Editor's note: The final release of Ubuntu 9.04 just hit servers, and award-winning Ubuntu author Keir Thomas takes a first look at what you can expect as a regular user.
In these times of a lame-duck release of Windows (Vista), Ubuntu has been earning a reputation as a reliable and simple operating system that allows its users to get things done. Amongst the Internet intelligentsia, Ubuntu has become a realistic operating system choice, alongside Windows and OS X. Dell recently embraced Ubuntu as an option on its desktops and notebooks, placing the operating system on the same commercial footing as Windows, too.
Releases of Ubuntu come out every six months, usually in April and October. The last release (8.10) brought modest and worthwhile improvements, and this new release is similar—although perhaps slightly less ambitious. There's nothing startlingly new in Ubuntu 9.04. It's more about useful tweaks here and there.
In this review I look at the user-side improvements that come with 9.04. As with my previous review of Ubuntu 8.10, the goal is to look at Ubuntu from a productivity angle, rather than fixating on technological improvements. If you have been away from Ubuntu for a while you might want to read the previous review to catch up on recent developments, all of which are carried through in this release.
Other than the fact the program window now maximises to full-screen, there isn't a lot to report about the installation routine. It works as well as it ever did, which is to say it makes getting Ubuntu onto your PC astonishingly fuss-free. I encountered a slight bug on my test system in that installer created too small a partition for Ubuntu, causing installation to crash later on. Keep an eye out for this—Ubuntu really needs at least a 4GB partition to run properly. However, you shouldn't encounter this issue unless you have a very small disk, or a very full Windows partition.
The new ext4 file system is featured within Ubuntu 9.04, but isn't utiliised by default. Instead, it's an option in the manual partitioning dialog box. Ext4 brings a raft of technological improvements to the Linux file system, including support for mind-boggligly-large file systems, but perhaps the most significant improvement is faster performance. This was borne out in my tests. Expect one or two seconds here and there, and some substantial time-savings when shifting large files (i.e. over 500MB).
Additionally, ext4 brings the possibility of defragging the file system, a feature possibly added just to make Windows users feel at home. However, the tool to do this — e4defrag — doesn't appear to be included in Ubuntu 9.04, and I can't find it in the repositories either. (No doubt somebody will point out in the comments below what the situation is, so take a look.)
Note that ext4 is a young technology, with some significant bugs in the process of being ironed out, so you use it at your own risk.
One nice feature with the installation routine is that the time-zone selection map now works properly, rather than scrolling wildly as with previous releases, and is far more logically organised. It splits the world map into time-zone segments, which can be an education in itself (did you know Iceland is in the same timezone as northern Europe?).
Ubuntu will also now warn you if you type a weak password (i.e. one that's too short). This is a nice touch, although you're also allowed to continue with the weak password if you wish.
Perhaps the biggest gift that arrives with 9.04 is a vastly improved boot time. On the cheap Celeron-based notebook I used for testing (using a real install, not a virtual machine), Ubuntu booted from cold to the login screen in about 25 seconds. That's about the same as a restore from hibernate on the same machine. Of course, this is on a fresh installation, and I've no idea how a well worn-in system might respond. However, in my experience, Linux is immune to the cruft issues that bog-down Windows over time.
There's a different design of progress bar during booting, but this ain't much to write home about.
Jaunty Jackalope boasts some new desktop wallpaper, but it too isn't much to write home about either, taking the same swirly lines approach that's defined computer wallpaper since 1995. The only difference here is that it's all orange/brown, to fit in with Ubuntu's overall colour scheme (which, sadly, hasn't changed, and has been bolstered by additional darker colours in this release). This release also rolld out a slightly better font rendering, adding a nice sheen to the interface.
The shutdown/restart/suspend options have been taken off the System main menu, and moved to the Fast User Switcher applet at the top right of the desktop. The title of this applet is a little out-of-date nowadays, bearing in mind this small desktop applet now displays the IM status too. I'm not sure I like the moving of the shutdown options, and I'm not sure who it benefits, or why it was done. It was annoying to keep clicking the System menu only to remember the options have been moved. But I guess I'll get used to it.
There's no longer an update notification icon in the System Tray area. Instead, the Update Manager program pops-up automatically whenever any security updates are available. Rather strangely, it starts-up minimized, meaning the first thing you see is a panel button suddenly appearing. Clicking on this then maximizes the window, in the usual way.
I guess this approach is taken to force users not to postpone applying updates, which is very easy to do if you're busy, or don't want to tie-up your Internet connection dragging down multimegabyte packages.
For updates not related directly to security, Update Manager stores up all the updates and pops-up once a week. I'm not sure this is a great idea. It means that, at least once a week, you're probably going to be intrusively nagged about updates (especially for the first few months after release, when many updates tend to be released). You can turn off this new feature, however, and revert to the old-fashioned update notification icon - see the release notes (http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/releasenotes/904).
Look and Feel
In addition to the new wallpaper (which is joined by another new background image seemingly themed around lens flare), there are several new optional themes installed by default. These were part of the community-themes package in the previous release (Intrepid). To be honest, I think they're so-so. To my eyes they're a little gimmicky and lack the reserved elegance of a decent-quality business-like theme. But you may disagree.
Incidentally, if you select a new wallpaper, it now cross-fades with the old wallpaper, making for a more pleasant transition. This is a small but nice touch, and is typical of this release of Ubuntu as a whole.
