Over the past decade, Linux has emerged from a herd of obscure and nerdy operating systems to warrant a place in even the most technologically unsophisticated business environments. And in the past three years, a few distributions have made stupendous leaps in performance and usability, winning the affection of millions of mainstream desktop users.
The recent releases of Ubuntu 8.04 and Fedora 9.0 - two top Linux distributions - mark another step forward in the evolution of the Linux desktop. I've been running both of them to see which offers the better blend of usability and advanced features.
Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron
Since the release of version 5.10 (aka Breezy Badger) in 2005, Ubuntu Linux has stood apart from hundreds of other Linux distributions, capturing the attention of penguin heads and of users seeking a free, stable, usable alternative to Microsoft Windows.
With its click-and-go Live CD installation and its support for a broad base of hardware devices, Ubuntu built a reputation for ease of use that changed the way many people think about Linux.
The latest version of Ubuntu, 8.04 (aka Hardy Heron, or just Hardy for short), builds strongly on the foundation laid by its predecessors. This release is a Long Term Support edition, to be supported until April 2011, and Hardy Heron shows more polish and refinement than any other Linux distribution I've seen.
The operating system comes packed with new features, beginning with a revised kernel (2.6.24), the latest version of Xorg (7.3), and the most recent Gnome desktop interface (2.22.1). On top of these advances, Hardy offers several new default applications, including Brasero for CD/DVD burning, the Transmission BitTorrent client, and Vinagre virtual network computing software for remote desktop viewing.
You also get support for enhanced security via SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) - but in Ubuntu 8.04 it's not installed by default, as it is in Fedora 9.0.
From the get-go, the Hardy Heron experience is smooth. I installed it on several machines, including an aging laptop with a Via graphics controller that's notorious for making a hash of things in Linux. Each installation found and recognized all of my hardware without requiring a reboot.
Even my media card slot, which Windows can never locate a driver for on its own, worked right off the bat. Existing Ubuntu users enjoy even slicker installation: the Hardy Heron upgrade comes through the Update Manager, and one click initiates a totally automated - albeit fairly long - upgrade process that leaves all of the user's data in place.
Ubuntu's automated Hardware Drivers utility seeks out proprietary drivers for devices in your system, simplifying the task of grabbing the latest proprietary nVidia driver, for instance, so that you can enable Desktop Effects.
Some hard-core open-source advocates disapprove of Ubuntu's compromise with the closed-source world, but end users who care more about usability than ideology will find this arrangement a boon.
Apart from the new default apps, Ubuntu hasn't changed much in overall look and feel this time around. Sure, there's artsy heron-themed wallpaper, but longtime Ubuntu desktop users will find little else to poke at in this version. That development indicates that Ubuntu has matured to the point where it can focus on refining its feature set rather than massively reworking its elements in each new version.
The changes in the default apps seem judicious rather than sweeping. Brasero, for instance, is a far more complete disc-burning utility than Serpentine, the relatively simple CD burner found in previous versions of Ubuntu.
Hardy Heron still lacks a few features that I had hoped to see as defaults by now, such as a Desktop Effects Manager for Gnome. Downloading Compiz Configuration Settings Manager through apt-get (the command-line tool for handling packages) isn't hard, but it should really be there in the first place. Without it, newbies have no idea how to turn on the desktop cube they've heard so much about. Also still absent is a decent theme manager to take advantage of Desktop Effects.
Minor quibbles aside, Ubuntu 8.04 is the best-assembled and most polished Linux distribution I've ever used. Ubuntu 8.04 performs well where Windows XP and Vista screech to a halt, particularly on older hardware. And since it comes with OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Evolution Mail, and a host of other apps right out of the box, it may be the best way to breathe new life into a seemingly moribund PC.
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