Ubuntu 10.04 delivers usability, strength

With the upcoming release of Ubuntu 10.04, Canonical is releasing not only a pretty Linux distribution, but one that works very well.

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Not so on this machine, though I thought it would be a problem for about two seconds. After installing Skype (a note on that later), I ran the ubiquitous Skype Test Call. Sure enough, no sound input. With a growl, I started to troubleshoot, launching Sound Preferences in System | Preferences | Sound. I checked the Input tab, and noted the Connector was set for Microphone 1. I checked the other options and discovered that there were listings for Microphone 2 and Docking Station Input. Like a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, the realization smacked my brain: Ubuntu had correctly identified every single one of my system's inputs, out of the box. Microphone 1 was the tiny internal mic, to which you have to have your lips so close it's illegal in some states. I switched to Mic 2 and immediately saw levels, which was confirmed when I re-ran the Skype Test Call. No driver hunts. No microphone boost channels.

Okay, is this the only reason I would recommend Ubuntu 10.04? Clearly not, but this example of a polished operation is just one of many I discovered while reviewing this distribution.

Want more? Here you go: I own a VMWare Workstation license to use as a virtual testing center for new distributions. I used to use VirtualBox, but sometimes Vbox would get squirrelly on me, especially when trying out pre-release distros. So, I plunked down the coin for Workstation, since I wanted the snapshot management the free VMWare Player doesn't have. Now, to be sure, VMWare Workstation wasn't too hard to install on openSUSE, though there's a workaround you have to deal with on openSUSE 11.2. But on Ubuntu, the process was even easier: just install the kernel headers, development kernel, and build-essential, run the Workstation installer, and boom, you're done.

Again, these are subtle differences, but when they add up, they give Ubuntu 10.04 a solid edge over many other distributions out there.


You can explore your computer or the world easily in Ubuntu 10.04.

So how does Ubuntu fare against other operating systems? Is there a home for Windows and OS X expatriates?

I would honestly have to say that for the vast majority of users who are not doing high-end tasks, the answer is yes--though there are still going to be some bumps along the way.

The new Bright theme for Ubuntu's default GNOME desktop, for example, has some minor contradictions. Heavily modeled on the OS X interface design, Bright will feel great to incoming Mac users in terms of look and feel. But those same users might be caught off-guard by the fact that some controls are not as seamless as they would find on a Mac machine.

For instance, Ubuntu has a nifty Indicator Applet Session icon up in the top panel, which should let you add chat and "broadcast" accounts (such as Twitter and Identi.ca), then adjust your availability status on those systems. Whether by design or bug, however, the Indicator Applet registers you as Offline when you first start Ubuntu, and will not let you set it otherwise. You have to go to the separate (I kid you not on the name) Indicator Applet icon and set your initial availability there.

The same sort of contradiction will happen for incoming Windows users. Yes, the slick new interface will give Windows users that sense of "cool" they get when they operate a Mac, but it will take about a week to stop reflexively going for the upper-right corner of a window to get to the window controls. That's because Canonical has, rather infamously, opted to shove those controls over to the upper-left corner. Whether the default setting remains has yet to be determined, but it's going to drive people nuts for a while until they get used to it or figure out that, unlike Windows, you're allowed to actually change the position of the window controls.

Moving beyond these--admittedly minor--interface concerns, will Ubuntu provide the apps all users need? The answer is a qualified yes. The Ubuntu Software Center continues to be one of the more user-friendly ways to get applications for an Ubuntu system, and the Synaptic Package Manager is still around for users who want a little more refined control.

Where does the qualification come from? Well, remember Skype? Because of its proprietary nature, Canonical does not list software in any of its repositories. You have to go out to another third-party source to download and install the software. Now, to Canonical's credit, there's simple-to-use documentation available that walks you how to do this. But what's puzzling to me is that Canonical will list other proprietary apps (like Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader) in the Ubuntu Software Center, but not things like Skype (nor VMWare Workstation, but that's not a commonly used app, so we can let that slide).

I understand the reluctance to not host proprietary apps--while I (obviously) do not feel as strongly about them, many free software users do, and Canonical's policy to segregate proprietary apps makes sense. But there's a strong inconsistency: there's a whole slew of applications that work on Linux that will be essentially invisible to beginning and intermediate Ubuntu users, because of their absence in the Software Center. Again, one quick Google search will demonstrate the availability of many of these applications, but doesn't that defeat the purpose of the Software Center? Adding a third-party applications section (regardless of Canonical partnership status) would be more helpful.

Still, these are rapidly becoming small problems in the face of an increasingly well put-together distribution. And that, I believe, is the essence of what's changed for Ubuntu.

Earlier versions of Ubuntu gave the feel of a pretty, shiny face over the old existing Linux strengths and limitations. Ubuntu 10.04 delivers a sense of a strong, cohesive operating system underneath.

Beauty, for Ubuntu, has at last become more than skin deep.

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