April 27, 2007

Review: Ubuntu Feisty Fawn

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Another six months, another release from the Ubuntu folks. The Ubuntu 7.04 release, better known as Ubuntu Feisty Fawn, is another cutting-edge, but not bleeding-edge, release that shows what Linux is capable of on the desktop. I've been running it since the early betas, and have found that it's the best Ubuntu release yet.

The first thing a new user will notice about Feisty is that the Ubuntu folks have made the download page very user-friendly, allowing users to select a few options to download the right CD rather than picking out the proper ISO name from a long list. I usually prefer to grab ISO images using GNU wget rather than Firefox's download manager (on the off chance that Firefox decides to crash) so I was a bit concerned the friendly interface would obscure the actual URL of the ISO -- but when you choose the options that are right for your computer, you're redirected to a page that includes the download URL and tips on burning ISOs.

With the Feisty release, you have the standard live CD installers for Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and Edubuntu, plus alternate installers, plus the Ubuntu's server install. And, of course, you have the various hardware platforms as well -- x86, AMD64, UltraSPARC, and PowerPC. For the purpose of this review, I looked at the x86 version of Ubuntu and Kubuntu, on three machines -- an IBM Intellistation Z Pro dual 2.66GHz Xeon with 2.5GB of RAM with an Nvidia Quadro 4 video card, a homebrew AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ with 4GB of RAM and a newer Nvidia card (GeForce 7900), and an IBM ThinkPad T43 with 1GB of RAM.

The live CD installer hasn't changed much, if at all, since Edgy. Pop in the CD, and if you have a system with at least 256MB of RAM, the installer will take you into an Ubuntu or Kubuntu desktop. Users can get a feel for Ubuntu before installing, or just dive right in to the installation by clicking the Install icon. The install wizard walks you through basic installation questions like username, password, time zone, and disk partitioning, and then it's just a matter of waiting for all the files to be copied to disk.

I ran the installer on the homebrew machine and the IBM workstation. Both times, the installer ran fine, detected all of my hardware, and got everything up and running in about 30 to 40 minutes.

Upgrading Ubuntu

If you're already running Ubuntu, there's no reason to go through the install again just to upgrade to Feisty -- the Ubuntu system updater will offer you the opportunity to upgrade just as easily as running a regular system update. It will take quite a bit longer, but all you really have to do is sit back and watch the files download. The upgrader will handle the rest.

I ran the upgrade on a ThinkPad T43 that was running Ubuntu Edgy. All in all, it took about 90 minutes from start to finish, including all the downloading. Since the installer said that it needed to grab about 1,300 packages, I consider that an acceptable turnaround.

I didn't run into any showstoppers when upgrading, but one of my coworkers mentioned losing USB devices after the upgrade.

I also noticed one small change between Edgy and Feisty on my workstation, where I performed a clean install. The disk naming scheme has changed slightly, so my external USB drive (which holds my MP3 files) was now named /media/disk instead of /media/usbdisk. This isn't a major problem, but I had to make a few changes to the application preferences I copied over and a few scripts that used the /media/usbdisk path.

Restricted drivers

Right after the reboot into Feisty, Ubuntu gave me a "restricted drivers" notice. I clicked on the restricted drivers icon, which required me to give my password to get to the administrative interface. The Restricted Drivers dialog listed three items: the VMware network driver and machine monitor that came with the VMware Player package, and the ATI accelerated graphics driver. The dialog also cautioned that the software is proprietary and "cannot easily be changed to fix any future problems."

To enable the restricted driver, all I had to do was click on the enabled button and reboot. I could also enable the Nvidia accelerated graphics driver on two other machines with Nvidia cards by just clicking the enabled button and rebooting.

