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Ubuntu 9.10 brings polish but may demand tinkering

A few months ago, a widely used operating system received a major upgrade -- and Microsoft and Apple had nothing to do with it. This upgrade came from the developers responsible for one of the most popular versions of the open-source Linux operating system Ubuntu.

Like earlier editions, Ubuntu 9.10 is free for anybody to use, should run on even old and slow Windows-compatible desktops and laptops and is immune to Windows viruses and malware. But 9.10 (the numbers refer to the year and month of its release, though you'll also see it referred to by its cutesy development nickname of "Karmic Koala") also sometimes requires a little more fiddling with the controls than you might expect or understand.


Ubuntu 9.10 comes in a standard edition that you download and burn to a CD or DVD to install on a PC, and a "Netbook Remix" that runs off a USB flash drive and comes with a simpler interface tailored for smaller screens. I installed the former on three laptops -- a Dell Inspiron 1440 running Windows 7, a Dell Latitude D420 running Win XP and an HP Pavilion dv3 with Win 7 -- and put the latter on an Acer Aspire One netbook.

(Note: I'd meant to try 9.10 soon after its Oct. 26 release. But that Inspiron's refusal to recognize a series of Ubuntu CDs I'd burned ate up enough time to have the evaluation get stuck behind all the holiday tech-guidance stories. Sigh.)

The first three installations went fast: 20 to 30 minutes with a full installation on the two Dells, in which Ubuntu becomes the default operating system (you can still choose Windows at each startup), and about 15 minutes on the HP, where I used a faster "Install inside Windows" option that parks a copy of Ubuntu in a folder on the C: drive and keeps Microsoft's software as the primary operating system.

On the Acer, however, I wasted a lot of time puzzling through instructions for setting up a bootable flash drive before finding Pen Drive Linux's simple third-party program to automate the process; after that, a complete installation took about 15 minutes.

In each full install, Ubuntu handled the potentially messy business of partitioning a C: drive into Windows and Linux segments without a hitch and brought over files and settings from the Windows partition, such as music files, photos and the browsing history recorded in Mozilla Firefox.

Once set up, Ubuntu doesn't look too different from a copy of Windows or Mac OS X; a menu bar at the top of the screen provides access to programs, drives and folders and settings, while another at the bottom shows what programs are active. But its Netbook Remix (pictured below) simplifies things dramatically with a home screen of large shortcut icons to programs and folders, most of which open in full-screen mode. This seems a smarter approach to fitting a desktop operating system on a netbook's compact display than Microsoft's crudely cut-down Windows 7 Starter Edition.


In each version, Ubuntu includes a wide variety of productivity, Internet and entertainment programs: for instance, the F-Spot photo organizer editor; the Outlook-esque Evolution mail/contacts/calendars application; and the Rhythmbox music player, which includes built-in access to's interactive radio service. It's a little like a mass-market PC with an extensive software bundle, except here the add-on programs aren't trialware junk and you really can get along with just that bundle.

But some problems emerged in the Software Center that's meant to help you build on or prune that bundle. This App Store-esque catalogue of add-on programs -- all of which you can install or remove in a few clicks -- in general offers a smoother experience than in such older Ubuntu versions as the one I reviewed in 2006. But when I tried playing common music files, it refused to install the usual remedy -- a "Restricted Formats" bundle of components to handle such non-free formats as Flash video and MP3 and AAC audio -- and instead claimed that this package was "Not available in the current data."

Letting Ubuntu's Update Manager utility install all available system patches seemed to cure that problem and let that install proceed, although the Acer still occasionally forgets that it can play MP3s even with this package installed. Adding commercial DVD playback to the three larger laptops required copying and pasting instructions into the Linux command line -- but Ubuntu's Movie Player program automatically skips the annoying FBI warning to go directly to the DVD menu, which constitutes a nice bit of compensation for that brief chore.

The HP's copy of Ubuntu suffered other issues, perhaps due to its alternative installation. Its wireless receiver required using a "Hardware Drivers" tool to find extra software to support that component, while I have yet to get its speakers to emit any sound (the touch-sensitive indicator above the keyboard reports that the volume has been muted, no matter how many times I tap it to un-mute things).

