You’ve probably read more than a few reviews of Ubuntu 8.10 by now, but most will have focused on technology like what bits of the kernel are new. While such features are the wet dreams of programmers, it can be hard to relate them to day-to-day experience. Instead, let’s take an end-user look at the productivity boosts that Ubuntu 8.10 brings, so you can judge if Ubuntu 8.10 is actually likely to offer you any benefits or not.
Installation and setup
As with all releases of Ubuntu, the improvements in 8.10 are gradual rather than striking. This is true of the installer. This functions largely as it did in Ubuntu 8.04, which is to say it makes installing Ubuntu a breeze.
New to the installer is a Login Automatically option, which appears when you’re prompted to configure your user account. As it suggests, this will cause Ubuntu to go straight to the desktop each time you boot, without pausing first at the login screen. Mac OS X and Windows do this automatically, but it’s a contentious feature by the standards of Linux, where privacy and data protection are closely guarded. Personally, I feel it’s a useful feature, provided your computer is in a secure location. I wouldn’t enable it on a work computer, for example, or a notebook.
Also new to the installation software is a prettier graphic display showing the state of partitioning. This is only a redressing of the same information provided by the older installer software, however. This graphical bar display is also now applied to the previously sparse and utilitarian manual partitioning option, where it proves useful in giving an at-a-glance overview of the disk’s partitions.
But, as with Ubuntu 8.04, Wubi is the way to go for fuss-free installation: Just insert the Ubuntu CD while Windows up and running (either XP and Vista), and you can install Ubuntu as a series of virtual hard disk files within the Windows file system. There’s no messing around with partitions, and you’ll get an Ubuntu experience that’s practically as good as a full hard-disk install. Alternatively, you can download the dedicated Wubi installer and avoid the need to create an install CD. Wubi has already been updated to offer 8.10 and now features the choice to install Mythbuntu, as well as the main releases.
The good news for those with multiple monitors is that, once Ubuntu is up and running, dual-desktop configuration works flawlessly. Well, it did for me, at least, and I struggled to get multiple monitors working with the 8.04 release on my notebook (Intel graphics). Incidentally, 8.10 does away entirely with the X.org configuration file, long the bane of newbies but also the savior of more experienced users. The idea is that the graphical subsystem “just works”, and if it doesn’t you’re supposed to file a bug report. As useful as this is, I can’t help feeling this blind automation is a step in the wrong direction. It’s certainly not in the hacking spirit of Linux.
Network configuration has been given an almost total overhaul. It’s now possible to configure connections to 3G (GSM/CDMA) mobile phones via NetworkManager. A wizard walks you through configuring the phone connection, and you can choose from typical settings needed for mobile phone providers in your country. This is very neat indeed, and approaches Apple’s level of “it just works” usability (although I should point out I couldn’t test this feature, lacking a compatible phone).
In fact, ALL network configuration is now handled via NetworkManager, including Ethernet and static IP addresses. The long-serving Network Settings tool that’s been around since 2004 has vanished from the System -> Administration menu. Additionally, networks configured via NetworkManager start during boot-up, rather than when the desktop appears, as was the case with 8.04. If you’ve ever tried to configure a broken 8.04 system that won’t let you login to Gnome, you’ll realise this is a God-send.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, Ubuntu 8.10 features the 2.6.27 Linux kernel, which includes built-in support for more Wi-Fi hardware. If you previously had to use ndiswrapper for your computer’s Atheros-based Wi-Fi card, you might find it works fine now. Additionally, Intel n-based chips are also supported. There’s better webcam support too.
Finally, it’s now possible to easily install Ubuntu to a USB memory stick, in order to create a portable Ubuntu installation that you can use to boot any computer, anywhere (no more risk of viruses from cyber cafe PCs!). Just select the option from the System -> Administration menu after installation and insert your Ubuntu install CD along with a USB stick.
What you actually create is a copy of the installation CD on the USB stick. As such, you’ll need to select Try Ubuntu from the boot menu each time you boot. However, any files you save or preferences you change should stick around and be stored on the USB stick (a feature known as persistence). Using a USB stick to run Ubuntu isn’t fast, but once the desktop has booted it’s actually pretty good.
