April 21, 2005

Review: Kubuntu 5.04 "Hoary Hedgehog"

Author: Kris Shaffer

The new Kubuntu Linux distribution debuted this month. Kubuntu is the KDE version of the Debian-based, GNOME-centric Ubuntu Linux distribution, which was first released six months ago and already has quite a following. This past week, the first release of Kubuntu Linux coincided with the latest release from Ubuntu Linux, both labeled version 5.04 "Hoary Hedgehog." Kubuntu is a pleasure to use: a snappy, well-designed distro that puts the power of Debian in a easy-to-use package. It's worth a look from new and experienced users alike.

Kubuntu Linux is built upon Linux kernel 2.6.10, incorporates the Debian/APT package management system and X.org 6.8.2, and the brand new KDE 3.4. Kubuntu aims to be a regular, predictable release (approximately every six months, with frequent security updates) that is free of charge, fast and easy to install, and immediately useful.


The single-CD installation was almost a breeze. Kubuntu uses the latest Debian installer, which, though plain in appearance, is what it claims to be: fast and easy. I chose to install in "expert" mode, but even that was relatively simple. Aside from partitioning, the default options were good, and they will likely work for many users.

I experienced one minor hiccup, however, while shrinking a Windows NTFS partition to make room for Kubuntu. I entered the proper information for shrinking the partition without formatting it, but the warning I received before committing to the partition change sounded like Kubuntu might have plans to format the NTFS partition. It warned that all data on a partition to be removed or formatted would be destroyed. Since I had not selected any partitions to be removed or destroyed, I thought it was talking about the partition to be shrunk. I went ahead with only slight trepidation (there was nothing on this partition not backed up on DVD or my laptop), and it turned out everything was fine. I understand the desire to make sure that no one rashly enters hard disk partitioning, but excessive and unclear warnings can cause trouble as well.

The rest of the process proceeded without a hitch. My hardware (two CD/DVD drives, on-board graphics and sound cards, USB printer, and iPod) was all detected properly and set up, and I was logging into KDE 25 minutes after beginning the installation process -- definitely a "fast, easy install."

I was immediately struck by the attractiveness of KDE 3.4. It is elegant and, combined with X.org 6.8.2, it responds noticeably more quickly to keyboard and mouse entry than my current KDE 3.2/XFree86 4.3.99 combination on SUSE. The desktop is free of clutter, containing a simple wallpaper and no icons, and the taskbar contains only a handful of icons (Kmenu, a "system" link menu, Konqueror, Kontact, and the trash).

I began to customize the desktop, but ran into a roadblock with tasks for which administrator mode is required. Kubuntu does not allow root user logins by default (though one can execute su in a terminal window), and all administrator tasks are done via sudo. Unfortunately, when Kubuntu installed, it did not write any users to the sudoers file. As a result, any task attempted by sudo or KControlCenter's administrator mode failed. This is a regularly mentioned problem on www.ubuntuforums.org. Fortunately, Kubuntu did set up a root account on install, so this problem was easily fixed. Per several friendly users' instructions on ubuntuforums.org, I opened a terminal window, logged in via su, entered visudo, and added to the file the line [username] ALL=(ALL) ALL where [username] denotes my user name. That did the trick, and all was well. As this is a common problem with Kubuntu and Ubuntu, I hope that it will be addressed in a subsequent release or security update. (If you prefer to allow root logins to KDE, you can edit /etc/kde3/kdm/kdmrc as root and set AllowRootLogin= to "true".) After passing that little bump, the rest of my Kubuntu experience was quite smooth.

Installed packages

Kubuntu comes with a lean yet comprehensive set of packages, making it immediately useful for most common computing tasks. It features the KDE 3.4 staples -- Konqueror file manager/Web browser, Kontact mail/personal information manager, Kopete instant messaging, K3b CD/DVD burning utility, KPDF, KGhostview, etc. -- as well as a balanced selection of multimedia applications, the OpenOffice.org suite (version 1.1.3), graphical tools, games, and other applications. Though missing a few of my personal favorites (most notably, Firefox and the GIMP), I was very happy with the Kubuntu package selection. I appreciate the developers' decision to keep the entire distro on one CD. It prevents bloating and makes it faster to setup. It also makes it easier for those new to Linux, who may be overwhelmed by a 3,000+ package distribution. Incorporating one, occasionally two, applications for each task, Kubuntu's initial installation is easy to learn, covers the most common computing tasks, and would make an excellent first Linux distribution. Additionally, Kubuntu power users will not be found wanting, as several thousand applications are available online for easy installation via apt-get.

Work and play in Kubuntu

One can do a lot in Kubuntu using only the default packages. I encountered no difficulties in OpenOffice.org (though it sported the GNOME look, not the KDE look), Konqueror, Kopete, Kontact, or the KControlCenter. K3b noted a missing dependency: cdrdao. Once that was installed via apt-get (it's in the "universe" repository, if you're having trouble finding it), I burned a CD ISO image, a data DVD-RW, and an audio CD with no difficulty. PDF viewing and printing was not problematic in Kubuntu with KPDF, but I have found KGhostview (also included) to be more satisfactory in printing and displaying PDFs, so I changed the default PDF application from KPDF to KGhostview. Overall, however, Kubuntu's default applications performed their tasks quite nicely.

