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Ubuntu 6.10 Edgy Eft review

By Jem Matzan

While still far from perfect, Ubuntu 6.10 "Edgy Eft" is both an improvement over the so-called "long-term support" release and a decent operating system in its own right. It's in a much better place than any other free-of-charge operating system has been before now, but I don't think it'll give any commercial operating systems a run for their money.

Ubuntu Linux overview

This section is for people new to Ubuntu Linux. If you're already familiar with this operating system, you may want to skip down to the next section, which details the new features in this release.

Ubuntu Linux is a relatively new, desktop-oriented GNU/Linux distribution that is generally easy to install and use, even and especially for people who have never used GNU/Linux before. Ubuntu was originally based on Debian, but since its first release in September 2004, Ubuntu has grown further and further away from Debian, though there is still a great deal of resemblance between the two on a basic level.

Ubuntu is on a six-month release cycle, so the goal is to create two production releases per year. Release numbers are a one-digit year followed by a two-digit month, so 6.06 represents a June 2006 release, and 5.10 indicates an October 2005 release. Each version is supported with software updates for a term of 18 months, at which time you must upgrade to the latest release. Any Ubuntu release that has an LTS (Long Term Support) tacked onto its version number will be supported with security updates for three years on desktops or workstations, and five years on servers.

In general Ubuntu Linux is easy to install, use, and configure. It's also highly focused, meaning you don't have to wade through huge system menus full of multiple Web browsers and word processors to find what you need. Installing new software is easy through the Install and Remove Applications program, with the popular Synaptic package manager as a fallback for more advanced users who need to draw from a wider body of available software.

The default desktop environment is GNOME; other DEs and window managers are not officially supported, though you can just as easily download and use the Ubuntu spinoff distributions Kubuntu or Xubuntu if you prefer KDE or XFCE. The package managers are integrated with the desktop environment, so when you install a new program, it is immediately added to your Applications menu. Software updates are monitored through a notification applet which informs you of available patches.

What's new in 6.10

At its core, each new Ubuntu Linux release includes a more recent Linux kernel and GNOME desktop environment. Version 6.10 ships with the 2.6.17 kernel and GNOME 2.16. The following enhancements and additions are also new to Ubuntu 6.10:

  • Tomboy and F-Spot are now included in the default install.
  • The system now boots more quickly through the Upstart init daemon.
  • Firefox has been upgraded to version 2.0.
  • Novell Evolution has been upgraded to version 2.8.0.
  • New desktop, login, and icon graphics.

Most of these changes are minor and invisible, especially if you don't publish photos or take notes on your computer.

Putting it to the test

I'd been evaluating the beta builds of Ubuntu 6.10 before the release, and didn't have much success with them on most of my test machines. That trend continued with the actual release, unfortunately -- on most machines that use ATI graphics chips, 6.10 was unable to boot into the graphical live CD or install from the same no matter what boot options it was passed. The issue ended up being a problem with the video driver for which there was a bug report that the development team apparently ignored for a long period of time. Though it could easily be fixed by changing the default "safe video mode" driver from ati to vesa, as of this writing the fix still has not been implemented. This is not only sloppy development, but sloppy release testing as well, and it's these things that separate the commercial operating systems from the free-of-charge.

Ubuntu 6.10
Ubuntu Linux 6.10: not much different

According to the comments in the bug report, the ATI driver problem is widespread among much of the Radeon series, but it does not include the mobile FireGL chip in the Lenovo ThinkPad T60p. I found that Ubuntu 6.10 actually worked quite well on it where most other operating systems were tripped up by the drive controller, power control, and/or network chips (wired and wireless).

ATI driver problems aren't limited to the live disc. Though the ThinkPad would boot and install, getting the proprietary ATI driver installed and properly configured was somewhere between a hassle and a headache. Actually the ThinkPad was a walk in the park compared to the desktop test machine with a Radeon X700. First I needed a different version of GCC (4.0) to install it, then had to hack the symlink to /usr/bin/gcc to point to it, then hack the /etc/X11/xorg.conf to change the driver to fglrx and turn off the composite extension, and after all that it still didn't have direct rendering enabled because the kernel module wouldn't load. This isn't how desktop operating systems are supposed to behave, and desktop operating system users shouldn't have to go through this crap just to get their video cards working properly.

