Six Weeks with Ubuntu Linux

By all means, Ubuntu Linux and Canonical Ltd. have made a spectacular arrival on the Linux scene lately. The combination is like a dream come true for many, many Linux aficionados: tightly selected bleeding edge packages to focus the distribution on a single CD, corporate backing, 18 month support, that all sounds like a formidable package.

Furthermore, Ubuntu is based on the ever-popular Debian Linux, so our fellow Ubuntista has access to virtually all software that exists for Linux. Now they even released a Live CD and the whole thing can also be installed on Apple Hardware. It’s no miracle that Ubuntu stormed the Distrowatch-popularity charts in no time. And as of now, it doesn’t look like Ubuntu is going to be a One-Hit-Wonder. Well, of course I could not hold myself back and installed Ubuntu two days after the Preview Release came out in September. Six weeks later, Ubuntu is still installed on my Notebook and it does not look like it’s going away soon. Let’s have a look on Ubuntu Linux 4.10, the “Warty Warthog”.

I was really impressed with the Preview Release. I originally only installed it to see the then brand-new Gnome 2.8 desktop and, as I expected lots of problems within a totally new distribution that I never had heard of before, I planned to reinstall FC2 on the same day. But though there were a few rough edges in the Preview Release, it surely had good beta quality. There were no show-stoppers for me and so I just kept it, “apt-getting” myself through September and October. Besides, what a marketing move to release the Preview Release on the day when Gnome 2.8 was released – that surely made a lot of Gnome aficionados install Ubuntu who would have otherwise not tried it. Kudos to the Canonical marketing team! To my pleasure, as you can read here, this will be the standard procedure for all Ubuntu releases to come. So expect the “Hoary Hedgehog” Preview Release on the day when Gnome 2.10 comes out. Excellent…

I will not touch the Gnome-KDE issue. No, that’s wrong. I will touch it but only briefly: I have stated my opinion in my last article, I do think it’s a very good development that the distributors start concentrating on a defined subset of software. One idea: why not make a Ubuntu-like distribution focussing on KDE?! I bet there would be a market for a company who produces a totally free, Debian-based, commercially supported Linux distribution that includes the newest KDE desktop on the the day when it comes out (at least as a Preview Release, just as Ubuntu). Maybe some .com-hype millionaire with too much time and money listens…

But back to Ubuntu. Let’s look at the software choice of “Warty”: Kernel, Xfree 4.3, Gnome 2.8, Firefox 0.93, 1.1.2, Gaim 1.0 and XPDF 3.0. A pretty decent package, some people will be surprised that Xfree 4.3 is in it. The answer here is simple: As Ubuntu is based on Debian and Sarge will also feature Xfree 4.3, the Ubuntu team choose to use it too. They will, however, include a modern release starting with the next version, that will probably be 5.04, the “Hoary Hedgehog”. A short word on the install: this laptop is more than 2 years old now and all distributions since Redhat 8.0 have detected all the hardware correctly (except for a broken power management and the obligatory winmodem). As expected, everything worked. After the installation, I activated the “universe” repository (which is a snapshot of the debian tree) and added Bluefish, XMMS, Thunderbird and EasyTAG. Oh yeah, and Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters (the older ones of you will surely remember this game…).

The package management via apt-get/synaptic really is an advantage over other distributions. Although I have used apt-get/yum on Fedora regularly, I have to say: it’s even slightly better on a Debian-based distribution. The technical procedure might be the same, but having the one universal package repository where you can find each and everything is just a killer feature. Of course, there is not that much difference between Ubuntu and a Fedora Core installation with a decent yum.conf set up, it merely “feels different”. Hard to explain, I guess you’ll have to experience it for yourself.

A good concept forms the basis of Ubuntu but that would not be enough. The magic is: they actually did a really fine job. Warty Warthog is a pretty well-designed and bug-free piece of software, especially considering that this is just the first release of the Canonical team. But before I praise them too loud, I will start talking about some of the problems I had during the last weeks.

