Monday, April 21, 2008

First Looks - Ubuntu 8.04 Beta Review (part 1)

Ubuntu 8.04

Has the time finally arrived when I can trade Windows for a free operating system and use only free applications? Well, it may have. And that operating system is Linux, in the form of Ubuntu. I couldn't wait for the official release of Ubuntu 8.04, codenamed "Hardy Heron", so I downloaded the almost finished beta version a few days ago. This review details my experience with it so far.

Installation

A major new feature in this release of Ubuntu is "wubi", a windows installer that takes most of the guesswork out of installing Ubuntu. You can choose to install Ubuntu as a Windows application (sort of), which eases the process of "just checking it out". The Wubi installer also allows you to run Ubuntu directly from the live CD without installing anything, or to do a full install of Ubuntu onto a dedicated partition. I chose the Windows installation, as I plan to uninstall it and get the 8.04 official release as soon as it comes out.

The Wubi installer created a Ubuntu directory on my hard drive and copied the Linux filesystem to that directory. It also set up a boot manager which gives me a choice between Windows XP or Ubuntu (you still have to reboot to run Ubuntu even if you choose the Windows install option). The install went off without a hitch, and the only decisions I had to make were username, password and the "size" of the install - I left this at the default of 15GB, as I have plenty of hard disk space available.

After a reboot, Ubuntu came up with a new desktop background, which I guess is a "Hardy Heron" (see screenshot, I didn't care for it much). But the good news is that EVERYTHING, except my printer, worked! Sound, video (LCD screen size, colors), network (Windows network with 2 PCs), Internet - all came up and played without my having to do anything. The bad news is that, even though Ubuntu recognized my Lexmark printer and installed a "text-mode" driver for it, it didn't work. Ubuntu 7.10 was the first Linux distribution that I ever installed and had everything, except printer, come up and play out of the box - I had high hopes that 8.04 would include better printer support, but I'm not giving up yet - stay tuned for more about printers.

Desktop and included apps

Ubuntu desktop 2

The Ubuntu install sized my desktop at the highest resolution supported - 1280x1024 (I'm using a 20-inch LCD monitor). This is about the same size that my Windows XP uses, but the desktop seemed much roomier due to the way Linux handles windows. (You can change the screensize by choosing System>Preferences>Screen Resolution). I had no trouble with navigation, as the taskbar and menu system used by Ubuntu's Gnome desktop is very similar to Windows. But I liked the fact that Gnome separates the task bar from the menu bar - by default it places the menu bar (which also contains quick-launch icons) at the top of the screen, and the task bar at the bottom. It "feels like" there is more room with this arrangement. If you don't like this arrangement, you can drag and drop either one where you want it.

Ubuntu 8.04 comes with the Linux equivalents of most of the applications that I use on a daily basis. These include the complete Open Office suite (Presentation, Word Processor, Spreadsheet and Drawing), the new Firefox 3 (Beta 5 version), the Gimp for graphics and photo editing, F-Spot Photo manager, XSane image scanner, Evolution suite (email, contacts, calendar), Pidgin for instant messaging, the Ekiga softphone for VOIP, the Transmission bit torrent client, Brasero CD/DVD burner, a Movie Player and a Music Player. I'll fill you in on the details of how well these applications worked in Part 2 of this review - one thing I know for sure is that I will have to install codecs for the DVD apps, as Ubuntu does not come with ANY proprietary software.

Performance

As advertised, this version of Ubuntu is speedy. I have a mediocre Pentium 4, 2.4MHz with 512MB of ram. I found Ubuntu to be a good bit faster in most aspects than Windows XP on this machine. This despite the fact that I chose the Windows install, which comes with a note saying that performance will be slightly reduced in this mode. I enabled "Normal video effects" (as opposed to "no video effects") for the window manager(choose System>Preferences>Control Center>Appearance), which required a download of the proprietary (free) driver for my Nvidia video card. The window effects were pleasing, but still blazing fast. (I didn't care for the "extra video effects, which made windows appear "drunk" when moving them). I have had no video "glitches" using this driver as of yet.

Most applications ran faster than than their equivalents on Windows XP. I downloaded and installed the Opera web browser, Thunderbird email client, and AbiWord word processor. All of these were available for one-click installation. Ubuntu really shines in this area - a large number of programs are available for one-click installation directly from either the Add/Remove programs applet, or the built-in Synaptic Package Manager (System>Administration>Synaptic Package Manager). And you don't have to search all over for a download like you do with Windows - if a package is contained in either of these applications it is automatically downloaded for you from the proper place and in the correct version for your system.

Performance on Ubuntu was faster than on XP for Opera, Thunderbird and AbiWord. I actually found the user-interface to be better on all three with Ubuntu. Overall my system just seemed to have more "available power" than XP, although it did suffer from some performance degradation after running for a long while and doing lots of browsing - Ubuntu still suffers from some of what I call the "memory creep" of Windows XP, but not nearly as bad. Overall I had much more "breathing room" out of my meager 512MB of ram. A system with 1GB or more of ram would definitely be faster and more powerful than XP or Vista using Ubuntu 8.04.

Ubuntu

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this review. I'll be delving into the printer problem a bit more, and sharing my feedback on some of the included apps. So far, though, I will say this - If I can get the printing situation solved this time, I am ready to dump Windows in favor of Ubuntu - I've been that impressed with it. And after only about two hours of installing and configuring, I'm using it to do nearly everything I normally do in Windows - as a matter of fact I'm using it to write this review. And it didn't cost me a cent (well, maybe 50 cents - for the CD I used to burn the intstall image :) Read part 2 of this review

What now?
Subscribe to my feed, so you won't miss Part 2 of this review.

It's only 3 days until the official release of Ubuntu 8.04 (according to the countdown clock on their site), but if you can't wait, you can download Ubuntu 8.04 Beta here.

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