Linux examined: Ubuntu Hardy Heron

The latest beta of the popular Ubuntu distribution offers updated features and good support

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Good looks and support

The base version of Ubuntu I reviewed uses a pretty standard installation of the Gnome graphical user interface. As opposed to some distributions, which ask you during installation whether you want Gnome or the K Desktop Environment (KDE), Ubuntu has a variety of distributions available, each one tailored to a specific window manager. For example, Kubuntu replaces Gnome with the KDE, while Xubuntu uses the lightweight Xfce window manager, which is perfect for underpowered devices. (I got Xubuntu to run just fine on my One Laptop Per Child XO laptop.)

A lot of the new features in Hardy Heron are really just version updates of things that are already there. The browser has been kicked up to Firefox 3 from Firefox 2 and is better integrated so that activities such as installing plug-ins occur more smoothly. The desktop now runs in 3-D mode by default.

If you're running a dual-boot system, you can read and now write to the Windows New Technology File System directly. You can now choose to have your file partitions created with encryption for greater security in case a laptop is stolen. Printers and graphics can now be configured with user-friendly graphical tools, and in many cases, you can just plug and play a new printer.

Canonical also provides first-class update support for Ubuntu, so you never need to fear that clicking for updates is going to break your current system, even when it's something as major as a new kernel version — something that some other distros aren't as graceful in handling. And along with Ubuntu's popularity has come countless forums and wikis that document just about anything you'd like to do.

Paid support is available from Canonical, starting at $250 per year for 9-to-5 desktop support. By comparison, Red Hat Inc.'s cheapest phone-support option for the desktop starts at $299. And unlike Red Hat and SUSE, the version of Ubuntu that is available for corporate support is the same version you can download and install for free.

So, where does Ubuntu falter? If it has a weakness, it's as an operating system for servers. Ubuntu has put a lot of effort into the desktop experience and doesn't ask a lot of questions about security and firewalling.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu automatically installs printers.

Click to view larger image.

Other distributions ask a plethora of questions about password schemes, Kerberos encryption, LDAP servers and so on. This is nothing but confusing for a novice desktop user, but it's important stuff when you're installing a server.

There is a "server edition" available, but it's still not as robust as SUSE Linux or Red Hat Enterprise. This isn't to say it's not a decent server distribution, but it isn't where Ubuntu's strength lies. In addition, the server edition isn't widely supported by enterprise software vendors, for whom Red Hat and SUSE tend to be the only game in town.

Conclusions

When I choose a distribution to install on a desktop or laptop system, it's always Ubuntu. It has the most trouble-free installs and usually the best support for the hardware on my systems. Some of the other distribution makers have taken the success of Ubuntu as a wake-up call and are focusing more on creating an easy-to-use desktop experience, but for the moment, Canonical has the lead by several horse lengths. Anyone who tells you Linux is hard to install or use has clearly not seen Ubuntu lately.

Hardy Heron honors the Ubuntu tradition and carries it forward, freshening things up and making the install experience even simpler to get through. If there's a distribution ready for your neighborhood newbie, this is it.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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