Ubuntu Report Card (2009)

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.)

Appearance: D

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).

OS X "Snow Leopard" Desktop
OS X "Snow Leopard" Desktop
Ubuntu "Jaunty Jackalope" (9.04) Desktop
Ubuntu "Jaunty Jackalope" (9.04) Desktop
Windows Vista Desktop
Windows Vista Desktop

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.

Ubuntu-desktop-2-504-20080706
Ubuntu 5.04, or "Hoary Hedgehog". Looks a lot like 9.04, doesn't it?

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:

8.10:

  • 3G network support
  • Ubuntu live USB creator
  • Guest accounts
  • System janitor (clean-up tool)
  • Encrypted private directory support
  • Tabs in file browser (Nautilus)

9.04:

  • 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.

Performance: A

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: B

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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27 thoughts on “Ubuntu Report Card (2009)”

  1. Great article, very positive and balanced. :) I think you should also perhaps consider the position of Ubuntu (and Linux dsitros in general) in the marketplace. The work Dell is doing, and the unwork Asus / Acer are doing shipping sub-optimal Linux experiences.

  2. Totem itself may not be the best player ever, but i don’t see a switch away from interfaces that rely on gstreamer as feasible. It would be better to fix or replace the totem ui on top of gstreamer than switch to vlc. All of the recent codec install automation comes via integration with gstreamer and packagekit. Gstreamer is finally starting to get truly plugged in throughout the entire desktop, now is not the time to try to replace it.

  3. To your point about the USB-Creator. It’s awesome! As you say notebooks are more common when you claim we need to boot faster. I claim netbooks are more common without optical drives necessitating this handy tool. :)

    That said, Back in Time backup would be nice if integrated.

  4. Before people get into a mudslinging contest with the totem/rhythmbox/Amarok, it’s important to understand why. There are 700MB + or – a few to fit on a CD. All of this has to fit on a disk that already has some space eaten for things like Wubi and other software. Many applications are held back by the technical concerns of the applications. Specifically which API (Application Programming Interfaces) they use. Since Ubuntu ships with Gnome, it comes with GTK+ designed applications to keep the size down. If you were to include Amarok, for example, it would need all the QT and KDE libraries that it depends on to work. This would not only take up far more room than the CD has to offer, but it would integrate less than optimal because of the GTK+ vs QT theming. Mono and GTK# use up a bit of space on the CD and are hotly contested by people who want other things to be there. They are there to support Tomboy, the notes taking app. They could just as easily support Banshee which is sort of a hybrid between Amarok and Rhythmbox. Exaile is a player that is almost a clone of Amarok that runs on top of Python and Gnome, so it could also be used as Python is a requirement for the CD to function. It’s just that Exaile is pretty new, and Rhythmbox is the default until displaced. Overall DVDs will solve the problem, but at the cost of it taking far longer for people with bad broadband to download. And since things are also moving towards USB Flash installs, it could be a moot point.

  5. Excellent article! I myself switched to Linux (first Mandrake, then Ubuntu) and have stuck to the distro and OS though all the command-line configuration of wireless cards, and poor audio capabilities. The latter is something that is still a thorn that pricks me from time to time. The community need to move to a standard and build upon that.

    Another area where there is much needed development is gaming. Because I fully rejected any form of windows operating system, playing PC games is limited. Its good to see Id’s continues support for Linux and Value trying to make a Linux steam client but the effort in this area is limited. (Thanks PS3 for filling in that void.)

    Finally, I agree with you that presentation of the desktop is an important element. I,like most enthusiasts, spend endless hours tinkering with (conky) scripts or configurations to make my desktop look and function the way I want. But surely, it doesn’t have to be painful. Yes, we have come a long way, but friends that are artist can come up with brilliant desktop ideas in minutes and they don’t need to go through scripting / configuration files.

    Its good to get stuff off my chest about my beloved distro.

  6. A nice well rounded article that made for a pretty good read.

    One of the main complaints i can see for Windows converts is WINE, which in 9.10 will be even better integrated by Ubuntu which will help things along more so (although currently i cannot boot 9.10 due to the ati drivers problems i think it will be a pretty big release).