The worst bug for me right now: some applications that I install just don’t show up in the “Applications”-Menu. Contrary to Gnome 2.6, you can now edit the menus, so you can add applications with a few steps, described here. But this is just not enough for me. I don’t like to lose usability, and this problem did not show up in Fedora Core 1 and 2. Newly installed applications should just show up in the menu, at most after a restart of the X server.

Next really bad bug, and this is more of a feature-request: at the moment, it is downright impossible to burn an Audio CD with Ubuntu. Gnome has a bad history of not having a decent CD Creation program. This issue is almost solved now: creating Data CDs with Nautilus is really simple and works wonderful, burning iso-files is a matter of right-clicking them and selecting “Burn Image”. Very cool. But if I want to burn an Audio CD from my mp3-collection, I still have to either use the command-line, install an unsupported CD-burning application from “universe” or boot into Windows. Using the command-line is just not acceptable for a distribution like Ubuntu that features the latest user environment and focuses on ease of use. I have tried some of the CD-burning applications in “universe”, but none of them cuts it: eroaster crashes, gcombust looks ugly. I’m left with K3B, which is really fine but beats the purpose of being Gnome-only and also looks ugly in Ubuntu. The solution could be very easy: just let the Nautilus-CD-Burner ask if I want to burn a Data Disc or an Audio CD when I put mp3, ogg or wav-files in it. Or put the Audio-CD-Creation into Rhythmbox (and you all know where I got this idea from…). However, this situation definitely needs to be adressed in Gnome 2.10.

A small annoyance: despite having set the root-filesystem up on an ext3-partition, Ubuntu forces a file-system check at boot time every now and then. The first time I saw that I thought that maybe I just selected ext2 accidentally. That thought freaked my for a second, because I am normally very careful when I do the partitioning. However, I didn’t really care because I knew that I would do a clean install as soon as the final Warty was available. Just yesterday, after working with Ubuntu 4.10 final for a week, the partition got checked again. A quick dmesg showed that hda6 definitely is ext3. I don’t really mind the checks, but it feels so 2001-ish. Have not had this since Suse 7.2. I didn’t find anything on the mailing list. I wonder if this is intentional…

Then there’s Multimedia and proprietary plugins. As a good Fedora citizen, I know what to expect (ogg-playback) and what to not expect (mp3, avi and dvd playback, lame-mp3-encoder, flash and java plugin). So I fired up Synaptic and installed gstreamer0.8-mad for Rhythmbox. Solved. “apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree” – here we go! You’ll have to add the Debian marillat packages to your /etc/apt/sources.list to get libdvdcss, w32codecs and lame. You can find them, for example, here. But even then, some of my videos didn’t work. The solution was to install totem-xine. You’ll have to uninstall totem-gstreamer and ubuntu-desktop to do this but since ubuntu-desktop is just a meta-package, removing it does not cause any harm. I have not installed the Java Runtime Environment for now. Well, I guess, I just don’t want to go through the hassle of installing it whenever I install a new distribution – I just don’t need it anyway.

Oh, yes, and I had to install the German i18n files for I guess that’s the downside of having a distribution that comes on a single CD. That would be bad, if I installed Ubuntu for a friend that doesn’t have Internet access. On the other hand, I can’t recall anyone within my circle of friends who is not online… Plus, I’d need Internet access to set Ubuntu up anyway, so it’s just one more package to download…

All in all, Ubuntu will be a strong competitor for Fedora Core on my desktop. I will definitely install Fedory Core 3 in November, just to see what it has to offer. And then I will make a strategical decision. The differences will be subtle: an ocean of Debian packages vs., Redhat System Utilities vs. the brand-new Gnome System Utilities (which are very good in my opinion), Human vs. Bluecurve. Ubuntu has good cards to become my Linux distribution of choice. By all means, it’s good to have a worthwhile competitor for Fedora in the Gnome arena. Kudos to Mark Shuttleworth and his gang of hackers!

About the Author:
Christian Paratschek is a very happy person at the moment since he finally managed to finish his studies after a decade (wow, I never realized that it was THAT long). His next plan is to annoy and bore as many readers as often as he gets the chance to… Other articles can be viewed here.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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