Ubuntu 9.10 - One step forward, two steps back


Updated: November 6, 2009

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala is meant to be the most important Ubuntu release yet. Not because it brings in a new plethora or breakthrough technology innovations or saves the world hunger; but because it comes head to head with the flawless Snow Leopard and the much anticipated Windows 7.

Ubuntu is undoubtedly the most popular Linux distribution. It's considered stable and user-friendly and has recently been making big steps toward becoming a serious competitor against Mac-OSX and Windows. Karmic Koala was supposed to prove that it could be the player in the big league, with Snow Leopard and Windows 7 as its main antagonists. Karmic Koala was going to show everyone that Linux is ready for the masses. And did it?

Teaser

Introduction

Writing this review was not easy, for several reasons. First, I tested on no less than four physical hosts, including my T42, T61 and RD510 laptops, one of my desktops, plus two virtual machines (VMware and VirtualBox). So, there's quite a lot to write about, not necessarily in a linear fashion. Second, I've encountered many problems at various stages of my testing, including live CD, installation and post-install setup, with different results for different platforms.

Eventually, I decided to follow a chronological timeline, just as your average user would. We will begin with the live CD experience, followed by the installation and post-install configurations. After the system is installed, we will explore the new features Ubuntu 9.10 brings. Furthermore, we will discuss the good and bad things at every stage.

You're in for a lot and I hope you find this review worthy. Among the things reviewed, you will find: Wireless, Bluetooth, multimedia, partitioning, enabling extra repositories, new stuff like Ubuntu One, new themes and icons, the new Software Center, a more streamlined installation process, virtual machine behavior, as well as many issues and problems encountered. Follow me.

Live CD experiences

Booting Ubuntu 9.10 does not seem much different from any previous release.

Boot menu

However, once you get past the usual boot menu, there's a new boot splash logo, a pulsating silver Ubuntu icon.

Booting

This reminds me of Moblin, which uses the same icon thingie for its boot sequence. However, after a few seconds, another boot splash kicks in, similar to the previous Ubuntu versions, only sporting a new gray-maroon scheme. It looks nice, except that two boot splashes are unnecessary and possibly even confusing.

New splash

Live desktop

The new Ubuntu desktop slightly deviates from the old releases, with a more squarish theme rather than the rounded looks of its predecessors. There's a new set of icons for the top panel as well, making it look more reserved. If you're accustomed to the old looks, you may find the new styling slightly cold.

Desktop

Systray

The menus also feature a new set of application icons, in the spirit of the new theme:

Icons

Wireless & Bluetooth

Both worked well on all laptops, which is definitely a good thing. The Bluetooth icon now also has an additional Turn off entry, allowing you to switch it off without going about in the menus.

Wireless

Bluetooth

As you can see, the Wireless menu is also rearranged, with the active AP separated from the available networks, plus an easier Disconnect option.

I was pleased with the new Network management interface, both because it was easier to use and much faster than in previous versions. Switching between different network connections now takes less than a second compared to 5 seconds in Ubuntu 9.04 and earlier. Moreover, when connecting to remote machines, including Windows Samba shares, the response time is shorter. This is a big improvement.

Multimedia

We will talk about this after the installation.

Other stuff

Some other things I've noticed and encountered:

New battery meter

Along with a sprinkling of new theme changes, Karmic Koala features a new, simple battery matter.

Battery

Restricted Drivers

No issues here, Karmic suggested the restricted hardware drivers, even while still in the live session. On T42, there were none for the ATI card, which is the same thing that happened in Jaunty. With the release of the Xorg, my old ATI became outdated. On RD510, the correct drivers were suggested.

Restricted drivers

Safely Remove Drive

Ubuntu now offers a new, friendlier remove option for external devices, in addition to Unmount and Eject that existed before. However, I have no idea what's the difference between the three, if any. For that matter, Unmount, Eject and Safely Remove can be confusing for newbies.

One thing that is noticeable is that if you use Unmount, the drive will stay powered, but if you use Safely Remove, it will turn off, which means the peripheral port is reset. Nothing important, but useful.