On the Dell Inspiron, however, the WiFi receiver finally connected to my home network -- an ability this computer had somehow lost after I upgraded it from Windows Vista to Windows 7.

And that's an important thing to remember when talking about glitches in Linux: Yes, they exist, but they can crop up in Windows, too. In Linux, they don't cost you anything -- at least in terms of money. Time is another thing ... especially if you're not accustomed to the vocabulary and grammar of Linux.

Have you put Ubuntu 9.10 on any computers? Would you recommend it to somebody who's only ever used Windows? Share your experience and your thoughts in the comments...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 5, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Computers , Linux  
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I have an older version of Ubuntu (8.04) on one of my older desktops with a slow processor and limited memory, and I have Linux Mint on my 5 year old Toshiba laptop (dual booted with XP) and my 2 year old HP desktop (dual booted with Vista 64). I know just enough about computers to be dangerous.

Both flavors of Linux were relatively easy to install and set up for everyday use. The problems for me arose with the little helper applications and updates. Both Ubuntu and Mint make updates within the version pretty easy--almost as automatic as Windows. But once you want to upgrade to a new version (like Ubuntu 8.04 to 9.10 or Mint Gloria to Helena) its not as easy, and I have hesitated to do so for fear of accidentally wiping out my existing Linux data or Windows partitions. There are also some small things, like Mozilla plug-ins, that I haven't been able to install and fonts and screen views I haven't been able to change from the preset one. I'm probably just used to Windows and not spending enough time learning the Linux systems.

Bottom line is you pay money for the ease of use of Windows. You also pay in terms of machine resources. I would recommend Linux for owners of older machines that run slowly (or not at all) under XP or Vista. You can't beat the price.

Posted by: ramgut | January 5, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I recently switched to Ubuntu on an IBM Thinkpad when Windows XP crashed. My experience has been 95% positive and has taught me that there can be life without Windows.

For most general users who use computers for word processing, internet, social networking and the such, it's a great alternative OS.

For heavy applications such as video editing, Audio recordings, Photoshopping, I would stick to Microsoft/Apple and the core line of products from Adobe.

Posted by: voyage35 | January 5, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I put Ubuntu 9.10 on a Dell Mini10V netbook and it was the best decision I ever made. The Dell came with Windows XP installed, which made everything very slow. I'm much happier with Ubuntu, programs run fast, and I love the automatic updates that keep things running smoothly.

Posted by: dcborn61 | January 5, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Runs pretty well in a VMWare machine on my iMac, although a lot of the eye candy is disabled.

You might want to take a look at Kubuntu, which is an Ubuntu distribution with the Gnome desktop replaced with KDE.

Or go hardcore and do Debian Unstable.

Posted by: wiredog | January 5, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I've used Ubuntu for several years, but have moved to different Linux distros (Debian & Arch) on my desktop. Matter of taste.

I do use Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10 on my Acer Aspire One netbook. Very nice, indeed. Huge improvement over the Linpus Linux the computer came with.

Suggestions for folks new to Ubuntu: 1) You can run it without disturbing your Windows installation by booting it via CD or USB and your BIOS boot options. Great, no-risk way to get a feel for it. 2) Ubuntu comes out on a six-month schedule. Ambitious, but it inevitably results in numerous patches, as Rob discusses. You really need to install and apply the patches before dealing with bugs because you will find that the patches solve many common bugs. 3) Resist the urge to be an early adopter of a new Ubuntu release. They **will** be buggy! Wait four to six weeks, read the Ubuntu forums for show-stoppers, upgrade and apply the patches. 4) Ubuntu 9.10 had some teething problems at first, but now is a great time to try it. The bugs have been sorted out and patched. You may be pleasantly surprised about how mature it is, as well as the speed compared to Windows. 5) Many applications you use on Windows are either already installed (word processor, etc) or downloadable free (Firefox, Chrome/Chromium browser, Thunderbird email, etc.)

Posted by: fdzimmerman | January 5, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I try Ubuntu every release, thinking that maybe NOW things work right. Here are the trials and tribulations this time.

1. Tried to install Ubuntu as a VM using Sun's VirtualBox on my Dell laptop, but gave up when I couldn't get it to open a window in its native resolution.

