Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon: Critical review

[ Thursday, 18 October 2007, michuk ]


Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon has been released today. I haven’t tested any alpha or beta versions of the new product from Canonical. I have decided to wait for the Release Candidate, since this has proved to work for me in the past. In short: it did not disappoint me. The new Ubuntu is more polished, more professional and in general, better than the previous one, which was already a great OS. Minor glitches? Present, as always.

Author: Borys Musielak

Installation

There are two installation options: from a live CD and from an alternative CD. I chose the latter since I wanted to examine all options, not just the default ones selected for newcomers in the Live-CD installer. I am not put off by text-mode installers (hey, I’ve been using Debian for years!) and I like to have control over what I install on my computer, thus the alternate CD is just for me.

I have not noticed anything suspicious during the installation. It went smoothly, although I wish it was faster. Installing the packages seemed to take forever. On my still-quite-modern computer it took something like 45 minutes to get the system up and running — certainly too much.

Selection of apps

The applications installed by default in Ubuntu did not change dramatically from the previous release. We still have Firefox for web browsing, OpenOffice.org as the main office suite, Pidgin (old name: Gaim) for instant messaging, Evolution for e-mail, Rhythmbox for music, Totem for video and the GIMP for image manipulation. There are also little apps for image viewing, sound recording and creating audio CDs. Nothing too surprising. Rather conservative choices, I would say.


Pic. The GIMP in Ubuntu 7.10

A program I would like to mention is Disk Usage Analyzer (also known as Baobab). This nice little tool can graphically represent the unused space on all of our partitions as well as remote filesystems (available via SSH, FTP, DAV, Windows share and other). It resembles Filelight, a KDE app created for the same purpose. I only wish it remembered the scanned folders after closing it and opening again. Currently it requires a re-scan each time.


Pic. Disk Usage Analyzer

There was one more nice add-on in the Gutsy release. I’m not an expert in fonts but I have noticed a considerable difference in font displaying, at least in Firefox. They look better. No idea why, but they do. It seems they are sharper and the anti-aliasing is not as high as before. I have a suspicion that they look more Windows-like now. Well, take a look at these two screenshots of polishlinux.org — the first is under Feisty Fawn, second under Gutsy Gibbon.

 
Pic. Font rendering in Firefox: Feisty on the left, Gutsy on the right

Localization

I’m Polish. I want to use Polish TODO diacritics signs when I write stuff. As I installed Ubuntu in offline mode (I did not have access to the Internet at the time) I did not get any locale-specific packages. Fortunately, when I connected it sufficed to go to System->Administration->Languages, set “Polish” and apply. It automatically installed Polish localization for GNOME and other apps like Firefox and OpenOffice.org together with a Polish aspell dictionary and such. Great! After rebooting I was enjoying the user interface in my native language. Just after that I wanted to write some post on a Polish Linux website and… I experienced a zonk: I could not type Polish! This was because the right Alt key in combination with letters like ‘a’, ‘n’ or ‘o’ did not produce Polish-specific letters like ‘ą’, ‘ń’ or ‘ó’. I solved the problem by issuing: sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg. The two errors were:

  • keyboard type was set to ‘us’ instead of ‘pl’,
  • keyboard options were set to ‘lv3:lalt_switch’ (for whatever reason) instead of blank.

Applying the changes and restarting the X server with CTRL+ALT+BACKSPACE helped. I suspect the reason Ubuntu messed up the configuration was that I used the automatic keyboard detection during the installation. It ordered me to type multiple letters and then figured out my keyboard type. Apparently the guess was far from right :)

This was a minor problem for me since I knew what to do to fix it. I guess that for a newcomer this could be a stopper. I hope that the keyboard detector works better in the Live-CD version, as well.

One more strange thing concerning the localization is that… folder names are now localized as well. “Desktop” disappeared from my home folder and it has been replaced with “Pulpit” (which is the Polish word for it). It’s probably a good and natural thing to do. In Windows these have been localized for ages. Still, to me this is an unnecessary trouble.

 
Pic. Localized folder names in Nautilus

Using Ubuntu 7.10

During the first run, Ubuntu told me that my battery sucks (which is true) and that in order to use some hardware I need to enable restricted drivers. I didn’t even realize I have some hardware that requires it in my laptop. It turned out to be an internal modem which I have never used, and don’t plan to in the near future.

 
Pic. Useful information about computer hardware

Knowing that only few essential codecs are installed by default, I tried playing some DVD movies and listening to some music I had on my hard drive. Totem told me that I cannot play DVDs because I did not have “appropriate plugin” and offered me to install one. I could not test if it worked out because I was not connected and the file it wanted to get was not present on the installation CD (for legal reasons, I understand).

