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Ubuntu 6.06

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.

Logging on

The other programs included by default should please most people - there's Firefox,, 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.

Package Management

This crucial aspect of Ubuntu has normally been very good, and Ubuntu 6.06 is no exception.

One of the first things I noticed after logging in was the fact that 98 updates were available for me to download. Using the specially designed program, downloading them was relatively straightforward. My only slight complaint is that there is no way to select or deselect all packages - rather, you have to go through each update individually. This probably doesn't affect the vast majority of people, but can be annoying if you only want certain updates (in which case, you'd be better off using Synaptic).

In the default repositories, you can find many of the common packages that you may want, such as Abiword, Gnumeric or even KDE in its entirety. Adding the extra repositories (e.g. Universe, Multiverse) is easy in Synaptic - just a case of selecting Repositories from the Settings menu, choosing the appropriate entry, clicking the Edit button, and then ticking the right boxes. You can also access this dialog from the Administration menu, by selecting Software Preferences. In the tab Internet Updates, you can select whether to automatically check for and/or download updates, as well as whether to automatically install security updates. However, one area where Synaptic might fall down is that inexperienced users may have no idea what packages to install - you might want to install Abiword, but searching for abiword brings up six packages beginning with abiword, and a handful of others. Also, browsing through all the packages can be confusing due to the presence of multiple packages for one program, along with countless libraries. As such, there exists Add/Remove Applications, available through the Applications menu.

This utility lets you select programs rather than packages, making for a much easier selection for newcomers. For example, there is just the one entry for Abiword. Just as with Synaptic, all the packages have also been put into groupings down the left hand side, such as Graphics, although the groupings in Add/Remove Applications are better suited for the 'ordinary user'. You can also access the Universe repository simply by clicking the checkbox "Show unsupported applications", while Multiverse can be browsed via the checkbox "Show commercial applications". The advantage of this setup is that you can have the power of Synaptic while novice users get the simplicity of Add/Remove Applications. Having tried all three package management utilities, they all work without incident and as you'd expect. I can't think of any significant ways, apart from that already mentioned, to improve their design.

However, there were a couple of minor bugs. The first was that, if a search results returns nothing, it says, "Check the 'Show unsupported applications' and "Show proprietary applications' buttons to extend the search." The problem with this is the latter button doesn't exist - it is called "Show commercial applications". Not a huge fault, but perhaps enough to throw some users off. The next bug is that every time I started Add/Remove Applications, I get told that my data is out of date, and I need to reload it. Fair enough if this popped up every few days, but it always appears, even if I reloaded the information two minutes ago. Although this seemed to stop after a couple of days, it was annoying during that time.

One particularly nice touch in Ubuntu is that after applications have been installed, a little light bulb appears in the top corner next to the time. Clicking on this will tell you information about the newly installed packages - for example, after updating Firefox, I was told that I should restart it.

A quick note about installing the SSH server - I searched for SSH in Add/Remove Applications, but couldn't find the server, meaning I had to use Synaptic. A minor gripe, perhaps, but surely novice users should be able to install SSH servers as well?

Next thing to try is Apache, PHP and MySQL. To see just how user friendly Ubuntu is, I'm going to try and get working through Add/Remove Applications rather than Synaptic. That fell flat on its face pretty quickly owing to the fact that none of those three things exist in Add/Remove Applications. While this is understandable (an ordinary user probably won't want a fully working server), it would have been useful. After all, you could be a skilled web developer, but a complete beginner to GNU/Linux. So, off to Synaptic and apache2, php5 and mysql-server. Not installed by default was php5-mysql, but that is a sensible move - after all, it shouldn't be assumed that MySQL will definitely be used with PHP. Fortunately, and unlike many other distributions, phpMyAdmin is in the repositories, making setting a webpages easy as pie.

Following that, it's time to try Flash. Installing it should have been easy through Add/Remove Applications, but you have to enable the Multiverse repository yourself in Software Preferences - as relatively straightforward as this is, it would be nice if it could add the relevant repositories itself (or provide a one click method for adding them). After all, it is not immediately obvious to somebody unfamiliar with Ubuntu how to enable the repository. Especially off-putting is that the error message simply states that the package is not in any of the available channels, and suggest that the package is not available for your architecture, instead of suggesting that you add another repository. This means that a new user could be completely stumped by the problem.

Azureus is always fun to try due to its dependency on Java. It was a pleasant surprise in Fedora to see Azureus running on a free implementation of Java, so lets see how Ubuntu behaves when installing Azureus. Oddly, installing Azureus had the side effect of installing Mozilla (the browser component of the application suite, not to be confused with Seamonkey, it's successor, or Mozilla Firefox, the standalone browser). However, I am happy to report that Ubuntu uses a free Java implementation - in fact, just like Fedora it uses GIJ/GCJ. While the actual use of torrents works fine, I couldn't get rid of the warning popup in the bottom right of the screen until I closed Azureus, obscuring the interface.

The final test is for programs outside of Ubuntu's repositories - namely, Seamonkey and Realplayer. This time around, there's no need to install any extra packages - they both installed flawlessly without any preparation.

Closing Remarks

There are only a few more things I can say about Ubuntu. Firstly, one of Ubuntu's touted strengths is its community. If you look at its forums, you can see the sheer volume of users, along with helpful and friendly posts. The Ubuntu Wiki is a fantastic resource - for example, showing how to install nVidia graphics drivers, or restricted formats. Through this, you can easily install these proprietary components, such as Flash.

Ubuntu has been the easiest distribution to set up as a web server (i.e. with Apache, PHP and MySQL all working in perfect harmony) for a long time... in fact, the only other time it has been this easy was with Debian. Package management in general is excellent with Ubuntu, with the trio of utilities filling all the corners.

One question I meant to answer from the beginning is: how does Ubuntu 6.06 compare to Fedora Core 5? The answer? Very well. There is very little new or innovative in this release of Ubuntu, but there are plenty of small touches that make it easy to use - the tips for newly installed applications, the ease of setting up shared folders or accessing other machines' shares, the update notifier, and so on. Coupled with the huge repository of packages, inherited from Debian, Ubuntu just comes out on top. Fedora Core 5 is still an excellent distribution, which isn't exactly hard to use - but Ubuntu is even less hard to use, and could fill the role of any distribution in a pinch. The only real mar is the GUI installation of Ubuntu - I had to resort to text mode, while Fedora Core 5's installation was smooth sailing. While there are some points Ubuntu can still improve upon, it is, on the whole, very polished.

To sum it up - Dapper Drake is Ubuntu's best release to date, where just about everything just works. The massive array of packages, with the user friendliness bolted on, mean that I can recommend Ubuntu to anybody that wants a nice, simple distribution. Just make sure you download the alternate CD.

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