Safely remove

Confusing stuff

Some of the menu entries are not that clear. For example, there's the IBus entry. I have no idea what it does. If you launch it, you will be asked to start the IBus daemon. First, the use of the term daemon is bad here. Service would be more appropriate. Then, when you hit Yes, it will continue asking in a never-ending loop, probably indicating a bug somewhere.

ibus

There's no explanation what this thing does, so the big question is, why it's there? Then, there GParted, which is finally labeled by its name instead of the generic Partition Editor in previous versions and Palimpset, which is advertised as Disk Utility. Normal users might go for Disk Utility, as this makes more sense than GParted. But you end up with two disk management tools, making it all the more confusing for the average guy.

Palimpset

Crashes

I've had Nautilus crash on me, losing the desktop icons. I really do not know why this happened, but it should not have. The only way to get the icons back is to go to Desktop via the Places menu entry.

Nautilus crash

When an application crashes, you'll get a little red balloon icon in the system area, allowing you to click on it and submit the error to development for bug fixes. Unfortunately, I've had too many of those, with not a single live CD session going painless.

Crash icon

Then there were several GParted crashes, which we will talk more in the Installation section.

First impression

My impression from the live CD experience was a mixed one. Combined with the installation woes, which we will soon discuss, plus the occasional crashes of some of the utilities did not inspire confidence in Karmic. Still, I decided to continue and see what happens. I've tested other distros before, which behaved badly in the live session only to become more tamed afterwards.

Installation

The installation process remains much the same as before. If you've read my extensive Ubuntu install guide, you know what needs to be done, even if you intend on doing a rather complex dual-boot setup. Still, let's go through some of the major things I've encountered, including refreshing new features, as well as some bad stuff.

Partitioning

I've had a lot of pain with partitioning. GParted crashed on my at least three times each time I powered it up. This kind of behavior was befitting Alphas and Betas, not the official release.

Crash

Additionally, GParted refused to work on my T42, complaining about not being able to partition the disk, even though seemingly nothing was mounted. But then, I remembered that the swap partition was in use by the live CD and only after turning it off was I able to continue.

Gparted error

Just a general tip, you can see which swap partitions are in use with swapon -s and then selectively turn them off with swapoff /dev/<dev-name>, like /dev/sda5, for instance.

It was a mess. For anyone except total geeks, this would have been a nightmare, especially since we're talking about such a delicate procedure as disk management, which can have serious implications for users, especially if they have data on their disks.

The biggest problem was with external disks. GParted had a tough time partitioning the 16GB Kingston DataTraveler G2, crashing or getting stuck while working. Installing onto the external device was unsuccessful one one occasion, again my first with Ubuntu.

I doubt the problem is with GParted itself, as it always worked well, probably a very bad integration into Ubuntu 9.10. Considering many crash messages from one of the low level disk utilities, I guess this is the case.

Installation procedure

Other than the GParted woes, it went fairly well. There are some new interesting elements in the installer. For instance, users can encrypt their home directory. The default filesystem is Ext4, which is stable and fast.

Encrypt home

There's also the Migration Assistant, which offers to migrate existing accounts into your new installation. For some reason, it only detected users on partitions where home was not separate from the root. It missed all the accounts on the dedicated home partition.

Migrate

While the installation is running, you get a nice slideshow, giving you a decent overview of Ubuntu, which can be quite useful for new users, in particular.

Slideshow 1

Slideshow 2

Slideshow 3

Slideshow 4

Slideshow 5

GRUB 2

A rather controversial decision in Ubuntu 9.10 is the inclusion of GRUB 2, which is still not yet production quality. This is quite contrary to the standard Ubuntu doctrine, where they opt for older, more stable versions applications rather than new versions thereof. And yet, with such a critical piece of the puzzle like the bootloader, the caution was thrown to the wind.

If you watch your machine boot, you will see that the GRUB is titled GRUB 1.97Beta4, which hardly inspires confidence. If you have multiple operating systems on your machine and are still using the older version of GRUB, you might want to backup your data before proceeding.

I have not yet tested chainloading or upgrading, so I can't report much on this yet, but I will update you as soon as I complete testing. What more, a full tutorial akin to my legacy GRUB guide is coming soon, so stay tuned!

Lastly, if you are installing Ubuntu on a system with existing operating systems, make sure you install the bootloader to the right device, so you do not end up with an unbootable system.

Bootloader

Post install setup

We're done with the installation. Now, let's talk about getting the distribution configured to daily use. You won't need much, as most of what you expect or want is there. But we still need to setup our multimedia, including Flash and MP3 playback, pimp up the desktop, and try a few new things.

