Ubuntu is one of the most commonly used Linux-based desktop distributions. The Ubuntu distro and its various community projects are used the world over and a new release always turns heads. This past week I took the latest release from Canonical, Ubuntu 12.10, for a spin. The new release promised improved integration between the desktop and social media, the ability to treat web applications as local programs and search results in the Dash which would include products from Amazon. In short, it seems Ubuntu is looking to become more integrated with on-line services. While this may be convenient for some people, it has raised a number of privacy concerns in the community and, looking over Ubuntu's legal notice about privacy
does not provide any reassurance. The notice informs us Canonical reserves the right to share our keystrokes, search terms and IP address with a number of third parties
, including Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and the BBC. This feature is enabled by default, but can be turned off through the distribution's settings panel.
Let's put such concerns aside for a moment and look at the various forms Ubuntu takes. The desktop edition of the distribution is available for 32-bit and 64-bit x86 machines. There is also an ARM build which, given the architecture's popularity, is good to see. The images for the desktop editions of 12.10 are a little larger for this release than they were six months ago, coming in at about 750MB. People who require CD sized ISO images can download the Server edition of Ubuntu, which is still less than 700MB in size, and add the required software to the Server installation.
Booting off the Ubuntu Desktop image brings up a graphical interface. We're asked to select our preferred language and we can choose to either try the live Ubuntu environment or perform an installation. Taking the install option brings us to a screen where we're asked whether we would like to apply any available updates and if we would like to install third-party software. This optional third-party software includes packages for playing multimedia (such as Flash videos and mp3 files) and it also includes proprietary hardware support. The next screen gets us to decide how we would like to divide up our hard disk. There are a few options, including letting Ubuntu take over the entire disk, enabling full disk encryption or partitioning the disk manually. The manual option is quite nicely presented. The Ubuntu partitioner is easy to navigate and supports lots of file systems, including ext2/3/4, Btrfs, XFS, JFS and ReiserFS. The partitioning screen also allows us to decide whether we would like to install the boot loader on our MBR or on Ubuntu's root partition. Moving on to the next screen kicks off formating the local disk and copying files from the installation media in the background while we answer additional questions. We're asked to confirm our time zone and keyboard layout. Then we are asked to create a user account. The user creation screen gives us the ability to either automatically login or enable encryption on our home directory. When all the steps are complete and the required files have been copied to the hard disk for us, the installer prompts us to reboot the machine. Ubuntu 12.10 -- System installer
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Booting into Ubuntu brings us to a graphical login screen. Here we are given the option of either logging into our regular user account or logging into a guest account. The guest account is accessible without a password and allows users to perform all the same tasks as a regular user. When we logout of the guest account it is wiped clean, giving each guest a blank slate with all the default settings. One characteristic of Ubuntu's I have appreciated for some time is the ability to turn on accessibility features while the installer is running. There are options for turning on screen reading and high contrast graphics along the top of the screen. Unfortunately, this time when I enabled the high-contrast display, I wasn't able to turn it off again. In fact, after the installation of Ubuntu was complete, I found that logging into my main account would cause my mouse pointer to be set to a comically large size (most of the time). This behaviour continued even with all accessibility options disabled on the login screen and in the account's System Settings panel. It appears there isn't any way to turn off these options once enabled, short of manually editing configuration files or switching to a different user account.
When running Ubuntu on my laptop (dual-core 2GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, Intel video and Intel wireless cards) the distribution performed fairly well. All of my hardware was detected, wireless worked out of the box and my speakers produced sound at a low volume. My laptop's screen resolution was properly detected and boot times were fairly short. For the most part applications launched quickly and the desktop interface was fairly responsive. At least most of it was, the Dash was quite slow to respond, much slower
than it was in Ubuntu 12.04. I suspect this is a combination of new features being added to the Dash's lenses and partly due to the fact that Unity no longer comes with a 2-D option, we are stuck with 3-D mode this time around and there doesn't appear to be any way to turn off the visual effects. This means selecting a lens or typing a search for key words or previewing an icon in the Dash caused a several second delay between input and result. Ubuntu 12.10 -- Unity's Dash
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I also tried running Ubuntu 12.10 in a VirtualBox virtual machine and found the distribution to be practically unusable
in the VirtualBox environment. Even with the VirtualBox add-ons and 3-D acceleration enabled the operating system was much too sluggish to use in any practical sense. Opening the Dash menu took over five seconds, launching small applications took over twenty. Trying to adjust any options in the System Settings panel would cause the system to lock up for about half a minute. Further, I found trying to shutdown or logout while running in either a virtual environment or on physical hardware would cause the operating system to hang and require a hard reset.
