New Linux Arrivals

You can almost set your watch by it nowadays: Twice a year, we have a new version of Ubuntu Linux to explore.

April will bring the release of Feisty Fawn, also known as Ubuntu 7.04. (The "04" indicates April; the "7" stands for 2007.) I've been running prerelease versions of Feisty for about a month. In a moment, some notes on what I've discovered. But first, a bit of context and history.

Ubuntu releases usually arrive each April and October. Version 6.10 (Edgy Eft) came out on time, but last spring's release, Dapper Drake, debuted two months late, and thus was christened version 6.06 LTS. The LTS stands for "long-term support," meaning that Canonical, the company that provides support for Ubuntu, will do so for five years; in addition, Canonical will make security updates available for the same amount of time, rather than for the typical 18 months for a non-LTS Ubuntu release.

Dapper remains the most stable, hassle-free Linux I have ever used--and I've been running Linux full-time on one machine or another since 1998. Edgy, however, reworked a few key parts of the system to take advantage of newer technologies, and the result wasn't as solid. My laptop's suspend, hibernate, and resume features, for instance, never failed when I ran Dapper. But since I installed Edgy, the machine sometimes fails to go to sleep when I want it to.

So I've been looking forward to Feisty, not only for bug fixes but also because one of the Ubuntu team's stated goals for Feisty was a specific intention to add cutting-edge desktop effects to the Ubuntu experience.

What sort of whiz-bang desktop effects am I talking about? Well, if you've ever used Mac OS X, or if you've been subjected to Windows Vista, you've seen this sort of thing: menus that fade in and out, windows and dialog boxes that zoom into place, applications that disappear genie-in-the-lamp style when you minimize them, and so forth.

Unfortunately, Ubuntu has met the goal only partially. Feisty has all of the drivers and infrastructure necessary to support desktop effects, but the new effects themselves are disabled by default.

Yes, it's eye candy. But in several respects, that eye candy makes for a more intuitive user experience. For example, when a warning dialog box pops up, I have an immediate visual cue as to which program spawned it, because the dialog box zooms out from its parent application. Besides, this is what modern interfaces look like, and we want Linux to keep up with the Joneses, right? So, why aren't these neat features enabled by default in Feisty?

Beryl: You Have to See It to Believe It

You can answer that question yourself by test-driving current desktop-effects offerings--and experiencing the glitches. Start, for example, with Beryl, currently one of the hot darlings of the Free Software world (if linkage from places such as Reddit and Digg is any indication). If you're running Ubuntu Edgy or Feisty, installing the very latest revision of Beryl is pretty straightforward, since the authors have provided a repository of Ubuntu packages.

From this page at the Beryl wiki, first follow the steps under "Graphics Card Drivers" (Edgy users only) and then try the Beryl "with AIGLX" steps. Yes, it is all a bit of a hassle, but keep in mind that this software is not fully baked (we can look forward to stable versions coming preinstalled in our distros someday), and if you do get it running, it will have been worth the effort. Believe me, your friends who run Mac and Windows will be jealous of your eye candy in no time. Beryl's effects really put everything else to shame.

But (and you just knew there was a "but," didn't you?) don't show off those nifty effects for too long, because sooner or later Beryl will crash. The program is still in its infancy, and many, many bugs remain to be worked out.

Take the time, though, to explore Beryl's absolutely labyrinthine Settings Manager, which has enough options to satisfy even a longtime user of the options-rich KDE desktop environment. You can get lost for hours playing with these options.

Spend some time with Beryl's Settings Manager, and you can customize the "Wheeeeee!"-inducing desktop effects to your heart's content.
Spend some time with Beryl's Settings Manager, and you can customize the "Wheeeeee!"-inducing desktop effects to your heart's content.
Some of Beryl's most impressive effects must be specifically turned on by the user. Personally, I like to assign the "Task Ring" effect--similar to Vista's Windows-Tab task switching--to Alt-Tab. I also assign the "Scale" effect--which mimics OS X's Exposé feature--to a hot corner in the lower right of my screen. For a more thorough walk-through of the possibilities Beryl brings, check out the fantastic overview at Ars Technica.

Beryl is an offshoot (or a "fork") of a similar project, called Compiz. Compiz doesn't have all of Beryl's hoopla, but many people find it more stable than Beryl, and it isn't burdened by a configuration dialog box that only a geek could embrace. This is why Compiz, rather than Beryl, drives Feisty's desktop effects (if you enable them via System, Preferences, Desktop Effects).

Feisty's Desktop Effects dialog box is an adobe hut compared with the high-rent condo tower that is Beryl's Settings Manager: You can enable only two options here, relating to "wobbly" windows and a "desktop cube" on which you can place your virtual workspaces.

