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.
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.
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.
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
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 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 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.
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.