I have been using Ubuntu since 5.10 now and have been really impressed with the progress made during this short time. 7.10 (Codenamed ‘Gutsy Gibbon’) was finally released on the 18’th October and after testing it for a week or so, I am very impressed. I would like to talk today about some of the good (and not-so good) aspects of this latest release.
The Bad Bits
I’m going to start with the bad bits, this section is going to be the longest, not because there is a lot wrong with Ubuntu, but because the points I make need a decent explanation. The two biggest problems Ubuntu has (in my own opinion) are graphical and wireless support. Although this is certainly not the open source community’s fault, as many hardware manufacturer’s refuse to give information to open source developers and release their code. That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made, the integration of NetworkManager and the addition of Bulletproof-X and the Graphical control panel in 7.10 are huge improvements to areas where newbie user’s could easily become unhinged. Still, there are some aspects that aren’t quite up to scratch.
In graphics, although every card seems to be supported out of the box, ‘3D effects‘, a much-touted feature in 7.04 and 7.10 is still very unstable, and I really have to question the inclusion of the immature Compiz Fusion project as the default 3D environment. In addition to this, on two machines I tested with ATI x300 cards, switching on the enhanced (although non-free) ‘FGLRX‘ graphics driver caused the machine to go into Xorg failsafe mode after a reboot, and even after tampering with the configuration panel I still couldn’t get 3D effects to function at all.
Switching back to the default open-source ‘ATI‘ driver solved this, and although 3D effects did function, one machine experienced system freezes every half-hour, and performance wasn’t great, which eventually led to me purchasing a new card. Saying this though, the default Ubuntu install did set up the best supported desktop it could with no bugs or crashes, so I suppose this wouldn’t affect a normal desktop end-user until they started tweaking the settings and turning Compiz on.
Another gripe of mine is wireless support. Although the list of supported chipsets is growing, and that majority of cards do now work, there seems to be very little help for cards that fail to be recognised. PCMCIA and PCI cards seem quite well supported, and I have yet to experience a problem with these, it’s USB where the issues lie. Both the cards I tested (Safecom SWMULZ-5400 and Belkin F5D7050) although recognised by Ubuntu, failed to connect to any wireless networks in range.
Forum posts on this seem to go unnoticed as there’s probably no known solution, and NDISWrapper also failed to work for me. It should be common sense that having to tweak various config files and blacklist kernel modules is not something a normal desktop end-user should have to do in order to get their hardware working.
I suppose there’s a trade-off to be had here between MS Windows, where everything works eventually, but configuration and driver installation is almost always required, and Linux/Ubuntu where half of the devices work out of the box with no set-up, configuration or installation, and the other half, where some will work after hours of effort, and some just completely fail to function at all.
I think progress is being made fast, and as more and more manufacturers open up their drivers to the community the device support is getting better and better. My advice for now is to test out all new devices with the Live CD before you wipe off your Windows partitions!
The Good Bits
Try not to let my experiences with Wireless USB and ATI cards sour you on Ubuntu, it does have a lot to offer, and 7.10 brings some great improvements to the already brilliant product. Also, my basic Ã‚Â£30 Nvidia card worked out of the box and provides blistering speed and excellent graphical performance for 3D effects and the multitude of free FPS games I waste my life on every evening, Nexuiz being my current favourite!
The default desktop environment ‘Gnome‘ is now at version 2.20 and is more than suitable for everyday use by a novice user. The layout of the menu’s and toolbars is excellent and the bundled applications with Ubuntu include a full Office Suite, Firefox web browser, image editing, audio and video players, instant messaging clients, along with all the other bits and bobs you need and thousands of other applications to install through the simple ‘Add/Remove‘ application, all for free, just by ticking a box.
I also want to mention Windows compatibility, over the past few years the Wine project has done excellent things in making as many Windows applications as possible compatible with Linux, leaving user’s with fewer excuses to stick with Microsoft, and thanks to a new and improved ‘Wine’ menu, users can now configure Wine, view their installed Windows applications and uninstall them, all from one place, without having to remember any command line rubbish, and with the ‘Wine Doors‘ project taking shape things are just going to get easier and easier!
Looking at Ubuntu 7.10 and comparing it to Vista, it seems like moving away from Windows was one of the smartest things I ever did, and with the incredible progress being made I can’t wait to get my hands on the next LTS release in April 08.