The login screen has been redesigned. It's little more than an image of a 3D-rendered Ubuntu logo against a dark background, but it looks pretty nice. I mistakenly understood from various planning documents that the login screen was to include a "face browser", whereby users can be selected by clicking on their icons, or their user-selected snapshots (as with Windows XP). Flashy visual effects were promised too, if I recall. However, none of this appears to have materialised. There are, of course, many face-browser login themes you can choose from, however, both built-in, and in the repositories (to switch login themes, click System --> Administration --> Login Window).
A new notification system features smoked-glass pop-up alerts (similar to Growl in OS X). Every kind of alert is now consolidated here, including notifications about unplugging a laptop, joining a wifi network, getting a new mail message, and so on. If more than one alert appears at the same time, they stack up beneath each other. Unfortunately, the notification system differs from just about every other example, irrespective of operating system, in that you can't click a pop-up to close it. Instead, hovering the mouse over the notification causes it to go almost translucent, so you can click beneath it. The pop-up will only go away when it's good and ready, after five seconds. This is no great shakes, but I found it a bit annoying.
The release notes mention that a program on the System --> Preferences menu allows control over the notifications, such as where they appear on-screen. This was present in early betas of 9.04 I've seen, but not in the final release. Strange.
Those who complain about Ubuntu's "wiry" fonts will be pleased to see from the screenshots that the default settings in 9.04 make for more solid glyphs compared to previous releases (at least on LCD screens). In fact, they have the same solid appearance as OS X's fonts. This is simply down to a different font hinting setting and, indeed, you can easily switch back to wiry fonts if that's your bag. However, I wanted to mention this issue here because people often complain about it, and assume that Ubuntu's font display settings are somehow set in stone. They aren't. You just need to tweak a little.
Perhaps the biggest software update in this release is the inclusion of OpenOffice 3.0. This was released in October last year but, for various reasons, didn't make it into the release of Ubuntu made that same month. You can read about the new features of OO.org 3 by visiting http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/features/3.0/. There's a great number of improvements to make life easier for the office worker.
Those using Ubuntu in an office might be interested to learn that the Evolution PIM and mail client now features even better Microsoft compatibility. New to the 2.26.1 release used in Ubuntu is MAPI support, which should allow the connection to Exchange servers (although not, from what I read, Exchange 2007 servers; YMMV and it might be wise to test using the Live CD mode of Ubuntu before upgrading if this is critical for you).
The new version of Evolution should also allow the direct importation of Outlook PST files (Outlook's central message database file). However, in my tests involving a PST file from Outlook 2003, this just didn't work - when I selected the PST file, the Forward button remained greyed out and inoperative. I noticed, however, that Outlook CSV and Tab files are an option on the file type dropdown list.
Brasero now handles all CD/DVD buring needs, including providing the back-end of Nautilus' CD/DVD Creator mode (which has, for some reason, moved from the Places menu to the Applications --> Accessories). CD/DVD Creator still presents a Nautilus window into which you must drag the files to be burned, but when you click the Write to Disc button, Brasero steps in to do the hard work.
Brasero is maturing very nicely, and really will do just about any of the more simple CD/DVD burning tasks you might want to do, including burning video to CD/DVD. It reminds me a lot of Nero in the good old days, before it became bloated.
Synaptic now features a "Get Screenshot" button in the description of each package. Some packages don't have screenshots, of course, such as system libraries. But for those that do, clicking the button downloads and shows a thumbnail of the application. This can be surprisingly useful in determining if an application offers the features you need. Clicking the thumbnail will then grab the full high-resolution version of the screenshot. Nice!
A Computer Janitor program has been added to the System menu. This is to help clear-up cruft, such as old packages that are no longer needed. Beware that it will also mark for removal any software packages you're manually downloaded and installed, however. To be honest, I'd avoid this program, at least until it matures a little. To remove old packages, simply type sudo apt-get clean and sudo apt-get autoremove at the command-line.
There just aren't that many new features in 9.04, making it perhaps the least ground-breaking release of Ubuntu so far. There are a couple of significant server platform developments, but they're outside the scope of this particular review.
Worth mentioning, however, is the fact that the Kubuntu 9.04 release updates to the all-new 4.2 version. This offers significant improvements over earlier Kubuntu releases based on KDE4, and is shaping up very nicely. Indeed, I can envision a day in a few years' time when the Kubuntu release may well have more user share than Ubuntu itself, especially considering the 9.10 release in October will be based on the even more promising KDE 4.3.
The netbook remix of Ubuntu 9.04 also offers significant improvements over previous releases, and is well worth investigating if you use a netbook or other small computing device.
Although the 9.04 release is a smaller step forward than most of us anticipated, it's still a solid Ubuntu release, and it's still light years ahead of any other desktop version of Linux. Put simply, Linux simply doesn't get any better than this right now for ordinary users, and Ubuntu is the only serious choice if you're tired of Windows or OS X. (If you do decide to make the leap to Ubuntu, consider getting my free-of-charge pocket guide book.)
However, the Ubuntu guys are going to have to think long and hard about the direction they want to head in from the point onwards. Rather than playing catch-up with Windows and OS X, Ubuntu is now on a par with them. In fact, it's been on a par since 8.04, this time last year.