Ubuntu 8.04

Ubuntu 8.04 is the latest offering from Canonical and part of their every-six-months release schedule. More importantly, it is the latest Long-Term Service (LTS) version of Ubuntu, which carries with it support for two years. This potentially makes Ubuntu more appealing to enterprise users, and offers home desktop users a more stable, better guaranteed experience.

I have installed Ubuntu on both my laptop (HP zv5000) and my home desktop (homebrew built using components from NewEgg) and used it for a few days now. I am also installing Ubuntu Server in a virtual machine for a webserver, and though the installation process is significantly different, operation of the distribution is similar. So, let’s dive right in.

Installation

Ubuntu 8.04 Desktop Edition featured an installation process very similar to the previous two versions released by Canonical, with one small but pleasant change. Previously, Ubuntu loaded by default to a Live CD, and from within this Live CD (which took a significant amount of time to load depending on the amount of RAM you had available and how fast your computer was), you could install the operating system. I’ve always enjoyed having the flexibility of being able to see if all of my hardware works before installing the operating system and, of course, being able to browse the web and get on with my life during the installation process. Nevertheless, when I am doing the install on a second computer and already know the hardware is compatible, there isn’t necessarily a reason for me to take the time to load a Live CD.

Ubuntu now has an option to install on the original menu, which is a nice addition. Prior to reaching this, however, a very long box (wrapping into multiple columns) appears so users can select the language they prefer. Considering that a lot of Ubuntu’s focus is on improving the user experience and the polish of the distribution, such an obtrusive and ugly design for a language picker at the front-end really surprised me. It felt tacked on and ill-considered.

Once inside the installation, the user is walked through partitioning and the settings the operating system needs. A new interface for selecting the time zone has been added to Ubuntu 8.04, where hovering over a section of the map zooms in to that section, rather than clicking to zoom in. I’m willing to cut this feature some slack because it scrolls well and is fairly accurate, but it still annoys me, if for no other reason than that it is unexpected. In attempting to move the cursor to North America, I first zoom in on Africa, an unintended response. Such occurrences should be minimized, and I felt like this addition was unnecessary and a little distracting.

8.04 seems to install and run faster than 7.10 did by a fair margin, and I don’t think the installation on my laptop took more than about 14 minutes. As usual, the user is prompted to press Enter to restart at the end of the installation, and the CD-ROM drive is ejected, which I always felt was a nice touch.

First Impressions

The login page has been dressed up a bit, and a new desktop background added as the default with some artwork of a Heron (due to the code name of version 8.04, which is Hardy Heron in keeping with the naming scheme of Canonical). Initial load was quick, and Gnome was exactly what I was used to and expected. After using Linux Mint for the last several months, I was a bit disappointed in returning to vanilla Gnome, but it still fits with my usage philosophy better than KDE. I practically live within the web browser, so I want my OS and UI to get out of my way and let me work on what I wish, rather than having to deal with everything else.

When you log into 8.04, you’re presented with nearly the same Ubuntu we’ve had for the last six versions. Don’t expect much of a change until version 8.10, and maybe not even then. It’s functional and fast, and that’s enough for me for now. If you want beautiful flashiness (and I do), install Compiz and the Avant Window Navigator.

Drivers

Because I installed this the day it released, there were no updates, which was a pleasant surprise. I had gotten used to having dozens if not hundreds of updates on a fresh install (both in Linux and Windows) that being done immediately upon reboot was really nice.

One of the complaints I have heard (and somewhat share) about Linux is the requirement for an Internet connection, and broadband is implied in that statement. I knew that software installation would be difficult the first few days after release because all of the hosting servers would be hammered by the masses attempting to procure the same software, but I was unaware how very much relied upon that connection.

On first boot, the Restricted Drivers Manager will usually appear to prompt the user that “restricted” drivers are available to them if they would like to install the drivers. Usually, these are video drivers provided by ATI or nVidia, so the user can check the box next to the driver they want and it will be installed. These video drivers are often required for any 3D effects, such as the flashy features Ubuntu offers (which I prefer to manage through Compiz) or the ability to play more advanced games, and are considered “restricted” because they are closed source. Unfortunately, they also require download.

Not only do they require download, but Ubuntu 8.04 has to check against the server and make sure the drivers are available before it will prompt you to download them. I knew I needed the drivers, but the dialog wasn’t appearing because the servers were responding so slowly.

Of course, once I did get them to install, everything ran flawlessly. Linux is so borin^H^H^H^H^Heasy these days. No other drivers were necessary on either computer.

