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Ubuntu 7.04 review: Ubuntu 7.04

Ubuntu 7.04

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Robert Vamosi
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Robert Vamosi

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As CNET's former resident security expert, Robert Vamosi has been interviewed on the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets to share his knowledge about the latest online threats and to offer advice on personal and corporate security.

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Long gone are the days of having to compile your own kernel in order to run the open-source operating system. Ubuntu, a free Linux distro from Canonical, provides a near Microsoft Windows-like experience for those new to Linux. We're reviewing this particular Linux distro because PC manufacturer Dell now ships some new models with Ubuntu already installed. But before we extol its many virtues, we should note there are also steep trade-offs when using Ubuntu. Linux is not Windows, nor is it Mac. Programs written for those other operating systems will not run under Ubuntu. Instead, be prepared to abandon your Microsoft applications in favor of equally fine although less well-known open-source products such as OpenOffice (included within Ubuntu), Evolution (e-mail), and Ekiga (VoIP). That said, some popular software, like Firefox and Opera, are written for Linux as well. If you only use your computer to check e-mail, surf the Web, and maybe view the occasional YouTube video, and are program agnostic, Ubuntu might be just right for you. And if you're an advanced computer user, by all means, try Ubuntu; Linux is designed for you. But if you're an average computer user who is partial to a specific applications, say, Apple iTunes, GarageBand, or Adobe Photoshop, then you'll need to pass for now. In general, we came away impressed with the Ubuntu package. For a free operating system, Ubuntu 7.04 is solid and extensible, although not without fault.

7.4

Ubuntu 7.04

The Good

Ubuntu is free; will read Windows- or Mac-saved Office files; comes with Firefox and OpenOffice preinstalled; comes with several multimedia applications and a VoIP application preinstalled as well.

The Bad

Ubuntu won't run most popular software, so you'll have to learn new applications for word processing and spreadsheets; the new Desktop Effects is still experimental and produced a handful of glitches; some wireless and Webcam drivers are missing; the operating system was unable to wake up sometimes and kept losing time or gaining it on our test machine.

The Bottom Line

Ubuntu is very user-friendly but not right for everyone. Oddly casual computer users and advanced users will find this operating system wonderful, while day-to-day users may rail against Ubuntu's incompatibility with certain popular software applications, such as iTunes. Still, this is a great leap forward for Linux with the mass audience.

Setup
When installing a new operating system, especially on an existing Windows machine, we recommend first running a disk partition program such as Norton PartitionMagic. On a Mac OS X system, we recommend using a virtual system such as Parallels. This way you keep your current operating system and can boot into the new operating system while testing it out. Once you have decided where you want to install Ubuntu, you have two choices. One is to download the Ubuntu.iso file (it could take a while) and then burn this file to a CD. With the CD inserted, boot your PC and you can run the operating system with or without installing it. That's one way. The other is to install Ubuntu 7.04 via a third-party app such as Wubi. Wubi is a free Linux installer, and on our machine it both downloaded and installed Ubuntu in about 20 minutes. One word of caution: remember the user name and password you enter into Wubi before installation--you'll need it once Ubuntu is installed; otherwise you'll be locked out.

Interface
The Ubuntu gnome interface accessed our existing Windows XP Dell MPX wallpaper automatically so our desktop immediately had a familiar look. Other Windows settings can be ported over easily. The feel under Ubuntu, however, is different. Applications are available via pull-down menus in the upper right corner, along with built-in search and system configuration settings. For Mac OS X users, this will be intuitive, but Windows users will need to adjust.

In the upper left we also found icons for Evolution (e-mail client), Help, and Firefox, which comes preinstalled on Ubuntu. Date and time appear in the upper right along with the shutdown icon. The garbage can is in the lower right, adjacent to the workspace spaces icon. In the lower left is an icon to bring the desktop to the forefront immediately; helpful when wanting to launch a new application in the middle of a work session.

