June 9, 2006

Ubuntu Dapper: Ready for the long haul

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The long-awaited Ubuntu 6.06 Long Term Support (LTS) release, also known as Dapper Drake, made its debut last week. After extensive testing, I can say that it was worth the delay from its originally scheduled April release date.

For this review, I've been testing Ubuntu Dapper, and its Kubuntu and Xubuntu variants, on several desktop systems. The first system is a Pentium 4 3.06GHz laptop with 1GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon R250 video card and Prism-based wireless card. I'm also running Ubuntu Dapper on my primary desktop, an AMD64 3000+ with 2GB of RAM, a 120GB SATA drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT. Finally, I put Ubuntu on a ThinkPad T43 with a Pentium M 1.86GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, and ATI Radeon Mobility M300.

Installation, upgrades, and hardware support

The past three Ubuntu releases offered a plain, but easy, text-mode installer. Text mode equals "bad" in some people's minds, so Dapper now offers a live CD GUI installer called Ubiquity. Like the text-mode installer, the GUI installation poses only a handful of questions during the installation, such as the user's time zone and preferred login name and password -- but as a GUI wizard rather than a text menu. The install is short, easy, and no more difficult than installing Windows XP or Mac OS X. In fact, Ubuntu is vastly easier to install than Windows XP, as long as your hardware is supported.

In my experience, hardware support is really good with Dapper. I've had no problems with Dapper working with wireless chipsets on my laptops, video card detection and X configurations have been flawless on desktop and laptop machines, and sound cards are detected and configured.

Oddball setups may confuse Ubuntu, though. For Skype calls I use a Plantronics headset that comes with a USB soundcard, and Dapper detected and set it up as /dev/dsp1 without a problem, but unplugging the USB soundcard threw Dapper for a loop. Even though Totem and other apps were configured to use the onboard sound -- not the Plantronics device -- sound just disappeared when I unplugged the USB soundcard. The problem persisted through a reboot, though I was able to regain sound support by plugging the Plantronics device in and resetting the default sound device to the onboard sound. On the plus side, when I plugged in the USB sound device, Ubuntu popped up a little dialog in GNOME to inform me that it had detected a new device, and provided a button to open the sound configuration.

Using Ubuntu, or any Linux for that matter, to suspend and hibernate laptops is still hit or miss. Suspend and hibernation works just fine with my ThinkPad, but not so much with my Pentium 4 laptop. It starts to go into hibernation, but doesn't come back out of hibernation, which is somewhat less than desirable. I suspect this is more the laptop's fault than Ubuntu's, but it's something to be aware of if you're thinking of using Ubuntu on a laptop.

After trying the install CD on two systems, I decided to go the upgrade route for my AMD64 desktop. I was already running Breezy on the AMD64, so I followed the most recent release announcement's directions to use gksudo "update-manager -d" to do the upgrade. This launched the GUI updater, which gave me a the option of moving to Dapper.

The dist-upgrade didn't go as smoothly as I might have hoped, though some of that may be my fault since I've installed a number of packages I compiled myself. I had to remove a Perl Tk package to resolve a conflict between two Ubuntu packages, remove a conflicting package manually, and run through the upgrade process a couple of times to get everything squared away.

It might also be a good idea to go for the install rather than upgrade if you want to make sure you're getting all the Dapper goodness you can. For example, I noticed that my fresh Dapper installs had the Alacarte menu editor in GNOME, but the dist-upgrade system had the old Smeg menu editor installed. Upgrades are a tricky business, particularly on desktop machines.

I also tried the live CD on an Apple iBook with a 1.0GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM. Ubuntu PPC seemed fine on the iBook, though it didn't fire up the wireless card. Sound, video, and everything else seemed fine -- but users may need to hand-configure wireless. If you're interested in using Ubuntu on an iBook, read this thread on configuring the AirPort card on Ubuntuforums.org.

Pick your desktop

The Dapper release comes in three desktop flavors -- Ubuntu (GNOME), Kubuntu (KDE), and Xubuntu (Xfce). I've used all three, and I can't recommend one over the other. I spend most of my time in KDE, but I'm comfortable in Xfce and GNOME as well.

The default GNOME desktop with Ubuntu is probably the best-suited for new Linux users, because the general layout of the menus is a bit more intuitive. The Applications, Places, and System menus separate things nicely -- though I think it's a mistake that the Applications menu no longer has the "Run Command" entry.