Greeting the desktop
Once 8.10 boots for the first time you’ll notice the main menus have been slightly overhauled and now have large submenu indicators. Additionally, Universal Access has been given a submenu of its own off the Applications main menu, although it has only one option—to run the Orca Screen Reader and Magnifier program. I’m guessing this was added because starting and configuring what is a vital tool for some was troublesome in previous releases of Ubuntu. Indeed, initial startup and configuration of Orca is now much easier, although you’ll need to work your way through a series of questions that are spoken and also printed in a terminal window.
The hotly debated “dark” GUI theme finds a home in 8.10, although it isn’t activated by default. It can be selected by clicking System -> Preferences -> Appearance, and selecting Darkroom in the list. I have to say that I really like this new theme although some people hate it just as much. There’s also a new default wallpaper, which will probably earn the nickname “the coffee ring”.
Those with laptops and also friends will appreciate the new Guest feature. By clicking the Fast User Switcher at the top right (which has been overhauled and combined with the logout button to save space), and selecting Guest Session, you can switch the computer to a locked-down Guest account. The Guest user is unable to access the
/home directory, so can’t view your files. They can save files if they need to but they’re saved to the
/tmp folder, and are wiped when the Guest user logs out.
The idea behind the Guest user is to let you loan your laptop to friends or coworkers so they can check their email, or maybe even do some brief office work, while you rest safe in the knowledge that they won’t stumble upon your specialist video collection.
Most applications see point updates and, with one or two exceptions, you’ll struggle to find any major feature upgrades outside of Nautilus (see below).
The GIMP has been upgraded the 2.6 release which, shockingly, only uses a single
taskbar button for all its windows. Additionally, it features a dedicated document window (the layer, brushes etc. windows are now referred to as docks). It’s all a little… Photoshop. To be blunt, I never thought I’d see the day when this happened. I thought pigs would have to fly, or that something crazy would have to happen—like the Dow dropping below 10,000 in a single day. Oh, wait…
We live in extraordinary times.
Brasero reaches the 0.8 release in Ubuntu 8.10, and now includes the facility to create video CDs/DVDs. It’s rather primitive compared to the likes of Apple’s iDVD—you simply drag and drop video files in sequence, and can’t create DVD menus, for example—but it’s a step in the right direction. It forms a useful basic tool for creating hard copies of movie files (it isn’t limited to open codecs either; as with the media player applications, the relevant codecs are downloaded when needed).
Rather strangely, Ubuntu 8.10 includes the older 2.4 release of OpenOffice.org, rather than the all-new 3.0 release, with its myriad of rather useful new features. This omission is mystifying because the Ubuntu developers usually aggressively track new releases for inclusion, to the point of including Firefox 3 in 8.04, even though it was still in beta at the time.
Synaptic now features a Quick Search field on the taskbar, which avoids the need to click the Search button whenever you want to search both package names and descriptions. Yes, it is actually quicker. Also new to Synaptic is a statement in the detailed listing for each program telling if the program is supported by Canonical or by the community, and how long the support will last for. This is very useful.
Synaptic also exhibits a slight visual change that’s also present in Nautilus, in that columns are separated by faint dotted lines (this appears in Nautilus’ List View mode). This is pleasing on the eye and useful when glancing at a program window.
The Totem movie player application can now tune-in to BBC iPlayer content, so you can catch up with your favourite British TV and radio shows. Just select “BBC” from the side pane drop-down list in Totem, and then make your program selection from the list. Apparently, this feature addition wasn’t trivial and involved Ubuntu people negotiating with the BBC itself. However, there were almost no TV programs listed when I looked. Just radio and a few news clips. UK stalwart soap-opera EastEnders wasn’t listed, for example. This might be because of licensing issues, or maybe just teething troubles.
New to Ubuntu 8.10 is a nifty seamless encryption feature. It’s always been possible to encrypt individual files/folders in Ubuntu but it involved creating a key pair and then individually encrypting files. To view or edit the file, it was necessary to decrypt it and then re-encrypt it again if changes were made. Messy.
