It's very pleasant to see an install that does not have hundreds of unneeded services running by default. Upon initial install, there were only three TCP ports in use; one for the CUPS printing system, and two for HPLIP (HP Linux Printing and Imaging System). These were bound only to the loopback interface, and hence were not accessible from the outside network. On the UDP side of things, the only port bound was that being used by the DHCP client program, to receive responses from the DHCP server.
One disappointing omission from the default installation is that of wpasupplicant, which provides WPA key negotiation for secure wireless networks. Without this, it isn't possible to use Ubuntu on anything other than open wireless networks, or those using the WEP encryption method, which has now been shown to be trivially simple to break. Wireless networks are now so commonplace that users should be encouraged to be using WPA wherever possible.
Of course, this need not be a problem for the more technical user; wpasupplicant is available in Ubuntu's "universe" package repository, but using it requires that repository be first added to the system, and then the package must be explicitly downloaded. Furthermore, wpasupplicant's configuration is quite difficult. It would be nicer if it was part of the default install, with a simple configuation tool.
Ubuntu is notable for not using a root password, and Dapper is no different to previous releases in this regard. Instead of using su to change to a privileged account, users use sudo to execute commands with root privileges, and they are prompted for their own password before the commands run. Previously, I had been of the opinion that this would be incredibly annoying; however, in practice, the system remembers that the user has entered their password for a short period of time, which makes performing administration tasks quite smooth.
Ubuntu, like most modern Linux distributions, uses CUPS as its default print system. Adding a printer is straightforward - there's a Printer item, under the System menu, which, when selected, displays a file-browser window with an Add-Printer button. The only problem that I encountered while trying to add a networked printer on a nearby Windows machine was that during the final step, it seems that the "Install Driver" button is the logical button to press - it isn't.
For some reason, I was under the impression that it was in the multimedia area that Ubuntu would really shine. To be fair, if the entire world used only free, patent-unencumbered media formats, it probably would.
Ripping CDs to ogg files is a breeze; insert your audio CD, and up pops the Sound Juicer program, which lets the user play and rip tracks at their leisure. Creating a custom audio CD with mix-and-matched ogg files is similarly easy, using the Serpentine CD burner. And burning a CD from an ISO image couldn't be simpler - it's just a matter of right clicking on the icon.
The default movie player, Totem, had no problems with streaming ogg files from the web.
This, however, was where the simplicity ended. The Ubuntu CD provides only codecs that are freely available in a GNU sense; for this reason, the only media formats supported out-of-the-box are ogg/vorbis and ogg/theora. Support for other formats, notably mp3, which has a number of patent issues surrounding it, must be downloaded from Ubuntu's other archives (entitled "restricted", "universe" and "multiverse"). The Ubuntu people provide a wiki-page with detailed instructions on what needs to be done to get these codecs going.
Enabling mp3 support was quite simple, and while it worked for playing static mp3 files from my desktop, I simply could not get Totem to play live mp3 audio streams.
Moving onto formats that are even further up the proprietary path, when support for Microsoft's Windows Media format was enabled, Totem appeared to go through the motions of playing the stream, but there was no sound at all.
One annoying problem that I found was with the handling of mime-types; at one point, from Firefox, when clicking on a link to an ogg-stream, I accidentally selected the handler as "download" and set it to "always perform this action for this type of file". Unfortunately, I could find no easy way of fixing the mistake I'd made.
One of my major criticisms of the GNOME desktop is the "dumbing-down" of its features in the name of usability. The Totem media player suffers from this in a major way; most particularly, the lack of a stop button when playing media. Apparently these buttons are now passe; we're supposed to press the Play button to both start and stop playback, which is less than intuitive and quite unlike the interfaces that hardware media devices have had historically.
DVDs posed further problems. While reading and writing data DVDs presented few issues, I was unable to play encrypted DVDs using either Totem or the unsupported xine/gxine players. This was despite the fact that I had downloaded and installed libdvdcss; I've never had any problem playing such DVDs under Debian, using Christian Marillat's extra packages. I was unable to make Totem even play unencrypted DVDs; fortunately xine came to the rescue here.