As a free software supporter and realist, I like the way that Ubuntu is handling the restricted drivers issue. While it'd be just peachy if we could all run our computers and do everything we want to do with free software, the sad reality is that we can't. Furthermore, if there's any hope of meeting the expectations of potential users coming from the Windows and Mac OS camps, a distro has to support the devices that they want to use. Is it the Linux community's fault that OEMs don't ship free drivers for their devices? No, but that doesn't stop new users from being turned off when they find that their $300 Nvidia card is no better than a $15 video card because it won't do 3-D using free drivers, or that their wireless card is a useless hunk of plastic and metal without a few proprietary bits. So the Ubuntu approach seems like a good middle ground: Users are warned before enabling "restricted" software, but it's made easy for users who want to do so.

Desktop effects

While desktop effects aren't enabled by default, it's relatively easy to enable them, at least under GNOME. You'll need to make sure you have the right drivers installed for your video card, as well as having the Compiz or Beryl packages installed, and then go to System -> Preferences -> Desktop Effects.

This worked like a charm in GNOME with an Nvidia card -- but not quite so well on my laptop with an ATI card. Nor is it that easy with KDE.

With my ATI card, when I tried to enable desktop effects I received an error about not having composite extensions -- and that's it. It didn't indicate whether I'd be able to get the necessary support by installing a couple of extra packages or by switching to a different driver. I know that my ATI card does support Compiz and Beryl because I was able to run the desktop effects on SimplyMEPIS.

On my desktop machine, I wanted to run KDE with Compiz, but I didn't see any preferences with KDE that would allow me to enable desktop effects. I emailed Kubuntu developer Jonathan Riddell about this, and he said that the compiz-kde effort was stalled, and that the best way to go was to install Beryl -- something I'd resisted, as I've found Beryl to be unstable. He also acknowledged that KDE doesn't sport a desktop effects applet like GNOME's in Feisty.

Riddell says that an applet is in the works for Gutsy Gibbon, the next planned Ubuntu release, as well as a restricted drivers manager applet. Unfortunately, for Feisty, KDE users will have to dive in a bit to set up desktop effects.

Software selection

I've already reviewed GNOME 2.18, which is the standard Ubuntu desktop, and what I said there applies to Ubuntu Feisty -- it's a solid release, but you're not going to log in and see major changes or "gee whiz" features in GNOME. Actually, Ubuntu includes GNOME 2.18.1, but the .1 release is bugfix only -- it doesn't actually add any new features.

However, as I mentioned already, Feisty makes it easy to enable desktop effects, even if they're not on by default. Feisty makes it easy to install Java, and Flash. It includes the latest and greatest versions available at feature freeze of all the standard desktop packages you'd expect -- Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Gaim (soon to be Pidgin), Evolution, and all the rest.


Kubuntu ships with KDE 3.5.6, and includes a few improvements over the Edgy release. Note that users can upgrade to KDE 3.5.6 in Edgy without upgrading to Feisty, since the Kubuntu folks release packages for new KDE releases almost as soon as they're available from KDE. In addition to upgraded packages, like Amarok 1.4.5 and OpenOffice.org 2.2, Kubuntu includes a few new features, such as the new and improved networking configuration utility, KNetworkManager.

The Kubuntu configuration setup utilities have been rearranged in Feisty, which has a System Settings center with General and Advanced tabs. Under General, you can configure default applications, KDE's appearance, users, network settings, and a number of other system settings. The Advanced tab includes access to system services, the login manager, audio encoding, and a new Wine configuration utility.

I'm not much for Windows apps, but the Wine utility is promising. If you don't have Wine installed already, it will walk you through getting the packages and getting Wine installed. It also allows you to configure the version of Windows that programs will "see" when they run under Wine, the directory mapping for Windows drive letters to directories on the Linux filesystem, the applications' appearance, support for Direct3D, and other settings you might need to tweak to get an application running under Wine. You can even change settings for specific applications, so if the general settings don't work for an app, you can customize them to get it working.

