April 28, 2009, 4:21 PM — Having rocketed to prominence as one of the most popular desktop Linux distributions in just a few years, Ubuntu has earned a reputation for stability and ease-of-use. The latest edition -- version 9.04, code-named "Jaunty Jackalope" -- continues that tradition and is mostly a maintenance release, but it brings a number of updates that should enhance its appeal.
The list of bundled applications is largely unchanged, but they're all new versions. Chief among these is the inclusion of OpenOffice.org 3.0, which should appease those who were disappointed that it didn't make the cut for the previous release. The new version of the free office suite maintains the same look and feel, and it still launches slowly, but it brings some new features, including improved compatibility with Microsoft Office 2007.
Founder Mark Shuttleworth has hinted that big changes to Ubuntu's look and feel are coming with the next release in October -- changes that might even include abandoning its traditional, but controversial, brown color scheme -- but the cosmetic updates in version 9.04 are minor. There are new boot and log-in screens, new desktop background images, and a few UI improvements that came free with the upgrade to Gnome 2.26, but nothing that should surprise anyone who has used an earlier version of Ubuntu.
Perhaps the most significant UI addition, one unique to Ubuntu, is the new desktop notification mechanism. Application messages -- anything from audio volume changes to alerts from your IM client -- now appear in black pop-up boxes in the upper-right corner of the screen. The idea is to make these messages as unobtrusive as possible by avoiding distractions such as modal dialog boxes. Whether it succeeds will probably depend on the user. This system is new to Linux, but it resembles features available on Windows and Mac OS X. What might annoy some Linux users, however, is the fact that it's not configurable. There is no preference panel to change its behavior and no way to switch back to the old notification system. Even if you hate it, you're stuck with it.
This is typical of Ubuntu, which often sacrifices some configurability for the sake of ease-of-use. For example, while Ubuntu includes support for GUI bling by way of Compiz Fusion, some of the more talked-about effects -- including the famed "desktop cube" -- are disabled by default. To enable them, users have to install an unsupported software package that provides a new control panel.
Ubuntu 9.04 is guilty of worse sins, however. When I booted the installation CD, it cheerfully informed me that my computer had no operating systems installed on it and offered to partition the entire drive. In reality, the PC contained not just a previous version of Ubuntu, but Windows Vista and an abortive installation of Mac OS X as well. Lucky for me I know how to manage partitions by hand.
Slips and hitches
During installation, the system offered to migrate user information from the Windows drive that it failed to detect earlier, but upon logging in, no data seemed to have been transferred. Firefox showed only the default bookmark entries and nothing from either Internet Explorer or the Windows installation of Firefox. On the positive side, Ubuntu recognized my NTFS partitions after boot and made them available for mounting without a hitch.
Typical of Linux, hardware support remains a mixed bag, and the Ubuntu team can't take all of the blame. Ubuntu's default open source video driver wouldn't recognize a TV as a second monitor out of the box, but installing Nvidia's own, proprietary driver was trivial. I was less successful with a networked printer, however. The Add Printer wizard spotted it right away but couldn't find an appropriate driver, and while the manufacturer does offer drivers for Linux, the installation packages were not compatible with the 64-bit version of Ubuntu. These kinds of hardware issues remain among the thorniest problems desktop Linux users face.
These gripes aside, the latest version of Ubuntu maintains its reputation for quality while offering incremental updates to a variety of software packages. Ubuntu 9.04 is not an LTS (long-term support) release, so customers who need an OS that will be maintained through 2011 should stick with last year's 8.04 ("Hardy Heron") edition. For those who just want a stable, polished desktop OS that's packed with the latest open source software, however, Ubuntu 9.04 is a worthwhile download.
Bottom line: Ubuntu 9.04 Desktop Edition brings minor cosmetic and UI enhancements to the easy-to-use desktop distribution. Highlights include new versions of OpenOffice.org and Gnome, as well as a new desktop notification feature. On the downside, installation was marred by missteps, and hardware support remains mixed.
Neil McAllister is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He also writes InfoWorld's Fatal Exception blog.