Ubuntu 8.04: Not quite there, yet

[ Friday, 9 May 2008, michuk ]


I was patient this time. I let all alpha and beta releases past. I took a deep breath when RC got to the surface, I even downloaded it… but it landed on a shelf in the end. This time I decided I want to install a ready product, supposedly working out-of-the-box. I’ve had enough problems with theoretically stable products, turning out to be early-beta quality. So I’ve downloaded the stable version of Ubuntu 8.04, released April 24 and started on!

I’ve installed the newest Ubuntu on two laptops: my Thinkpad (see: Thinkpad X61s and Linux) via the upgrade option from version 7.10, and on my wife’s (HP dv1000 series) via a clean install, replacing unreliable and iffy Mandriva Xtreme 2 (Polish-specific Mandriva flavor). Let me describe my two-week-long experience with Hardy Heron.

Ubuntu 8.04
Ubuntu 8.04 — default desktop

Upgrade Ubuntu 7.10 -> 8.04

On my personal laptop I’ve installed Ubuntu Hardy Heron upgrading from Gutsy Gibbon (released October 2007). The upgrade was surprisingly smooth. There were almost no conflicts, despite me having installed many non-standard packages. The upgrade took around half an hour (on 8Mbit broadband). At the end of it, the system ordered me to restart the computer, which I’ve done. After the restart, my eyes were shown the Heron 8.04, which — curiously enough — seemed to work

Not to end with curiosities, the installer has uninstalled the digiKam package. So I’ve re-installed this perfect viewer and simple-photo-edit tool right after the reboot. The digiKam re-install caused PostgreSQL to be removed, however, there was no problem with re-installing it afterwords. Amazed by these dependencies, I went on.

GNOME surprised me rather nicely — there were no problems after the upgrade — I didn’t have to flush the personal settings (the dot files in /home directory), unlike to what usually happens during Linux upgrades like that.

Ubuntu 8.04 Ubuntu 8.04 Ubuntu 8.04
Upgrading to Ubuntu 8.04
Ubuntu 8.04 Ubuntu 8.04
PostgreSQL removal and restore

Clean installation

On the HP laptop I’ve installed the system from the ground up. There is not much to be mentioned here. The Ubuntu installer hasn’t changed too much since 7.10. The hardware was detected pretty much same way, all essentials were working after the first reboot (that is, besides the non-free codecs and Skype and RealPlayer programs, that needed to be installed separately). Not too much hassle thanks to the ubuntu-restricted-extras package and the medibuntu repositories.

News in Ubuntu 8.04

Ubuntu 8.04 is a Long-Term Support distribution, similarly to Dapper Drake, released June 2006. It should mean fewer shiny bleeding-edge features and more stability and reliability. However, it’s not really the case since there is a few of the former and not too much of the latter.

Firefox 3

Yes, I was stunned too, seeing the default browser in the stable Ubuntu release being Firefox 3 Beta 5 — Gran Paradiso test version of the new incarnation of Firefox. The developers have taken a courageous (spontaneous?) decision and thrown the beta browser at the public. Additional millions of beta-testers^WUbuntu users most likely will help Mozilla to release a stable and finished product by this July. There is a question however: should the stable distro force its to beta-test software? And yes, there is a lot yet to be tested!

Firefox 3 shipped by Ubuntu 8.04 is not stable. There are cases of the browser hanging and non-responsive periods. It also happens to just crash without any particular reason (most probably with a segmentation fault) which I have experienced a few times while watching YouTube videos.

Worse than that, not all extensions are available for the new Firefox, yet. At the time of the release, there was no stable versions of two extensions I use daily: TabMixPlus and del.icio.us. And those are essential for me to more-or-less reasonably use the browser. After a few days the del.icio.us for Firefox 3 extension arrived and TabMixPlus beta got released, too. But test-quality browser and test-quality extensions are a ‘minefield’ all together and this was just too much for my patience. In the end, after a few days of fighting, I gave up and switched to Opera. I’ll rather wait for a stable version before I switch to Firefox 3 again.

