The Ubuntu Linux distribution launched itself into the Linux community only eighteen months ago, and in that short amount of time has managed to gather a considerably large amount of publicity.
The fifth alpha release, Dapper Flight 5, was released on March 10th, 2006; the final release of Ubuntu 6.06, codenamed "Dapper Drake", is expected in June, after founder Mark Shuttleworth recommended a six week delay to iron out usability issues.
This release will be promising considerable more than Ubuntu's earlier releases - making a big grab for the commercial desktop by supporting it for five years. Five years is a long time, and clearly the Ubuntu people want to make sure it's every bit as good as it can be. So how is it stacking up so far?
The distribution's new boot-up splash screen provides a number of menu options; three different installation options (standard, OEM and server), a CD defect test, a rescue option, a memory test and a hard disk boot option. This is quite a departure from Ubuntu (and Debian) boot CDs to date, where options other than the default are selected by typing the name of a profile at a command prompt.
Ubuntu on bootup
Beyond that point, installation is fairly standard for a Debian-based distribution; first there's a language chooser, then a location chooser and finally a keyboard selector, with a handy process to help determine what style keyboard is being used if the user isn't sure.
Next, the user is asked for a hostname and then the installer starts the disk partitioner, which gives two simple options - use the entire disk, or use the entire with LVM - and a more complex manual option.
The last two steps, before package installation starts, are to determine the timezone and to create a user account.
Unlike Debian, Ubuntu installs all of the required packages in a single installation stage. This is incredibly handy for a set-and-forget install. Unfortunately, this process is let down half-way through, when the user is prompted to configure the screen resolution. It would be much better if these questions could be asked at the start of the installation, so that the user can leave the system to install itself and walk away.
Otherwise, the installation of the system was painless and trouble free, including the installation of the bootloader.
Booting and Logging in
Upon boot-up of the newly installed system, the user is presented with the now-familiar brown on black Ubuntu splash screen. Boot messages are displayed in a small area below the Ubuntu logo, without all the technical details typically provided during a Linux boot. This will, at least, make booting the operating system a far less confusing process for the novice user.
Ubuntu Login Screen
The login screen is stock-standard gdm login display, with an Ubuntu theme. Nothing out of the ordinary here; options to change the language, shutdown, reboot, session choices (GNOME, failsafe, etc), remote XDMCP login. There was also an option to configure the login screen itself, without needing to physically log in - unfortunately, that crashed my X xsession as soon as I started it up.
The Ubuntu desktop is quite uncomplicated; based around GNOME, it has a brown backdrop with an Ubuntu logo displayed on a distant horizon and two panels, one across the top of the screen and the second across the bottom.
The upper panel has a number of menu items on the left, and some small applets, including a date/time display, running on the right. The bottom panel contains the list of active windows, and the waste-paper basket - a novel location for this, out of the way and consuming little desktop real-estate.
For those who don't like the positions of these panels, they can be easily dragged to another edge of the screen; there didn't, however, appear to be any way of altering the size of them.
The leftmost menu on the upper panel is labeled "Applications", and it serves as a Windows-style "Start" menu; GUI-based applications are listed under a variety of categories, and the final option in the list launches an application for adding or removing software.
To the right of this is the "Places" menu, which allows the user to launch the built-in file-browser at various locations - their home directory, their desktop and the "computer", a catchall location that provides file-browser access to the root filesystem and any removable device that may currently be plugged into the system. Inexplicably, it listed my system has having eight floppy disk devices, which I found rather odd given that the PC I installed it on didn't have any floppy drive in it at all.
The user is able to log out by way of an icon on the far right of the upper panel; clicking on this brings up a window with Log Out, Switch User, Lock Screen, Sleep, Hibernate, Restart and Shut Down options.
The Hibernate option didn't work for me; while the machine saved its state and turned itself off with ease, rebooting wasn't so smooth - it went through the motions, but at the last minute, just as X was starting up, the screen filled with garbage and the machine hung. Same story with the Sleep option. I'll put this down to my machine's ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card.
File management is handled with GNOME's Nautilus. Fortunately, it has been placed in browser mode, so it doesn't open up a new window every time a folder is clicked on, as would otherwise be the Nautilus default - I'd love to know how that behaviour ever passed the usability test.