 
Pic. Totem tries to help…

Rhythmbox was not even that nice. When I told it to import my Music folder it started to throw errors on every file scanned! It said that “gstreamer plugins to decode MP3 files cannot be found”. I know exactly what it means and that in order to fix that I need to search for “gstreamer mp3″ in Synaptic and install the right plugin. A newbie will have no idea what the guy is talking about. What’s “gstreamer”? Why is it trying to “decode” something when I just want to play music? Why can’t it find the freaking MP3 thing? Is it broken or what?

Don’t misunderstand me — I know very well why MP3 support is not on by default in Ubuntu. The newbie user, however, doesn’t have a clue. Perhaps it would be a good idea to let them know instead of frustrating him with error messages he will never understand.

 
Pic. Rhythmbox — no MP3 support but great OGG playback

After all, I could only play my OGG music files, which is understood. One thing that surprised me was that after accidentally pressing a special key — “volume up” — on my laptop keyboard … it just worked. So did, as I immediately checked, other multimedia keys: play/still, stop, forward, backward and mute. And a nice graphical symbol appeared when I was playing with the sound. Simply incredible :)


Pic. Nice Compiz widget for volume manipulation

The next things I wanted to examine were the battery options. First, I tried suspending the laptop. It went to sleep immediately, and after waking up a GNOME password dialog appeared (same as the one that appears after locking the screen). I entered the password and saw this:

 
Pic. My desktop after waking up from suspend mode

The system apparently woke up, because just after pressing “enter” the music came back and all seemed to function fine. Well, aside from the Picasso-looking desktop I had in front of me. After a few tries, I figured out the one responsible: Compiz. Now I know that before suspending or hibernating my Ubuntu box I need to press ALT+F2 and enter the command metacity --replace. This kills Compiz window manager and goes back to the traditional one. Metacity does not try to impress me with a cubist desktop. It just wakes up and allows me to work. I didn’t think that getting Compiz back up would be a problem after the computer was back to work. Wrong! Getting back to Compiz, I get the Picasso again! So this is screwed up for good, I thought. I killed Compiz and have never thought about it since then.

One more issue with suspend/hibernate… the wifi network. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If it’s down, the only way to get it back seems to be through restarting the dbus subsystem:

sudo /etc/init.d/dbus restart.

This usually does the job. If not, try the same command a few times. Finally it catches.

What else? Well… not too much, actually. I installed ubuntu-restricted-extras and Windows fonts to get all the fancy non-free software that everyone but RMS uses on their Linux boxes. I also installed Liferea, PSI messenger and Opera — which are my apps of choice for RSS, IM and browsing — and got back to work.

Summary of pros and cons

Here is a short summary of all the nice surprises and those unfortunate events I experienced during my work on the latest Ubuntu. I know some of you only read the lists and tables so I tried to make this a comprehensive list.

Positives:

  • WiFi support with WEP during system installation (even in console mode!)
  • System speed and responsiveness, both boot-up and actual work with the OS is way faster than in the previous release.
  • Eventually it detected my widescreen monitor and set it up correctly during the installation (I almost got used to 600×400 resolution with my new Ubuntu boxes already :P )
  • Sensible 3D effects selection: not too fancy; just enough to give Ubuntu a modern yet professional look and feel.
  • Tracker (full-text file search) works without any actions. No complaints, yet.
  • Automatic detection of existing systems, proper GRUB configuration.
  • Automatic detection and mounting of all system partitions (including the NTFS one).
  • Option to install the OS on encrypted partitions (available only when installing from the Alternate CD as I did) — this is a real killer-feature!
  • Fonts (in Firefox) look even better
  • No problem with repositories in this release. All are easy to activate and there was no need to manually enter new ones to get non-free add-ons and other proprietary software like Opera or Adobe Reader.

Negatives:

  • For a beginner: still too hard to get DVD playback, MP3 support and all other stuff that almost everyone uses and needs anyway.
  • Hibernate, suspend: if activated it should work. It does work on my laptop — I’m sure about that since it worked in Feisty Fawn. Thus, either do not activate Compiz for my laptop or make it work with sleep options!
  • No easy way to turn Compiz off and replace it with Metacity (and no explanation why in some cases this should be a preferable option) (update: just go to Preferences-> Apperarance -> “Visual Effects” and select “NONE”, thanks to Sean for this, I must have been blind)

Final thoughts

After all that, I’m happy with Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon. The installation has been so far very usable — not a single stability issue during the testing week! The problems that occurred were very easy for me to solve (but remember — I’m an experienced Linux user grown up on Debian, so I’m used to playing around with dpkg and such). It looks like the Ubuntu team spent a lot of time polishing the details for the Gutsy release, which is a rare case in the world of Linux distributions. Still, a newcomer used to Windows won’t be able to use the system without assistance or at least some Google searching. I’m not saying it’s very bad, I’m just saying that in order to set it up, a neighborhood geek is still required. After it’s up and running, not even Auntie Debbie should experience any major issues.

About the Author

Borys Musielak

PolishLinux.org creator and editor in chief. Professionally -- J2EE consultant in London City. Personally -- free software enthusiast and lobbyist.

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