October 25, 2007

Ubuntu 7.10 is outstanding

Author: Jeremy LaCroix

Canonical this month released Ubuntu 7.10, codenamed Gutsy Gibbon. Like the Feisty Fawn release before it, Gutsy is a bleeding-edge distribution with a focus on new features and the newest free software applications. It's a speedy operating system with great new features and only a few minor issues.

Ubuntu comes in three main flavors. Ubuntu features GNOME as its desktop, Kubuntu uses KDE, and Xubuntu ships with Xfce. Other derivatives of Ubuntu include Gobuntu, which contains only free software and no closed source elements, and Edubuntu, which was designed for use in classrooms.

All three main flavors of Gutsy feature the same installation methods as earlier versions. You can boot Ubuntu as a live CD that includes a graphical installer, or set it up via an alternate installation CD, which allows for advanced options during a text-mode install. With version 7.10 there is now an option to encrypt your hard disk during the installation when using the alternate CD. The live CD installer is probably the easiest operating system install program I've ever used.

Powering my test machine is an AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor, an Nvidia 7300GT video card, and 2GB of RAM. Anyone with standard hardware and around 256MB of memory should have no problem running Gutsy.

I installed the 64-bit release of Gutsy. As with the previous release, installing a binary video card driver to enable hardware acceleration on my machine was a breeze. When you start Ubuntu for the first time, the Restricted Driver Manager will inform you if a binary driver is available, and you can install it if you wish. Ubuntu detected my Nvidia GeForce 7300GT immediately. After I enabled it and rebooted my machine, I was able to take advantage of the full power of my video card.

In 7.10 Ubuntu automatically enables Compiz Fusion, which allows for 3-D candy, providing the video card installed in the system supports hardware acceleration out of the box. If not, then Ubuntu will enable the effects automatically the next time the computer is started with a binary driver installed. The 3-D effects come in two levels: Normal, the default, which enables only some effects (such as compositing, shadows, and animated minimizing) in order to keep the used resources at a minimal level, and Extra, which allows for the most effects (such as window wobbling, animated workspace switching, and transparency). Compiz Fusion offers a few usability enhancements, such as being able to scroll through your workspaces with your mouse wheel. I don't feel that the effects are worth the extra hit on system resources, so I usually keep them turned off. Surprisingly, even with desktop effects enabled, performance while playing 3-D games on my system didn't seem to drop.

When it comes to games, I installed Neverball, Frozen Bubble, Tux Racer, Chromium and Doom 3 and each worked as expected. Doom 3 actually ran a bit faster on Gutsy than it did on Feisty.

The core installation of Ubuntu 7.10 this time around includes a user switching tool that you will see on your taskbar. This is useful if you have more than one person using the system. With just a few clicks and a password entry, you can use the machine without logging off the current user. The Tracker search tool, which indexes your files for faster searching, is also included by default.

Ubuntu's installation of Firefox was been given some new features, especially aimed at easing the installation of add-ons and plugins. I tried to view a Flash-enabled Web site without having the Flash plugin installed, and Ubuntu offered to download and install it for me. In previous versions, I had to do this by hand when I use the 64-bit version, where some common plugins are not available. Firefox not only installed the Flash plugin, it also installed nspluginwrapper as well, which is a wrapper that allows a 32-bit Flash plugin to work within a 64-bit browser. This all worked without a hitch, and in just a few minutes and mouse clicks, I was up and running with a 64-bit Firefox and 32-bit Flash plugin. In addition, a new option, Get Ubuntu Addons, has been added to Firefox's Add-ons window. This new feature allows you to use APT within Firefox to download commonly used plugins such as Adblock and Tabextensions.

Ubuntu bundles GNOME 2.20, the latest version. New GNOME-specific features include a backup feature for Evolution, a way to leave messages for a user in gnome-screensaver when a screen is locked, syntax highlighting in gedit, and a consolidation of the various theme options into a new applet called Appearance. GNOME 2.20 is the fastest version of GNOME I've used yet.

Security has also been stepped up in this release. All three main flavors of Ubuntu now include AppArmor, a security framework implementation designed to make your computer more secure. The developers' goal was to make this framework transparent to the user, and they seem have succeeded, since I didn't notice it was there. AppArmor works in the background, restricting applications' access to certain components of the operating system in case one gets hijacked.

On the down side

Unfortunately, Ubuntu 7.10 is not without its share of glitches, some minor and some major. For example, Rhythmbox sometimes plays music marred by static, and other times a speaker or two may stop working for no apparent reason. With Amarok, I did not have those issues. Even though this bug was reported before Gutsy was released, it's still resident in the final version. A recommended "fix" for this bug was to lower the main volume slider to anything other than 100%, but this did not fix the issue for me.

Another minor problem I ran into was an extra folder being saved in my home directory every time I created a launcher on my GNOME desktop. The folder was named "file:" and seemed to have no apparent purpose. I reported this bug before Gutsy was released, but it's still a problem in my freshly installed system.

In addition, after a few reboots, the user switcher tool refused to load, forcing me to to remove it in order to stop it from displaying various error messages. This problem seemed to happen after I installed the binary driver for my video card.

Finally, the official Ubuntu Forum is full of messages from users with Nvidia cards who are suffering from random freezes. This bug is not one that the Ubuntu developers missed, because it's a bug with a closed source driver. Regardless, this glitch does somewhat hurt the reputation of an otherwise solid release. I would have preferred that the developers shipped an older version of the driver while Nvidia works out the bugs. If you plan to install Gutsy, check the official forum first to see if there are any known issues with your card.

While I did experience a few glitches, the new features of Ubuntu 7.10 outweighed them for me. It's not a perfect release, and it does feel somewhat rushed, but it is a step in the right direction that will ultimately lead to a more stable long-term support release this spring. This version of the famous distribution runs like a champ on my machine, faster than any previous release, with a plethora of new features that are sure to please novice and advanced users alike.


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