In my testing, the second function never even worked--but Compiz hasn't crashed on me, whereas Beryl consistently crashes within an hour's use or less.

In future releases of Ubuntu, the Desktop Effects dialog box will surely contain additional options. Whether Compiz or Beryl will drive them is probably still an open question. It's a bummer that neither package can, at this time, provide both the good looks and the stability that are necessary for such effects to become part of a standard installation, but the Ubuntu team seems to have made the right decision to let these projects gestate further before including and enabling one or the other by default.

Desktop Effects are experimental in Ubuntu's Feisty Fawn release, and the options are spare.
Desktop Effects are experimental in Ubuntu's Feisty Fawn release, and the options are spare.
After all, there's no use in frustrating new users with a buggy interface. New arrivals to Linux often feel they've lost their bearings even when everything is working perfectly--not because Linux is hard to use, mind you, but because the new user must still get accustomed to the many small differences that everyone encounters (and always will). (It's usually only a dozen minutes or so before the inevitable "Where's my C: drive?" question arises.)

Fresh Desktops: Gnome and Xfce

Ubuntu releases tend to come along just after similar, semiannual releases from the Gnome Desktop project. Gnome 2.18 came out just a few short weeks ago, and is included in Feisty. I immediately checked on the status of what I think are the two most annoying bugs in all of Gnome. (I've covered these Gnome gripes before.)

First up was the bug that kept trashed files on removable devices from really being deleted. Great news: This bug has been fixed!

When you unmount or eject removable devices, Gnome now checks to see if they have files in the Trash; if so, up pops a dialog box asking whether you want to delete those files permanently. This is the right idea, so it's a shame the execution is so poor and so contrary to Gnome's simple, non-geeky approach: The dialog box I'm talking about reads in part: "Do you want to empty the trash before you umount?"

Geeky jargon rears its ugly head in Gnome 2.18.
Geeky jargon rears its ugly head in Gnome 2.18.
No, I didn't just misspell unmount -- the box reads "umount," referring, apparently, to the command you enter in a terminal window if you wish to unmount a device manually. Ick! Why is something so jargony bleeding through in my beloved Gnome?

But wait, it gets worse. My other Gnome pet peeve is the longstanding bug that made it difficult to drag and drop files out of File Roller, the Gnome app that deals with .zip files (plus their Linux equivalent, "tarballs" (.tar.gz files), and other archives).

In Gnome 2.18, it is now completely impossible to drag files out of File Roller. I'll elaborate, just for emphasis: You double-click an archive, you see a window full of files, and you're not allowed to drag them out of there to extract them from the archive.

Apparently the maintainer of File Roller fixed the original bug in a way that is incompatible with Nautilus (the Gnome file manager), which also controls the desktop itself, where you frequently want to drop files. So this functionality, which had been broken and quirky but usable, has completely vanished.

This gets me to thinking that something is amiss in the Gnome project. A lot of very talented, motivated, hardworking people contribute their time and their code to Gnome, and by and large the maintainers of Gnome's various pieces do great work. But something (leadership?) seems to be missing at a higher level. No one seems to be saying, "Hey, Nautilus maintainers, can you please put your heads together with Mr. File Roller over there and work something out so our users don't lose out?"

After the File Roller disappointment, I decided to see what Xfce, the lightweight KDE and Gnome alternative I last checked out a couple years ago, is looking like these days.

Feisty includes Xfce 4.4.0, which was released in January. I'm pleased to find that Xfce has made huge strides since I last paid it some attention--and it was already in pretty solid shape back then. The latest Xfce is the first version to allow you to place files directly on the desktop, and therefore the first version you can expect a Windows or Macintosh refugee to feel more or less at home with.

As ever, Xfce is speedy. It loads in about 3 seconds on my main test machine, compared with Gnome's 15 seconds or so. Its new file manager, Thunar, is similarly nimble, even on very large directories (which tend to bring Nautilus to a crawl).

Xfce tends to look a lot like Gnome (it uses the same GUI widgets that Gnome does) but it doesn't feel very much like Gnome. Peek at the options in Xfce's Settings menu (or just look at the official Xfce tour), and you'll see that Xfce strikes a very happy balance between Gnome's tendency to provide too few configuration options and KDE's even stronger tendency to provide far too many. Both of the Big Kahuna desktops for Linux could learn a thing or two from this spry up-and-comer.

On that subject...hey, Gnome developers, check this out: When I double-click an archive in Xfce, an app called Xarchiver pops up, and lo and behold, I can drag files out of there, right onto my desktop, just like the good Lord intended.

Matthew Newton is PC World's QA engineer and unofficial Linux guru. If you're new to Linux and are feeling a bit lost in one way or another, drop him a line and let him know what's vexing you. Or, speak Freely in the Comments section below!

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