Not to be so pessimistic, though, it is worth noticing, that Firefox 3 ships a bunch of nice new features, (although mostly known from the Opera Browser) which can greatly improve the browsing experience, of course when it achieves the stable state, eventually:

  • Faster rendering — this is noticeable at first glance — looks like the new Gecko engine can show the partial content of the page faster, even if the entire page is not yet loaded.
  • Full page zoom — enables the user to zoom all contents of the page, not only the text, but also images and other elements like Flash movies. This would have been more useful a few years back; now, in Compiz era, when one can zoom in and out the entire desktop, this feature seems to be less important for a browser (under Linux, that is).
  • Address hinting — introduced not long ago in some Opera version, now in Firefox 3. This is a handy feature. Just enter any part of the address into the relevant box — the program will hint the correct page address, suggesting a few of them (probably using the browsing history and/or Google search for this purpose)

Was that enough to forget the instability? No, it wasn’t.

Ubuntu 8.04
Firefox 3 Beta 5 in Ubuntu 8.04

The clock, the calendar and the weather.

In the new Ubuntu (GNOME?) version, the desktop elements, like the clock, the calendar and the panel applets, are more integrated with each other. The events entered in Evolution get highlighted on the GNOME clock automatically. Choosing your location, you can get the current weather information in the task bar, too.

Ubuntu 8.04
Tell your Ubuntu where you live!
Ubuntu 8.04
Choose the location and the applet shows the current weather automatically

Package manager

The package manager indicates now, by displaying an icon in the Notification Area (system tray), that it is currently installing or updating packages.

Ubuntu 8.04
Updates available
Ubuntu 8.04
Update in progress

Power management

Clicking the battery icon, one can hibernate (suspend to disk) or suspend (suspend to RAM) the system.

Ubuntu 8.04

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the battery life under 8.04 is significantly longer. My Thinkpad X61s used on average 10-11W of power (checked that using powertop tool) compared to 13-14W in 7.10. This accounted for an almost 20% gain in battery life, which now more or less matches Windows XP. Good work!

Rhythmbox — outside sites integration

The Rhythmbox music player received a feature similar to Amarok’s integration to external music services: Jamendo and Magnatude. One can search for a tune or an artist directly within the program, download and listen to the music, and in case of Magnatude, also purchase some DRM-free tracks (in Jamendo you get it for free!).

Ubuntu 8.04 Ubuntu 8.04
Rhythmbox: Jamendo and Magnatude integration

Hard time with Heron

I wouldn’t be myself however, if I haven’t listed the problems I experienced (or I’m still experiencing) when using my beloved Ubuntu. Some of them are the result of my hardware configuration, some result of 8.04 premature technology, some are just usual bugs (or features?).

Audio and video

One could think, that Linux has reached the level sufficient for a typical home desktop user regarding multimedia, that is, the sound works just fine, one can listen to their music collection, watch DVDs or YouTube movies. Nothing more wrong! Ubuntu 8.04 contains a whole new quality sound system — PulseAudio. And nothing works as it should.
I’m not sure if this is the result of introducing this feature too early, or is it for some other reason — the fact is: in 7.10 everything worked without problems, right after the installation, in 8.04, on both configurations tested, there were (not encountered earlier) issues:

  • Rhythmbox could not open any music file, neither OGG nor MP3 nor any other (despite having the codecs installed),
  • Totem was iffy – mostly hanging hard while trying to watch a video or (I know, it’s a little extravagant to do such things in Linux…) a DVD movie

Oh, and yes, these two are the default multimedia applications in Ubuntu 8.04. Quite sad.

As I’m much attached to listening to the music and watching movies, I’ve installed two additional programs: mplayer and VLC. At the beginning, mplayer has given me similar hard time as Totem — trying to play any video or DVD it stopped whilst displaying the first frame and wouldn’t go any further. Trying to scroll the progress, it did show another frame and stopped again. Watching the movies frame-by-frame is not the most entertaining experience. VLC was better because it played most of the videos, no sound however. Out of patience, I rebooted.

And then, a miracle happened. It worked. Both in mplayer and VLC, both video and audio. But only for a while :) After a few hours of fighting this problem, unable to find any solution, I made a desperate step:

sudo apt-get install esound

Having the old esound sound system reinstalled, the PulseAudio was removed. Multimedia stopped acting funny on me from the moment on. I don’t know if PulseAudio was really the problem, but the fact is, that removing it has solved the problem for good.

Tracker

Tracker is an indexing system for text files enabling users to perform fast full-text searching. In theory, that is. Didn’t work for me, at all.

