Sunday 16th July 2006
The latest Ubuntu release, Dapper Drake, was quite a few weeks ago, so why review it now? After all, there are plenty of other reviews lying around. Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, it doesn't matter when it was released; so long as it is the current version, it is worth a look. Secondly, this is a long term support release - it will be supported for three years on the desktop, while the next release, Edgy Eft, may not be a suitable for widescale implementations due to its more experimental nature. Finally, Ubuntu is, in the minds of many, the distribution equivalent of the best thing since sliced bread, and so Ubuntu could serve as a very useful yardstick to measure other distributions again.
For those unaware of Ubuntu, it still sits at number one on Distrowatch, and has done so for many, many months. Based upon Debian, it has become one of the most popular distributions in the GNU/Linux world. Ubuntu Dapper Drake, otherwise known as Ubuntu 6.06, is a Long Term Support release, meaning it has support reaching three years into the future on the desktop. Undoubtedly one of the most anticipated releases in recent months, lets see if it can live up to the hype.
Installing Ubuntu 6.06 was, shall we say, eventful. To cut a long story short, don't use the Desktop CD to install Ubuntu 6.06. Naturally, it may work perfectly for some people, but it most certainly did not for me.
First time around, I got to the stage of copying files, but then everything froze with the exception of the mouse. I could move the cursor, but everything else was completely unresponsive. The second time around, GParted, which is integrated into the installer for partitioning, decided to actually pop out of the installer and become a separate application. Shortly afterwards, the installer spewed out an error message, and gave up. This brings me onto a quick side point - while I am an advocate of GParted, one problem was that the partitioning and mounting were done separately, unlike in the text installer. Not a huge problem, but perhaps something that could be worked on. Having them together makes it easier to see what partitions you'll need or want, and how large to make them. Otherwise, you might find yourself going back and forth in the installer.
Anyway, my third attempt at the installation got further than before, until I realised that Ubuntu had started the installation proper without giving me the chance to change network settings. DHCP never works on my network, but Ubuntu never gave me the chance to change the settings in the installer. I realised this when Ubuntu tried to connect to the package repositories, and I didn't fancy sitting there waiting for it to eventually realise the network wasn't working. So, I cancelled the installation, changed the appropriate settings, and started for the forth time. This time, it managed to copy over all of the files, until crashing once again with an error message. I couldn't be bothered to do this all over again, so I just used the alternate CD instead.
Note 2006-07-17: somebody has suggested that I verify that the CD... I should have mentioned that I verfied both CDs using the MD5 file on the CD, as well as the verifier on the CD itself on a separate computer.
The text installation from the alternate CD is much the same as in the previous incarnation of Ubuntu, 5.10/Breezy Badger. In fact, there is very little to comment upon. The only part where a complete beginner might get stuck is in partitioning, but even then you can be guided through it. The other parts are to be expected - creating users, setting locations, network configuration, etc. I can't really think of anything that was desperately missing, apart from package selection. However, seeing as there is only one CD anyway, there wouldn't be much point in package selection. As before, Ubuntu is one of the few distributions to detect my Debian installation, and adds it into the GRUB menu automatically. The text installation is not outstanding, but it works smoothly, giving you all the options you really need. I would normally recommend the use of a pleasant GUI for installation, but, at this point in time, I would still advise using the alternate CD, even if it is less user friendly.
The other programs included by default should please most people - there's Firefox, OpenOffice.org, GAIM, Totem, Rhythmbox and so on. Interestingly, Ubuntu has chosen Evolution over the more popular Mozilla Thunderbird. Also missing is gFTP, or any kind of FTP client for that matter. There's no sign of a CD/DVD burner beyond Serpentine, which apparently only deals with Audio CDs, leaving a gap that could have been easily filled by GnomeBaker.
The stability of the system was excellent, with no major bugs so far as I could tell. The menus are easily navigated, and easily edited with Alacarte, the menu editor. In terms of general speed, Ubuntu sits in the middle. It is not a heavy, bloated distribution, but nor is it lightning fast. Most machines from the last few years should be able to cope well.
Browsing the network in Nautilus works out of the box, where I could detect and browse both Windows machines and PCs using Samba. One thing that pleases me about Nautilus is that, by default, it always uses browser windows. Personally, I find this better than having dozens of windows open after going down your directories. The SSH client works as you'd expect, but there's no SSH server installed by default. A quick installation later (which I'll come back to), and it works perfectly, including X Forwarding without any configuration. If you'd prefer to use VNC instead, vino, as part of the GNOME desktop, can be set up very easily. Connecting to VNC servers is facilitated by xvncviewer, reachable from the command line. In the menus, you have the option of using Terminal Server Client, which can interact with more than just VNC.
Knowing where GNOME ends and Ubuntu starts is difficult to judge, but is also largely irrelevant - the end user will be using the distribution as a whole, so that's what should really be judged. Having said that, it seems a lot of the system settings are from GNOME, which is no bad thing - there's no point replacing something that already works. Let's take an example: when choosing "Shared Folders" whenever Samba or NFS isn't installed, you get a prompt offering to install Samba or NFS. Adding a shared folder and changing the general options, such as the workgroup, is similarly intuitive, making it a completely painless experience. Click Add to add a shared folder, or click Properties and then General Windows sharing settings to change the server name, workgroup, or WINS server settings - it's a piece of cake! The only slight downside is that you can't just right click something in Nautilus and set up sharing from there.
Most system settings and configuration utilities are accessed through Administration in the System menu. For example, mounting disk partitions through GNOME's Disks utility. This allows you change the screen resolution, time and date, and so on with the click of a few simple buttons. Printer's are easily added via GNOME's interface to CUPS, the package for controlling printers. The only thing I believe is missing is a partition editor, although GParted is easily installed. In the Preferences section of the System menu, you can change settings that affect just your user - for example, the font, the screensaver, the theme. As I said, it is difficult to tell whether GNOME or Ubuntu is responsible for this, although most of the utilities are familiar to me using GNOME on Debian, but Ubuntu may have added lots of little things here and there. Suffice to say, using any of the tools already mentioned, as well as most of the others available, shouldn't pose any problems for almost any user.
CDs are automatically mounted, meaning that putting them in and ejecting them is seamless - the user need know nothing about mounting. Similarly, USB sticks are automatically mounted, although there is more user interaction required for (safely) removing the drive. Fortunately, Ubuntu makes it effortless to unmount USB sticks - you can right click the desktop icon, and hit eject. That's it!
The theme of Ubuntu 6.06 is quite similar to the past, although it seems to me to be more orange rather than brown, as it has been in the past. It's not a terrible theme, but I think I'd still prefer Clearlooks - fortunately, as ever, it's incredibly simple to change the theme.