Audio/Video

Ubuntu tries its best to stay pretty legit/free, and tenaciously clings to the philosophy of Open Source. It hasn’t gone as extreme as Debian, but it does not install very many non-free components by default.

That’s all fine and well, but when I took my laptop home on Friday and discovered that my DSL modem had died, it quickly degenerated into a more frustrating experience than it needed to be. Now, not only could I not access anything like I normally would, but none of the videos on my computer worked anymore. Ubuntu doesn’t install any codecs for AVI (the most prevalent container for my video files) or MP3s by default, and though it’ll download and install them pretty easily with a network connection, I found myself lacking.

When I did get to a location with Internet, I thought I would go to YouTube and make sure it worked. Flash has been a problem on Linux in the past, but with improvements in recent years (and Adobe releasing their player for Linux), matters have gotten better and better. When I went to YouTube, Firefox informed me that I needed to install a Flash player and I was given three options: Gnash, Adobe, and one I didn’t recognize and don’t recall.

I’ve been seeing Gnash around for the last year or so (I only started using Linux as a desktop OS at that time), but I hadn’t tried it, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. And after installing it, for whatever reason, YouTube failed to work. So, I went back to the page in an attempt to get Firefox to prompt me to install something again and went ahead with Adobe. Except that didn’t work either.

Turns out that 1) Gnash doesn’t work with everything and 2) Gnash and Adobe conflict with each other, or at least they did in this instance. Once I uninstalled Gnash, the Adobe player worked just fine. This is often one of the main criticisms of Linux: It simply offers the users too many choices. There are thousands of open source applications, so how is a user to know which is the best for their needs? Often, trial-and-error is the best solution, and that’s not really a solution at all. It’s all fine and well for me, but users less familiar with the myriad programs available will have a harder time with it.

Why can’t we just get MPlayer (with SMPlayer as the front-end) installed by default? Seriously.

Software in General

I’m not going to talk about every package that Ubuntu comes bundled with, but there are a few that jumped out at me.

Software Sources

I was pleased to discover two things about the Software Sources panel for Ubuntu. The first is that 8.04 only selects by default sources that maintain LTS versions of software. This means that new, beta, or less-supported versions will not be installed or updated-to, and my operating system will remain stable. The second is the ability to “scan for best sources,” where Ubuntu will select the best mirror from which to get software. Unfortunately, this feature fails entirely when all of the servers are overloaded (as they were on release day), but the feature is still appreciated.

Web Browser

There has been a lot of criticism of 8.04 including Mozilla Firefox 3 Beta. I understand that a lot of my regular extensions won’t work in it, which would probably cause me to uninstall the web browser and revert to Firefox 2. However, I haven’t gotten around to extension installation yet (due to my DSL not working at home), but just using Firefox 3 vanilla has been a pleasant experience. At the very least, I can see why Canonical would include the beta of version 3 in this release. Since 8.04 is a long-term service release that is good for three years, you want software that’s going to be around for a long time. Installing a browser version that is going to need to be upgraded to an entirely different version number in a matter of months doesn’t hold with the long-term vision of 8.04. Therefore, Canonical chose to go with version 3 of Firefox, even if it is a beta, because it is already proven and stable and, this way, users don’t have a version change in mid-stream, so to speak.

Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but the spellchecking feature of Firefox has never worked for me in Linux. The words might be underlined in red, but I can’t right click on them and get spelling suggestions… until now. This feature now works properly in Ubuntu 8.04 with Firefox 3.

Email

C’mon, Evolution? You install Firefox, why not Thunderbird? I always ditch Evolution and install Thunderbird first thing (when the servers aren’t crippled, anyways), yet Evolution is always there on fresh installs. I can’t foresee a time when it will be worth using, so I stick with Thunderbird.

Word Processor

The version of OpenOffice.org included with Ubuntu 8.04 is the fork from Sun Microsystems. As such, it does not include the Novell patch to make it work with Microsoft Word 2007 documents. Nevertheless, it’s not that difficult to add such functionality; for more information, see the third reply in this forum discussion on the subject. I’ve used this on previous versions of Ubuntu with positive results, so I’d expect it to work here as well.

For the record, OOo looks like it can open .docx files by default, but it lacks an option to save as .docx. Since Office 2007 can open .doc files, this should cover most occasions.