New looks

Ubuntu 9.10 sports a refreshing new livery. It's still the old, recognizable brand, but with an uplift aimed at more conservative users and newcomers, who have expressed some dismay at the overall brown-dominated Ubuntu colors.

The brown is much subdued in Karmic Koala, making more of a people's distro, which can relate to Windows users as well. Additionally, the standard set of icons is replaced with a more professional set, with fewer colors, better size uniformity and smarter appearance overall.

Looks

File icons have also changed slightly. For example, the screenshots on the Windows share now show in muted gray tones rather than blues as before, adding to the more conservative Ubuntu look.

Icons

New mail & IM icon

Karmic has a single icon for connectivity related activities - mail and IM. We will talk about Empathy a little more later on.

New icon

Wallpapers

Ubuntu 9.10 now offers a much wider selection of desktop backgrounds than any previous version, which were limited to just 2-3 simple images. You can even have a slideshow style wallpaper, featuring astronomical themes, if you want, with images rotated on reboot.

Wallpapers

Stellar 1

Stellar 2

Windows decorations

You can easily improve the basics of your windows decorations. New styling has been added, allowing you to make your Ubuntu appear more Mac-like without any great hacks.

Some of the new theming tweaks also allow you to more easily spot active windows. Active windows will have the start set of minimize, maximize and close buttons, whereas inactive ones will have three very-Mac round buttons. See example:

Windows decorations

However, most of the focus has been given the Human theme only. If you switch to Clearlooks or other themes, the smart icons and decorations will be gone.

Problems with looks

Not all is rosy however. Some of the styling has gone for the worse. For example, the network notifications are no longer adjacent to the top panel, instead they are positioned further down, creating a disjointed feel. What more, if you move your mouse cursors over the notifications, they vanish, only to reappear later, making you think this is some sort of a bug. After about 10-15 seconds, the notifications go away, but you're left confused.

Ugly notifications

Keeping the notifications up would have been nicer.

Final result

This is what I settled for in the end, on one of my machines, simple and practical.

Final desktop

Multimedia

If you recall of my previous Ubuntu reviews, the whole lot of them, getting multimedia setup on Ubuntu was never a big problem. At most, you would have to either enable extra repositories and install the codecs yourself or let the media player search for missing stuff the first time you try to play a media file in a restricted format. You would expect nothing to have changed in Karmic. You are wrong. Multimedia turned out to be the single most horrible thing in the distro, a true pain in the duffs region.

PulseAudio is broken

It's a very blunt statement, but it summarized best the bad behavior of the default sound management utility in Ubuntu. To make things worse, it used to work well.Problems are to be expected of course, but having things that used to work great break down is called regression. I've tested sound on a total of six installations and here are the results:

No multimedia playback in the two virtual machines - trying to play any file, including Flash on websites after the Flash player installation, was a no go. The files would play at a very fast rate, approx. 10 times faster than normal. There was no audio save for a garbled chirp at the beginning of every playback.

No sound in some media apps, no video in some others - Even on systems where the sound was not really an issue, trying to play different multimedia files using some of the available applications resulted only in half successes, with either audio or video working, but not both. We will soon see some examples of this fiasco.

The end result was 2 physical machines with no media playback issues, 2 physical machines with partial playback and 2 virtual machines with completely and utterly broken playback. Not a good start, considering 100% success in previous Ubuntu releases.

Let's see what happened:

Flash Player

Flash was never an issue on Ubuntu, until this release. If you've followed my Flash tutorial from the older days, you would have known that. Downloading the .deb installer from the Adobe site indeed works without any problems. However, this is not what most Ubuntu users will do, because there are other methods that offer an even easier installation.

Extra repositories

Medibuntu is a great source of restricted applications for Ubuntu, including many that cannot be bundled with the official release, due to legal reasons. But if you're keen on having lots of additional stuff available at the tip of your fingers, you will want Medibuntu, especially if you're on a 64-bit system.

On 64-bit Jaunty, which is installed on my new laptop a happy total of four times, I've used Medibuntu to get Flash installed, without any issues whatsoever. Trying the same in Karmic was unsuccessful. Opening a website like Youtube would show you the generic: Hello, you either have JavaScript turned off or an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player ...

As I said, installing from Adobe solved the problem, but this was a real, nasty surprise. The package in the repositories is broken.

