Some they giveth some they taketh away


Updated: February 5, 2010

Since I like this saying so much, I decided to write an entire article revolving around its message. And the focus of the message, once again, the much loved/hated and controversial Ubuntu, the Paris Hilton of the Linux world.

Ubuntu 9.10 has been around for some time, including several of my test machines. If you've followed the news and updates in the Linux world in the last few months, you have probably noticed that Ubuntu has been received as a hot potato; edible and tasty, but sometimes too hot to handle, especially for new users. Many condemned it, others found it flawless, others yet were disappointed, like myself, mainly by the lack of any major improvements combined with several serious regressions.

Teaser

Introduction, blah, blah

To cut the long saga short, I've compiled this article, which outlines my three-month-long experience with the latest Ubuntu. Here, you will find the good, the bad, the ugly, and the illegitimate of Karmic Koala graced with Gnome desktop, for you to decide whether it's up for grabs or shelving until Lucid Lynx comes out. Unless you fear Aero, that is.

Ah, yes ... you do realize that my findings are relative and subjective? In other words, my experience may not reflect yours? Good. So, let's begin with the good stuff.

Good stuff

Ubuntu 9.10 is faster

Karmic Koala runs faster than previous editions. In day-to-day use, you will notice an improvement in the responsiveness. The distro is snappier, sharper. The big changes are mainly noticeable in network performance, including much faster connect/disconnect to Wireless networks and faster browsing of Samba shares. Applications also launch faster and you can run more of them with ease before running out of juice.

On my ancient T42, my estimation is that Karmic easily yields as much as 20-30% faster response, which is quite commendable. You will be able to enjoy the basic functionality on older machines more easily. Most people complain about Ubuntu getting more bloated with new releases, which is contrary to my observations. Mono (.NET thingie) does not weigh down the execution of programs like Banshee or Brasero.

Ubuntu desktop

Laptop modes (suspend & hibernate)

Laptop modes work better. Although Kubuntu achieves even more impressive results than Ubuntu, the results are reasonable with the Gnome-adorned version. Of course, my observations are relative, mainly to previous releases of the distro, which did not cooperate too well with either suspend on hibernate.

Having tested Karmic on several laptops, I've found more of them being able to resume the session after being sent to sleep, without errors or hangs. Suspend works well, with just about three seconds to sleep or wake. You might see kernel errors upon resuming, though. Hibernate is more problematic, with some machines never resuming their coma, but it manages fine overall.

Kernel error

However, to translate this into numbers: Jaunty liked suspend on just one out of three machines tested and did not like hibernate at all. Koala likes suspend on four out of four machines and hibernate on two out of four. Overall, we're up from 33% to 100% success with suspend, albeit with some annoying kernel errors here and there, and up from 0% to 50% success with hibernate. In the first case, we have a 300% improvement, and in the second, an infinite one.

So, we have a major progress here. It's not perfect yet, but it's getting much, much better. You can complain about kernel errors, but in the past, you would not even get to have them, your session would remain forever dark. Oh, and before you crucify anyone, think about Windows suspend & hibernate.

On the other hand, Linux Mint does wonders, even though it runs the same kernel. So we're definitely dealing with bad integration of various components, and probably a too hasty release cycle.

Bad stuff

Boot times

Ubuntu 9.04 made a real breakthrough in boot times, cutting them down in half. Ubuntu 9.10 tries to slice the boot times even more by introducing a new, controversial startup service called Upstart, which is supposed to parallelize the initialization of hardware, speeding up the process. However, the invention falls short of its promise.

On my elderly T42, which used to boot Intrepid in about 2 minutes or longer, the boot times are down to 61 seconds, which makes Koala on par with Jaunty. This means there's no major leap in 9.10 compared to 9.04, making the choice of Upstart somewhat vague.

Here's an image of the bootchart profile for Karmic:

Bootchart

On minty, fast machines, like my new laptop, which manages impressive 18 seconds on a 5400rpm disk on the slow end (third boot instance) even with Jaunty, the question of making the boot even faster becomes surplus. The BIOS takes longer than that.

