Ubuntu 9.04 Beta: Quick Look

So far there have been six alpha releases of the forthcoming Ubuntu 9.04, due for final release next month, and late yesterday the one and only beta release was made available for download. From this point forward there's a release candidate in mid-April, before the final release is made on the 23rd.

With this beta release everything should be shaping up nicely, and (theoretically) the work from this point onwards should be bug-fixing and polish.

Let's find out how the release is shaping up.

Performance

One of the things demanded by Ubuntu head honcho Mark Shuttleworth in his announcement of 9.04 was that boot times should be improved. This certainly seems to have happened, and in my tests 9.04 booted pretty quickly. In fact, booting to the login prompt was actually quicker than resuming the machine from hibernation. (My test machine was a crappy budget laptop with a Celeron chip and 1.5GB of memory; I did a full hard disk install.)

Additionally, the ext4 filesystem driver is now included, although isn't used by default, and must be deliberately selected by the user during partitioning. The big boasts of ext4 as far as end-users are concerned include support for insanely large file systems of up to one exabyte, but the feature that's got most people excited is a performance boost compared to the older ext3. I ran some quick and unscientific tests on an ext3 installation of Ubuntu, and then repeated the tests of an ext4 install. The testbed was the aforementioned budget laptop, and the highly-accurate timing device was myself, my thumb, and the stopwatch mode of my wristwatch. In other words, don't hold too much store by these results.

There were some marginal improvements with ext4, especially in boot times and when copying significant amounts of files, but perhaps not enough to overcome the potential risks of using ext4 this early in its life. (You might be wondering if the hibernate to disk performance is improved but remember that Ubuntu hibernates to the swap partition, not the filesystem, so this is unaffected; I realized this after performing my tests, but it was borne out in my results which were virtually identical between filesystems).

Ext3

Boot from cold: 25.93 seconds
Start Firefox on a cold machine: 4.64 seconds
Start OO.org Writer on a cold machine: 7.11 seconds
Copy /usr directory to the desktop (1.5GB; using cp command): 6 minutes, 6.62 seconds
Hibernate to disk: 29.21 seconds
Hibernate wake-up from cold: 30.86

Ext4

Boot from cold: 22.23 seconds
Start Firefox on a cold machine: 4.35 seconds
Start OO.org Writer on a cold machine: 7.74 seconds
Copy /usr directory to the desktop (1.5GB; using cp command): 5 minutes, 21.48 seconds
Hibernate to disk: 29.56 seconds
Hibernate wake-up from cold: 29.91 seconds

Any Windows fans out there will be pleased to hear that ext4 includes an online defragmentation tool, e4defrag. However, this doesn't appear to be installed on Ubuntu 9.04 (or perhaps it resides under a different command-name; if you know the situation, post a comment below.)

Visual Refresh

There's a new boot progress graphic (i.e. usplash), which I can't say looks better or worse than previous efforts. Additionally, there's a new wallpaper that takes as a starting point the swirly lines seen in virtually every operating system wallpaper since 1998. The only different here is that the color scheme is orange and brown, in the usual Ubuntu style. My advice: install the gnome-backgrounds package, which includes a terrific sample of images.

Some of the community themes that were optional in 8.10 are now default (Dust, Dust Sand, New Wave), and this helps mitigate the fact that the whole Ubuntu desktop experience is starting to stagnate. It hasn't changed significantly for quite a few years now.

It's now possible to set transparency effects for the panels, provided the Compiz visual effects system is activated (it is by default). This is kinda cool, and brings Ubuntu into line with OS X Leopard, which introduced a similar feature.

The Log Off/Shutdown etc. items have been removed from the System menu, and now live on the fast user switcher icon at the top right of the desktop. This icon is turning into something of a status display and mode-switcher--not only does it now let you log out etc., and switch to a different user account, but it also shows your Pidgin status. Rather annoyingly, the fact it is now the only way to shutdown means that you can't get rid of it, unless you intend to use telinit each time at the prompt.

Notifications

The last few releases Ubuntu have featured notification bubbles that pop-up near the system tray area at the top right of the screen. These inform the user about events that have happened, such as connecting to a wireless network.

With 9.04 the notification system has been visually overhauled so that the pop-up boxes have a smoked glass appearance. All notifications now appear as pop-up boxes in this style, including notebook screen brightness status displays, for example, or low battery warnings. If more than one notification appears at the same time, they stack-up beneath each other.