Installing via Software Center

Ubuntu Software Center is a great addition to Ubuntu 9.10 and replaces the old Add/Remove menu. Software Center aims at making Ubuntu friendlier and more commercial-like, allowing everyone to install programs easily, without pain or worry. We will talk more about Software Center soon. Flash-wise, indeed, I had the option available for install Flash:

Flash install

However, this option did not work, either. Only via Adobe. Finally, I had Flash playing, but this was a big disappointment:

Flash playing

MP3 playback

Another thing that should have worked flawlessly. You try to play a file and get a message from Totem, asking you to let it search for codecs:

Search for plugins

Install plugins

And after they are installed, you get an error:

Codec error

Another nasty surprise! How can it be? We just installed the codecs! I tried installing via the Software Center, hoping this would remedy the problem:

Codecs

Codecs installing

And finally I had MP3 playback, although on some machines it did not quite work, as there was no sound. On most though, it played well.

MP3 playing

Windows video

I needed no codecs for this one, so it showed up well on most machines, except that there was no sound in VLC, for example. Experienced users can point out configuration problems and whatnot, but this makes no sense on a vanilla system, plus let's try to rationalize the issue from the standpoint of an average user. The bottom line is, it does not work as expected. Period.

Video

Trying to solve multimedia problems in virtual machines

You might argue that this is perks, really, since virtual machines are not really important and whatnot. I disagree. Virtualization/cloud is becoming ever more important in the modern age, with better integration and even 3D graphics for virtual machines, which makes them a tasty, practical demand.

I googled up the PulseAudio problems on Karmic, ending up in hundreds of posts, many on the official Ubuntu forums, pointing out to a tons of problems. Solutions included all sorts of witchcraft hacks, like killing PulseAudio processes on every logon, replacing PulseAudio with esound, replacing ALSA with custom-compiled OSS4, and more.

By the way, if you remove PulseAudio, the sound center will become unresponsive, forever waiting for it to start, since it will continue to rely on the now gone PulseAudio. Very bad coding practices with no sanity checks.

Anyhow, none of the suggested methods proved any good. What more, they were all boring command-line tricks that no one but the most diligent geeks would do. And they did not really help, leaving me with a big, unsolvable problem for the first time yet.

In total, multimedia was a mess. Failed installations of codecs, broken packages in the repositories, botched playback, this was 2006 experience all over the place and more befitting an early Alpha release than the official version. I was disappointed.

Performance & stability

Ubuntu 9.10 is definitely faster and livelier than previous versions. This is noticeable on older systems, like my T42. Combined with the better network response, Karmic Koala makes for a sporty experience. On average, Ubuntu ran with just 330MB of RAM used and no swap.

Suspend & hibernate

Getting these working on every single machine is impossible, but the results were quite good with my three laptops, despite some snags. Suspend worked great on all three, taking only about 2-3 seconds to suspend and wake.

However, on T42, I had a kernel error when waking. Googling, I read there was a big known bug with suspend/hibernate for the default partitioning layout, but I was not using the default layout, which makes me wonder how serious and widespread the bug is.

Kernel problem

Hibernate worked partially. On T42 and T61, machines would hibernate, but they never woke, taking forever and never completing.

New stuff

Let's talk about the new stuff in Karmic Koala.

Ubuntu Software Center

Ubuntu Software Center is the new centralized management utility, allowing you to search for programs and install them. It's simple and intuitive and works fairly well. Best of all, it hides away the unnecessary details from the user, like missing dependencies. The installations are done in the background, keeping the user happy.

We've seen a few examples above, when we discussed multimedia, here are some more screenshots:

Software center

Software

Get app

Installing

Ubuntu One

Ubuntu One in an online storage application and service, which lets everyone keep 2GB of their data backed up for free, or up to 50GB paid. The service has existed before Karmic, but it is now integrated into the Ubuntu desktop.

You can now setup the service on as many computer as you want, keep your files synced while you are connected, even on several computers, as long as each one has the Ubuntu One setup. Very neat. You will have to sign in and open an account though.

Ubuntu One

Setup

Then, go to your Ubuntu One directory, which will be automatically created once you setup an account, place the files you want backed up in there and mark them as available for sharing on Ubuntu One. They will be synced to the server, without any interaction.

Sharing

Now, you will have a little cloud icon in your system area. You can connect/disconnect any time you want. Up to 2GB of your data will be backed up always, making sure you have an online copy in case you ever need it, anywhere.

Status

Empathy

This is the new application for instant messaging, replacing Pidgin. Personally, I see no value in the change, especially since Empathy supports less networks.