  7. Nice article and most points are valid! Thanks to Kroc of OSNews for pointing it out. I’m looking forward to see the second part of the article.

    Btw do you know Gnome-Do? It is imho way better than Cairo Dock (in docky mode). Check http://do.davebsd.com/wiki/Docky for more info.

  8. I personally find that Ubuntu 8.X and 9.X are good for beginners to Linux (much of the config can be done with point’n’click, which is needed for newbies), but it has enough annoyances/omissions for me not to use as its primary desktop.

    My complaints are:

    * Setting a random root password on install (great when fsck says “type root password for maintenance” during the boot sequence if a disk needs fixing – whoops!).

    * Allowing a non-privileged user’s password to actiivate privileged operations (wrong, wrong, wrong – should need root’s password for that).

    * Not installing ntpd by default – doesn’t anyone want to keep their desktop’s clock in sync ever?

    * Not installing sshd by default – doesn’t anyone ever have a second PC that they’d like to connect to their Ubuntu desktop with?

    * Failing to promote that a DVD download is available (yes, folks, Ubuntu doesn’t just come on a DVD) – the downloads for this are crazily buried on the ubuntu.com site.

    * Failing to promote that BitTorrents for Ubuntu CD/DVD downloads are available – this is crucial, because the less people use torrents, the slower they will be.

    * Allowing Dell to ship 8.04 with a barely working NetworkManager/networking capability on its netbooks. My Mini 9 with Ubuntu 8.04 will only connect to wireless or wired at home about 1 in every 10 attempts. Every other distro I’ve tried is perfect for this.

    My desktop? It’s now Fedora 11 on all my machines – this distro has far more innovations than Ubuntu (which seems to be what this article author is lusting after) and is a far better distro for the knowledgeable Linux user than Ubuntu. And, yes, Fedora themes are good and change with every release, but I just go back to Clearlooks Classic with a solid blue background and don’t even use Compiz.

  9. It’s interesting that you criticize Ubuntu’s look and feel (rightfully) but then turn around and suggest that the collection of UI craziness known as VLC take the place of a better-implemented, desktop citizen, Totem.

  10. I must agree with Johnny on this one. As great as VLC is, there are serious potential legal issues with codecs it ships with (note its location in the “multiverse” repository). Canonical simply isn’t in a position to be able to include it in the default install.

    Meanwhile the GStreamer media framework continues to improve and provide a solid base for media software on Free Desktops. Totem does a fair job at playing media, although there is always room for improvement.

  11. RE: Appearance

    In the world of the Linux Desktop there are few applications, at least from the ones that the users see, whose development actually makes sense.
    Although i hate to admit it, since i was never a fan, and still aint, the leading one is KDE.
    Its developers have a development plan, furthermore a marketing plan and they dont listen to what the users say (to some extend). They choose to carry on with their plan.
    I suggest you look that way if you want a fully working sane desktop.
    GNOME has been crippled by upstream decisions, eg inclusion of Mono and by many other small things, which matter a lot if you add them up, from guess who. Ubuntu and their invovement in the project.

  12. I got to agree with Derek Buranen the USB live creator is amazing. I don’t burn live cd anymore. I keep a USB live stick with me all the time and I got at least two different peoples out of a big windows mess with that key in the last month alone. That how I installed Jaunty on my new rig in June and that would be how I will try Karmic in October before I decide if it worth nuking my current install.

  13. RKL, while Ubuntu has a DVD install image, it’s not suitable for most users. For instance, it installs every single language Ubuntu offers…which is a pain to go back and remove all of the languages not used in my house. While being a bigger download, it doesn’t offer any extra software really.

  14. Very nice article, with mostly valid points.

    I’m curious why you compare high-resolution production Mac and Windows desktop screenshots to ugly VGA-resolution boot-from-CD desktop screenshots for Ubuntu (with the installer actually running, no less!). Granted, Windows and Mac can’t run from CD – but Ubuntu *can* run from disk at a reasonable resolution. That’s how millions of people run it, actually.