Ubuntu's primary web-browser is Firefox 126.96.36.199. Epiphany is available as a supported alternative, as is Konqueror, if you want to download all the KDE libraries that will be dependencies. In the unsupported universe repository, there's Mozilla and, my favourite, Galeon.
Instant messaging is handled with the swiss army knife of IM programs, gaim. It has support for Jabber, AIM/ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, Napster, IRC and even the esoteric (well, outside Poland) Gadu-Gadu system.
The default email reader is Evolution 2.5.91. Being a dedicated mutt user, I've never really seen the need to use Evolution in the past, so I took the opportunity to try it out. It certainly seems full-featured enough, with a combined calendar, tasklist and memo suite. It has support for a wide range of protocols with which it can talk to mailservers; the standard POP and IMAP support, but also Novell Groupwise and Microsoft Exchange, which would certainly be a boon for those who are stuck on corporate networks with obstinate Exchange administrators who refused to turn on standards-based support. I've worked on such networks, and they're not pleasant; Evolution should hopefully free up many IT staff from the need to have a both Linux box and a Windows machine on their desk.
Of course, no distribution would be complete without an office suite, and like most other distributions now, Dapper ships with OpenOffice version 2.0.1. Having been using Openoffice 2 on Debian for a number of months now, I was pleasantly surprised that the Ubuntu people have done quite a bit of work on their version of the package. The Debian packages of this program have had a custom theme applied to them and look terrible - to the extent that the whole suite appears to be little more than a toy. Under Ubuntu, however, the toolbar icons are smaller, without the annoying colours, giving it the look and feel of professional office software, as it should.
There was a strange problem with the Openoffice menus, however. Menu items, after being selected, would remain their highlighted orange colour. After this, the menus themselves would appear transparent, making them very confusing to read. A later update provided a fix for this.
Of course, one of the major issues with any given distribution is its support of the wide variety of hardware it might be exposed to, and Ubuntu performed very well, at least with the hardware that I had on hand.
All of the hardware inside my desktop PC was detected properly at boot time, and virtually everything worked immediately - the only exception being the Hauppage analog TV receiver, which required software from the unverse repository to be installed before it could be used. I had no problems with the onboard or PCI USB adaptors, the PCI firewire card was detected straight away, and even the Marvell Gigabit ethernet interface, which had given me plenty of problems under Solaris 10, worked properly. The onboard sound card, of the AC97 variety, worked straight out of the box.
Furthermore, my ATI RV280 graphics card worked perfectly - including support for accelerated 3d graphics.
Ubuntu had no difficulty detecting my USB memory stick and my iPod, popping up icons in the top left part of the desktop when these were plugged in. Files could then be transferred to and from each just by dragging and dropping.
I initially plugged the iPod as a USB device; under Debian, I'd had much trouble ever getting the firewire interface on it to work, due to kernel bugs. Under Ubuntu, however, it worked perfectly.
The default Dapper install doesn't have specific iPod software, so it can't be used for much more than contacts (vCards from Evolution) or as a file storage device, out of the box. For transferring music files, it was necessary to download gtkpod, from the universe repository.
I encountered a fairly serious problem with my Canon Powershot G5 camera, however. Ubuntu managed to detect the camera accurately, but when trying to import photos, it failed with the cryptic error message "The path file:///DCIM/120CANON is not absolute". I wasn't able to find any way to sort this out, but fortunately there were no problems importing the same photos when I inserted the camera's flash card into a USB reader.
As a quick test, I copied the Ubuntu installation from my desktop across to my Sony Vaio laptop, and quickly booted into it - there were no problems there, on the hardware side of things, either. My Sony memory stick card was detected, the Intel Centrino ipw2100 wireless card worked properly and the system detected that it was a laptop and displayed a battery monitoring application in the upper panel.