Review: Ubuntu 8.04 - "Hardy Heron"

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"It's Hardy Heron for hardy heroes as Ubuntu still can’t fly." That's Briard's take on the latest Ubuntu Linux release


Over a year has passed since I asked the question: "Is Linux Desktop ready for ordinary users?". After a long journey, I concluded that very few Linux distros were, and that Ubuntu wasn’t among them. Edgy Eft was a good name for that version.

In a previous article called "Desktop Shootout" I compared Vista and Leopard with Ubuntu’s latest – 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon. Leopard required hours to learn since I hadn’t played with Apples in years, while Windows took hours of tuning to make it run at acceptable speed. Despite some frustrations, both operating systems performed most common tasks. Ubuntu did not.

The Trouble with Gutsy

The first glitch was the install from the live CD getting stuck at 82%. The advice on the Ubuntu forums was that this was a common problem, easily fixed by turning the modem off and on again. I wondered why the guys at Ubuntu had not fixed a common problem that would be a showstopper for many newcomers.

Gutsy was said to come with compiz-fusion installed. The ‘Extra’ option under ‘Appearance’ put some lip gloss on the gibbon and provided a two-side workspace but no 3D cube. First we had to install NVIDIA drivers and compiz-config settings manager with Synpatic and then an ‘Advanced’ setting appeared in ‘Preferences’ and opened Sesame.

Emerald, the theme manager who provides gorgeous aeroglass, was missing as well, and his wardrobe was empty after installing him with Synaptic. It was clear from the Ubuntu forums that this was another well-known problem, fixed by installing Feisty’s wardrobe with a command line script or by downloading Emerald themes from gnome.org.

To add the finishing touches, we had to download Microsoft core fonts and tweak the Gnome Font manager. We were still in the make-up chair, of course, trying to match the good looks of Vista and Leopard.

Checking out a video on YouTube, we found Java and Adobe’s Flash Player missing. To install them, we had to download ‘Ubuntu restricted extras’ but after the install, we found that Flash Player didn’t work. We had to remove Flash Player and re-install it using another command line script copied from the Ubuntu forums. Flash player caused the same problems in Feisty and only apes know why it hasn’t been fixed in Gutsy.

To gain access to our Windows documents, we had to install the NTFS configuration tool. For reasons I can’t remember, we also had to install something called subversion. To play CDs or DVDs, we had to install some codecs, a job Ubuntu offered help with.  

 

The end result was impressive, but simple users would’ve run back to Bill Gates’ breast, tearing their hair out and begging for forgiveness, long before they got this far. Whatever Ubuntu Gutsy was, ready for ordinary users it was not. That didn’t stop Linux Lovers going ape-shit over Gutsy, despite the gaps in his teeth.

Hardy Heron – Does it have Wings?

Even bigger things were expected of Hardy. The sole RC was released in mid April 2008 and I was curious to see if the guys at Ubuntu had addressed the issues I’d had with Gutsy. In this case, the RC is the dress rehearsal that precedes the finished production by mere days, and it is better to grab it than waiting for the finished product. This is why: When the production version is announced, all the Ubuntu lovers and reviewers out there jump on the Canonical website at once and bring it to its knees. If you have the RC installed, all you need to do is to grab is a few updates and you’re on par with the full production version.

Installation: Easy-Peasy


 

Ubuntu has added a new install option with UMENU (above) and WUBI, a program that lets you download and install Ubuntu as an application under Windows. There’s no need to burn Ubuntu’s ISO image to CD (but it’s still an option), or to partition the hard drive or to install GRUB since WUBI adds an entry to the Windows boot menu.

If you have an Ubuntu CD, you can pop in into your Windows system and choose to ‘Install Inside Windows’ with WUBI. Then you pick a drive with enough free space – minimum 4gb – your language plus a username and password, click Install and WUBI does the rest. As you can see below, the installer is a model of simplicity.

There’s nothing new about WUBI other than Ubuntu’s official endorsement - you could’ve installed Gutsy this way six months ago. That doesn’t mean WUBI isn’t a neat piece of software – it is. The hard disk partitioning in Ubuntu isn’t too daunting and the GRUB bootloader very dependable but, for simple users, WUBI makes installing Linux as easy as a eating a sandwich. It may encourage a few more Windows users to take the plunge.

Post Installation

As the introduction to this piece shows, my problems with Ubuntu have been further down the set-up chain: really basic stuff that’s missing. The guys at Canonical have long tried to please everybody, from the Linux purists who demand pristine open systems not tarnished by proprietary lines of code, to first-time users who cannot cope with the command line acrobatics required to install simple stuff.

Hardy turns out to be even less helpful than Gutsy, the list of missing bits even longer:

