If you read my post from earlier in the week, you’re already aware of my reasoning behind this article. For the last 12 months, I have used Ubuntu 8.04, 8.10, and 9.04 as my primary OSes. I remain a very happy Linux convert, but I worry that Ubuntu is being unevenly developed. Certain areas have seen great improvements over the last 12 months, while other areas have languished or been largely ignored.
The purpose of this article is not to whine or rant, but to bring some perspective to the evolution (or lack thereof) that Ubuntu has experienced between versions 8.04 and 9.04. I write this article in an attempt to help – because as has been pointed out elsewhere, Linux is reaching a point where it needs less zealots and more (loving!) critics.
With that in mind, I will be using a typical A-F scale with specific reasoning as follows:
- A – dramatic improvement over the last year
- B – modest improvement over the last year
- C – little or no improvement over the last year
- D – regressions over the last year, either from past versions or in comparison to competitors
- F – severe regressions, grievous mistakes, or general “epic fail” behavior
This article will assess seven broad aspects of the overall Ubuntu experience: hardware support, appearance, new features / innovation, software (the default selection), performance, usability, and community/support.
Hardware Support: A
For me, Ubuntu’s out-of-the-box hardware support improved dramatically between 8.04 and 9.04. In 8.04, I was required to manually configure a number of hardware components: an ATI graphics card, my printer/scanner/copier, a webcam, a graphics tablet, a TV tuner card (Hauppauge 1600), and an Audigy 2 ZS sound card + recording deck. Wireless was non-functional on my laptop without embarking on a treacherous ndiswrapper adventure. The work required to enable most of this hardware was minimal, but it was clearly more than the average computer user should have to tackle.
When Ubuntu 8.10 came out, my life improved considerably. The ATI card worked flawlessly, the webcam auto-detected, and my Audigy 2 ZS sound card worked like a champ. The TV card, printer, and graphics tablet still required extra work, and wireless on the laptop remained unusable.
Fast-forward to 9.04. With Ubuntu 9.04, every previously problematic piece of hardware worked out-of-the-box. Even my graphics tablet and TV tuner card – previously nightmares to configure – worked without any egregious terminal episodes. My laptop wireless suddenly offered a proprietary driver that worked without any complications. In fact, I’m writing this article over that very wireless card.
So for me, Ubuntu 9.04 gets a solid “A” in the hardware support category. Obviously this is a YMMV area, but Linux developers deserve a round of applause for their dramatic improvements in hardware support over the last 12 months. (In fact, almost every complaint I’ve heard about severe Linux hardware issues involved an install experience pre-2009. If you’ve been holding off on trying Ubuntu because of past hardware issues, 9.04 is well worth reevaluating.)
I know some people are going to disagree with this grade, but let me explain before you accuse me of unfairly criticizing Ubuntu’s overall theme choices and out-of-the-box appearance.
I think the easiest way for me to explain my opinion is to compare a default Ubuntu desktop with that of OS X (Snow Leopard) and Windows Vista (Aero enabled).
You don’t have to be a graphic designer to point out which of these 3 interfaces looks like it belongs in 1995.
Now I am well aware that Ubuntu has a myriad of options for customizing appearance. I myself prefer the Dust Theme, along with full Compiz effects, Cairo Dock, and some screenlets. I find that my desktop looks every bit as good as OS X and Vista – and in many ways better – but it took me a fair amount of work to get everything modernized. While 4th and 5th impressions may work for some, it is first impressions that really count.
The fact of the matter is that Ubuntu’s out-of-the-box appearance simply hasn’t improved between 8.04 and 9.04 – and arguably, as far back as 5.04.
Yes, 9.04 has nice new wallpapers (desktop and login), and yes, the new notifications are cool.
But from 2005 to 2009, almost no major progress has been made on the default theme and initial desktop presentation. I find this less than acceptable because one of the biggest hurdles to Ubuntu adoption, in my experience, is how unimpressive it looks at first glance.
All hope is not lost. Mark Shuttleworth has alluded to forthcoming changes to Ubuntu’s appearance, and Canonical’s Ayatana project has many good ideas in the works.
But when it comes to 9.04, I can’t help but give Ubuntu a D in the appearance category.
New Features / Innovation: B
Ubuntu plays an interesting game when it comes to the new features included with each release. As an example, here is a condensed list of the major “new” features for the 8.10 and 9.04 releases:
- 3G network support
- Ubuntu live USB creator
- Guest accounts
- System janitor (clean-up tool)
- Encrypted private directory support
- Tabs in file browser (Nautilus)
- New notification system
- Ext4 support (though not by default)
Note: I deliberately left out “improved” or “enhanced” features – these had to be NEW things to existing Ubuntu users.
Looking through that list of “new” features, I find myself…somewhat underwhelmed. Some new features are excellent (such as 3G support), but other features seem like niche improvements – like a live USB creator. That’s a cool tool, but is it really necessary out-of-the-box? What percentage of people will use that, compared to…say…a new default theme, or an integrated backup tool?
I do believe that the new notification system – despite some shortcomings – was a bold, commendable move forward. Personally, I would like to see more bold moves like that. I fear that sometimes the Linux world sometimes spends too much time imitating, and not enough time innovating.
