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Ubuntu 9.10 test drive

Review Updated - Taking it for a spin
Mon Nov 02 2009, 15:43

UBUNTU LINUX 9.10 was released last Thursday. Codenamed 'Karmic Koala', it has been anticipated for months by the distribution's many fans. Out of curiosity, the INQUIRER installed it and played around with it to assess how it measures up.

Getting the Live CD
Last Thursday afternoon I set my ncftp client to my favourite ftp mirror in the hope of avoiding the http download crush at Ubuntu's website.

I downloaded the 32-bit ISO file, plus the MD5SUM and MD5SUM.gpg files, and soon found that my clever strategy hadn't worked. The ftp mirror site was so mobbed that the download took longer than usual.

To check everything was in order, I used gpg to check the MD5SUM file's cryptographic signature, ran md5sum against the ISO file, checked the md5sum output string against the hash in the MD5SUM file and burned the ISO file to a CD-R disc. To make sure that the CD I'd burned was an exact copy of the ISO file, I ran verifycd against it.

If you fully trust the download source, you may skip confirming the signature, but performing the other two steps can save you from trying to install from a bad CD.

If you'd like to try out Linux starting from a PC running Windows, md5 utilities are available for all versions of the Vole's operating system. Verifying that a CD is an exact copy of an ISO file can be a problem under Windows, but Ubuntu can help.

For this review, I decided to install Ubuntu 9.10 on one of the two small SCSI hard drives that I keep as backup disks in my desktop system. That has an Antec 650W PSU, an Asus Crosshair mainboard, a dual core AMD Athlon 64 X2 5600 CPU running at 2.8GHz, 2GB of Crucial Ballistix DDR2 PC6400 memory, an ATI Radeon HD3850 video card, a Seagate 80GB SATA2 hard drive, an Adaptec AHA-29160 SCSI disk controller, two Quantum Atlas II 10,000RPM 9GB SCSI hard drives, a Lite-On 24X DVD/CD writer, and an Hitachi CM751 19-inch CRT monitor.

I changed my desktop system's boot device sequence in the BIOS to boot first from the DVD/CD drive, then booted it from the CD.

The Ubuntu Linux 9.10 Live CD menu showed five options:

  • Try Ubuntu without making any change to your computer
  • Install Ubuntu
  • Check disc for defects
  • Test memory
  • Boot from the first hard disk.

If you download and burn the Ubuntu Live CD under Windows, you should verify that the CD is good. Run the memory check through one entire pass, then select the check disc option. If both checks complete with no errors, then you have a good CD.

This option to check the install disc integrity is a great feature of Ubuntu. I wish other Linux distributions had this and hope they will adopt it.

At this point you can check out Ubuntu by running it from the Live CD, which won't make any changes to your system. Not only is this a good introduction to Linux for new users, but it will also test whether Ubuntu recognises and works well with all the devices on your system, and will let you set up networking, configure the desktop and services, surf the web and try out applications. All your changes to Ubuntu vanish after you reboot, however.

If you're running one of the Vole's lesser operating systems and decide to try out Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution, you'll need to set aside some space on your hard disk before installing it. To do that, you can use either gparted, which is Free Software, or Partition Magic, which is available from various sources.

Should you choose to do this, you'll want to backup all your important data before starting the process. These disk partitioning utilities have been used successfully by many people, but there's a chance that a power outage could cause trouble. It should all go well of course, but you have been warned.

I used all the default installation settings, except for disk partitioning, and I would recommend taking the defaults unless one has a good reason, as I did, or encounters problems. Ubuntu's install process is simple and very straightforward. Select your language, time zone and keyboard, decide where to let Ubuntu install itself or set up disk partitions manually if you so desire, enter your initial userid, password and host name, migrate any user account data into your home directory, then choose where to put the boot loader if necessary. Once I clicked on the last Continue button, installing Ubuntu took about 15 minutes on my system. Your mileage may vary.

Apparently Ubuntu searches for hard disks that have enough free space available. It selected the big 80GB SATA2 hard disk and offered to add a partition there. The other alternatives were to erase and use the entire disk or specify partitioning manually. Since I didn't want to install Ubuntu on that particular hard disk, I selected the third option.

Ubuntu's partitioning program scanned my hard disks and displayed them. I chose my second SCSI disk, set the partitions to use the ext4 filesystem, assigned mount points for /boot, / (the root partition), /home, /var, /usr, and /data, with a swap partition between /home and /var, and marked all of the partitions to be formatted.

Some people simply allocate one large disk partition for a Linux system, while others set up two, three or more partitions. The layout I chose just reflects those on my other hard disks, which makes rsync backups easy.