Ubuntu 8.04
Tracker hang-up

Trying to search anything, I get no results. I only get a nice alert from time to time, that the application has crashed. Tired of the alert I removed tracker from my system and installed Google Desktop Search. Yes, it’s available for Linux and it does work.

SSL in Psi

For communication, I use Psi, the Jabber client written in Qt. It is fast and stable, I haven’t found anything able to compete, for any platform, yet. No, Gajim can’t compete, either — it’s a long, unrelated story. Anyway, under Ubuntu 8.04, SSL communication doesn’t work in Psi. Or at least it seems so, because after installing the qca-tls package (which used to help in all previous editions), SSL support stays inactive. After browsing Ubuntu forums I found out, that this time the SSL is activated by installing another package:

apt-get install libqca2-plugin-ossl

It is indeed, it works, it’s just awesome.

Ubuntu 8.04 on a laptop

I talked about the general ups and downs with Heron. Now, getting to the end of this review, a few words about the laptop support in the newest Ubuntu.

Thinkpad X61s and Ubuntu 8.04

Hardy Heron has solved a few problems I had with Ubuntu 7.10 on my little Thinkpad:

  • The volume control using multimedia keys started working miraculously, with no additional configuration (bug fixed)!
  • Suspend to RAM does not cause the system to hang randomly any more (at least it never happened after the upgrade), just works a little slow (needs 10-20 seconds to wake up) and sometimes the system is unstable when resumed — GNOME apps are iffy, it even happened, that the only way to sort this out was a reboot (no, even the magical /etc/init.d/dbus restart didn’t work). It is however usual for the hibernate feature to require the network to be restarted upon resume. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, it’s life.
  • Compiz is stable. This is a novelty. It works even after resuming from suspend or hibernate (although I suspect it may be responsible for the issues described above). There is also no ‘blue screen while video playback’ problem. This is really a nice surprise. First time round I have really used Compiz for some 2 weeks, without the need to disable it. Ubuntu however enables only the really life-simplifying plugins by default, like moving the windows between desktops by dragging them to the edge of the screen, or light visual effects. No wobbly windows, 3d cube and other redundant stuff.
  • Microphone in Skype still didn’t work after the upgrade. Oh yeah, I know, not Ubuntu’s fault, maybe Skype’s. Works in Windows XP however with no issues. This was quite a bad surprise. Lucky for me, on the other laptop nothing changed, and Skype still works, but it is still a mystery to me how it does. On Thinkpad I finally got over the problem by following the instructions found at notebookreview. Just run gnome-volume-control and check the Capture box checkbox and then in Recording tab set Capture to the maximum value. No idea, why it wasn’t set like that by default, no idea if it would have worked in Ubuntu 7.10. Nevertheless, it works in 8.04, with just some jitter. I’m happy and my mom is as well since we can talk for free again.

Other problems however, still didn’t get resolved:

  • NetworkManager is as unusable as it was before. It detects the wireless networks, however, it is unable to connect to any of them. All that’s left is editing the /etc/network/interfaces file manually and resuming by typing ifdown wlan0 && ifup wlan0
  • General instability after resuming from sleep mode. In fact the hibernate functioned better in 7.10 than in 8.04.

So, the Thinkpad got supported better than in Ubuntu 7.10. But still worse than in over five years old Windows XP SP2.

HP dv1000 and Ubuntu 8.04

The interaction between Hardy and my wife’s HP was quite pleasant. Similarly to the previous edition, the laptop is fully functional. Suspend, hibernate, multimedia keys, the sound and the wireless card work by default and ‘out of the box’, no special configuration needed. If you are looking for a laptop to run Ubuntu, I can sincerely really recommend this one (sadly, this model is now only available on auction websites, I guess).

Final remarks

Ubuntu 8.04 shows progress in comparison to 7.10, against all odds. Many errors have been fixed, the hardware is better supported and one can really see it. It is a pity, that developers, instead of concentrating on fixing bugs and improving stability, decided to add many new features, introducing new bugs as the result.

The most important question is — do I recommend Ubuntu 8.04? If I were to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the answer would be negative. If you need a good system, that ‘just works’, wait a few months before installing Hardy Heron, until it becomes really stable, as the LTS staple suggests. If you like shiny new features and challenges, and you don’t get confused by Firefox or GNOME hangups, install Ubuntu 8.04 now. You might be lucky and it may work better for you than it did for me :)

Translated by: el es.

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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