If you’ve never used OOo, you should give it a try. I’ve been using it for years, and my wife started using it about a year ago and has grown quite comfortable; she prefers it over Office 2007 these days, at any rate. Of course, another alternative (though not for the faint at heart) is LaTeX, which I prefer for longer works. Versions of LaTeX are available through the Synaptic Package Manager.

Bittorrent

Ubuntu 8.04 brought Transmission in for Bittorrent. YMMV, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. It’s alright, I suppose, but the features are minimal, not centralized or organized well enough, and overall I just wasn’t satisfied. Thankfully, Azureus is available through Synaptic. Transmission is superior to btlaunchmany, the old default bittorrent client, but it’s not something I’d want to use on a daily basis.

System Manager

The System Manager has gotten a nice redesign, with more useful graphs and layout. I usually add System Manager to the bar at the top of my screen, and that display hasn’t changed any, but the graphs have been beautified within the manager itself. The rest is the same as standard Gnome, and likely will be until version 8.10. System Manager is one of those utilities that is hard to improve upon because it’s just a functional, practical feature, but I appreciate the changes they’ve made in this iteration.

Key and Encryption Management

FINALLY. This feature has been in Gnome for a while now, but the program (called Seahorse) has always been inaccesible save through the terminal. It had a GUI and everything, but a menu launcher had never been added by default. If you’ve ever wondered how to change your master password, this is the place and it is now available under Administration. Seahorse is a really, really nice utility, and I’m excited to see it on the menu. Suddenly, people who had no idea how to even change their password are doing it without having to be shown.

Synaptic Package Manager (and whatever other software you might want)

Still fast, still brilliant. Software installs quickly, cleanly, and is easy to administrate. In particular, installing postfix on Ubuntu Server was a surprisingly pleasant experience, but I’ve always been pleased with Synaptic in general. Something to note is that variations on Ubuntu have now been made packages and therefore can be modularly plugged in and out as desired. Edubuntu is now just a package to plug into Ubuntu, so you can install it through Synaptic. The same goes for different desktop managers and Mythbuntu and Ubuntu Studio (for TV recording and audio/visual work, respectively). Nothing compares with Synaptic in my experience.

Final Features

Just a few last things to mention. First, I’ve been pleased with this version’s power management utilities. They’re simple and straightforward, and the feedback they provide is really helpful. My laptop had a large glass of Kahlua spilled on it a few months ago, and the battery was damaged and now has very low (35%) capacity. The operating system displayed a dialog upon first boot notifying me that my battery was damaged or old because its capacity was so low. I’d never seen a message like this on any operating system, and I was impressed with the feedback.

Suspend/hibernate has been a problem with Linux for a while. I’ll write tomorrow about installing Ubuntu 8.04 on an Asus EEE PC, where suspend/hibernate did not work, but they do work (albeit slowly) on my HP zv5000. Still, I prefer to either turn my computer off or just lock it, rather than suspending it, so this has always been a non-issue to me.

Dual monitors are easier than ever to configure with this version, and I was duly impressed with the utility in 8.04. Note that this only really works well with nVidia cards or Intel integrated graphics. My work machine has an ATI and it has always been a pain to get my dual monitors to work right (until I perfected my xorg file, which I just make sure to keep backed up). I need to try it with more than just the EEE, but it’s a huge step in the right direction compared to previous screen management.

Last Thoughts

Ubuntu 8.04 is a stable, full-featured, and really pleasing distribution that is wowing a lot of people, especially with additions like Compiz. Installation was quick and efficient, the operating system is solid and well usable, and I’ve been thoroughly pleased with the entire experience. Reliance on network servers rather than having drivers available locally can be a pain, and an optional driver disc would be a nice feature that I’d like to see Canonical offer in the future. Nevertheless, keeping the image under 700mb is an impressive feat for such a full-featured distro, and I can respect that.

Any negatives one might have with Ubuntu are usually nitpicks that are relatively minor and don’t take a whole lot away from the distro as a whole. I’ve read criticisms that Ubuntu 8.04 doesn’t bring anything new and exciting to the table, but I argue that that’s not the point. A long-term support release should be perfecting the features introduced in the last few years, not bringing something new and potentially unstable to the distribution. It needs to be solid, and Ubuntu 8.04 is. My own complaints with Ubuntu 8.04 are negligible compared with the benefits it brings, and I’m excited to see where the distribution goes in the future. I’ll likely keep version 8.04 on my computers for quite some time, but version 8.10 promises to be very exciting, if somewhat less stable. 8.10 won’t be LTS, though, so who can blame them?

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