Teaching the heron to fly

Two weeks ago, I failed a patience test when I couldn’t wait for the final version of Ubuntu and installed the Release Candidate of the free operating system. Ubuntu 8.04 LTS, dubbed as Hardy Heron, has been treated with unmatched enthusiasm by Linux and Open Source software supporters. It seems as if Ubuntu fans (myself included) wanted the new version to be a winner in a season where new versions of all major operating systems have been thrown in to compete for the best OS title. Linux, of course, has more than one candidate in the race. OpenSUSE, Fedora, Mandriva and other derivatives are all geared up with milestone releases over the last and the coming few months, but Ubuntu is undoubtedly the reigning champion in terms of popularity among all Linux variants.

“What does make Hardy Heron such an important release?” The answer is not that simple, I guess.

It could be because the Linux community feels that Microsoft’s grip over PC world has loosened and the door is now warped to new things; or possibly because it is the first LTS (Long term support) release since Ubuntu has become the biggest name in Desktop Linux. Or it may relate to the ever-increasing number of vocal Linux advocates on the internet. Anyhow, the reason is definitely NOT the revolutionary changes in the 8.04 version. By all means, Ubuntu 8.04 is a minor upgrade that arrives only 6 months after the previous 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon.

Of course, no one would expect huge leaps in a project that has such a fast release cycle, but if one compares the evolution of Desktop Linux over the last 6 years (the time between Windows XP and Vista, for instance), the picture is totally different.

Ubuntu 8.04 LTS released

Now back to my story, I decided to upgrade my Gutsy Gibbon laptop instead of doing a fresh/clean install. I thought that the upgrade would be easy given my previous positive experiences through the last three Ubuntu releases. For the largest part it was as simple as ever. Things went fine and quiet until I had to reboot my machine when I discovered that I’ve lost my ultra-fast 23 seconds boot time. I have been told that the new xorg 7.3 is responsible for most of the extra time, but I happen to know that openSUSE team are planning a faster boot for their new version with the same xorg driver. Not very long after, I ran into another annoying glitch which forced me to turn off compiz desktop effects as they worked extremely slowly on my Intel integrated graphics chip. It got even worse: after a couple of hours on my laptop, I sensed “pathologic” cooling fans hyperactivity. I checked the sensors and I was shocked to see my CPU temperature above 90°C. There was some unnecessary CPU load but nothing to justify such a high temperature. I tried many things to fix that but to no avail, and finally, after regretting a premature upgrade, I restored a backup and waited for the final version to try my luck again.

I don’t easily give up on things, so I spent a couple of days digging up information about Hardy’s known bugs and I read that overheating problem is uncommon yet almost random. Some people pointed out that it is less likely to happen with a fresh install on a securely wiped disk partition.

Therefore, when Ubuntu 8.04 LTS was finally released, I downloaded a full copy and made sure to wipe out the EXT3 partition before installing Ubuntu to it. This time things were much better. The system felt fast and responsive, and boot time was shorter than the RC upgrade but not nearly as fast as the older version. I started to feel better about the new version, but I couldn’t stop myself from installing many hardware check-up tools, including a permanent sensors applet on the top panel.

That led me to discover another bug, albeit non-Linux-specific. It is the infamous hard disk load/unload cycle count bug which tortures a laptop hard disk to death with high-frequency load/unload cycles. This bug has been confirmed for all operating systems which supports ACPI power management scheme including Windows and MacOS. Luckily, work-arounds are all over the web and it was easy to fix.

After having all wrinkles ironed, I spent some time customizing and tweaking the system to my preferences, and then, finally, I started to investigate the differences from the older version.

Top of the list is the “brave” inclusion of FireFox 3.0 beta as a default web browser. I know that it’s almost stable and feature-rich, but it is still buggy and frequently fragile. It’ll crash on some flash elements (especially those which have sounds) unless you fix it with nspluginwrapper, and it will often cause unnecessary hard disk and CPU load and eats up more RAM than it should. Other flaws have also been found and that makes downgrading to FireFox 2.0 a very reasonable step.

FireFox 3.0 beta5

Other negative side effects of the new version include an increased RAM usage (by 50% over Gutsy Gibbon) and difficulties installing things from sources (drivers and some applications) because of the new 2.6.24 kernel (although this is likely to ease over time).

Elsewhere, the new version has many praise-worthy additions on both system and applications levels.

Pulseaudio sound server makes audio control easy and versatile. Policykit gives us better ways of managing privileges and authorizations. Memory is much better protected against rootkits and other malicious code, and so the applications thanks to the expanded AppAromor. Network Manager has finally stopped being “snoopy” so it now allows manual settings without interference, while doing a fine job controlling everything that is set to “automatic”.

All that said, the most important upgrade for the end-user would be Gnome 2.22. It has an awful lot of improvements in performance and functionality. The inclusion of Nautilus Actions to expand the context-menu functionality cannot be overrated, and the tweaked Human-Murrine theme is an eye-candy that makes visual tracking effortless, while the new international clock (and weather) applet is a nice treat. Desktop effects can be easily managed through an intuitive new tool or can be switched on/off via an icon on the top panel.

International Clock Applet

One must not forget to mention the new kernel as well. It has a better virtualization support, a better disk performance through real-time mount option (enabled by default) and it promises enhanced energy efficiency and supports more CPU features.

On the applications front, many important packages have been either added or updated in the official repositories. The same also applies to the bundled packages. Several new arrivals have been embedded in the new Ubuntu: Brasero CD-DVD creation suite, Transmission Bit-torrent client, Vinagre Remote Desktop viewer, Hardinfo system information and benchmark tool and many others.

Brasero Disk Creation Suite

Among the additions to the repositories, one can spot Gnome-do, Fontmatrix, Wine-Doors, Screenlets, BloGTK weblog client and Mozilla Prism applications which integrate some web apps like Google’s Talk, Calendar, Docs and Reader, in addition to Facebook and Twitter.

Mozilla Prism Web Apps

Of course, there are plenty of new features in the updated versions of the included packages. OpenOffice 2.4 suite has many, while Evolution email client added Google Calendar support.

In conclusion, Ubuntu 8.04 LTS is an incremental upgrade of the established OS that comes with many little-yet-useful improvements and 3 years of free technical support for those who don’t upgrade too often. As with any new version of an operating system, it has a few shortcomings that have minor effect on the user experience, but they are mostly fixable. It also suffers from the usual neonatal jaundice in terms of drivers and hardware support but this should go away soon. It is undoubtedly a worthy upgrade even though it might need some patience. It’s like a baby bird at the moment, but with all those technical and enthusiastic Ubuntu users out there (a real and rare luxury for any OS), the little “heron” will soon grow up and learn how to fly; and personally, I think it will be “hardy” enough to fight for the grand prix.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching the heron to fly

  1. Thanks for this post! My Ubuntu 8.04 LTS just arrived this afternoon and I’m also running XP SP3 as my main OS and I wanted to see how they perform together! Your testing it first is a good starter.

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