Since Linux distributions boil down to collections of software that are freely available to everyone, distributions most clearly differentiate themselves from each other 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 of 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, Abobes Flash player and Acrobat Reader, the Opera Web Browser and a handful of other proprietary applications just as easily as any other Ubuntu component.
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 and OpenSUSE, also benefit from volunteer, third-party packaging, the Ubuntu community appears to 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 included among the very good documentation that ships with Ubuntu a software packaging guide.
When a precompiled package is available for your Linux distribution, software installation and update is easier than on any other OS platform.
The Ubuntu project appears to understand this, and the fruits of the projects outreach include community-contributed gems such as EasyUbuntu, 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 synchronization 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 of these applications from the Ubuntu repositories, and both functioned for us without a hitch.
Along similar lines, we had the option of installing the Xgl 3D desktop effects applications we last tested in OpenSUSE 10.1, although, in our opinion, Xgl is currently a bit too flaky for daily use.