Ubuntu 6.06 Is Current Desktop Linux Champ

Review: Usability and Community earn distro high marks; Businesses will like support

Canonicals Ubuntu 6.06 LTS is an excellent Linux-based operating system—so excellent, in fact, that it not only earned eWEEK Labs Analysts Choice designation but has also become our clear favorite among Linux desktop distributions.

This latest Ubuntu release, which became available in June, has won our ardor with a tight focus on desktop usability; an extremely active, helpful and organized user community; and a software installation and management framework thats unsurpassed on any operating system platform.

In addition to outperforming Linux rivals as a desktop operating system, we found that Ubuntu is a solid choice for server deployments—provided, at least, that the sort of graphical management handholding that one would expect from Microsofts Windows Server or from Novells SUSE Linux Enterprise Server isnt a priority.

The server variant of Ubuntu is focused on slim, headless operation. Administrators can install a graphical environment on top of Ubuntu, but server administration is largely a command-line-driven affair.

Most important, for enterprise desktop and server deployments alike, Ubuntu 6.06 LTS is the first iteration of this popular Linux distribution for which the Ubuntu project has pledged so-called Long Term Support (what the "LTS" in the distros name stands for): three years for the desktop package set and five years for the server variant.

Each of the first three Ubuntu releases shipped with 18 months of security and bug-fix updates. This term of support has been too short for many production settings, despite the alacrity with which Ubuntu handles in-place upgrades.

Free—Really

Ubuntu is free software, period—it doesnt come in separate no-cost hobbyist and per-machine-fee enterprise versions like the Linux distributions from Red Hat and Novell. Canonical does offer paid support for Ubuntu systems—$250 annually for desktop machines and $750 a year for servers. (See www.ubuntu.com/support/paid for more details.)

Ubuntu Linux is available for download, either from an FTP mirror or via Bittorrent, at www.ubuntu.com/download. The Ubuntu project will mail the distribution on physical media for free (https://shipit.ubuntu.com), and Amazon.com sells Ubuntu on DVD for $10.

Ubuntu Linux is available in x86, x86-64 and PowerPC versions. The server variant of Ubuntu is available on all these platforms as well as on Sun Microsystems UltraSPARC architecture.

We tested the x86 desktop version on an IBM ThinkPad T41 and an Advanced Micro Devices Athlon 64 system that we built ourselves. We put the server version of Ubuntu through its paces in a VMware virtual machine.

For this review, we did not explore multiarchitecture support issues—such as working around x86-only software when running x86-64 or Power-PC distributions—but you can expect future coverage from eWeek Labs in a forthcoming issue and at eweek.com.

On our laptop test machine, hibernation worked without requiring any tweaking, although we ran into trouble when the amount of RAM in play on our test machine exceeded the size of our swap partition. (Our ThinkPad was stacked with 1.5GB of RAM, and the swap partition that Ubuntu created for us during installation was 500MB.)

Also, when putting our laptop to sleep, our machines hard drive woke up in read-only mode and required a power cycle to bring it back. Until notebook PC makers begin explicitly supporting Linux on their machines, administrators will have to spend extra time tweaking the particular hardware they support to ensure that everything works properly.

Overall, though, we found hardware configuration tasks in Ubuntu rather straightforward, requiring less fiddling than other Linux distributions weve tested.

However, we were disappointed to see that Ubuntu still lacks a graphical utility for configuring display settings beyond simply choosing among available display resolutions.

Ubuntu did a fine job of auto-configuring our test machines displays, but further customizations required hand-editing. For instance, to configure our ThinkPad to use multiple monitors, we had to manually edit the xorg.conf file. Wed like to see Ubuntu begin shipping Red Hats display configuration tool—not only would Red Hats tool fit in well with the rest of Ubuntus configuration utilities, but it is open-source and available for the taking.

Management Maven

Sincev Linux Distributions boil down to collections of software that are freely available to everyone, distributions most clearly differentiate themselves from one another in the ways that they bring together and manage this software.

Ubuntu owes its excellent software management framework to Debian GNU/Linux, the venerable distribution from which Ubuntu is derived.

In addition to the command-line dpkg and apt utilities that form the foundation of Debians and Ubuntus software management schemes, Ubuntu ships with four other front ends for installing and updating software: one for installing single packages, such as those downloaded from a Web page; a very simple Add/Remove Programs interface for browsing through and installing applications available in the systems configured software repositories; a more complex tool, Synaptic, for managing packages; and an updater daemon that runs in the background and prompts users when updates are available.

All these interfaces front the same software mechanism, and all handle software dependencies automatically.

Ubuntus software management system supports package signing—we could opt to accept installation only of packages for which wed previously imported a signing key. We also could configure our system to install security fixes automatically, which is an important feature for managed desktop scenarios, where users are not allowed to install software or updates on their own.

Just as important as Ubuntus proficiency in easing package installation and updates is its effective structure for providing access to third-party applications, both open-source and proprietary. During tests, we were able to install VMwares VMware Player, Suns JRE (Java Runtime Environment), Abobe Systems Flash Player and Acrobat Reader, Opera Softwares namesake Web browser, and a handful of other proprietary applications just as easily as any other Ubuntu component.

The integration of VMware Player with Ubuntus software system was particularly welcome, since, with most Linux distributions, VMware products have required us to recompile drivers for each Linux kernel update we undertook. In Ubuntu 6.06, updated drivers accompany kernel updates. Wed like to see VMware offer its Server and Workstation products through the same channels.

In addition to these applications, which we installed from official Ubuntu repositories, the project benefits from an array of volunteer-run repository projects. While other popular distributions, such as Fedora Core and OpenSUSE, also benefit from volunteer, third-party packaging, the Ubuntu community appears to be doing a better job keeping itself organized. Part of the reason for this is that the Debian project through which Ubuntu can trace its heritage is much more focused on organizing and enabling volunteer packaging efforts than are other Linux distributions—most notably, those of Red Hat.

We were impressed to find a software packaging guide included among the very good documentation that ships with Ubuntu. When a precompiled package is available for your Linux distribution, software installation and update is easier than on any other operating system platform.

The Ubuntu Project appears to understand this, and the fruits of the projects outreach include community-contributed gems such as EasyUbuntu (easyubuntu.freecontrib.org), a simple application that automates a handful of common operations that often vex desktop Linux users.

More evidence of Ubuntus smart community outreach can be found in the Kubuntu and Xubuntu distribution variants—two community-spurred but Ubuntu-embraced distribution variants that replace the systems default GNOME desktop environment and application set with KDE and Xfce flavors, thereby neatly broadening the distributions appeal.

We found Ubuntus default GNOME 2.14.2 desktop environment complete and easy to use. Peripherals such as USB memory sticks, digital cameras, scanners and printers worked as we expected.

Palm and Pocket PC synch-ronization remain an area of trickiness and require tweaking on the Linux desktop—we were able to link up with a Palm Treo device, but we ran into trouble synchronizing.

Neither the Beagle search tool, which brings Google Desktop-style search to Linux, nor the NetworkManager framework, which makes switching among wired and wireless connections very easy, were installed by default on our Ubuntu test systems. However, we could install both applications from the Ubuntu repositories, and both functioned for us without a hitch.

Along similar lines, we had the option of installing the Xgl three-dimensional desktop effects applications we last tested in OpenSUSE 10.1, although, in our opinion, Xgl is currently a bit too flaky for daily use.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Evaluation Shortlist

Novells OpenSUSE 10.1 and Red Hats Fedora Core 5
These freely available Linux distributions offer up-to-date packages and fairly smooth package updating schemes (www.novell.com and www.redhat.com)