Empathy

Applications

Don't expect any miracles, it's standard Ubuntu toolkit, with a spartan yet balanced and useful collection of programs. Luckily, with Synaptic and the Software Center, you can quickly and easily get whatever you want. You do get Firefox 3.5 and OpenOffice 3.1, though.

Office

Some other problems ...

In addition to issues seen above, there were several more problems I encountered. Here's a short list:

VMware Tools can't install

For the first time yet, Ubuntu failed me in a virtual machine, when it could not install the VMware Tools. It threw a whole bunch of error messages, completed the installation supposedly fine and then would not fire up the Tools on startup.

Computer Janitor is dangerous

Mimicking Windows, Ubuntu comes with a utility called Janitor, which sort of lets you keep your machine clean of crud. Although you can accomplish the same using the command-line apt-get clean, autoclean and autoremove, which are simple and safe, Janitor makes some additional, very bad judgments for you.

For example, it offered to remove my Adobe flash plugin, marking it as unused, even though I've clearly enjoyed it watching my own Youtube movie.

Janitor

Mini summary

Before diving into a conclusion, let's take a brief overview of what we've seen with Karmic, the good and the bad things:

Good stuff

Ubuntu 9.10 is fast and responsive. Boot time is shorter than it used to be.

A new fresh theme, with smarter icons, more wallpapers and better customization.

Faster networking response, including Samba shares.

Ubuntu 9.10 features a powerful and easy-to-use Software Center.

Bad stuff

Two boot splashes used, making the boot sequence appear cluttered and unprofessional. Ubuntu uses the Beta GRUB bootloader, which is contrary to its strategy and probably not responsible toward the end users.

Many application crashes, especially in the live CD session, revolving mainly around disk management utilities. GParted did not work well with external disks and crashed a lot.

Lots of problems with multimedia files, including broken packages, failed installations of codecs and partial playback. This is specially noticeable in virtual machines, but the problems also exist on physical machines. Flash Player and MP3 codec installations from the repositories failed on all systems.

VMware Tools could not be installed in VMware Server 1.0.9.

Some notification messages look ugly, some of the stuff is confusing.

More reading

For comparison, you may want to read some of my other Ubuntu reviews:

Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex - Review & Tutorial

Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope - Review

Conclusion

For me, Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala is a disappointment. Not because it's bad, but because it's not better than Jaunty. No progress is a lack of progress.

To play the Devil's advocate, let's take a look at the good stuff Karmic brings. Improved boot times? Well, if you take my new laptop as an example, with 18 seconds on the slow end of a 5,400rpm disk, how much more do I need? Ubuntu One? I'd rather have GParted not crash, thank you. New icons and wallpapers? Cosmetics really.

Ubuntu 9.10 botches when it was most needed, when it could not afford to fail. It's a spectacular disappointment, for so many of us who expected it to be the one release that would show Microsoft and Apple that Linux is making it big. And then came the big flop. Nothing dramatic happened, which is exactly the problem. Karmic did not cause a stir of excitement and awe. It's just another distro, with rather bad QA.

Which reminds me, six-month cycles are too short. You can't have decent software validation in such tiny periods. What more, just 18 months of support, well that's annoying. I don't want to upgrade. Hell, I'm still running my 8-year-old XP, so why I should bother with new installations of Ubuntu every year, especially since you can't really be sure the stuff that works won't break? I can accept instability from Fedora, but Ubuntu?

I'd like to see annual releases and at least five years of support, if not more. Now, that's a commercial model I can relate to, just like I theorized some time ago.

Ubuntu 9.10 works and works OK, but it's nothing spectacular and it has more issues than Jaunty. If you're asking me, postpone your upgrades for at least a month, let the developers sort out some of the glaring problems they did not find in the 34-second validation they had between the releases.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ubuntu and use some 8-9 instances on several machines, but software is only software, a tool to be used and abused. For now, I'd recommend you do not install Karmic, unless you have an absolutely flawless experience. I hope Ubuntu 10.04 will be better. Here's another rant you may like: Hey Ubuntu, Stop Making Linux Look Bad.

I will soon be reviewing Kubuntu and Xubuntu too, so may want to check these as well. openSUSE 11.2 will be out in less than a week and then, there's Fedora 12 coming, it shall be interesting. Likewise, you should also expect a Ubuntu upgrade add migration tutorials in near future. Stay tuned.

Cheers.

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