So, it's not that you do not get bad boot times, not at all. You don't get anything better than Jaunty. But you have to deal with a new beast called Upstart.On a side note, we'll have an Upstart tutorial soon, so you will know how to handle it.

GRUB 2

GRUB 2 is not bad, at all. It's the next generation of the superb GRUB bootloader and will one day become the default bootloader for UNIX-like systems. However, the inclusion of GRUB 2 into Ubuntu was bad, for several reasons:

GRUB 2 is not yet production quality

I find the decision to add a beta software (1.97Beta4 version to be exact) into a production release of the most popular Linux distribution a bit hard to swallow. The bootloader is such a critical piece of the system, you don't want any surprises there.

GRUB 2 is harder to use

GRUB 2 requires shell scripting knowledge, which is not a given for many users. Furthermore, the indirect way of GRUB configuration changes, which require updating the menu any time a change is introduced, resembling LILO or software compilations, makes the usage model even more complex.

What more, Ubuntu is a mainstream distribution; most Ubuntu users are less advanced. This means they will have a much harder time troubleshooting GRUB 2 issues than they had with GRUB legacy.

GRUB 2 teaser

But not all is lost. You have my fresh GRUB 2 tutorial to help you, with everything you may want or need, including how to use and configure dual and triple boot, mix GRUB legacy and GRUB 2, boot Windows and Linux side by side and more. Enjoy!

Graphic drivers for old cards & Compiz

On old machines, don't expect any surprises. Your decrepit, dying hardware has been officially abandoned by Ubuntu. Since Jaunty, your perfectly decent machines with somewhat aging graphic cards won't get the right drivers, making them virtually useless.

Luckily, this can be solved by adding some extra repositories and manually installing the missing stuff, as I've shown in my old hardware revival article. You can have the expected results, but this takes extra effort, which really should not be the case.

Compiz

Audio & video drivers and playback

This one is probably the big botch of the autumn release. PulseAudio embarrassed everyone when it stopped working on many machines. Sound became a big, unsolvable issue for loyal Ubuntu users, while problems with Flash installation and video playback added to their misery and confusion.

While other problems can be worked around and leave you with maybe a big headache and some disappointment, the broken multimedia management that has no fix probably resulted in too many users reverting to former releases or trying a different distro altogether. What makes it even sadder is that everything works in Kubuntu. And, for that matter, the latest release of Linux Mint, Helena, which is based on Ubuntu Karmic.

Same distro, different desktop manager, go figure ...

Broken multimedia

Conclusion

Ubuntu 9.10 is a mixed bag of love-hate. On one hand, it makes your old computers boot faster and run faster, more smoothly. On the other, it denies you the pleasure of Compiz and multimedia by removing support for the former and introducing untested versions of unreliable software for the latter. Ah, the slippery road to success! GRUB 2 is more sort of a pedantic observation than a real problem.

The thing is, if you have no problems with video/sound, you're quite lucky, as all other problems are quite solvable. You'll manage Compiz following my tutorial and you'll have a decent distro up and running. The chances are your laptops will also behave more reasonably, with improved suspend and hibernate behavior.

In my original Ubuntu 9.10 review, I recommended users postpone their upgrades until spring 2010, when Lucid Lynx, the next LTS comes out, which should smooth the existing problems and hopefully avoid bringing new ones.

I must say my initial observation still holds. But it depends on one thing - boot from the live CD and check for yourself. If you get sound and video working, if you get prompts for restricted hardware drivers, if your web camera shines back the ugly mugshot of yourself, and you get no errors waking after suspend/hibernate, you're in for a treat.

I hope this article was useful to some of you. Love it or hate it. Ubuntu is still the most popular Linux distribution. And it pulls weight. It has gravity and will dictate a lot of what is about to come in the world of open-source software. As users and customers, we must make sure the Canonical ship steers in the right direction.

Cheers.

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