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Ubuntu 7.04 Review

By Jem Matzan

Ubuntu Linux continues to show steady improvement with version 7.04, but there's still room for improvement. Despite the handful of shortcomings in 7.04, this is the best release Ubuntu's yet had. If they didn't before, commercial GNU/Linux vendors should now feel quite threatened by Ubuntu Linux.

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 progressively further away from Debian. Despite its independent growth, there is still a great deal of resemblance between the two on a basic level.

Ubuntu is developed 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, configure, and use. 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 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.

The default desktop environment is GNOME; other DEs and window managers are not supported, though you can just as easily download and use the Ubuntu spinoff distributions Kubuntu or Xubuntu if you prefer KDE or Xfce. Little of Ubuntu's GNOME interface is left in its default condition. Rather than a drab gray (or blue, as most other desktop operating systems are themed), Ubuntu features a softer brown and orange theme, more sensible applet and panel configurations, and a nicely uncluttered menu system.

Canonical, Ltd. tries hard to keep Ubuntu Linux free of restrictively licensed software, though in recent releases there have been some proprietary hardware drivers included with the base distribution but not installed by default, and the software framework that Canonical developers use to manage the Ubuntu Project -- Launchpad -- is neither free nor open source.

What's new in version 7.04

There are very few major new features in 7.04. That could actually a good thing; perhaps the primary development focus was to make small improvements to the existing software. Here are the new release highlights:

  • A Windows settings migration tool: A new part of the Ubuntu installer is supposed to find the Internet Explorer bookmarks, Firefox favorites, desktop wallpaper, AOL IM and Yahoo IM contacts from an existing Windows instance and import them into Ubuntu.
  • Multimedia codec wizard: A utility that automatically installs proprietary multimedia codecs.
  • Avahi network tool: This new feature allows users to automatically discover and join a wireless network to share files and printers.
  • Restricted Driver Manager: A program that makes it easy to detect the need for proprietary hardware drivers, and load them at the user's request.
  • Core updates: Linux kernel version 2.6.20, 7.2, and GNOME 2.18

Putting it to the test

Ubuntu Linux 7.04
Ubuntu 7.04: still not perfect, but better than most others

The Ubuntu live disc and installation procedure hasn't changed much since the previous release. I can't say that the small changes to the live CD have improved Ubuntu, though. The bug that crashes the operating system when you try to boot into the AMD64 live CD if you have an ATI video card is still there; the installation utility crashes if your hard drive is mounted when you go through the partitioning utility; and the Windows settings migration tool appears to be totally non-functional. On a hard drive with an updated and configured Windows XP instance, Ubuntu was not able to detect an operating system to import settings and data from. When Windows XP was on a second hard drive, Ubuntu still couldn't detect it. This would be a wonderful, revolutionary feature if it actually worked.

The only significant enhancements to the Ubuntu base system are the Restricted Driver Manager, which makes it much easier to add proprietary drivers for video and network devices, and the Multimedia Codec Wizard, which detects the format of the media file you're trying to play, then goes to Add/Remove Applications to try to retrieve the proper codec. These two things are a big step in the right direction for Ubuntu -- they address the enormous problem that all GNU/Linux distributions face in trying to balance the desire for free software with the need for functional hardware.

Ubuntu 7.04 is supposed to feature new artwork in the splash screens and desktop background and such, but it all looks the same to me. Still shades of brown with either pale faded spots here and there, or curves that go off into nowhere. This isn't a bad desktop theme, but it is not really "new."

When installing packages through the Add/Remove Applications utility, I frequently experienced delays or timeouts while downloading the selected packages. After several retries, all of the programs would properly download and install. This is actually a problem I've seen in Ubuntu for at least the past three releases. I figured it was just temporary network trouble each time I experienced it, but the fact that it has never gone away suggests that there are permanent problems with Ubuntu's package repositories.

Other than the 64-bit ATI graphics bug, the occasional package download failures, and the useless Windows migration tool, I was extremely pleased with Ubuntu's performance on an IBM ThinkPad T40 laptop, and Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 desktop systems.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

It's still not perfect, but Ubuntu Linux has grown into an excellent operating system. I'd definitely recommend it to people switching from Windows, OS X, or other GNU/Linux distributions that haven't met their needs.

Here are some improvements I'd like to see in the future:

  • Fix the 64-bit bugs. This is the third release that I've been unable to install the AMD64 edition of Ubuntu on a computer with an ATI video card because the driver isn't working correctly and the "safe video mode" uses yet another unsafe driver. The solution is to use fbdev or vesa instead of the ati or radeon drivers. How hard is it to make that switch? Someone in the AMD64 department at Canonical is asleep at the wheel.
  • Improve the migration tool. The possibilities for the migration tool -- assuming it works in the future -- are many. Music files could be converted from proprietary Apple or Microsoft formats into OGG/Vorbis; and fonts and Firefox add-ons could be moved as well.
  • Improve the package repositories. Delays and timeouts are a regular part of the package installation process in Ubuntu. This is a problem for a lot of GNU/Linux distributions, some of which have successfully solved it with commercial mirror access. I think most serious Ubuntu users would pay a small fee for better servers.
  • Better core fonts, or a font installation tool. One problem I have always had with Ubuntu is that there aren't any decent fonts installed by default, and it's not easy to figure out how to install them. The solution involves installing the msstcorefonts package in Synaptic, then running update-ms-fonts from the terminal. This isn't a problem for advanced users, assuming they are aware of the procedure, but even advanced users don't like to go through a hassle.
  • Eliminate the Ubuntu stigma. I don't think I would use Ubuntu regularly on any of my desktop systems, but not for technical reasons, or because I'm attached to what I use now. It's just that I don't want the stigma of being an Ubuntu user -- Ubuntu is synonymous with the words "fanboy" and "noob" throughout the alternative operating system world. This is not because Ubuntu is popular or easy to use -- those are good things. No, the bad reputation comes from all the Ubuntu spam on the Web. Linux and general technology news sites are littered with endless links to horrifyingly bad Ubuntu reviews written by Ubuntu fanatics on their Ubuntu blogs, Ubuntu how-to articles that explain over-simple or completely useless tasks, "my first impression of Ubuntu" articles written by Windows-using bloggers, and reader comments on other articles that admonish others to "Just use Ubuntu" to solve their operating system problems. Ubuntu has become the Apple of the Linux realm. I don't really know what the solution to this problem is. Perhaps some kind of public education campaign. This -- not that nonsense about Microsoft market share -- should be "bug #1."
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Canonical, Ltd.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but some parts are proprietary.
Market Desktop computer users
Price (retail) Free to download and use, or you can request that a free CD be sent to your home or office.
Previous version Ubuntu Linux 6.10
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