Windows is maintaining its monopoly in desktop computer operating systems by a country mile, with Mac OS X some way behind in marketshare. But there is a third way that gets closer to domestic reality every year.
That way is Linux, and in particular Ubuntu Linux. This season’s release – version 10.10 and codenamed Maverick Meerkat – is undoubtedly the finest iteration we’ve used to date.
Fair enough, any OS refresh is supposed to raise the game each time in performance or usability. Yet we sense a very real transition occurred with Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat. Its added polish in crucial areas is making it an eminently attractive proposition as the operating system for your desktop or notebook PC.
Far removed from the techy interface of yore, Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat is the Linux for all the family.
Maverick Meerkat: Lucid beginnings
At first glance, Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat looks very similar to the major update we saw in spring this year, Lucid Lynx 10.04. That revision saw the end of the muddy brown theme that, while perhaps in keeping with the system’s African-philosophy allusions, was not especially enticing to some people.
Linux may boast endless customisation possibilities, particularly of its graphical interface, but Ubuntu is aimed squarely at users who want a more pret à porter experience.
Changing your desktop wallpaper is just the first stage to endless personalisation options in Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat
So now upon startup of Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat, we’re presented with a more regal purple desktop and orange folder icons and details, alongside charcoal-grey top menu bar and drop down menus. But before we see any of that, we must first install the OS — or at least boot from a live CD.
Like most Linux systems, Ubuntu is free to download and install. The principal version available from the company’s website is Ubuntu Desktop Edition 10.10 32-bit, which is a 693MB download. This can either be burned to a 700MB CD-R or copied to a USB memory stick. Ubuntu provides straightforward instructions for this operation using your existing Windows, Mac or Linux computer.
A 64-bit version of Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat is also available, plus the latest netbook-optimised version. Previously dubbed Ubuntu Netbook Remix, the new Ubuntu Netbook Edition and its novel Unity interface will be the subject of a separate review at PC Advisor.
We’d advise first simply booting from the live OS, if only to get an idea of how well the hardware of your PC is supported out of the box. This is especially pertinent with laptops since they carry many more items of hardware with which to interface than a desktop PC.
The usual grumble points for Linux in the past have been graphics drivers, WiFi wireless adaptor support, and then various peripherals such as Bluetooth, trackpad, and keyboard control of screen brightness and speaker volume.
We didn’t get off to such a great start though, when we tried Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat on our first testbeds, namely three Samsung laptops and netbooks.
Maverick Meerkat: A tale of three laptops
A Samsung R510, which has been running Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope with some success, had issues with its keyboard brightness controls, locking up the interface and requiring a hard reboot to restore control. However, everything else was supported, even its microphone which had failed to connect with the older OS.
A Samsung N510 proved to be beyond easy setup, due to an unsupported Realtek wireless card. This could be remedied with a custom compiling of driver from source code, although this hardcore fix also carries the risk of breaking with any future OS update.
And a Samsung N110 netbook initially had problems with its keyboard brightness/volume controls, although that smaller gripe was resolved after a BIOS update from Samsung.
But it was the remainder of our tests that restored faith in the fitness of Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat for primetime use.
Notebooks we tried from Packard Bell and Sony all functioned splendidly. In the case of the latter Sony VAIO notebook, its internal 3G HSDPA modem was immediately recognised and the machine was online with a Three SIM after just a few clicks and no further configuration. That particular out-the-box 3G network support is unheard of in either Windows or the Mac OS.
A Parallels virtual machine ran well once Parallels Desktop for Mac 6 had been patched to support Meerkat. The latter still had minor graphics issues, but those seem to be from Parallels Tools' incomplete support.
Even battery level meters, another occasional stumbling point, were found to be working well on each notebook.
‘If you have to look at the command-line interface [when running Ubuntu], it’s a bug as far as we’re concerned’, Steve George, Ubuntu’s Vice President for Business Development told PC Advisor. And judged by that metric, we found installation of Ubuntu on all manner of PCs a resounding success.
There should be no need to use the command-line Terminal just to set up Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat - but it's easily accessible if you should wish to tinker
NEXT PAGE: The installation process and Ubuntu One >>
The installer runs smoothly, and can be easily run on an existing Windows PC using the graphical interface to safely partition the internal hard drive. Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat also installs the Grub bootloader, enabling you to keep more than one operating system side-by-side on the same PC.
On each subsequent restart of the computer, you're presented with a text screen from which you select whether to boot into Ubuntu or other OS such as Windows. This text interface could be a little geeky for some users, and is overdue for Ubuntu's graphical facelift.
Now with Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat, you’re offered the chance to download and install recent running updates during the install process. On each machine we tried, though, it temporarily lost the wireless password we’d typed in after booting from the live CD, so without internet connectivity we had to update manually later anyway.
Lucid Lynx saw the start of Ubuntu’s new cloud service, Ubuntu One, with its offering of a free account with 2GB online storage. One killer feature is the ability to synchronise files between computers: an Ubuntu One link at the top of all your folders in the home directory means you can easily keep documents in-sync.
Keeping your documents in sync between different PCs is a doddle in Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat
Ubuntu is trying to build on its new music download service with a mobile streaming service. Free apps are available for Android and iOS to let you play music stored in your Ubuntu One cloud directly to your phone.
It’s not free, however — one month’s subscription costs $3.99. You can also stream tracks from your own collection by copying to and syncing MP3s in your home directory's Music folder.
You can also take out an annual subscription for $39.99, but we wonder if £27 a year might be a little rich for most users' needs to simply stream their own music.
We tried using the Apple iPhone app, which successfully found a music track we’d bought a few months ago from Ubuntu’s media partner Digital One. It started to play on our phone; less successfully, it had to buffer midway through even with a WiFi connection, then refused to pause on request after it had resumed. Some button clicking later, the app gracefully quit.
This - hopefully teething - problem apart, we generally found the Ubuntu One cloud to work well. Directories sychronised, if not immediately then usually wthin a few minutes. Like Apple’s MobileMe service, a webpage interface shows you full details of your account any time you need to check your settings.
Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat ties in closer with the Ubuntu One cloud service
More storage than the complimentary 2GB can be bought, a 20GB upgrade pack costing $2.99 month or $29.99 a year.
Maverick Meerkat: Ubuntu Font and free apps
Other material differences to this new Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat include a friendly interface system font, taken from the Ubuntu Font Family designed by London font foundry Dalton Maag.
Included apps in Ubuntu Linux Maverick Meerkat are the usual roster of free open-source software, including OpenOffice 3.2, Evolution Mail for email, Firefox 3.6, Rhythmbox Music Player and Tomboy Notes - the latter integrating neatly with the Ubuntu One sync service.
The photo manager used for downloading and browsing pictures from a digital camera has changed, with Shotwell now substituting for Lucid Lynx's F-Spot.
NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>
Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat: Specs
- x86 processor
- 256MB RAM recommended
- 1GB drive space
- x86 processor
- 256MB RAM recommended
- 1GB drive space
The look and feel of Ubuntu gets closer to Mac OS X with each release — and with it, some of Apple’s ‘just works’ capabilities too. It’s for this increased simplicity of operation and more intuitive and friendly interfacing with the user that Ubuntu Linux 10.10 Maverick Meerkat should find much wider appeal. There’s an audience that is resisting the higher entry price of the Macintosh and is tired of the insecurity of Windows, for whom the Meerkat offers a real third way.