It is that time of year again: a new Ubuntu release is upon us. The beta version of Ubuntu 8.04 was released a few days ago, so I decided to give it a try and see what new features and improvements they have shoved into this one. As always, this is as much a preview of the latest GNOME release (2.22) as it is of Ubuntu itself. Read on for the preview.You will be happy to find out that you no longer have to boot the entire live desktop before you can install Ubuntu. On the CD’s GRUB menu, there is now an option called “Install Ubuntu”, which will load the installer, but not the entire live desktop. Good effort, since I do not really use the live desktop anyway.
Ubuntu 8.04 comes with X.org 7.3, which adds some interesting, and long-overdue, capabilities to Ubuntu: dynamic changing of resolutions. As far as I am concerned, we break out the champagne, since this is a feature many, many have waited for. It is a shame it has taken so long, but at least we can enjoy it now. A configuration utility has been included (peculiarly located in the Applications menu, instead of the Configuration menu), which also allows you to manage any secondary displays. Laptop users, rejoice.
Another long-overdue and much-awaited update is that Nautilus can now actually be welcomed into the 21st century. GVFS, the new userspace virtual filesystem, improves Nautilus’ performance across the board, and thanks to PolicyKit, Nautilus will actually prompt for the root password if you try to access a restricted location or file, something other operating systems and file managers have been able to do since Citizen Kane came out. Sadly, PolicyKit does not seem to have been integrated fully just yet. If you open as a normal user, say,
sources.list, in gedit, edit it around a bit, and try to save it, you cannot. It will not ask you for the root password – it will just simply say “I’m afraid I can’t do that”, and offer a cancel button. Something to work on for the future.
PolicyKit did find its way to other areas, such as the various configuration panels. This means that you can now authorise just actions, instead of entire applications/panels.
Another interesting back-end feature is PulseAudio, an advanced framework for manipulation of audio during its path from application to the sound hardware. This allows for fancy stuff like per-application volume settings, although I did not see an interface for such behaviour in this beta.
Evolution gained an interesting feature, one that I have been waiting for for a while: it will disable the email preview pane after a crash. In the past, I have had Evolution crash on me during particular emails (even plain-text ones), sometimes for no apparent reason. It would crash on those particular emails consistently, which made it difficult to reload Evolution, as it would default the preview pane to the very email that caused the crash. Now, after a crash, Evolution will tell you it has disabled the preview pane, so you can safely delete the email that is causing the problem.
This is, of course, a case of fighting the symptoms, and not the cause. The offending emails would only crash Evolution; they would display fine on Mail.app or Kmail. I hope the Evolution guys realise that this is a very serious problem, and while this stop-gap solution is welcome, it does not fix the actual problems.
The GNOME guys also merged the Keyboard Layout and Keyboard Accessibility preference panels, resulting in a clean and elegant Keyboard Preferences panel. Even though I am not sure if this is at all related, I have been experiencing many keyboard issues while using this beta. For no apparent reason, my keyboard would stop responding, I would find a numeric pad located in the centre of my keyboard, with all other keys disabled, x keyboard errors upon launch, and more of those issues. Sometimes it could be fixed by re-applying the keymap, sometimes it required a reboot to get fixed. I do use one of those fancy aluminium thin Apple keyboards on my normal desktop, so that might affect the issue too. Interestingly, I tried the alpha 3 release of openSUSE 11.0, also with GNOME 2.22 as the desktop, and it gave me similar problems.
Ubuntu 8.04 also includes a crash reporting tool, which sends information to Ubuntu’s Launchpad. You will encounter this tool quite frequently in this beta – more often than I have come to expect from Ubuntu beta releases. Gedit, Evolution, gnome-screensaver, Firefox, and many other applications and services; they crash quite often, quite randomly, without any apparant cause. This is quite frustrating. For an LTS release, the better start fixing these random crashes – this is the buggiest Ubuntu beta I have ever used. And I used them all.
The beta comes with the latest test version of Firefox 3.0, and for the life of me, I hate its new address bar. When you enter an url, it will, as usual, give you a drop-down list of possibilities, taken from your browsing history. This works just fine on any browser, but for Firefox 3.0, they went a little overboard. Each entry in this menu is now two rows of text, with one showing the name of the webpage, and the other showing the url. This gives for a very crowded menu, which shows fewer possible urls in the same space than the previous menu. I really find it obnoxious to use.
This release of Ubuntu also sees a set of new applications, courtesy of GNOME 2.22. One of them is the Brasero CD/DVD burner utility, a simple but effective application that does what it is supposed to do without being overly complicated. Another newcomer is Transmission, my favourite BitTorrent client (I use it on Mac OS X). A simple, yet powerful client.
All in all, this release packs some interesting new features and frameworks, some of which should have been part of any Linux distribution three years ago. It is quite clearly a beta though, and definitely not ready yet to be labeled as a ‘long term support’ release. Let’s hope they take their time to polish the rough edges, and deliver a stable release. It is needed.
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