All things considered, most of these “new” features are useful and worth an upgrade. However, I am of the opinion that future Ubuntu versions would be wise to spend time on new features that are sorely needed – not niche tools that could be more appropriately handled by 3rd-party utilities.
Default Software Selection: C
Ubuntu, as with all major Linux distros, offers a great selection of software as part of a default installation. But has the included software selection improved year-over-year?
Not really. Besides inherent software upgrades (GIMP 2.4 -> 2.6, OpenOffice.org 2.4 -> 3.0, etc.), the default Ubuntu software selection has remained somewhat stagnant. Remember: I am looking to assign grades based upon what the Ubuntu team has improved, and I find myself coming up short.
Rhythmbox is a good example of this. A music/media player is arguably among the three most-used programs for an average consumer (next to a web browser and office suite). Yet how does Rhythmbox compare to other default media players, such as iTunes and Windows Media Player? In my experience, the average user perceives Rhythmbox as outdated and feature-deprived. I have a hard time disagreeing. I myself use Amarok, but given the wealth of media players available for Linux, why does Ubuntu insist on sticking with Rhythmbox? The fact that it’s a component of GNOME doesn’t mean a thing to your average consumer. All they know is that Windows Media Player and/or iTunes looks and feels waaay more modern. (Note that I’m not alone in this complaint.)
I also find it unfortunate that VLC is not the default video player. While I realize that the VLC frontend can be a bit daunting for new users, there is no denying that VLC excels in almost every area over Totem. Again, I realize that Totem integrates nicely with GNOME – but shouldn’t Ubuntu strive to go above and beyond the default GNOME software selection?
Now please – don’t lecture me on how much more great software is included in a default Ubuntu install when compared to a default Windows install. I don’t disagree with that. What I do think is that including lots of programs can’t be a replacement for including the best possible programs.
I stand by my C grade.
With the exception of the famous Intel graphics regression of 9.04, Ubuntu’s performance improvements are something to be very excited about. The boot-time improvements between 8.10 and 9.04 were a high-point of the Jaunty release, and the fact that Ubuntu 9.10 alpha releases outperform OS X Snow Leopard in many areas is worth pointing out next time you’re at a Genius Bar.
I think the performance improvements in 9.04 are especially noteworthy in light of previous regressions between 7.04 and 8.10. With notebooks continuing to gain more and more traction, Ubuntu must continue to improve performance wherever possible.
Thus, I give 9.04 a well-deserved A in performance.
Usability is a difficult thing to quantify. What one person finds as elegant, another may find as unintuitive and cumbersome.
However, I think that Ubuntu has done well at improving a number of pesky usability issues. While I there is still much room for improvement when it comes to installing codecs, proprietary drivers, and restricted software, for me the experience has undoubtedly improved between 8.04 and 9.04. DVD playback and mp3 support gets more intuitive with every release, and I think the new notifications and fast-user-switch-applet are progressing wonderfully.
For me, another excellent usability update in 9.04 was the ability to hotplug graphics tablets. Kudos to the Ubuntu team for that much-needed feature.
However, some usability areas have regressed – most noticeably, the update manager. Who on EARTH thought it was a good idea to start the update manager as a minimized window? This is especially egregious while watching TV via MythTV.
Yes, Linux requires a lot of updates. No, the problem is not solved by starting the update manager as a minimized window.
Overall – many improvements, many things left to fix. I debated assigning a C grade in this category, but my love of the 100 paper cuts idea convinced me to go with a B.
Community and Support: A
I have found the Ubuntu community to be one of the nicest online communities I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Reliable help is available on most any question, and the Ubuntu forums are a treasure trove of random tweaks and necessary hardware fixes.
The Ubuntu wiki is large and well-maintained (as Linux wikis go). I oftentimes stop there even before the official Ubuntu help files.
Ubuntu Brainstorm is a phenomenal idea – one that other companies would do well to emulate. And, while the “Ideas in Development” section remains perpetually sparse, I love that I can vote on ideas for improvement – even whacky ones that may never be considered.
Lastly, this summer’s announcement that Canonical will offer commercial desktop support services is a great move. I doubt many people will take advantage of this, but the fact that it exists speaks volumes about Canonical’s dedication to the Linux Desktop.
Again, a well-deserved A.
If I average out these scores (A, D, B, C, A, B, A) using a 4.0 scale, I end up with a solid B (3.0 exactly). I’d say that’s a very accurate assessment of my experience with Ubuntu – generally above-average, but lots of room left to improve.
To that end, the second half of this article (coming out next week) is an exciting one. It will consist of a group-generated list of features/fixes that need to happen over the next year if Ubuntu wants to remain a viable competitor in the consumer OS arena. This list is the result of conversations with all the Ubuntu users I know – including some great emails that have poured in over the last two days – and should represent a diverse range of input.
I’m still soliciting input for that article, so if you have Ubuntu features you desperately want to see, send ’em via the contact page.
And as always – do you agree with my assessment? Have I been too harsh? Too soft? Has your experience differed? I’d love to hear what you have to say.