The new feature creates an encrypted filestore, mounted in the
Private folder in your
/home directory. This is automatically locked and unlocked as you log in and out, so accessing it is seamless and transparent. Other users won’t be able to access it, and it isn’t possible to see its contents by booting into rescue mode.
To activate the feature, just type the following two commands:
sudo apt-get install ecryptfs-utils
Follow the prompts shown and then log out and back in again. Once the desktop reappears, you’ll see a new Private directory in your
/home folder, where you can save data, as with any other directory.
The rumours are that, if this feature is successful, there will be an option to encrypt the entire
/home directory for each user in future Ubuntu releases. And why not? Provided there’s limited performance overhead, and if it is as seamlessly integrated as this, it’s an essential feature.
Also on the security front, ClamAV has been moved into the officially-supported repositories, so Ubuntu now has an effective antivirus program that’s guaranteed to be updated for the 18 month life of Ubuntu 8.10. ClamAV’s inclusion in Ubuntu was previously a little touch-and-go, making it an unreliable choice.
It’s Ubuntu’s file manager that arguably sees the most changes from a productivity viewpoint. New features include tabbed browsing, eject buttons alongside removable storage devices, and a compact list view.
Tabbed browsing is exactly the same as that pioneered by Firefox, except that rather than browsing web sites, file system locations are browsed. To add a tab, just hit Ctrl+T. Files can be dragged and dropped between tabs by dragging them to the relevant tab until it’s selected, and then dropping.
The eject buttons in the Places list either unmount removable storage devices, such as USB memory sticks, or physically eject CD/DVD disks (they’re also unmounted first, of course). This is useful because one thing Ubuntu newbies have trouble understanding is the need to mount/unmount storage devices. The buttons make doing so obvious and easy.
The compact list view now partners the icon and list views, and allows files to be listed as small icons in columns. This is nothing new to Windows users, but it’s a welcome addition to Nautilus.
Although Ubuntu 8.10 includes the 2.24 release of Gnome, which provides the useful new functionality in Nautilus, several other of its boasted features are missing. Ekiga 3 isn’t present in Ubuntu 8.10, for example, and I couldn’t find how to access the new time tracker applet that lets you monitor how long you spend on projects (this is especially odd because this feature is boasted about in the Ubuntu 8.10 press release—at least it is at the time of writing).
A nice new addition is the inclusion of sound themes. Changing system sounds in Ubuntu has always been a little messy, but new themes can now be added and removed. Additionally, the Freedesktop.org Sound Theme and Naming Specification is supported, so themes created for KDE should also be usable under Gnome (and vice versa). This should mean no shortage of choices.
The underrated Deskbar applet now docks to the top of the screen, making it less clumsy to use. Additionally, it now supports Google search, along with a handful of other new and useful searches, although—irritatingly—the Google search won’t work unless the
python-simplejson package is manually installed via Synaptic. You must then activate the Google search option in the plug-in list.
The system shutdown and logout dialogs have been overhauled and look much more professional, taking a button approach (see the screenshot below). They also include short descriptions of each option, and a 60 second countdown timer, upon completion of which the default option of shutdown or logout is chosen. A welcome addition.
Samba has been updated, so those using Ubuntu in an office environment with the need to access Windows servers and file shares might be better off with the 8.10 release.
The eternal quandary of the Ubuntu user is whether to stick with the long-term support release, or upgrade to the hottest testing release. Ubuntu 8.10 somehow manages to be a subtle yet significant improvement, and some of the new features are extremely desirable.
On balance, I think the new features are worth the cost of an upgrade. What cost am I talking about? Well, although Ubuntu 8.10 is as free of charge as Ubuntu always is (and always will be), you might have to deal with slightly unstable software—at least until bug fixes are issued. I noticed that the new Fast User Switcher didn’t want to switch the first time I tried it, for example, and running 8.10 in a VMware virtual machine by way of testing was fraught with difficulties. There were a handful of other tiny glitches here and there and you should definitely check out the release notes before installing—there are a handful of ugly issues.
It might be worth waiting a month or two for these bugs to be ironed out before making the upgrade. But once you do, you’ll definitely be impressed. Ubuntu 8.10 leaves all previous releases standing in the dirt.