While using Unity on Ubuntu 12.04 could be a touch slow at times, it was still quite usable, both in 3-D and 2-D mode. Something has changed
in Unity with the new release which makes it noticeably slower in 3-D mode. In addition, the lack of a 2-D mode means users who do not have suitable 3-D acceleration are out of luck. According to the notes I read at release time there is supposed to be a fallback mode for Unity when 3-D acceleration is not available, but it is not in evidence. After struggling with the sluggish Dash for several hours, I finally opted to download the GNOME Fallback option and was presented with what is basically GNOME 2 with thin scroll bars. The desktop's performance was better, if a touch below average, and I was able to navigate to applications much faster than before. Switching to GNOME Fallback mode didn't just improve performance, but it also reduced the system's memory usage. Under Unity Ubuntu would use approximately 440MB of RAM, using the Fallback mode my desktop operated with 210MB of RAM. Another problem I ran into with Ubuntu this time around was a stream of constant crashes and system errors. Almost every time I logged in I'd be greeted by a problem report or notice that something had crashed. I was regularly asked to send problem reports to the Ubuntu team. This happened whether I was logged into the GNOME Fallback or Unity interface.
Package management on Ubuntu is primarily handled by the Ubuntu Software Centre. This graphical application gives us a modern, easy to navigate interface. We can search for software by category or by name. Each package is displayed with an icon, name, description and user supplied rating. Items can be installed with a single click or we can click a different button to bring up detailed information on the package. These detailed descriptions often include a screen shot of the program in action and suggestions for related software. we can also see reviews from other users. An aspect of the Software Centre I enjoy is the ability to select a single item to be installed or removed and then having that task handled in the background while we continue to use the package manager. I find it more convenient than setting up batches of actions, which is the norm with most other package managers. Ubuntu 12.10 -- The Software Centre
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Software updates are handled by a second application, the Software Updater. Launching this program causes the system to check for available security and feature updates. The interface has changed a little so that the update manager is a bit more compact. By default it doesn't show the names of the available updates, just a summary of the total size of the waiting packages. We can choose to display more information and select (or deselect) individual packages. The manager worked well during my trial and my only concern was that, even though it was set to display notification of updates immediately as they became available, no notification ever appeared. During the week there were packages made available in the repositories, but I only discovered this when I manually launched the Software Updater.
Ubuntu 12.10 comes with a collection of software which covers many common tasks. We're presented with Firefox for browsing the web, Empathy for chatting, the Gwibber micro-blogging client and Thunderbird for e-mail. The Transmission bittorrent client is included as is the LibreOffice suite. Shotwell is featured for managing photos and we're given a document viewer. The Totem video player and Rhythmbox audio player are included and the Brasero disc burning software is also in the menu/Dash. A screen reader and other accessibility options are included in the distribution. To help us get on-line Network Manager runs automatically. The distribution comes with a few small games to help pass the time and we're provided with the usual small apps for handling archives and editing text files. Under both Unity and the GNOME Fallback environment we are given a System Settings panel which allows us to adjust the look and feel of the desktop. A few other tools I was happy to find in the default install were a system monitor and a System Testing app. The latter is a program which probes the system and can send information to Canonical's Launchpad service to help trouble-shoot hardware related problems. Depending on our choices at install time we may find multimedia software on the system, such as Flash and mp3 support. There is no Java in the default installation, but we are provided with the GNU Compiler Collection for building software. In the background the Linux kernel, version 3.5, can be found working. Ubuntu 12.10 -- Unity's System Settings
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After a day and a half of using Ubuntu 12.10 it was an internal struggle not to wipe my hard drive and just find another distribution to review. During the first twenty-four hours Ubuntu spied on me