October 26, 2006

Review: Ubuntu Edgy is nice, but not so edgy

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The Ubuntu team is scheduled to release Ubuntu 6.10, codenamed Edgy Eft, today. After working with beta and release candidates over the last few weeks, I've found it to be a solid and usable upgrade for Dapper -- but not a particularly cutting-edge release.

The release is available as a live CD desktop installer for x86, AMD64, and PowerPC, and there's a server install CD for x86, PowerPC, AMD64, and UltraSPARC systems. For OEM systems, systems with less than 192MB of RAM, and other special cases, an alternate install CD is available for x86, PowerPC, and AMD64.

Installation of Ubuntu is easy enough. I've walked through the install on a few machines using the live CD installer for Ubuntu and Kubuntu, and installed Ubuntu server on VMware Server. In all cases, the installation was simple and worked without a glitch. Depending on the speed of your machine, installation should take between 20 minutes and an hour, with most of that time devoted to copying files in the background.

What's changed in Edgy

One of the major changes in Ubuntu Edgy is something the casual user will probably never notice. Upstart is a replacement for the traditional init daemon based on init from Unix System V.

One of the reasons for the replacement is to take care of dependency issues during the boot process -- for instance, when a USB or network drive needs to be mounted, but the network or USB subsystem is not yet up. This is something that has been a small snag for me in the past while using Ubuntu Dapper. I have a USB drive that is defined in /etc/fstab to be mounted at boot, but the USB subsystem was generally not be ready when disks were being mounted -- so I'd get an error during reboots saying that the filesystem didn't exist.

Ubuntu Edgy GNOME desktop - click to view

For most users, the Upstart switchover should be transparent. As long as things "just work," the majority of Ubuntu users will probably never even know anything is different.

In fact, users might not notice much different anywhere in Edgy. The release includes plenty of updates -- GNOME 2.16, and KDE 3.5.5 for Kubuntu users, as well as Evolution 2.8.1, Firefox 2.0, OpenOffice.org 2.0.4, Gaim 2.0beta3, and so forth -- but most of the upgrades are subtle.

Edgy does bring a few new apps into the mix. The Tomboy note-taking application, which is part of GNOME 2.16, is included in Edgy. Shutterbugs will find F-Spot, a "personal photo manager," in this release as well.

I was surprised to find that Gnucash is not installed by default in Edgy, since the 2.0 release came out in July, though it is available from the repository. One of the few holes in the default set of apps in Ubuntu is a finance application.

Visually impaired users may be interested in the Orca screenreader that's included with Edgy as part of GNOME 2.16. Though I don't need a screen reader, I fired up Orca during testing to see how usable it was. It's a great concept, but it could use a bit of work.

First of all, Orca wouldn't read anything while Rhythmbox was playing. After stopping Rhythmbox, Orca would read menus and titles, and some text inside applications, but it's fairly limited in terms of what applications it will read content from. For instance, Orca will support menus, text on the GNOME desktop, and Evolution, but it won't read text from a KDE app running under GNOME, and it doesn't support all GNOME apps either. Orca's voice takes some getting used to as well, but I suppose that's just part of the difficulty in synthesizing speech.

While testing Ubuntu 6.10, I found it a little annoying that I didn't run into any application crashes. OK, not really -- but I was hoping for an opportunity to test out Apport, which is an application to help automate bug reports. Since most users aren't familiar with filing bugs, Apport is supposed to help prepare bug reports automatically when an application crashes.

Unfortunately, the only application that crashed on me during testing was the daily build of Firefox 3.0, which segfaulted immediately when I tried to run it, and wrote a .crash file under /var/crash. Unfortunately, Apport didn't detect the crash, even when I tried to invoke it manually.

Kubuntu Edgy KDE desktop - click to view

While Rhythmbox didn't actually crash on me, I did find it to be unreliable. It would freeze up fairly often, sometimes when I was doing nothing more than resizing the window.

As with prior releases, Edgy's hardware support is top-notch. It had no problem with my workstation or laptop, including the wireless card and sound cards. I also tested setting up a printer under Kubuntu, a Brother 1270N, which worked just fine. My Epson USB scanner was detected and put into use by Kooka with no fuss.

All in all, Ubuntu and Kubuntu are solid desktop systems. I prefer Ubuntu's network setup tools to Kubuntu's, but for the most part, both are very usable. On my main workstation, I installed Kubuntu and then used apt-get to grab the Ubuntu-desktop package. I haven't run into any problems having both installed, and I like having both desktops around for testing.

In the Edgy server release, you now have two install options -- the LAMP server install, which was available with Dapper, and a DNS server install. What's missing, though, is configuration tools for server applications. Ubuntu has been successful on the desktop because it's provided the tools that many desktop users want. On the server side, Ubuntu provides a simplified installation process, but then leaves admins with basic management tools. There's an ongoing discussion on the Ubuntu-devel list about the need for server config tools above and beyond the default tools that come with Apache, BIND, and Postfix.

While installing packages, I noticed that apt-get has a new trick in Edgy -- the autoremove function. If you use apt-get remove package, and the package brought along a few dependencies that would be unnecessary after the package is removed, apt-get will prompt you to use autoremove instead to remove all of the additional unnecessary packages as well.

Is Edgy edgy enough?

Back in April, Mark Shuttleworth pitched a vision for Ubuntu 6.10 that suggested the release would be "cutting edge, perhaps bleeding edge." Now that the release is ready to hit the streets, is it really cutting edge?

In some respects, yes. It's pretty audacious to replace the init system for a distribution in, basically, one (shortened) release cycle. The developers chose to stick in a few beta packages, such as Gaim and Firefox (before the 2.0 final was released) to ensure that Ubuntu Edgy wasn't saddled with outdated versions almost as soon as the ISOs hit the mirrors. Xen is included in Edgy's package repository, though not set up by default.

But in many ways Edgy seems like a fairly conservative release. The "wobbly window bits" (Compiz/Beryl) are not installed by default, nor did Network Manager make its way into Edgy's default packages, nor the SMART package manager, nor multiarch to provide x86 packages for users on AMD64 systems who need access to 32-bit applications. Beagle isn't even installed by default, though it has already been in other distros for some time.

Edgy is a worthwhile upgrade, if you're looking to run a desktop with the most recent versions of your favorite programs and don't require the long-term support offered by Dapper, but it's not as adventurous as one might have hoped.


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