However, I don't think this utility will displace CodeWeavers CrossOver in the near future. I tried installing a few apps under Wine after setting Wine up. The results varied from "completely locked up," to "ran OK." NoteTab Light, for example, ran OK when I tried it out, but Adobe Acrobat totally froze, and I had to switch to a virtual terminal and kill the application to be able to access my desktop again.

I was thrilled to see the KPDF has a bookmarking feature, but that elation was somewhat tempered by the fact that you can set a bookmark, but KPDF doesn't seem to expose any easy way to actually navigate between bookmarks.

As a rule, I tend to prefer KDE over GNOME -- though I typically run GNOME on my laptop and KDE on my workstation just to stay familiar with both -- but Feisty has me using GNOME rather than KDE. Why? Because the desktop effects are more mature in GNOME than KDE, and easier to set up. After using it for a few weeks, Compiz is not something I care to do without, not because of the "bling" but because a few of Compiz's features, such as the Expose-like tiling of windows, are hard to live without, and Compiz's implementation is much faster than Kompose.

One thing that surprised me in Kubuntu was the change to the log out interface. Usually when you click "Log out" you expect to get a dialog that asks if you really want to log out or cancel, but Kubuntu has gone to a single "Log out" button -- with no cancel or other options. I'm sure plenty of new users are going to hit the Log out button accidentally and then think "oh, I have no option but to log out and back in again." (This isn't actually the case, though -- you can just hit Escape.) I hope the Kubuntu folks will restore a Cancel button before Gutsy.

Feisty includes a fancy new setup utility for Hewlett-Packard printer owners, but as I don't own an HP printer, I wasn't able to take advantage of the HPLIP Toolbox.

Hardware support

I've been using Feisty on three separate computers, and have tried a wide variety of hardware with Ubuntu to see how this release fares in supporting things like scanners, iPods, external USB and FireWire drives, webcams, a Belkin 802.11b USB wireless device, and whatever else I could find.

The only device that didn't work out of the box was a LogiTech webcam, which isn't exactly surprising -- I've tried it with several other distros, and no dice. In fact, it's not even detected by Mac OS X unless you install a special application.

Better multimedia support

Feisty doesn't come with proprietary or patent-encumbered codecs installed by default, but it does the next best thing -- if you try to play a media file that's not supported, like an MP3, Ubuntu will walk you through installing the proper codecs for that file. Like the restricted drivers utility, this gives users a chance to easily get the software that they want or need without having to do a bunch of searching through forums to find out what they need, and then doing manual tweaking.

One of the things that bugged me with Edgy (and previous Ubuntu releases) was that it was easy for an application to put the sound device in a death grip and prevent other applications from using sound. There's nothing quite like launching a music player, or another application that utilizes sound, and seeing a sound device error to remind you that the Linux desktop still has some weak spots. Feisty is better in this regard, but I have run into the problem with a couple of applications -- like VMware Server and Audacity -- so there's a bit of work left to be done.

Fixing the "audio jumble" was on the agenda when Feisty was being planned last year, and it looks like it's still a high priority. I look forward to a day when I can have Amarok playing and have sound from a virtual machine running in VMware without having to scour forums for a kludgy fix.

A taste of freedom for the Windows folks

Even if Ubuntu fails to convert Windows users to Linux, the Kubuntu and Ubuntu ISOs come with a small dose of free Windows software to at least give users a taste of free software within Windows.

The Kubuntu disc includes Firefox, Thunderbird, Scribus, and SpeedCrunch for Windows, while the Ubuntu disc includes Firefox, Thunderbird, AbiWord, Blender, and ClamWin.

Final verdict

Ubuntu and Kubuntu Feisty are moderate improvements over the Edgy release, and include enough new software and features to justify upgrading to Feisty or trying it out for the first time if you've been waiting to take the Ubuntu plunge.

Feisty delivers most of the features that users were hoping for in Edgy. Ubuntu is getting to the point where it can face mainstream desktops. If that weren't the case, would Michael Dell be running the OS on his laptop?


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