Update that’s long overdue

November 26, 2008

I haven’t updated this blog in forever, not because I lost interest in all things Linux (far from it), but because I changed jobs, moved, and lack internet access at home. While at work, I don’t really have the time (or the bandwith) to test out new Linux distributions, for example.

It’s amazing how much I’ve become dependent on internet access in the last ten years. I do everything on my PC, from listening to music to reading comics.

This should be fixed in December. I’m looking forward to trying out the new Fedora.

San

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Ubuntu 8.10

November 2, 2008

The Intrepid Ibex has arrived, and as is usual with new Ubuntu releases, there’s lots of reading material, if you’re interested. Those links alone should keep anyone happy for an hour or so. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d write a review…we’re only two days after the release, and already Distrowatch links as many as eleven reviews.
Still, I figure that if you hate Ubuntu you won’t have read any of them, and if you don’t…you can’t have enough Ubuntu! So here goes.

Let’s start with something I usually forget: the specifications of the PC I used. It’s not really a high-end system, but definitely not an old, slow one either. There are other Linux distributions for that.

CPU: Intel Dual core 2.33Ghz
RAM: 2GB
Video Card: Nvidia 8600GT

I spend some more time testing 8.10 than I usually do. I installed both the Beta and the RC, which I then upgraded to the final version. The Beta probably was a bad burn, because I got quite some errors during the install. In the end, it installed anyway and worked fine. That’s where I got my previous screenshots from. The RC was a clean install, and I’ve been using it for about ten days. The idea was to stay as close to the default installation as possible…after all, Ubuntu is targeted at non-specialist computer users, who stick to the defaults.
Apart from the screen and a multimedia Microsoft keyboard, the hardware I tested included a HP Deskjet D2460 printer, an old Sweex webcam that can be made to work with the V4L2 driver, and a Thomson SpeedTouch 120g wireless dongle.

Look and feel

As usual, I took a look around the liveCD, mainly to check the artwork. There’s a first disappointment here. As I recall, a new look was already promised for 8.04, then moved to 8.10, and…it’s not here. Sure, the Human theme uses the Murrine engine now, which makes for some subtle but nice changes, which won’t be noticed by anyone except die-hard Ubuntu lovers. I’m not saying I don’t like Ubuntu’s default look, because I do, but it does irk me that Canonical doesn’t deliver what was promised here.

Default Ubuntu Human theme

Default Ubuntu Human theme

Keep in mind that this isn’t a screenshot of the LiveCD, but one of the OS after installation. The panels don’t have the default look.
Now, there is a new theme availaible, called NewHuman in the Alpha releases, where it was the default theme. It’s not in the final release though and it has been renamed DarkRoom), maybe because the new look was too great of a departure from the old one, or maybe because it doesn’t feel really finished yet. As you can see in the screenshot, there are some problems with fonts in certain applications.

The Ubuntu DarkRoom theme

The Ubuntu DarkRoom theme

The window in the top left corner is the Firefox Preferences window, where the text at the top is simply unreadable until you select it. The Compiz Configuration manager in the bottom left corner has the same problem, but at least it’s not installed by default. Firefox is. For users prefering a dark theme, I think the best option is the Dust theme, which doesn’t have these problems. I installed it the hard way (download the compressed file, put the files in /usr/share/themes), but apparently Dust is available in the package “community-themes”. That doesn’t include the Firefox theme though, so you’ll have to install that seperately.

The Ubuntu Dust theme

The Ubuntu Dust theme

Installation and first boot

As I said in my Mandriva 2009 review, installing Linux is easy these days, so I won’t bore you with it…much. The installer has a new look for the partitioner, which is nice, but doesn’t make partitioning easier; and there’s a new option “Log in automatically” when you create your user. That’s about it. It worked fine, although it was a bit slower to install than Mandriva. It took ten to fifteen minutes.

Configuring a newly installed Ubuntu has always been incredibly easy, as long as you stick to the GUI. For the normal computer user, installing restricted drivers and codecs is handled the way it should be handled: with an obvious popup asking you if you want to download and install the neccesary software. I think this is the perfect compromise between delivering an open source operating system, and providing ease of use for computer users who don’t care about open source and just want to play music, or see their windows wobble.