Each of the desktops has a fair complement of productivity and multimedia software, though Xfce's default selection of packages seems a bit sparse -- Xubuntu doesn't come with a BitTorrent client, or a games menu at all, for example. Users might also be surprised to find that Kubuntu doesn't include Firefox by default, but it's easy enough to add packages using KDE's Adept package manager or GNOME's Synaptic package manager.

I'm not sure I like the default Xfce configuration for Xubuntu, which the Xubuntu team has configured to look more or less like the GNOME desktop. This might be a bonus for users who want a lightweight Gtk-based desktop environment without the heft of GNOME, but it may not be what experienced Xfce users are looking for.

If GNOME, KDE, or Xfce aren't right for you, Enlightenment, Blackbox, Fluxbox, and other window managers are available from the Ubuntu repositories. I was pleased that Ubuntu actually added the window managers to the GDM chooser when I installed the extra packages. It's been my experience in the past with other distros that additional window manager packages can be installed, but the actual work of integrating them into the display manager menu is an exercise left to the user.

What's new in Dapper

These days, new releases of Linux distros tend to inch rather than leap forward. That's because Linux has come so far that what constitutes improvement is usually minor tweaks and additions to existing functionality rather than brand new awe-inspiring features. That's the case with Dapper -- a lot of little improvements that add up to a better desktop.

One of the first improvements I noticed is the addition of a software package notifier in Kubuntu, which is nice to have if you're forgetful about running apt-get update and apt-get upgrade on a regular basis. Kubuntu also adds a simplified package installer, an Adept-based wizard found in the menu as Add/Remove Applications. The simplified package installer makes it simple for users to add packages after installation because it groups packages by menu (Office, Graphics, Games, etc.) rather than making users hunt through all available packages. Ubuntu had a similar installer, based on Synaptic, when Breezy was released, so I was glad to see it added to Kubuntu. I didn't see the simplified package installer in Xubuntu, but Xubuntu still has Synaptic.

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Dapper also adds the Deskbar, which is a GNOME applet for searching, well, pretty much everything. By default, it allows you to search Web sites like Google and local files and folders and perform dictionary searches. It also works well with the Beagle search tool, if you have it installed. The Beagle packages aren't installed by default, which is probably a good thing, since I've noticed a few system slowdowns that seem to be related to the Beagle daemon.

KDE also includes a Beagle front end called Kerry. It's not quite as full-featured as Deskbar -- for example, Kerry doesn't give you the option of doing Google or dictionary searches -- but it still provides useful local searches. Both Deskbar and Kerry will search through chat logs, emails, MP3 meta-information, and much more for any search string.

Of course, Dapper also includes the most recent release of GNOME, so you'll get the benefit of all the goodies in GNOME 2.14. Ubuntu comes with Firefox 1.5.x rather than Epiphany as the default GNOME browser, though Epiphany can be installed separately if you wish.

Kubuntu ships with KDE 3.5.2, which is ever-so-slightly out of date since the KDE folks released KDE 3.5.3 on May 31, the day before Dapper was scheduled to release. If you'd like to upgrade to 3.5.3, you'll need to add a few repositories and do an upgrade.

The Xubuntu release is really cutting edge. Xubuntu ships with a beta for Xfce 4.4, rather than using the soon-to-be outdated Xfce 4.2 release. Xubuntu's default applications -- such as Gnumeric and AbiWord rather than OpenOffice.org, and the Thunar file manager rather than Nautilus -- make Xubuntu well-suited for lower-end hardware.

By default, Ubuntu uses Totem as its media player. I'm not too crazy about Totem; it's fine for a movie player, but not so hot for MP3s, which is what I usually want to listen to. However, I do like the Banshee Music Player that's available from the Ubuntu repositories, and amaroK, which comes as part of the default Kubuntu package. I wish setting a default application for media files and such were a bit more obvious in KDE. In GNOME, just right-clicking on a file, selecting Properties, and going to the Open With tab will let you select an app to open a file with. In KDE, going to Properties will bring you to the right dialog -- but the only indicator is a little wrench icon that says "edit file type" if you hover the mouse over it. (This is more of a KDE than Kubuntu problem, of course.)

Speaking of multimedia, Ubuntu ships with free software only, so enabling MP3 playback and encoding and support for Flash and other non-free formats is left as an exercise for the user. The Ubuntu wiki has a page on enabling restricted formats, which will probably be a necessary stop for any user who likes to listen to MP3s and watch Google Video.

