Ubuntu Desktop: Plenty of sizzle, not much steak

Latest version of free Linux distro offers only minor enhancements

Ubuntu 9.0.4 Desktop, nicknamed Jaunty Jackalope, is likely to continue the Mac-like cult following for Canonical's Debian-based Linux distribution. But there's not a lot new here.

Read a test on the Ubuntu Server.

Released in late April, Ubuntu Desktop does sport some enhancements. Yes, you can get versions for 32-or 64-bit hardware and install the correct version automatically. Yes, you get an update to OpenOffice's suite of office productivity tools. Yes, it boots faster. And yes, the slim-sized Netbook Remix version of Ubuntu Desktop installed handily on our new Dell Inspiron solid state netbook.

But there's not much tremendously new compared with Ubuntu LTS 8.04 (Hardy Heron), which was released in April 2008. The biggest difference is that Ubuntu 9.0.4 supports more Wi-Fi and 3G peripherals. This is likely due to demand because Ubuntu is often deployed on inexpensive notebooks and netbooks. The drivers help, as Ubuntu Desktop supports Skype (given a working network connection) and Adobe Flash (and therefore YouTube Ubuntu users will rejoice).

Many of the desktop components are similar to Novell's SLED 11, including Brasero (a CD/DVD authoring application), Rhythmbox (a music player), Pidgin (IM) and Ekiga for videoconferencing. Videoconferencing was actually simple as Ubuntu Desktop found the built-in cameras in our notebooks and netbooks simply.

Some of Novell SLED 11 security isn't here though. As in Ubuntu Server, passwords have no restrictions or constraints for strength. And like the server version, you can't get root shells without using sudo to get them.

Like Ubuntu Server, Ubuntu Desktop version uses the apt-get file/application retriever and versioning system, although it's possible for users to get and deploy the RedHat Package Manager (RPM) system if they'd prefer. There's a Computer Janitor application that removes trash and older files according to user instructions. It reminded me of Microsoft's janitorial services for Windows desktops and there's little doubt that Linux desktop systems can become as constipated as those running Windows.

There's also a Windows migration tool that can be used to migrate many Windows systems over to Ubuntu, or just 'peacefully' co-exist with Windows, either via a dual-boot system, or by running Windows apps (where compatible) with WINe, an enabler for many Windows APIs and therefore Windows applications.

Much of Ubuntu's popularity stems from its success as the original desktop on several notebooks (sometimes as an option) and netbooks.

Part of what Ubuntu must do is to duplicate functionality without causing a retraining and compatibility crisis — something Microsoft knows all too well. The Ubuntu desktop applications come ever closer to Windows and MacOS. As Novell, Xandros, Apple and others go for the desktop gold, Ubuntu's continuing refinements keep it in strong competition for desktop love.

Henderson and Allen are researchers for ExtremeLabs.Com. They can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

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