2. Installed Wubi on the laptop and it worked fine, though I haven't messed with it much yet.

3. Tried Wubi on my desktop, but something in the process corrupted a file and prevented the operating system from loading. This took a lot of googling and some command prompt hocus pocus to resolve. Every release I have to deal with this sort of thing.

4. Somewhere along the way, I inadvertently installed Ubuntu without Wubi. This worked as designed, but I don't like having to manage the boot loader (it is fine at first, but after 6 new kernels, it looks a bit stupid) or disk partitions. Uninstalling this type of install requires the Windows Operating System disk.

5. Lots of hardware capabilities are missing. Everything from extra mouse buttons to SLI on the video card to EAX and other sound card capabilities which work out of the box in Windows are nonexistent in Linux.

6. The chrome of the operating system is a bit pathetic. The fonts and UI widgets look primitive compared to windows.

7. Yes, there are options for nearly every application, but I feel like the Ubuntu options are nearly all inferior. Would anyone use F-Spot over Picasa given the choice? There are a few that are very powerful like GIMP but they are also not the easiest things in the world to use.

Long story short, if your demands are few or your patience and expertise are great, go for it.

Posted by: slar | January 5, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I've installed Ubuntu on numerous computers and laptops over the past couple of years and my personal verdict: it's an excellent PC operating system.

Since version 8.04: 9 out 10 installations went super easy.

On dual boot laptops it quickly became my choice operating system for email and web surfing (stable, easy and fast).

Posted by: ernst_wijsmuller | January 5, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

My HP laptop with Vista died due to hard-disk failure and I had to revert to my heavy-as-a-brick Dell inspiron 9100 (with Windows XP).

With the virus software out-of-date, I
needed some way to keep my facebook addicted wifey happy - enter Ubuntu 9.10.

The basic install step was a snap. Had to resort the ubuntu forums to get wireless up and running, but otherwise, I find Ubuntu to be a giant leap in terms of the
usability and availability of linux for common folks.

Many years back I had installed Linux Mandrake. It took many days to get the system to connect to internet - I am not a Linux expert.

Now I am looking for a No-OS laptop so that
I can install Ubunutu - Any suggestions?

Posted by: SottaThala | January 5, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

What I don't understand is the huzzahs over the Netbook Remix (and Moblin, for that matter)'s massive icons.

It's exactly that Fisher-Price look-feel that had so many people poo-pooing the Asus Netbook when it first appeared; I and many others couldn't WAIT to hack it back to "normal" PC look and feel.

I like Ubuntu but actually feel 9.10 to be a slight backslide over 9.04.

Also, anyone worried about losing their data and settings in a large update should research making their HOME folder reside on a different drive (say, an always-in SDHC card like used in cameras). It's not a complicated process and once done, you can wipe the entire hard drive and install any OS you wish, your data safely out of harm's way.

I'm an XFCE fan -- minimal fluff, visual and otherwise, but I recognize it's not for everyone. I dislike KDE because it's overly Windoze in its lookfeel. Gnome is acceptable but I usually switch out of it relatively quickly if alternate Window Managers are installed.

Rob, give Linux Mint a whirl: it's Ubuntu with prettier skin and all the codecs you need pre-installed.

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | January 5, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

If Ubuntu or Mint were to allow the install to be with full permissions and entirely password free AND have automount of ALL drives (again with no password) then it would be a serious contender for the home operating system BUT by insisting on "sudoing" everything and tying everything down with security commands it will never be popular.
The logical course would be to allow interference free setup and then the facility to switch security on to whatever level required. (Also compiz in this latest iteration is a mess)

Posted by: pcanddp | January 5, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

I switched from Ubuntu 8.4 to 9.10 just the other day. Like Rob, I had to use the command line to get DVDs playing, but the steps are very well explained in the Ubuntu Forums.

9.10 has some programs for video editing I have yet to try. I have been disappointed with Linux video editing since 2001 when I first began using Linux, but I will try it again on 9.10 soon.

I have to disagree with the comment from voyage35 on one small point-- in my opinion, Linux is great for image handling. I use Picasa (a free download from and the GIMP for image jobs.

