The newest Ubuntu Linux, Maverick Meerkat 10.10, is so close you can almost taste it. And, if you're willing to use the release candidate of Ubuntu 10.10, you can try it now. I have, and I like it a lot.
To put the Maverick Meerkat through its paces, I ran it on my reliable old laptop companion a Lenovo ThinkPad R61 This 2008 notebook is powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and has 2GBs of RAM. I also tried it out on one of my usual desktop operating systems testbed PCs: a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set.
On both systems, installing Ubuntu was as easy as starting a car. I just popped in the key, a USB key to be exact, switched it on, and in a few minutes I was cruising along. No fuss, no muss.
If you don't have a PC to devote to Ubuntu, I also have found that the new Ubuntu runs just fine from a CD or USB key. I also had no trouble running it under Windows XP or Windows 7 using VirtualBox 3.2.8. I've heard people have had trouble running Ubuntu 10.04 on VirtualBox but 10.10 ran like a champ for me.
Under the hood Maverick Meerkat uses the 2.6.35-22.33 Linux kernel, which is Ubuntu's take on the 184.108.40.206 stable kernel. What's noteworthy about this kernel is that it's a bit more stable than previous ones and it includes support for Intel's Sandy Bridge processors. Sandy Bridge is Intel's next generation of PC and server chips. That doesn't matter now except for developers, but if you want to get the most from your next high-end PC purchase in 2011, you'll want this support.
The desktop is based on the brand new, and I mean brand new as in GNOME 2.32 desktop interface, which was released on September 29th. For once "leading edge" doesn't mean "bleeding edge". If there's anything wrong with GNOME 2.32 I didn't find it in working with Meerkat. I did notice that GNOME 2.32 comes with some minor improvements with the Empathy IM client, better PDF reading performance with the Evince document viewer and better integration between the Ubuntu One cloud-storage service to the Nautilus file manager.
I also noticed that Ubuntu 10.10 is booting up faster than ever. It still isn't quite as fast as the new Fedora 14 beta. Still, either one leaves Windows 7 in the dust, if you want a desktop that will spring to attention in a hurry when you first turn on your laptop.
Once it's up and purring along the Internet, which was no trouble at all since it immediately recognized and started using all my network hardware, I started to look at the applications. For bread and butter office work, Ubuntu is still using OpenOffice. To be exact, they're using OpenOffice 3.2.1. While Ubuntu's founder, Mark Shuttleworth, has said that Ubuntu will ship with LibreOffice, the new OpenOffice alternative, that won't happen until the next Ubuntu version, 11.04, shows up in April. By that time LibreOffice, which is still finding its way, should be offering a real alternative to OpenOffice.
It does, however, come with the new Ubuntu font set. I'm not crazy about these. If I had to choose a font set just for Linux, I'd pick Red Hat's Liberation Fonts myself. Still, it's nice to see Ubuntu, which has gained a reputation for paying attention to Linux's fit and polish working on fonts.
For Internet use, Ubuntu comes with Firefox 3.5.10. I've become more and more of a Chrome fan as time goes on for Web browsing, but Firefox 3.5.10 is decent. Besides, if you're like me and prefer Chrome, installing it on Ubuntu, or any other operating system for that matter, is a snap.
When it comes to talking with the rest of the world, Ubuntu is now using Evolution 2.30.3. This is my favorite e-mail client on any operating system, so Ubuntu gets a big thumbs up from me. If you'd rather use Mozilla's Thunderbird 3.1, it, along with almost any other software that's available for Ubuntu, is a few clicks away on the Software Center.
Yes, I know. You've been told that installing software on Linux, even Ubuntu, is a big pain in the rump. That is so 1990s. Today, you just search for what you want on Software Center, which works and looks a lot like popular Windows free and shareware sites, such as TuCows. In other words, installing a new program on Ubuntu is little more than a matter of pointing and clicking. You'll need to enter your system password but that's the only thing that's remotely "technical" about the process.
If e-mail is too 20th century for you, and you'd rather do all your communications by social networks or IM, Ubuntu has you covered. It comes with GNOME Empathy for IM and Gwibber for social networks. Gwibber currently supports, among others, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Identi.ca, Jaiku, Twitter and RSS feeds. I should add that, unlike some social-networking programs Gwibber supports Twitter's new OAuth authentication. While you can use Gwibber by itself, Ubuntu 10.10 comes with it integrated into the desktop with MeMenu.
One of the few changes in Ubuntu 10.10 that I'm not crazy about is that Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu has elected to replace F-Spot with Shotwell as the default photo manager. I prefer F-Spot myself, but, to be honest, Shotwell does seem a wee bit more stable and it tends to use up less memory.
To play music, Ubuntu is still using Rhythmbox Music Player with Ubuntu One Music Store for your music buying pleasure. Curiously, it doesn't come with the MP3 codecs ready to go. Instead, when you first turn on Rhythmbox, you're prompted to install them. It's easy enough, but why are you asking me to do this since it's a necessary part of the program? We can talk all we want about how we'd rather use open audio codecs like Ogg Vorbis, but the simple truth is that 99% of what people want to listen to is in proprietary formats and, of those, MP3 is probably the most popular.
In a similar vein, I was puzzled why Ubuntu, which is on good terms with Adobe, didn't include Adobe Flash Player by default, or, at least, as an option during the install routine. As it is, that was also easy to download and install -- thanks Software Center! -- but it's little things like that which will keep me Mint Linux on most of my Linux desktops instead of Ubuntu.
Those quibbles aside, I like the Ubuntu a lot. It may not be a perfect 10, but it's pretty darn close. You don't have to take my word for it though, you'll be able to check out the final version for yourself in just a few days—October 10th, 2010.