Features
With this free operating system, you get the basics--utilities, graphics, built-in search, a calculator--and a lot of extras, such as VoIP, an entire office suite, a variety of multimedia applications, and a ton of free games. This alone is enough for most people to thoroughly enjoy Ubuntu without ever having to install another application. Should you want more, the Add/Remove Applications feature compiles downloads, including those from third parties, sparing you the effort of searching online. Ubuntu makes adding software convenient.

One of the first applications you should install from Add/Remove Applications is Firestarter, a firewall supported by the Ubuntu community. It's unclear why this interface to the firewall compiled within the kernel isn't included within the basic Ubuntu install. Once installed, we found we didn't need to tweak Firestarter much. For protection against malicious software, the Ubuntu community recommends Grisoft AVG, a free antivirus application. While threats against Linux are rare, they're not unheard of, so you should exercise the same caution as you would on Windows or Mac OS X.

In general, a safe operating system is one that runs in a nonadministrator mode. Like Windows Vista's controversial User Account Control, a security feature that freezes the desktop screen and asks for a password in order to access administrator-protected features, Ubuntu also darkens the screen during its security prompts, calling your attention to the admin password request prompt. Unlike Windows Vista UAC, Ubuntu asks for an administrator password only once, allowing you to tweak several administration features without additional prompts. Mac OS X also prompts for administrator access.

Like the upcoming Leopard version of Mac OS X, Ubuntu lets you create different desktops and switch them for different work environments. Windows Vista does not offer this feature. Say you have a work environment with productivity applications, a home environment with entertainment, and a gaming environment. Ubuntu Spaces lets you switch among these.

Running other operating systems in virtual environments is gaining popularity, and included within this release of Ubuntu is paravirt-ops. This is a layer that allows Linux to run better under VMWare on other operating systems (such as under Parallels on Mac OS X). Paravirt-ops is designed for the more technical users. If you're already running Ubuntu, paravirt-ops won't do you much good. Instead, KVM allows you to run Windows and other operating systems as guests under Ubuntu. As with any virtualization, you need to have licenses for the additional operating systems that you run.

Another new feature in Ubuntu 7.04 is a better graphical environment for the desktop. It is optional, depending on which graphics card you have installed. Microsoft spent years developing the Windows Presentation Foundation so they could roll out translucent windows within Windows Vista and 3D stacking. Ubuntu has this, along with a way to make windows "wiggle" when moving. We disabled the wiggle effect after a short time.

What's missing? While Ubuntu ships with more hardware drivers than Windows Vista, it lacks some for wireless chipsets and Webcams. And while you can sync your iPod via other music applications, you can't make purchases through the iTunes Store (nor can you access any of the purchases you may have made while using Windows or Mac OSs). You can use WINE to try and install Windows applications, but the results may not always be satisfactory. Your best choice is to work with open-source applications written for Linux.

Performance
In general, our Ubuntu operating system was stable and performed as expected. On the same dual-boot system, our boot times compared with Windows XP. Occasionally, however, we noticed the time and date within Ubuntu skipping ahead or falling behind. we experienced no time and date problems within Windows XP. Also Ubuntu did not always wake up from sleep and sometimes needed to be rebooted the next morning.

Support
We found ample documentation for Ubuntu and have no complaint here. Ubuntu also enjoys a rich and active forum where most any question can be answered by a worldwide community of users. Also, the open-source community in general is helpful and transparent about security issues affecting its products. In short, we found help to be plentiful for this free operating system and its related applications.

Conclusion
Should you switch from Windows XP? It depends. If you are product-agnostic with your software choices, and mostly use the Internet or Internet-based services, then you might prefer Ubuntu's overall stability and simplicity. If you need to use Adobe Photoshop, iTunes or some other specific application, then you should stick with either Windows or Mac OS X, since those products won't necessarily work under Ubuntu.


7.4

Ubuntu 7.04

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 7Performance 7Support 7