Every six months when a new version of Ubuntu Linux gets released, long-time users and curious toe-dippers ask the same questions: "What's new?"; "Is it worth upgrading?"; and, "Will my wireless card finally work with this version?" Having grabbed the newest beta release of Ubuntu and spent a few hours looking around, I can answer, "A few great things," "Yes, once it's officially released," and, well, "Hopefully." Version 8.04, or "Hardy Heron," is more a compilation of stable-ish features and proven apps than a showcase for the latest and greatest in Linux technology. But for those seeking a usable, steady system in which to get things done, that's a real killer app in itself. Follow through the jump to see what's new, and what just works (and doesn't) in Hardy Heron.
If there's one area where the latest version of the GNOME-based Ubuntu distro has made great strides, it's in installation. Pop a live CD into your drive before you boot up, and you no longer see a confusing "Start or Install Ubuntu" option; instead, newcomers will see more descriptive choices, like "Try Ubuntu without any change to your computer" and a straight-up "Install Ubuntu" that doesn't bother loading the whole desktop, just the install prompts.
Even better is the inclusion of a boot prompt and launcher for the wubi installer, which appears when you pop the Ubuntu CD in while Windows is running. Wubi lets you create an installation of Ubuntu inside a Windows system without having to mess with partitions, boot managers, or anything of the sort, by creating a virtual device you can choose to boot into just before Windows starts up. It's great for those who want to give Ubuntu a real test run—installing apps, tweaking settings, the whole nine yards—instead of waiting for a live CD to boot.
Those running 7.10, or "Gusty Gibbon," should have a (relatively) smooth upgrade process to the beta or the final version of 8.04. Those starting over with a clean partition will see the same installation prompts we've had for a year or two now (minus a cool-but-not-quite-helpful zooming time zone selector). I'm still waiting to see a bit more hand-holding in the partition-and-format process to open the system up to less savvy users.
Once you arrive at your new desktop, you'll notice the basic orange/brown/yellow scheme is only slightly tweaked; the default wallpaper is nifty and a few icons and colours have been swapped, but the major theme overhaul has been held off until 8.10, arriving in October. Click the screen below for a bigger view:
While Hardy only got a touch-up paint job, each of its three software engines—the Linux kernel, the GNOME desktop environment, and the Xorg graphics handler—got an actual upgrade. The kernel changes include better power management for 64-bit processors and (supposedly) better performance in multitasking. Xorg, the not-fun-to-configure graphics manager, gets more monitor and video card compatibility, along with a GUI tool to change the resolution and rotation of an external monitor or projector on the fly.
The biggest desktop changes aren't actually new, at least to anyone who's touched a Mac or Windows system before, but they're very welcome—the ability to pause, undo, or cancel multiple file operations, and restore files from the trash to their original positions. Heron also promises a "significant performance boost." I'm hoping the hiccups and delays on file transfers I encountered in Hardy are just some of the bugs that get worked out between now and the mid-April launch.
Onto the cool new stuff. The Hardy beta comes with Firefox 3 Beta 4 loaded, and it's already customised with GNOME-ish buttons and better overall theme integration. Plus, the in-browser forms, buttons, and text boxes already look polished and smooth, eliminating the need for a common Linux-only hack.
Transmission is a welcome upgrade from the previous default BitTorrent client, granting encryption, selected-file downloading, and throttling abilities, but I kind of wish it looked as nice as its Mac cousin. It gets the job done, however.
Hardy introduces a graphical VPN client, Vinagre, to supplement the command-line xvncviewer, and it's a smart move. Vinagre makes connecting to single or multiple machines easy, and lets you bookmark and search your network for VNC servers if you can't quite remember the IP address you need.
Another tool long missing from Ubuntu (and Linux distros in general) is an easy-to-configure firewall. It doesn't get much more simple than ufw, or the Uncomplicated Firewall, which runs from the command line but doesn't require much to get started or set up. Starting ufw and making it persistent takes just two commands, but you can later poke as many holes into it as you need.
Here's a few more notable new and interesting changes in Hardy:
- PulseAudio integration: A well-received universal sound driver that should eliminate a lot of confusion about OSS vs. Alsa vs. ESD, and on and on ...
- Brasero by default: Replaces the minimalist, built-in audio and data CD/DVD burning program in the Nautilus file browser.
- PDF support for Inkscape: Gives the scalable vector graphics editor better integration and convenience for printing and sharing with other apps.
- International times & weather: Keep track of the time and conditions in custom locations around the world.
- Better memory protection: Security changes should prevent malicious code from attacking via unchecked kernel bugs and low-level memory.
That's it, at least while testers and developers are working out bugs and other issues. Got a feature or change you think Ubuntu still needs to really make it the Linux distro that "just works?" Happy as can be with the beta you tried out over the weekend? Share your experiences in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, is still waiting for an Ubuntu his dear old dad can use—but feels like it's getting closer. His weekly feature, Open Sourcery, usually appears on Saturdays on Lifehacker AU (except when a new Ubuntu beta release appears over a weekend).