F-spot, the pre-installed photo organizer/editor, choked three times when I tried to import my photo collection (34,000 images) but Google's Picasa handled it perfectly.

My 12 yr old twin daughters got Dell mini 10v netbooks for X-mas, which run Ubuntu 8.04 and they took to using them immediately. I was actually a little disappointed that I didn't get the chance to help them a little more so I could play with the new hardware.

My desktop has 2gb of ram and I don't know what on the graphics chip. But the Ubuntu 9.10 default settings for desktop eye-candy taxed my machine too much, making things run slowly. I turned of the desktop 'effects' and now it's just as snappy as ever.

If you're thinking of buying a new machine to get Windows 7, you might want to try installing Ubuntu 9.10 on your old machine first (after you backup your data, of course). If you're going to learn how to use a new operating system, why not try one that's free, and without trial software and demos, and nag-ware that constantly interrupts you with the chance to make it the default or upgrade? Why not try an operating system that's immune to Windows malware?

Posted by: killick | January 5, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

I have Ubuntu 9.04 running on an ancient desktop, 9.10 Netbook Remix running on 2 Acer Aspire One's (wife and son's), 9.04 running on a Toshiba Satellite 115 (business machine), and 9.04 NRM running on a ZaReason Netbook. The ZaReason is a dedicated install; all others are dual boot with the (once default) Windows OS (XP, Vista, 7) now the second option in the boot sequence. Microsoft is there in case an application is needed that only runs in Windows; in all cases it is used less than once per month. Every family member favors Ubuntu over Windows for work, play and school.
In every case Ubuntu handled the install, disk partition, importation of data, and boot sequence flawlessly. The Toshiba needed a trip to the WLAN card maker site to obtain Linux drivers but everything else (soundcard etc.) works with no fiddling. Ancient desktop then received Belkin WLAN dongle; easily installed per Belkin instructions and performs great. Posts that describe installs within windows, WUBI based installs, etc, seem to go on to list problems. I recommend that you either wipe the drive and install clean, or do as I did: the dual install EXACTLY as you are stepped through by the excellent Ubuntu install disk (or usb).
The amount of fiddling for functionality is roughly comparable to understanding how and why to change the oil in your car; it isn't that hard, and the learning actually benefits your subsequent machine use. You can stay dumb and happy in Windows...but you stay dumb.
The Ubuntu OS is fast, efficient, secure, logical, well supplied with 99% of the apps you need, well integrated and very crash resistant. I'm indifferent to arguments that it looks too much or not enough like windows; I use 9.04 and 9.10 indifferently because these machines are tools, not religions. And the 9.xx distro of Ubuntu is a very good tool indeed.

Posted by: bjollie | January 6, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I tried Ubuntu about two years ago. At first I kept the dual boot with Windows; now I am actively using it on three computers, and I never have any need to boot into Windows.

It is true that at times Ubuntu requires some configuration. However, last time I loaded Windows when my hard drive crashed on my HP machine, it took four hours to reload windows and all of the security patches and the antivirus software etc. I am convinced that Ubuntu is much easier to install on a machine than Windows. Of course most people buy their computer with Windows already installed, so they don't actually go through the Windows installation process. However, if you think about the amount of time spent running virus scans and security updates that Windows requires to runs safely, then even on an ongoing basis Windows requires a lot more maintenance than Ubuntu.

The main barrier is becoming familiar with Linux in general - and yes you eventually need to use the command line for something or other. However, it is no harder or more difficult to understand than Microsoft; its just different.

PS - I do use WINE a lot to run Windows-only applications. So far every Windows software I wanted to use has worked in Wine (albeit sometimes it is a bit clunkier). Whenever possible I use a Linux application, but in some cases the applications for Windows simply have better features - which is why WINE is a great product (even though Linux purists don't like it).

Posted by: boboran | January 6, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Just did an old PC recently. Hardware issues made it quite a brick until I tracked down the correct drivers (using my Windows machine). The lack of native MP3 playing, let alone ripping, was another challenge.

On a dual boot system, I think it runs slower than the windows side.