Adding software sources is easier than it was in 6.06 because of a revamped program for managing software sources. As it is now, it's easier to find the software source selection program (it's in the Administration menu), and it's easier to identify and add the software sources that contain Web browser plugins, proprietary hardware drivers, and other extras.

One thing that particularly impressed me about Ubuntu 6.10 was the ease with which I was able to upgrade from 6.06. While the upgrade process still needs a little more work (asking the user if he wants to remove packages that are allegedly "unsupported" in 6.10, when those packages were part of the default install in 6.06), it's still a cut above the majority of other desktop operating systems, which are either unable to upgrade directly without problems, or require a large degree of user intervention to mitigate package dependency problems.

The supposedly "new" artwork in Ubuntu 6.10 is almost identical to the "old" artwork. It's brown, it has curves that wander off the screen, and that's pretty much all I can say about it. I am glad, though, that Ubuntu has not succumbed to what has become the Blue Period in GNU/Linux' desktop history -- this is not a tired old clone of blue Windows.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I wasn't terribly impressed with the previous Ubuntu release -- 6.06 LTS -- because of its bugginess and unfocused software configuration procedures. That it was deemed worthy of long-term commercial support appeared to be a purely arbitrary choice that filled a financial need within Canonical, Ltd. I'm glad to see that some of the prior Ubuntu issues were resolved in 6.10, and though it's an improvement over the "long-term support" release that it follows, it's still nowhere near the quality of a commercial desktop operating system like Xandros or Mandriva. While it may be fine for non-critical home computers, it is definitely not ready for production machines. Among free-of-charge GNU/Linux distributions, Ubuntu is probably the best as of this writing, but if you want a hassle-free desktop that doesn't require commercial support to get it running properly, you're going to have to pay for one of the more finely-tuned distros.

On a final note, I think there is a serious flaw in Canonical Ltd.'s business model. Any company that provides a free product and intends to make money primarily from support services for that product is not financially motivated to offer something that works well. Ubuntu Linux will never be perfect because if it were, Canonical, Ltd. would have no support services to sell. Why spend money on release testing when you can make money telling customers how to fix bugs instead? Perhaps that is what truly separates commercial distros from the free-of-charge ones; with commercial operating systems you pay for the company's best effort at creating a perfect software distribution, not a company's best attempt to create a product that requires paid support services. The better Ubuntu gets with its desktop configuration tools and user documentation, the less money Canonical, Ltd. will make. Doesn't quite make sense, does it?

Anyway, here's what I'd like to see in the next Ubuntu release (assuming bugs and problems aren't part of the business plan):

  • Better release testing. It's a sad state of affairs when almost every operating system I test these days has the same initial post-review recommendation. How could you possibly miss the fact that your operating system installation disc doesn't work with most of the video cards produced by one of the two top video card manufacturers in the world? Do Canonical, Ltd.'s release testers not have a $100 ATI card to test with?
  • Better configuration tools. It's great when an operating system can detect everything accurately and adjust your graphical environment accordingly. You don't need manual configuration tools when everything works as planned, but when graphics hardware is not correctly configured automatically or if you want to use a different driver, there needs to be a way to easily make manual adjustments to fix or change it. Right now you have to go to the terminal and hand-edit the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file if your video card or monitor aren't detected accurately. This is unacceptable in a graphical desktop operating system. There are several intelligent ways to deal with this problem, but Canonical has not implemented any of them thus far.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Canonical Inc.
Architectures x86, UltraSPARC, PowerPC, AMD64/EM64T
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but some parts are proprietary and restrictively licensed.
Market Home desktop users
Price (retail) Free to download and use
Previous version 6.06 LTS
Product Web site Click here