Overall, I've found the default package selections to be a good set of choices for the average user. They may not fit me, or you, perfectly, but they're a good starting point for a useful desktop -- and that's true whether you're talking about Ubuntu, Xubuntu, or Kubuntu. What's more, I can't think of any mainstream packages in the Linux world that aren't available in Ubuntu's repositories.

If you have the Universe and Multiverse repositories enabled, you can now install VMware Player and Sun Java directly from the Ubuntu repositories. I'm particularly pleased with the VMware Player option, because it pulls all of the additional packages needed to run VMware Player, making it dead simple. Installing VMware Player manually is more work than most users want to go through.

A word of caution, though -- if you install Sun Java, be sure to do so using Synaptic or a GUI package manager. It failed when I tried using apt-get install, apparently because it is configured to display the Sun Java license only via the GUI installers. I would hope that the Ubuntu packagers remember that some folks still prefer using apt-get directly rather than a GUI front end.

Dapper drawbacks

Though the Dapper Drake release has a lot to like, it also has a few annoyances. My biggest gripe with Ubuntu is still sound. Sound works fine most of the time, but it doesn't deal well with multiple applications trying to use the sound card at the same time. For example, if I start up VMware Workstation while I'm playing MP3s using amaroK, I get an error about /dev/dsp being busy. The same happens if I try to use amaroK or XMMS while Audacity is open. Some applications do play well together -- for example, Gaim can still play sound events while amaroK is playing -- but others, not so much.

This problem has been around for a while, and there are suggested fixes, so I'm not sure why it wasn't addressed with this release.

A lot of folks on the Ubuntu users list complaining about Ubuntu's printer support. I use a Brother 1270N networked laser printer, and it has worked perfectly with Ubuntu since day 1 -- but I also chose that printer model specifically because it was known to be well-supported under Linux.

The Dapper release adds OpenOffice.org 2.0.2, which is included with Kubuntu and Ubuntu by default, but not Xubuntu. The Breezy release offered a pre-release version of OpenOffice.org 2.0, which was a bit buggy. Well, this release seems to be a bit buggy as well. I've had OpenOffice.org crash when I was doing nothing more than looking at an Excel document. I suspect that this is related to the use of GNU Java Compiler rather than Sun Java.

Device support

Ubuntu wouldn't be much of a desktop OS if it didn't support popular devices such as digital cameras and music players. Ubuntu did a really good job with most of the consumer devices I threw at it.

I was pleasantly surprised that I could just plug in my HFS+ formatted iPod and start listening to tunes stored on the iPod using Rhythmbox or Banshee, both of which just opened the iPod as another directory full of music. It was somewhat less exciting in Kubuntu, where plugging in my iPod just triggered a dialog asking whether I wanted to do nothing or open in a new window -- which gave me a Konqueror window with the files on my iPod.

I also plugged in an old Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox to see if I could get it to work with Linux. By default, no dice, but I was able to get it working by installing some Nomad-related libraries and Gnomad and KZenExplorer. I particularly like KZenExplorer -- I can just drag and drop tunes from Konqueror into the KZenExplorer window to add them to the Jukebox, and set up synchronization with any directory I'd like. Perhaps there's a bit of life left in the old thing yet.

Ubuntu also did fine with my Konica Minolta DiMage Z20 digital camera, though the default action in Kubuntu was disappointing. When I plugged the USB connector in under Ubuntu, it brought up the option to import photos into gPhoto.

The only real device disappointment I have with Ubuntu is that when I plugged in my Treo 650, nothing happens -- even after installing the various Palm-related packages. KPilot fared a little better, but kept failing with the message "Could not start the KPilot daemon. The system error message was: Could not find service 'kpilotdaemon'."

Ready for the long haul?

Overall, I've found Ubuntu 6.06 LTS to be a solid operating system. It's easy to use, has a great selection of software available for new users and for developers and power user types, and generally "just works."

I also like the fact that Ubuntu, out of the box, is strictly open source software. You can grab non-free packages pretty easily if you want to, but the default install is free as in freedom and beer.

Dapper has a few flaws here and there, but it's a solid desktop OS that is fine for home and office use. The Ubuntu folks have committed to supporting Dapper for three years on the desktop, and five years on the server. I would definitely recommend Ubuntu to experienced and inexperienced Linux users alike.

Category:

  • Linux
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