During my 8 years of Linux on and off usage I have tried more distros than I have chocolate bars. Each one of my previous encounters meant that I had to spend at least 2 days configuring before I have a desktop that I was somewhat comfortable with. With Ubuntu Feisty Fawn’s latest test beta –for the first time ever– this was not the case. I was up and running with all the niceties I wanted within 2 hours. I received my brand new laptop this past Monday with Vista Home Basic in it. I spent 2 hours with Vista, I decided that I didn’t like much of its usability, and I immediately burned an Ubuntu preview ISO and installed it on my shiny new DELL Inspiron 640m. There was a problem though and X11 would crash on load — and the graphical safe mode would not work either (confirmed bug). The 915resolution hack was not needed for my Intel graphics card, but I needed to have more information for my laptop’s LCD. By manually entering the vertical and horizontal sync in the xorg.conf file it fixed the problem for my 1440×900 screen and I was able to load the LiveCD and finally install Feisty on the hard drive.
Installation was a breeze, very fast and easy to go by, although the “advanced” button that let’s you configure where the bootloader should be installed it could use some friendlier “names” rather than just (hd0,0). Ubuntu found Vista’s partitions and automatically added them to the GRUB boot menu. I was not able to test FreeBSD and BeOS/Zeta partitions to check if they are recognized by Ubuntu’s GRUB automatically (previous versions of Ubuntu didn’t recognize them).
A positive point about the new version is the booting speed: Feisty boots in 40 seconds on my laptop, while Vista needs about 50 (with McAfee turned off). Additionally, Ubuntu now seems to be more usable than before with 256 MBs of RAM (with CUPS services turned off) and 512 MBs seem to be more than enough — a number that’s the minimum for Vista.
The default Ubuntu desktop looks a lot like its predessesor versions although the artwork is updated. Personally, I still prefer the default Clearlooks and Tango icons and thankfully, these were included. Compiz is now part of Ubuntu although turned off by default because it still has major problems. I would personally go with AIXGL and Beryl instead of the slower-evolving Compiz (after re-writing Beryl’s pref panels of course to be more humane/sane).
Updating Ubuntu and installing new apps is now a breeze. Although Ubuntu has 5 GUI applications that are package-related and that can create some confusion, if the user gets used to them he will never have a problem installing anything on his computer. Firefox has been conditioned to “understand” .deb files and a wizard is loading when you click to such a file and installs it. The Add/Remove application right under the “Applications” Gnome menu is another dead give-away on how to install other popular Linux apps on your computer. And if the user is more proficient and knows what he/she was, there is always Synaptic. In the Administration menu you will also find the global preferences for package management and the “Update Manager”, a utility similar to Apple’s Mac OS X update facility. Only problem with the refreshing of the repositories is that each time you refresh them, you need to download 5 MBs of data (that’s with the restricted and multiverse repositories enabled). Users on slower connections will hate that. Ubuntu must do something to reduce the amount of data downloaded for each repository (the main US server that it’s most up-to-date I found it to be slow, so some data-diet would benefit all users, not just users on slow connections).
There is a new proprietary policy at Ubuntu now and so some restricted software is easily accessible for download, while others can be installed on demand, e.g. when Totem identifies a missing codec. With this way I was easily up and running with mp3 and many video codecs support in minutes. However, not all is great with this as new bugs arise: I manually installed libdvdcss because this is not included in the restricted list and Totem now refuses to playback any DVD if you try to load it via Totem’s menu — although it plays fine via HAL when you popup the DVD in the drive (but no chapters or fast forward is possible as all DVD menu options are frozen).
There is also a new “Restricted Drivers Manager” panel under Administration which let’s you enable/disable non-free drivers. I had to install Linuxant’s HSF modem drivers for my laptop and lo-and-behold, after a reboot the driver indeed showed up there! I also have ndiswrapper installed for my WiFi card using proprietary firmware files, but ndiswrapper is not listed there. Please note that Ubuntu mistakenly loads the BCM43xx driver for my Broadcomm/Dell 1390 WiFi card and that resulted in a lot of errors in the terminal by the system (missing firmware?). I had to blacklist the BCM43xx driver before I could successfully install ndiswrapper and finally get WiFi support. [Update: I installed the bcm43xx-cutter package and installed the required firmware and WiFi now works with the open source driver which unfortunately is not stable (I lose connection after a minute or so), so I have to continue using ndiswrapper which seems very stable.] NetworkManager is very well-done btw, a real pleasure to have around and get connected to WiFi networks on a wim.
My favorite administrative panel is the “Language support”. While I originally installed Ubuntu with the US locale, it was not before long that I needed some Greek and French support. What do you know? Installing new locales and easily have your Gnome adapt to each language is just a few clicks away. Another fine moment is that Ubuntu supports suspend-to-RAM (sleep) on my laptop out of the box, although I noticed that once every 5-6 wake ups some stuff can get screwy (e.g. X dying, network card not responding etc). As for battery life, support is not as good as on Windows’: my laptop can deliver up to 7 hours of battery life with my 9-cell extended battery, but I get about 5 hours with Ubuntu (with all wireless off, screen brightness low). On the positive side again, the touchpad’s scroll wheel is working out of the box, the onboard SD card reader works perfectly, I am now able to select which sound card I want as my main desktop sound card via a GUI and all of Dell’s “special buttons” on the laptop (including media buttons, wireless/brightness on/off) are all working out of the box. Isn’t that something!
So far, I am very happy with Ubuntu because most things just work, the desktop looks fabulous and it does what I want it to do without having to dig where each option is (unlike Vista’s new control panel). There were very few the times that I had to pop to the terminal to carry out an important action. However, this being a beta, I did have some problems with some packages, and as a good citizen I did my part to file bug reports. Some of these problems include: the i810 driver would not playback HD video (Xv crashing) if I would not add the Cachelines option in the Xorg.conf, copy/paste from Firefox does not work if Firefox is then closed down (this was fixed last year for Gnome apps, time to fix Firefox too), Gossip does not connect to anything else but jabber.org (e.g. no gtalk), digicam’s RAW files open by default with the wrong applications (only Cinepaint and UFRaw can handle these but they are not set as defaults for the RAW mime types), I have bad AC97 “scratchy” sound with most SDL games (e.g. Neverball, LTris etc), Bluetooth would not work at all here if you don’t run “hcitool hci0 reset” before loading the service, there is no option in the gnome-mouse pref panel to disable tap-to-click on touchpads (gsynaptics is really buggy so I prefer to not mess with it), HAL is not built with libsmbios and so the new Gnome “brightness applet” does not support any DELL laptop, FFmpeg is built without AAC (so it’s not possible to encode videos for my cellphone) etc. However, these are not problems that I can’t live with or not find workarounds.
I’ve been an Arch/Slackware Linux user for the last 3 years, but Ubuntu has won me the last few days because of the conveniences it brings. The point of the matter is, I am now older. I am 33 years old and I just don’t have the same energy as I used to to deal with stupid issues that they should not be there, or with removal or non-development of conveniences for no good reason. Ubuntu is a distro that obviously has paid attention to detail (and everyone who knows me from my past writings knows how much I can bitch about “defaults” and “details”) and has found a good middle ground between hard core Linux users and new users from the Windows/OSX land. I am looking forward for the final version of Feisty Fawn in April and you should do too.