There's an Advanced button on the install confirmation screen that lets you select where Ubuntu will place its boot loader. There I selected the master boot record of the same hard disk where I installed Ubuntu, leaving the existing boot loader on my first hard disk intact. I'd recommend that anyone who has multiple operating systems on more than one hard disk do that, because Ubuntu's boot loader installation appears to need more work. If you have only one hard disk in your system it should work, but I like the boot loader installation utility in Mandriva Linux better.

A set of Ubuntu 9.10 Release Candidate installation screenshots is available at the Ubuntu tutorials website. They're fairly accurate.

Since I put Ubuntu's boot loader on my second hard disk, I set that to be the first hard disk in the system BIOS. When I get around to it I'll add an entry for Ubuntu to the boot menu on my first hard disk, but doing this let me boot Ubuntu right away.

Post Installation Setup
Ubuntu booted in about 40 seconds to login prompt on my system. After logging in, the Gnome desktop came up in about 20 seconds on my system. My monitor was properly configured at 1600x1200, an improvement over my experience the last time that I'd tried Ubuntu.

Ubuntu's initial desktop has taskbar panels on both the top and bottom of the screen. It was easy to reconfigure the top panel to the bottom of the screen. The Gnome desktop in Ubuntu looks and works much the same as it does in most other Linux distributions.

The installation process defaulted to dynamic network configuration using DHCP but my ISP doesn't use DHCP, so the Network Manager applet on the taskbar showed that my network connection was down. I right-clicked on that and edited my network interfaces to add their addresses and my ISP's DNS server addresses and search domain, and then my network interfaces came up. This was an improvement over Ubuntu 9.04, where I simply couldn't get the network interfaces to work after an install direct from CD.

Under System Administration, Software Sources offered to find the best available Ubuntu software repository for me. After testing about 325 mirror sites it set one up that's at a university in another state, but I'm not telling which one it is, because it's very fast and I'd like to keep it that way.

Using Ubuntu's Synaptic Package Manager, I was able to download recent updates to software packages, including Firefox 3.5.4 and few others. I was also able to start the process of customising the system by removing packages I don't want, like the Evolution email client (because it uses Miguel de Icaza's Microsoft .NET clone Mono because it's complex, heavyweight and I've found it a bit buggy) and adding packages I do use, such as Bluefish, cdrskin, Dovecot, Enigmail, Gkrellm, ncftp, SSH, Thunderbird, xcdroast, xinetd and so on. Synaptic works well and is fast.

System administration tools seem to be more or less adequate, including printer configuration management and what appears to be a handy network tools application. However, Ubuntu doesn't install a firewall by default, which is a glaring omission disappointing.

I haven't had time yet to finish customising Ubuntu to work the way I prefer, which will mean setting up my iptables firewall, turning off stuff like network hotplugging, and generally configuring services and tweaking the system, but all of that appears to be possible with a little work. I'll leave Ubuntu on that hard disk and see what I can do with it.

In Short
Ubuntu has improved since I last tried it. It is steadily becoming more polished and user friendly for non-technical users, though this comes at a price for those who are already familiar with Linux.

Its installation process is emblematic of this. Although it's quick and very easy, the install sequence doesn't include some steps and options that enable a knowledgeable user to configure a Linux distribution right from the start. These include some disk partitioning options, setting up networking interfaces, marking services active or inactive, specifying boot loader configuration options and setting up security controls and monitoring. Adding some optional installation steps to let experienced users make such configuration adjustments would be an improvement, I believe.

Overall, although Ubuntu appears well polished on the surface, it doesn't have the solid feel, depth of integration and finesse that one can discern in some other Linux distributions such as Mandriva, with which I'm more familiar. Perhaps my opinion might change after I get more used to working with Ubuntu, but for now I still like Mandriva better.

Update - A couple of readers made valid points in comments, so I have updated this review to reflect those. Since the Evolution email client doesn't itself use Mono, I've stricken that reference. I still don't care for Evolution though, so it would be a good idea if Ubuntu gave users a choice of email clients - and other applications too, for that matter. Also, it's true that Ubuntu doesn't really need a firewall in its default configuration. However, I believe that installing one would be a prudent thing to do, so users can see one is available and think to use it if they install any services that might be exploitable. I appreciate the helpful comments. µ

The Good:
Attractive and polished look,
Very easy and quick to install,
Synaptic Package Manager is excellent,
Mostly adequate system administration tools,
Free Software with non-free software available.

The Bad:
The boot loader install utility needs more work,
Lacks some installation configuration - and system administration - options for disk partitioning, networking, controlling services, installing the boot loader, setting up security, and so on.

The Ugly:
Doesn't install a firewall by default,
Installs network hotplugging by default.
Installs the Evolution email client by default.

Bartender's Report:



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