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Ubuntu Linux 6.06 review

By Jem Matzan

Ubuntu Linux 6.06 was delayed for several weeks to ensure that it was as good as it could be, then finally released on June 1. This version of Ubuntu was supposed to be "enterprise-ready" as a server and as a desktop, but unless businesses like dealing with multiple hardware issues, a substandard Java environment, and a lack of proprietary Web browser plugins, I can't see how Ubuntu Linux 6.06 is ready for anything except perhaps a patch release.

Ubuntu overview

This section is for people new to Ubuntu Linux. If you're already familiar with the basic details of 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 GNU/Linux distribution that was originally based on Debian. 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. 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 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 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 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.

Ubuntu 6.06
Ubuntu Linux 6.06: lots of potential, lots of bugs

What's new in 6.06

At its core, each new Ubuntu Linux release includes a more recent Linux kernel and GNOME desktop environment. Version 6.06 ships with the 2.6.15 kernel and GNOME 2.14.2. The following enhancements and additions are also new to Ubuntu 6.06:

  • UltraSPARC T1 processor support
  • Long-term support for servers
  • Commercial software packages are now able to be installed via the Install and Remove Applications tool

Overall there aren't a lot of big changes in Ubuntu 6.06. Expanded hardware support and an updated software stack are the primary advantages that 6.06 has over 5.10.

Putting it to the test

Ubuntu 6.06 is packed with problems. Both the x86 and AMD64 versions of Ubuntu failed to boot on one test machine (Asus A8N-E, Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1GB RAM, ATI Radeon X700, Atheros-based wireless PCI network card) no matter what boot option I chose. On the laptop test machine (Acer TravelMate 2300), I got Ubuntu to install, but the system occasionally ignored keyboard input for about half a second. So typing this very review, every two sentences or so I miss a word -- a situation that is positively infuriating.

I use these two computers -- both of them more than a year old -- for the bulk of my operating system testing because poorly designed OSes tend to fail on them. CentOS 4.3 and Xandros 4.0, for instance, both recently installed and worked very well on these machines, so I know that they can handle hardware that is on the fringe of Linux compatibility. Ubuntu 6.06 failed miserably. The previous version of Ubuntu Linux was even worse on these systems -- so much so that I couldn't write a review because I couldn't find a computer that Ubuntu would work on.

Firefox is the default Web browser in Ubuntu 6.06 (and the only one installed, which is good -- no clutter), but it has no plugins installed. None at all -- not even the SVG plugin. That means spending a half hour or so finding and downloading the Java, Flash, PDF, RealPlayer, and Windows Media plugins if you want to have a complete Web experience. The only good news is, this is a fairly simple process because of the Ubuntu Install and Remove Applications and Synaptic package managers.

I figured I'd do some Java programming exercises while I tested Ubuntu, but I couldn't find a Java Development Kit in either of the package managers. There was a Java 5.0 Runtime Environment, but no JDK -- or at least, searches for "jdk" and "java" didn't turn up anything in Synaptic. To top it all off, Ubuntu 6.06 comes with a fake Java installed -- GIJ. I want the real Java, or I want nothing so that I can install the real Java properly; I do not want a half-hearted, half-working Java facsimile that doesn't even have a browser plugin.

I prefer to see NDISwrapper installed by default. That makes it easier to get a system online when its only available network connection is over an "unsupported" wireless card. Ubuntu does not have NDISwrapper installed by default.

There are some good points about Ubuntu 6.06, though: the integrated Intel graphics chip on the TravelMate was properly recognized and configured for direct rendering. I noticed that a general proprietary kernel module package had been installed when I was looking through Synaptic. This includes Nvidia, ATI, and Atheros drivers, so I would assume that my configuration time would have been low on the desktop test system, had Ubuntu actually been able to install on it.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

After spending three days with Ubuntu Linux 6.06, and recognizing that a large percentage of first-time GNU/Linux users are trying out Ubuntu before other distros, I understand why many people think that GNU/Linux can be difficult to install, configure, use, and in general be "not ready for the desktop." Ubuntu Linux 6.06 is a step below Fedora Core in terms of usability, quality, and ease of use, but it's far below any modern commercial desktop GNU/Linux distribution like Xandros Desktop 4.0, SUSE Linux 10.1, or even Mandriva 2006 PowerPack Edition.

What I can't understand is why I seem to be alone in my assessment of Ubuntu 6.06. Everywhere I look, I see glowing reviews and "best of" awards and such. I wonder what computers those people used for testing? What other GNU/Linux distributions are they comparing Ubuntu to? Obviously they aren't Java programmers. As far as I'm concerned, Ubuntu Linux 6.06 doesn't live up to the hype. There's a lot to like about Ubuntu in general -- I mean, as far as distribution design is concerned -- but this release was poorly tested.

Here's what I'd like to see in the next release:

  • Java: do it right or don't do it at all. I appreciate the fact that many people are working hard to create free-as-in-rights replacements for the Sun JRE and JDK (despite the fact that Sun Microsystems is working to free them). Having said that, I don't want to use these replacements. I want the standard, documented, platform-tested Sun JDK so that I don't pull my hair out trying to decide if the problems I'm having with my programs are due to my code, or the non-standard compiler and virtual machine that I'm using.
  • Better release testing. I suspect the reason why Ubuntu failed to install on my Athlon 64 X2 system was due to the dual-core CPU. Since you can hardly buy a new computer these days that doesn't have a dual-core processor in it, I can't understand why the Ubuntu team couldn't properly test their release on one. Furthermore, the strange laptop keyboard problem I had was one that I have never seen before in the four years I have been writing about GNU/Linux, Unix, and BSD operating systems. It is highly unlikely that this is specific to my one test machine, so I have to blame the release engineers for sending the product out the door too early. Perhaps six-month release cycles are too soon for Ubuntu Linux -- or perhaps the Ubuntu developers need to take some lessons in release engineering from the OpenBSD crew.
  • Include NDISwrapper. It's not very large, so I don't understand why NDISwrapper can't be included in the base install. When you don't need it, you don't know it's there, but when you do need it, its absence is intolerable.
  • Web Browser plugins. I realize that licensing restrictions prevent many plugins from being shipped as part of the release, but what about the mplayer plugin? And can't something be worked out with Adobe to include the Acrobat Reader and Flash plugins?
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Canonical, Ltd.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T, SPARC64, Niagara, PPC
License The GNU General Public License version 2, although some parts of the base system are under the BSD or other free software licenses
Market Desktop and server computers in any setting
Price (retail) Free to download, or have an Ubuntu CD set mailed to you for free
Previous version Ubuntu Linux 5.10
Product Web site Click here