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 Last.fm'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...
January 5, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Categories: Computers , Linux
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