Unfortunately, the notifications don't work like those on other systems, whereby you can click on them to clear them. Put your mouse over the notifications on 9.04 and they turn semi-invisible, letting you click beneath them. They only go away when they want to, which seems to be after a couple of seconds by default. This is a little annoying.

OpenOffice.org 3

Although it was skipped for the 8.10 release last year, despite being available (the omission was caused by problems with packaging, apparently), OpenOffice.org 3 has made it into the 9.04 release.

To be blunt, this is very hard to get excited about. There's a handful of cool new features, including inline commenting, which as an author I find useful. If you want to know more, see the OpenOffice.org Web site.

Synaptic

Synaptic now features a "Get Screenshot" button in each package description that will, as you might expect, download a thumbnail screenshot of the application (provided it's the type of application that it's feasible to have a screenshot of; system components don't have them, for example). Clicking the thumbnail will then download the full-resolution version. This is a nice feature.

Gnome 2.26

It has to be said that Gnome is maturing into a very nice desktop environment, and the 2.26 release sees only minor tweaks here and there. Sadly, many of the key features boasted about on the Gnome Web site are skipped in the Ubuntu distribution of Gnome. You won't see the Empathy Instant Messenger, for example, unless you specifically install it. On the other hand, Ubuntu's IM choice of Pidgin is better right now, so this is a good thing. Evolution sees a few new additions, primarily in the area of Windows integration, although missing from Ubuntu's Gnome distribution is the all-new ability to import Microsoft Outlook PST files (the central database of messages). This seems to be because the libpst library is missing, but I haven't investigated any further. Still, this is a shame.

Cruft Cleaning

One of the features slated for 8.10, but postponed until 9.04, is the Computer Janitor program. This lives on the System, Administration menu. Unfortunately, it doesn't work in the beta, complaining that a package is missing, but I played with it in the alpha releases I've tested. It's purpose is to get rid of old packages, such as old kernel files that stick around when you upgrade. As far as I can tell, it's a GUI equivalent of typing sudo apt-get autoremove and sudo apt-get clean at the command-prompt. Beware, however, that it might be a little overzealous: in one of my tests using the alpha release, it considered no longer necessary a package I'd installed by hand (TrueCrypt). I had a little too much faith in it, and agreed to its deletion, only to have to reinstall the package afterwards.

Brasero

Technically Brasero should be discussed under the Gnome 2.26 heading, because the program is officially part of the Gnome desktop experience. And like Gnome itself, Brasero is maturing quite nicely. The big change in Ubuntu 9.04 is that it has entirely replaced Gnome's built-in CD/DVD Creator, that formerly lived on the Places menu. In this beta release, there are two menu entries for Brasero on the Applications menu: one under Sound & Video, which starts the full Brasero interface, and one under the System Tools menu, that starts Nautilus in CD/DVD recorder mode. When the Write To Disc button is hit, after you've dragged across the files you want to burn, Nautilus hands over to Brasero to actually create the disc.

Conclusion

In his announcement of the 9.04 release, Mark Shuttleworth only laid down two demands that were of interest as far as end-users were concerned: faster booting and integration with web apps. The first nail has been squarely hit on the head, but the second seems to have been entirely ignored. Firefox doesn't have Google Gears installed, for example, and the interesting Prism project, that "wraps" online applications to make them appear like local apps, hasn't been integrated.

It doesn’t even appear that the version of Firefox supplied is the exciting new 3.1 release--the version number supplied with the beta is 3.0.7 (although admittedly 3.1 is still in beta). Personally, I believe that online applications are going to become more and more important in future, so I'm disappointed that Ubuntu isn't making any progress in this direction. There’s a real chance to make a stake on virgin ground here, and it’s land that Microsoft and Apple don’t even know exist yet. Still, here's hoping for the Ubuntu 9.10 release in October. (Until then, anybody wholly committed to the online application experience can use gOS, which takes Ubuntu and adds-in exactly what Shuttleworth requested.)

Should you upgrade to Ubuntu 9.04 when it's released? To be honest, I don't see any reason not too. But I also have trouble of thinking of reasons why you should. With each new release of Ubuntu, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to make a genuine recommendation, and this is something that worries me. The only compelling reason I can think of making the upgrade to 9.04 is the faster boot times, and the possibility of experimenting with ext4 file systems. Other than that, you're perhaps better sticking with 8.10, or even the 8.04 LTS release, which despite being a year old, remains a strong and stable release that's perfect for most users. With the recent raft of bug fixes, it just gets better and better. I use 8.04 LTS on most of my computers.

Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.

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