  • There are no fancy desktop effects, can’t do, no help or reason offered. Anything beyond the basic Ubuntu brown wrapper look is blocked.
  • There’s no help with NVIDIA drivers, which I know by now are causing the problem - no Restricted Driver Manager, no nothing. You’re on your own here.
  • The only other option is a Hardware Driver icon in the Control Centre to help set the NVIDIA card up. It is no help, it turns out.
  • Synaptic offers 3 NVIDIA driver packages and I happen to pick the wrong one out of 3 (generic, new and legacy – I picked generic instead of new).
  • Once again, we have to install config-compiz sessions manager and other compiz-fusion bits. It’s lucky I know where to look.
  • It’s the same story with the Emerald Theme Manager. Emerald’s cupboard is still as bare as a frog is from feathers.
  • Can’t get the cube working for love or money, only a flip-flop panel in 3D space. In my despair I right-click the icon in the notification area which offers a choice of workspaces at last.
  • Update check crashes several times, with the connection timing out. When it connects, there are no updates. After a Reload, another check says 104 updates are ready.
  • The update process crashes and Ubuntu tells me that a number of updates couldn’t be installed.
  • Installing more programs with Add-Remove meets the same fate – some get installed, others bomb out. There seem to be problems connecting to repositories. The traffic is clearly heavy and it occurs to me that I’m not the only one jumping on the RC.
  • I can’t transfer data from my USB drive - Ubuntu refuses to mount it. This is a pain and yet another problem carried over from Gutsy. Later on I find an option in Ubuntu’s ControlCenter – ‘Remote Drives and ...’. It does the trick and mounts the USB drive. Hardy is truly a hit and miss affair. And unbloodyhelpful.
  • The fonts are still awful, even after installing MS core and Redhat Liberation fonts. The fonts in Firefox are the worst I’ve seen in a decade.
  • Suspend still doesn’t work – it freezes the laptop and only the power button can shut it down. Synaptic and Update Manager are also prone to freezing or crashing. Just now I try again but Synaptic won’t start and Update Manager goes into an endless spin cycle. 

When I take a screenshot, the screenshot utility is in the picture, and then I loose my nice wallpaper. The screen goes black, then Ubuntu freezes up just like Windows does. The power button is the only thing that will switch it off. When I crank it up again, it goes through a chkdsk kind of routine and eventually comes good. Just like Windows.

 

I can’t get WIFI to work on Hardy. My laptop comes with a bog standard Broadcom WIFI chip but Ubuntu’s WIFI drivers option simply opens the file manager as if saying: it’s in Windows somewhere – go find it. I dig around for the Broadcom program folder and, after some trial and error, I find a .inf file Ubuntu is happy to install. Great! What now?

After unlocking the network toolkit with the Policy Kit (a very big pain, this one), Ubuntu tells me that the driver is installed but I can’t see any WIFI networks yet. Google points me at a tutorial: WIFI – step by step installation for Broadcom network cards

http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=766560 It looks like a fascinating script and involves wrestling with characters called ndiswrapper, wpasupplicant and fwcutter. I have no intention of getting tangled up with these guys - I’ve done it too many times before and lost.

Ubuntu also gets up my nose for demanding my password for every task, even if I typed it in 2 minutes before. I figured out how disable UAC in Vista but I’ve no idea how to do that here. The new theme should’ve told me that I was dealing with a Hoary Old Bird.

There is some upside in Hardy. CDs and DVDs play out of the box, to my great surprise. And Flash Player installs okay after FF offers to look for the missing bits and install them.

Summing up the experience

If anyone tells you that Hardy Heron is the Ant’s Pants of Operating Systems, they’re lying. It’s just more of the same old muddle – a brilliant but flawed performance by a director who simply doesn’t understand his target audience.

I hate to complain about something that is free but we have an AIDA-sized chorus of starry-eyed Linux Lovers and disenchanted Microsoft Minions telling us that this distro is ready to take on Redmond. Bullshit! I’d rather work with XP any day - it’s easier to set up and more stable. So was Gutsy. 

Summary

Ubuntu’s failure to deliver on the enormous promise Linux Desktop showed a year ago is an inexplicable letdown, at a time when Vista has had the worst press I can remember Redmond receiving for anything.

Hardy 8.04 is worse than any version of Ubuntu I can remember installing, making Canonical’s claims of greater stability a bad joke. Hardy Heron is Ubuntu spelled backwards. Hardy Heron is a bird without feathers. Make that without wings.

The folks at Ubuntu are making sure that Linux desktop remains exactly where it’s always been: out on the margins, pleasing its coterie of fans and no one else. Yes, it’s that bad.

Apart from WUBI, Hardy doesn’t offer anything new of any substance. Firefox 3 beta 5? I’ve had that running in Windows for weeks. Brasero Disk Burner? Ho hum. Policy Kit? A clumsy overture towards corporate techs who want to limit what users can do.

But what about simple users who can now install Ubuntu under Windows? Great, but you’ll never see Ubuntu in its full glory unless you have a ton of inside knowledge and the patience of Jobe. Wthout the eye-candy of compiz-fusion and emerald, Ubuntu’s a pretty dull-looking affair. Why make it such an obstacle course for users to see this distro in its full glory?

Better Options

For many months, PCLinuxOS has held the top slot at http://www.distrowatch.com . The reason? PCLOS is a whole lot easier than Ubuntu to get working properly. So is Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu. Of course, distros like these only exist because distros like Ubuntu don’t deliver.

What the Mint guys have done with Ubuntu is astonishing. More surprising is that they truly understand what it takes to make Linux an easy choice for ordinary Windows users. The team at PCLinuxOS understands it as well, and so do the guys at SimplyMepis.

If the major Linux desktops want to capture a broader audience, their developers should stop and think instead of going around the same old circles. They need to work harder on providing a better experience for a broader audience. Linux Mint, Mepis and PCLinuxOS have shown how to do it.

Linux has so much to offer, from great performance to a great range of free and valuable applications. With a little more effort from leading lights like Ubuntu, Linux would be ready to step out of the darkness for good. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

BRIARD, May 2008
 
Registered site users can contact Briard by clicking here.

 

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