    One of the nicest improvements in my book is the NBR version of Ubuntu. It works so much better on netbook resolution displays compared to Windows XP, and looks much better as well. Probably worth considering in your grading scheme, since this is the fastest growing PC market segment, and neither Windows nor Mac has addressed it at all.

  15. Good points, well-made.

    On appearance, I fear you’re right. Personally I feel that Windows Vista & 7 are rather cheap and gaudy-looking – though not anywhere /near/ as bad as KDE in this respect. But even though I like the restrained browns & oranges, it might help to look a little jazzier. Linux Mint is worth inspection by way of comparison.

    A start might be to enable a little more eyecandy by default, e.g. cube desktop switching; I think the user-switching feature is a minority interest for most users & should only be activated once >1 users are created.

    Re media tools, well, it seems to me that there are a lot of rivals robbing effort from one another here. Some consolidation is in order.

    Background updates would be a big boon, too.

    I would really like to see GNOME become more flexible regarding panels and so on. An option for a Dock-style task-switcher would be good, and so would the direly-needed option of vertical panels – becoming critical in these days of widescreen monitors, where horizontal pixels are cheap but vertical ones very valuable.

  16. I will disagree with your statement about appearance on ergonomic grounds.

    There is a well known phenomenon of not being able to focus on the boundary of red and blue. Because of the difference in the wavelength, the eye cannot focus on both at the same time, hence the intersection appears fuzzy. The constant refocusing tires the eye muscles. This is also true for other color differences, but the perceived effect is proportional to the differences in the wavelength. But even when the difference is below the level of perception, it can still add to eye fatigue and strain. Similar colors reduce this effect. This is particularly important for those who spend long hours at their monitor.

    Other color combinations can cause different problems. For example, the old green screen monitors had many users seeing pink blotches and getting headaches, sometimes for hours after getting off the monitor. It is a complex problem.

    I belive that Ubuntu’s appearance is a real positive for its users.

  17. Ubuntu scores a 8/10 for the 1990’s era GUI, hell, it even has those cute OK / CANCEL buttons with the little icons next to them!

    Windows 7 / Vista / OSX are decades in front of Linux on the desktop. Perhaps a turd can’t be polished?!

  18. Great article. The only point I need to dispute is saying the default desktop looks like it is from 1995. Go look at some Win95 screenshots! I’d say it is more 2001 than anything else. And with the number of people that have stuck with XP over Vista that isn’t the worst thing.

    I agree with various comments I’ve read from numerous sites about the color scheme though. Thankfully gnome-looks.org provides a quick fix every time.

  19. Nice review. Some fast thoughts:

    * Totem is GNOME-ic as far as using gstreamer, and gstreamer exists to provide a GNOME equivalent to the DirectMedia(?) and Quicktime frameworks from The Commercial OSes – so don’t expect them to ditch Totem any time soon. It is thankfully improving, though (but probably still doesn’t perform well on old, slow hardware… or Atoms).

    * Rhythmbox really is just-broken at this point. Sorting bands case-sensitively is ridiculous. The visualization plugins can cripple it. The controversial Mono-based Banshee might be more maintainable going forward but has as many bugs (and no visualization) features right now, so… yeah. For the GNOME distro, the only thing worth breaking with GNOME for would be Songbird, and Songbird is pretty heavy-weight (or is it?).

    * USB Creator: Awesome, but crippled – WTF, it only supports Ubuntu images. If they’d made it a bit more generic and, say, potentially supported handling FreeDOS images or your_favorite_ISO, it’d be welcome. But instead, that’s left to be fiddly and annoying. [Thankfully / scarily, most of what I’d need FreeDOS for can now be accomplished in a sudo’d WINE].

  20. The 3 screen shot comparison of the most recent mac, windows and ubuntu releases is terrible for ubuntu. True, you can customize it beautifully once installed but imagine… imagine if you didn’t need to …
    I envision an extra screen in the installation process….. It shows you six to nine different desktop options and lets you choose the layout and accessories you would like. These come with all the little extras like screenlets, various bars, different desktops etc (basically targetting different people)

    I know we’re trying to move to fewer installation screens but I think it would be great to offer a choice of a few *complete* desktops.

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