Ubuntu Linux, 7.04 Feisty Fawn

A software review by Bobulous.

What is Ubuntu?

screenshot: The Ubuntu desktop in black, grey, and yellow.

Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) is a feature-rich distribution of the Linux operating system. It offers a fully graphical installation process, and the standard install gives the user access to office software such as the OpenOffice 2 suite, internet software such as Firefox, graphic software such as the GIMP, and media players such as Rhythmbox and Totem. Its current release is version 7.04, also known as Feisty Fawn.

Because it's a distribution of GNU Linux, Ubuntu will always be free to use. For the large number of users who only need a computer for web browsing and office applications, Ubuntu could be a total replacement for the pricey Microsoft Windows operating system.

Installing Ubuntu

Installing Ubuntu onto a new hard disk is easy. Installing Ubuntu onto a hard disk that already has another operating system installed on it will require more care. Read the community pages about Ubuntu installation very carefully before you do anything rash, and make sure you back up all of your useful files before you go any further. Also remember to write down any details you'll need later, such as home network settings and internet access details.

The quickest way to get yourself an installation CD is to download the ISO disc image from the Ubuntu website, and then use that ISO image with suitable software to burn a CD. That way you can get yourself up and running in a couple of hours, rather than waiting days or weeks for a CD to be sent to you.

For instance, I put a clean install of Windows XP Professional onto my hard disk (after backing up all of the files I wanted to keep). I started at 20:30 and completed the basic install, then I used the Service Pack 2 CD that I had handy to quickly bring the system up to the latest version, then I had to run Microsoft Windows Update over and over again, checking for High Priority patches, downloading them, installing them, rebooting, and checking for High Priority patches, round and round until there were no important updates still needed. I didn't finish until 22:28. So it took two hours to get Windows XP Professional installed from scratch and patched until it was safe for use.

With Ubuntu, I downloaded the 698MB ISO image file in 15 minutes (on an 8Mbit/s internet connection), burned that ISO image to CD in 20 minutes, and then booted from that newly-made CD. A CD integrity check took only three minutes, then began the graphical installer at 18:59. I spent twenty minutes needlessly toying with partition settings, and then clicked Install at 19:25. Install finished at 19:40 and, after a reboot and a filesystem check, I was presented with the Ubuntu graphical login screen at 19:45. Ubuntu's Update Manager identified all the latest patches and then downloaded them and installed them in one fell swoop, which took about quarter of an hour. So, had I not procrastinated over the partition editor, Ubuntu could have been downloaded, burned to CD, installed and updated in under ninety minutes. And the whole process was more fun than the endless updating and rebooting needed to get a fresh Windows XP system installed and safe for use online.

Using Ubuntu

screenshot: A fairly standard Ubuntu GNOME desktop.

Once the GNOME graphical desktop has loaded for the first time, you're presented with a view that should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has used Mac OS X or Windows XP. A panel that runs along the top of the screen offers the GNOME main menu, quick launchers, and the clock. A panel at the bottom of the screen offers the "show desktop" button, and tabs for each window that is open. The desktop area has big, clear icons for each of the disk drives that are currently mounted.

The Preferences menu (in the System menu on the top panel) makes it easy to change screen resolution, mouse sensitivity and keyboard layout, font rendering mode, and configure keyboard shortcuts for common desktop actions such as switching between workspaces.

For more advanced configuration, such as network interfaces, language settings, time and date, and shared folders, you need the Administration menu, which requires you to enter your password if you haven't done so recently. Also in the Administration menu is the Restricted Drivers Manager which may offer to install proprietary (non-open source) drivers for your hardware, if available. At first it seemed to ignore my request to enable a proprietary ATi Radeon graphics card driver, but it worked after a couple of tries, and the screensavers that use 3D graphics become very much faster and smoother than they'd been under the default graphics driver.

I also had to try twice to get the network settings to find my local network, but on the second attempt it all started to work fine. No idea why it didn't take the first time, but it was still a lot less hassle than setting up a home network using the awful wizards in Windows XP. Once the network connection was configured, I was able to connect to my network-connected hard disk without trouble.

By default, Ubuntu has its Update Manager set to check for software updates automatically. It fetches the latest versions and patches, installs them, and then usually lets you continue working without a reboot. All you have to do is click the little icon that appears in the launch panel, near the clock, and then enter your password to give it permission to proceed.

Adding and removing software is easy. The Applications menu has a friendly "Add/Remove" option that opens an attractive software browser full of software that you can install just by ticking checkboxes and hitting Apply. Because Linux is all about free, open source software, the list of software to choose from is pretty impressive. For a more exhaustive list of software, there is the Synaptic Package Manager, found in the Administration menu. This offers a less attractive, but heavily populated list of software and tools. Installing is again a simple matter of checking the box and hitting Apply.

When software you want isn't listed in the Synaptic Package Manager, you can add new repositories for Synaptic to search in. If the package you want isn't found in a repository, you can sometimes find a Debian package on the software creator's website and Ubuntu will automatically invoke Debian Package Manager to install the package. For instance, the TrueCrypt website offers a .deb file and this allows for easy installation by double-clicking it.