Anyway, after the installation of the nvidia drivers, and the subsequent reboot, the Compiz special effects were enabled, in the “Normal” setting (there’s also an “Extra” for people who want the bells and whistles). Normally, I turn them off, but this time I didn’t notice a performance hit, so I decided to stick with it. It may be just my impression, but I think the effects are a bit more obvious than they have been in previous releases, especially when opening and closing a window. Fortunately, in the default setting the wobbly windows and the desktop cube are left out, so everything remains tasteful.

Configuration isn’t always as easy though. Especially frustrating to me was trying to set up my favourite keyboard shortcuts. In the end, I had to go through three different Preferences windows just to get everything the way I want. First, there’s the normal Gnome keyboard shortcuts preference window…which simply doesn’t list all the functions I want a shortcut for, and it’s impossible to add more. The choices aren’t always obvious either…why can you add shortcuts for “Switch to Desktop 1” and “Switch to Desktop 2″…but not more? I always have 4 virtual desktops! Sometimes the shortcut didn’t even work, when it conflicted with those of the Compiz window manager. In the end, I had to mess around in the gconf-editor and the Compiz Preference Manager to get things the way I wanted. Hardly intuitive, especially since the Compiz Preference Manager is still a mess: dozens of different plugins, all with dozens of options, many of those conflicting each other, all thrown together.

Usage

As I mentioned before, I also wanted to test some hardware: a printer, a webcam and a wireless dongle. The webcam and the wireless dongle I can do without, but the printer is essential. Fortunately, after the install, it was set up correctly, without needing any input from me. Perfect.
To my surprise, the same thing happened with the webcam. I have managed to make this thing work before, but not without much command line magic. This time it just worked. I checked in Ekiga, because Pidgin still doesn’t support webcams…which I personally think is absolutely retarded, but that’s just me. Still, what’s a webcam for except stripping in front of it seeing your friends while you chat with them?
The wireless dongle did not work at first, because there are no drivers available for Linux. Not a problem however: I downloaded the Windows drivers and downloaded ndiswrapper (and a very nice front-end called ndisgtk). I don’t have a wireless router myself, but after the set up, I could see all my neighbours do. They have learned something since last year though, since they were all secured. Still, it’s nice to know that if I ever want to go the wireless route, I’ll have no problems.

Another important point: I always have had trouble with my CD/DVD burner in Arch, with an unusual amount of failed burns, and burning software that simply refused to work. Trying to solve things, I installed a new burner…which refused to work entirely. In Ubuntu 8.10 however, I had none of these problems. No errors, no failed burns.

Speedwise, there were some concerns. Phoronix has reported that the Ubuntu releases have become gradually slower, with Ubuntu 8.10 logically being the slowest. Phoronix is a serious website, so their opinion carries some weight. Even so, Ubuntu 8.10 doesn’t feel slow to me. Sure, it takes longer to boot than my Arch install, but not much, and opening applications takes a bit longer too. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, using Compiz doesn’t seem to slow down the system at all. All in all, things feel rather snappy, but that’s just my opinion, and not based on any kind of tests or measurements.

There are three ways to install software: via the menu, using Synaptic or the command line. I tried to use the first as much as possible, but I noticed not all software is listed there. Emelfm2, for example, I had to install with Synaptic. It’s true that it isn’t very commonly used, but even then it’s funny that it’s not even listed.

EmelFM2, not available?

EmelFM2, not available?

Here it is!

Here it is!

Another thing I found odd: the search program Tracker is installed by default, the services are started by default, but there isn’t any default indexing. In other words, unless it has created an index, Tracker doesn’t find anything…which seems kind of pointless.

Conclusion

There’s a reason Ubuntu is the most known Linux distribution today: on average it’s easiest, and it just works. I have to add “on average” here, since the installation isn’t always painless. I also tried to install it on another PC with an Intel video card, which failed. It’s a known issue, and there are workarounds, but it’s annoying nonetheless. There are other annoyances, like the infamous bug that closes the CD tray as soon as it’s opened (push the button again, and it’ll stay open).

But on average, things in Ubuntu 8.10 work so well, it has replaced Arch on my desktop, at least at the moment. I haven’t had the time to spend much time tinkering in front of my computer, and for now I want things to just work.

Is Ubuntu 8.10 a huge change from 8.04? No. Is it the best Linux distribution out there? That’s highly debatable. But is it the OS that you can just install on your PC, set a few things up, and then go and do something else without worrying about it? Nine times out of ten, it is.

San