During a recent software upgrade, it offered to update 'Grub' which I agreed to do without thinking / checking. Lost a few hours again, as it wiped out boot instructions. Pretty much my fault, but that shouldn't be possible.

Of course, this is all running on an old underpowered PC. Perhaps it's better on more modern hardware, but the risk of bricking a still useful machine has kept me from trying it.


Posted by: JkR- | January 6, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I've been using Ubuntu exclusively on all my computers for the past four years. It has been interesting to see how each new iteration has improved on the previous one. Unlike some I've never found the use of the terminal daunting, in fact I like the feeling of power it gives me over the operating system. By letting me control everything the command line brings out the inner geek in me.
Of course no operating system is perfect and I've had my share of Ubuntu issues which I look upon as challenges to be met. The biggest problem for me has been with the occasional linux kernel updates which have been known to create havoc with my networking or audio.
I still run Win XP Pro in Sun Virtual Box for those times when nothing else will work (i.e. Slingbox) but I have discovered that 98% of everything I need to do on my computer can be handled, and in some cases be handled better, by Linux. And although I'm sure that Microsoft doesn't care, it sure makes me feel good to thumb my nose at the Beast of Redmond. No viruses or spyware to worry about. Who could ask for more? My advice - burn an Ubuntu live CD and give it a try. If you don't like it no harm done but if you do like it you will be a true convert.

Posted by: kettke1 | January 7, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Ubuntu, Ubuntu, Ubuntu what's all this Ubuntu talk? As though Ubuntu IS Linux and Linux IS Ubuntu fini. No, there are many, many Linux distributions such as Fedora, Suse, Mint, et al. Experiment, try them out. Go to "distrowatch" you'll see and learn. Responding to a comment, Linux does not "brick" a computer, you'll always be able to undo a borked installation. If you're working with a desktop computer simply install a extra hard drive put linux on it and have fun.

Posted by: rajihammer | January 7, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Our household has been using Ubuntu for almost 3 years now. At first it was more difficult then it is now, I guess at first there was a learning curve but to be honest I found this a great experience.
As to the gnu/linux distributions of today, well I find them to be wonderful OS's that can do 99.9% of anything that we need. We have five machines running Ubuntu 9.10 64 bit and it runs beautifully. I find it to be a lean, responsive and very customisable OS.
My kids who are 5 and 7 use it 99% of the time and the only thing they drop back to Windows for is their legacy Windows games and that happens very infrequently.
My wife uses Karmic all the time and does everything that she needs. Finally myself well the quad core desktop is my main machine and it also runs some of the server functions in the background.
All of our machines are within 2 years of age and they are a blend of hardware and I do not have hardware driver issues and 99% of devices work out of the box. Four of our machines are dual boot Ubuntu with some form of Windows. But the only reason I now power up Windows on any machine is to perform updates to OS and anti-malware.
The big difference for me is that I spend very little time maintaining the Ubuntu side of things as it just does not need the attention to keep running that I found the Windows machines to need. I can now spend time being more productive, learning new things and blogging.
At the end of the day we use what serves our needs and Ubuntu does that beautifully for our family.

Posted by: ritchiel | January 7, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

A couple of years back, I got a new laptop and soon realized that I couldn't live with Vista, so I installed Ubuntu 7.10 on a partition, more or less out of desperation. Within weeks, I'd gotten rid of the Vista partition and have used Linux exclusively on my desktop and laptop ever since. I'm enjoying computing more now than I have in years. I work from home and am dependent on my computers for my living, and I personally have experienced only good, and no drawbacks, from moving over to Linux.

The only thing I haven't been able to replace from my Windows days is Alpha Five or Access. Some people miss Windows games, but I can't address that issue.

Installing Linux is a different experience from what many of us have had in life, but I had to install XP from scratch once and that was no day at the beach, either. Since Linux is free and unencumbered by registration keys or digital management, you're allowed to make mistakes and start all over. You can try out many different varieties (or "distros") of Linux through live CDs that don't touch your existing setups.

I'd recommend looking around for Linux Q&A forums and choosing one that is friendly and mature. Not all of them are, but the same can be said for forums on any topic. Start off by doing a search for "All Things Linux."

Bon voyage!

Posted by: giantsteps1 | January 7, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

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