If you can't find what you want in Synaptic, and no Debian package is offered by the software creator, you may have to do things the old school way and download the software source code, configure a build, and then compile the software yourself. So far I've only had to compile from source once, when I wanted to have Apache 1.3 and PHP 4 on my system, because Synaptic only seems to offer the newer Apache 2 and PHP 5 options. Configuring PHP with lots of extensions can be a real pain, because each time you think you're set to go, you're informed that your system doesn't yet have a required dependency, and you have to install that dependency in Synaptic first, then try again. It's hard going, but someone who's got the nous to install a web server and scripting module is probably used to a bit of command line action.

Another task that may be alien for a beginner is mounting disk partitions. To use a non-Ubuntu partition you have to mount it first, which you can do by going to Places on the top panel, then selecting Computer, right-clicking the volume you want and then selecting "Mount". Which will become a pain if you have to do it regularly. I couldn't find an option in Ubuntu to do this automatically, so I did a bit of research online and found myself editing the fstab file manually. This took a bit of time, because there are quite a few options that need to be set for each type of partition, but eventually I had it working so that all of the shared FAT32 partitions now appear on the desktop ready for use when the machine boots.

I've noticed only a couple of serious bugs. The Flash player plugin for Firefox seems to cause the whole machine to freeze-up, but only if I've played with the "Settings" option by right-clicking inside a Flash display on a website. Also, asking Ubuntu to log me out has caused the machine to freeze each time I've done it. These are problems that I can easily avoid, but someone who has multiple users on their machine might be annoyed if they had to reboot rather than log off each time.

Living with Ubuntu

screenshot: Viewing photos with the Image Viewer in Ubuntu.

I installed Ubuntu Linux with the aim of switching away from Windows. I really didn't know if I'd be able to make Linux my main operating system, so I partitioned my hard disk to allow Windows XP Professional to sit on one partition, Ubuntu Linux to sit on another, and created three FAT32 partitions for general file storage. This way I can boot into either operating system and still have access to the files on the FAT32 partitions.

I'd half-expected to give Ubuntu a try for a while, then find myself sneaking back to Windows for things that I couldn't do in Linux. But after a month, I've used Ubuntu every day and only booted into Windows XP twice. For each piece of software that I used to use every day in Windows, I've found an equivalent in Linux. For web browsing and email, Firefox and Thunderbird are available just as they are in Windows. For office software, OpenOffice 2 does an excellent job of word processing and spreadsheets. KOrganizer is an excellent replacement for Palm Desktop, offering a calendar and to-do list that trigger pop-up reminders at set times. Eclipse, Apache and PHP are of course available for heavy duty web development.

What I didn't feel was so accommodated was my desire to find a validating XML editor. In Windows I was using the free version of Altova XMLSpy, which I liked because it was a no-nonsense text editor that forced you to create XML that would validate by its XML schema. The nearest I've found to this in Linux is Bluefish. Bluefish is a very nice text editor, with project mode and document template, but it can't do XML element auto-complete and you can only validate the current document by choosing to call the external tidy validator program. Bluefish unfortunately doesn't compel you to validate your XML.

I was also surprised to find so little support for Replay Gain in audio player software. Replay Gain is an excellent way to maintain a similar playback volume between tracks in your varied digital audio collection. Being an open standard, I'd hoped that Linux audio software would be rife with Replay Gain features, but this isn't the case. The only audio player I could find that declares an option for Replay Gain is Quod Libet. Quod Libet is a nice way to access your big audio library, but it only seems to support Replay Gain in the track mode. Linux sorely needs an audio player that embraces Replay Gain the way that foobar2000 does. [Actually, this was ignorance on my part, as Linux does in fact offer several Replay Gain tools. See my page Replay Gain in Linux for information on the many options.]

Areas that are likely to concern a greater number of people are in gaming, hardware and commercial software. For instance, Adobe graphics packages are not likely to find themselves offering a Linux version any time soon. And, while xsane is able to read from my Nikon Coolscan LS50, it can't operate the scanner correctly because Nikon don't provide software or drivers for Linux. The same issue holds true for most commercial games. Only id Software seem to be committed to providing Linux versions of their games, such as Doom3, and I've not been able to test performance because id's FTP servers have been constantly too busy to download the code from.

Evaluation of Ubuntu

screenshot: Editing a web page with Bluefish.

Ubuntu 7.04 packages up an excellent operating system and desktop environment with some essential software applications. I found Feisty Fawn straightforward to install, easy to configure, and rich with options. For users that pass out at the sight of an instruction page, I don't think that Ubuntu will feel like home to them. But such users aren't really safe to use Windows XP either, if truth be told, as is evidenced by the huge number of malware-infected Windows PCs spread like disease across the internet.

Users that are bright enough to search for technical advice online, and are comfortable with manual pages and tutorials ought to find Ubuntu an excellent environment for all manner of tasks. I'll need to sneak back to Windows occasionally for a few things, such as gaming, but Ubuntu is a strong enough platform that it has become my main operating system.

Tips for new Ubuntu users