Canonical's Ubuntu 8.10, the latest version of the popular Linux-based operating system for desktops and servers, hit the Internet in early November bearing a modest assortment of updates to the open-source software components that compose it.
Based on my tests of Ubuntu 8.10-which is more fancifully known as the Intrepid Ibex-I maintain that Ubuntu is, without question, the best Linux distribution available for desktops, and the ablest open-source rival to the more broadly used desktop operating systems from Microsoft and Apple.
That's because, while most Linux distributions come with the same software components, Ubuntu distinguishes itself with its attention to usability, its large selection of ready-to-install software packages, and its large community of users and contributors.
If there's a piece of Linux-supporting software that you wish to run, the chances are good that it's available in prepackaged form for Ubuntu. The same goes for hardware components, where Ubuntu's support is among the broadest of any Linux distribution.
What's more, through its various platforms for facilitating communication and collaboration among its users and developers, the Ubuntu project does a good job corralling the questions and answers, bug testing, and integration grunt work of its large community into a body of knowledge and solutions that's readily accessible from your search engine of choice.
For instance, I tested Ubuntu 8.10 with an MSI Wind U100 netbook, which ships with a Realtech wireless adapter that none of the Linux kernel's built-in drivers supports. I searched for a suitable driver for Ubuntu, for Red Hat's Fedora and for Novell's OpenSUSE distributions, and found compilation instructions for a suitable driver for all three. However, for Ubuntu, I also found a precompiled, packaged and ready-to-install driver that had been produced by a volunteer community member.
Among alternate desktop Linux options, Ubuntu 8.10's stiffest competition is the distribution's elder sibling, Ubuntu 8.04, which is also known as the Hardy Heron release. Version 8.04 was a Long Term Support release, which Canonical pledges to provide with updates and support for three years in its desktop incarnations, and five years in server installations.
Ubuntu 8.10, in contrast, will be supported for 18 months before its update pipeline closes, requiring users to upgrade to a newer version. Fortunately, Ubuntu is very easy to upgrade, either from a bootable CD or USB media, or in-place, using the system's Update Manager.