Multimedia was also quite painless in Kubuntu. Included on the install CD are AmaroK, Juk, Kaffeine, and KsCD, and -- aside from copyrighted DVDs -- all my audio and video media played with no trouble on the first try. Though many seasoned Linux users will immediately install their favorite apps among those that were not included (XMMS, MPlayer, etc.), Kubuntu provides a healthy dose of Linux multimedia apps for a new Linux user.

In Kubuntu, different audio file types open different applications by default (clicking on MP3 files opens AmaroK, AAC files open Kaffeine, and so on). Since many experienced users are likely to change the default multimedia applications no matter what they are, it seems that Kubuntu developers have chosen the default settings to help new users become familiar with several of the most common apps before settling on one or two to handle all their multimedia needs. I think this is a great idea, and one worth remembering when recommending a distro to a potential new Linux user.

Installing new applications

As a longtime RPM user, I first became interested in apt-get when using Fink, a Mac OS X port of apt-get, which manages installation of Linux/Unix ports to Mac OS X. I have since fallen for apt-get and the Debian package management system. Kubuntu uses apt-get and the Kynaptic front-end (a KDE version of Synaptic) to install, remove, and upgrade packages and even the distro itself. It is super-easy, and I did not have one dependency issue or failed installation among all of the packages I installed, whether I used apt-get from the command line or the Kynaptic or Synaptic front-ends. Additionally, most of the programs I installed found their way to the appropriate section of the Kmenu automatically, though I had to add a few manually.

It is also easy to add apt-get installation sources beyond those created during the Kubuntu installation: one simply edits the /etc/apt/sources.list file, and adds appropriate targets (some common ones are written into the file by default, but commented out with "#" characters; deleting "#" will make those available without searching for the source's URL). I encourage any current RPM users to take a serious look at apt-get (or apt4rpm). If I end up adopting Kubuntu as my primary distro, apt-get is likely to be the primary reason.

Bugs and missing features

After solving the abovementioned sudo issue, I encountered only a few minor problems. For instance, I noticed a few issues with Firefox after installing it. It was slow in loading when called, though once running it loaded pages at normal speeds. It also hung while trying to find and install appropriate Flash and Java plug-ins. Curiously, when I installed the complete GNOME package set, Firefox's speed issue was resolved, but the plug-in difficulty was still present. Perhaps these bugs are what kept Firefox out of the default package selection for Kubuntu (though it is the default browser for Ubuntu's GNOME desktop). Linux.com's review of the previous Ubuntu release mentioned Firefox bugs unique to Ubuntu as well, so I hope Firefox is on the top of the Ubuntu/Kubuntu developers' to-do list.

The rest of my Kubuntu experience was bug-free, but there were a few things I felt Kubuntu was missing. First, I missed having a central hardware/system manager like SUSE's YaST, as KControlCenter has minimal hardware control. However, since all my hardware was working properly on installation, this was not a necessity for me. I also would have liked to see more documentation, especially since Ubuntu has a help center linked from the GNOME toolbar, which is absent in Kubuntu. Customizing that document for KDE and putting it on the Kubuntu desktop would be a great help for many users new to Linux or KDE, as would a brief, printable document outlining the installation process and common questions and problems with installing. (The online resources available at ubuntulinux.org and ubuntuforums.org are helpful.)

I also found Kynaptic to be lacking in features. It is an incomplete version of Synaptic, a GNOME-based front end for apt-get, but with the KDE look and feel. I recommend installing Synaptic and using it instead, as it provides a more complete application, if you don't mind seeing the GNOME look in KDE. In fact, OpenOffice.org already incorporates the GNOME look in Kubuntu. Though some KDE-specific aspects of Kubuntu are appearing later than their GNOME/Ubuntu counterparts, I was encouraged by an OSDir.com interview with two of Kubuntu's lead developers, Andreas Mueller and Jonathan Riddell, who stated that plans for "user documentation" and a "better package manager" (among other things) were on the top of the list for the next release.

Will you Kubuntu?

In the week or so I've spent working with Kubuntu "Hoary Hedgehog," I've really come to like it. The installation and setup were fast and relatively painless, the KDE 3.4 interface is beautiful and quick to respond, and apt-get is a breath of fresh air to a long-time RPM user.

Will Kubuntu replace SUSE as my primary distro? I'm not sure yet. I need to live with it a little longer -- and check out the new SUSE release -- before making up my mind, but I'm tempted. I will, however, be burning a handful of Kubuntu and Ubuntu LiveCDs to distribute to friends who are interested in Linux. I think it would make a great first distro for many people, while providing the necessary tools for power users as well.


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