep folder structures. Now I can’t quite change them to a more intelligent structure because that would break all the external sites that link to sections of these websites. I still think that spatial browsing is a superior and easier concept if you do it from the start but of course it sucks with deep nested folder structures and I can’t do anything about it. Plus I am quite comfortable with navigational browsing anyway and Nautilus makes it easy to change to this behaviour. I really think that this is not an issue anymore: you can change it with a simple click, and Nautilus is both in spatial as in navigational mode a really fine file manager.
A nice improvement is the new Gnome Volume Control. It’s a lot easier now, with just two sliders. Also, I like the new Gnome System Tools: the network manager works perfectly: it detects new WLAN access points, so connecting to them is way easier than before. Oh yeah, and Ubuntu configured my Netgear WG511 802.11g wireless card automatically: no more downloading firmware – a pleasant surprise!
Of course, there is also some new software: Canonical added an update manager that works really fine and integrates nicely with the desktop. Synaptic still serves a the central tool to add/remove software and update the system (and it does its job), but the simplicity of the update manager is nice, especially for non-tech-savvy users. They can keep their system up-to-date with two mouseclicks.
The biggest plus for me is that, finally, I have a Linux distribution that does software audio mixing automatically. I have complained about this issue several times in my previous articles. Ubuntu 5.04 finally does it right. No further configuration was needed, out-of-the-box Rhythmbox, Beep Media Player (change output to ESD, otherwise it crashes!), Gaim, Totem and the Gnome System Sounds play simultanously. Good job, Ubuntu team!
Graveman solves another long standing problem with the Gnome Desktop. Finally, it’s easy to burn Audio CDs in Gnome (as easy as "apt-get install graveman"). Still not part of the official Gnome Desktop (and also not part of Ubuntu 5.04!), at least it’s GTK+ based application that integrates nicely into the Desktop, a nice complement to the nautilus-cd-burner, which already does a fine job at burning normal data discs. I can really recommend Graveman, it worked for me flawlessly on several occasions.
Another long standing issue with Linux (on notebooks) that seems to be (at least partly) solved is power management. The Logout/Shutdown dialog now offers a new option called "Hibernate the computer". This, however, doesn’t work on my Compaq Presario 2800, the computer instantly freezes and never comes back, due to a broken ACPI implementation on this notebook. This is obviously not Ubuntu’s fault, I always had this problem and there’s even a way to fix it (but it says: "Handle with care" and I never got myself to finally risk it). However, I do hope that this option works for most other notebook users.
Final verdict: Ubuntu 5.04 won’t disappoint most Linux users. A lot of things "just work". I didn’t find any grave problems, Ubuntu 5.04 is a worthy successor to 4.10, slicker, faster and more stable. Special Kudos to the Ubuntu team that they try to tackle the tough, long-standing Linux-on-Desktop problems like power management and startup time. They are really pushing Linux forward in this area. The future looks bright for Ubuntu Linux, especially if Debian finally manages to push out Sarge and the developers can combine their forces and concentrate on all the new technology that didn’t make it into Sarge.
About the Author:
Christian Paratschek, 29 (since yesterday, ugh), self-employed IT worker, irregularly writes and translates articles for this site. Read more on his website.
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