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Ubuntu 14.04 LTS: Linux for the Long Run?
A new version of Ubuntu Linux is out, 14.04 LTS, and the big question is: Is this the operating system you'll want to use long-term? I'm aware, as no doubt you are as well, that Ubuntu's long term support releases target stability over the freshness of software and features, and given the five years of support slated for 14.04 it definitely won't be fresh by the time it reaches end of life. But it is fresh now, so veteran Ubuntu users, or those considering using the operating system for the first time, need to see what we've got here.
What's New in 14.04?
Eyeing Ubuntu in anticipation of significant changes is like watching for a pot to boil... it doesn't happen. There is really nothing of consequence new in 14.04, but that won't keep enthusiastic sorts from singing the praises the few subtle changes that have been implemented. One of the most significant changes is the option to having application menus appear at the top of the app's window rather in the top panel. So after having forced users to use the Mac-like menu location for what seems ages, now you have the ability to go with a more Windows-like style. Also, application windows have lost their 1px border and anti-aliasing has been applied to the corners. As I said, subtle.
But there are less superficial changes as well, including an upgrade to Linux kernel 3.13.0-24 and a significantly refreshed software repository. Ubuntu is usually slow about integrating updated software, but this time, due no doubt to the long-term nature of the release, they've given this considerable attention. Gamers will appreciate that they've even gotten around to bringing in the latest, albeit a year old, update to the first person shooter, Sauerbraten.
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS can be installed from the same media as other Linux distributions, and as is my habit I burned the 64-bit ISO to a DVD. If you're not familiar with this process, you can search the trusty ol' internet for instructions on how to do this with your current operating system. (If you currently use some form of Linux, the programs Xfburn, Brasero, or K3B will handle this task nicely) Of course your computer will have to be able to boot from a DVD, and if it isn't configured to do so by default you'll need to change that in your bios setup. The procedure for entering bios setup varies from one pc to the next, but it often involves holding the F1 key (or F2, or Delete, or Esc, etc.) during bootup.
Once you boot your machine with the DVD you'll be presented with the choice to “Try Ubuntu” or “Install Ubuntu”, so I bravely selected the second option. (nothing ventured nothing gained, right?) During the course of the install you are presented certain options, beginning with “download updates while installing” and “install 3rd party software”, and there are boxes to check to confirm these selections. I checked both. You'll also be presented with disk partitioning options, and this is where you can opt to install Ubuntu along-side your existing OS, replace the existing OS, or to set up the custom partitioning scheme of your choosing. I selected to erase the disk and install, which lets Ubuntu configure the partitions automatically. While the install is underway you'll be asked to fill in some particulars like your location (most likely pre-detected by Ubuntu), your full name, the computer name (use the default or enter the name of your choice), and finally the username and password of your choosing.
Once you boot into your shiny new system you'll want to look around, kick the tires as it were, and get a feel for the “Unity” desktop. For the uninitiated, Unity is probably the most disliked desktop environment in existence, but give it a chance. Once you've gotten the appropriate programs locked to the launcher, and have removed the ones you don't need (ahem... like the Amazon launcher), you'll find yourself developing a reasonably fluid work-flow.
You should soon be presented with another round of updates to perform, as indicated by a bouncing “A” icon (on an olive green background) that appears in the launcher, and having completed that task you'll want to open the Software Center to peruse all the nifty applications that you can install. One you're sure to want is the “Restricted Extras”, which will install a number of things that Ubuntu can't legally package with their OS, including support for the MP3 format, DVD playback, Flash, and Microsoft TrueType fonts.
You may have a favorite browser and, assuming it's not the pre-installed Firefox, you'll want to search the Software Center for it. Unfortunately you won't find my personal favorite, Google Chrome, but you will be able to install the open source version, Chromium. There are those who will argue strenuously that Chromium is the same as Chrome minus the Google branding, but I've not found that to be the case, with Chromium often exhibiting problems with Flash content. Fortunately it's easy to install Chrome, as you can get it straight from Google, where clicking “Download” will initiate the installation within the Software Center.
About the Software Center
While we're talking about Software Center, it should be said that it's the best looking software repository you're ever likely to see, but that's not to say that it's not without its flaws. From its inception the Software Center has proven to be rather unstable, and to be honest it's been my observation that it's getting worse rather than better. Sometimes a process will simply stall, resulting in the window and its contents morphing to a sickly gray. I don't know if this “gray means crash” was someone's idea of a comic touch, but it surely lets you know that the Software Center isn't feeling well! Thankfully this malady is usually remedied by closing and reopening the center.
Remember how I said that getting the Google Chrome browser was as easy as going to Google, selecting “Download”, and watching Software Center handle the install? Well, that works with the default browser, Mozilla Firefox. But should you try such an install while using Chrome, as I did when attempting to install the Wuala cloud storage app, you'll find it doesn't work at all. I haven't a clue as to why this is the case, and it doesn't concern me enough to figure it out, as there is seldom a time that I need something that Software Center doesn't offer.
Another curious, and downright disconcerting, aspect of Software Center is the integration with Ubuntu's departing “Ubuntu One.” Rather like Apple's Apple ID, Ubuntu One was conceived as a single login to facilitate purchases of apps and music, as well as for logging into the Ubuntu Forums. But what has surely thrown the uninitiated for a loop is the verbiage that says you're going to “buy” the software when installing certain apps, in spite of the fact that they are in fact free. No, you won't be charged, but this janky process does necessitate logging in with an Ubuntu One account, and I can only imagine how many first-timers run for the hills when presented with this spammy dog-and-pony show.
Once everything is configured to your liking, how's this beast to live with? In brief, Ubuntu 14.04 is reasonably stable and can do everything one could ask of an operating system. Surprisingly, a couple of missteps over the past couple of years haven't hurt Ubuntu's credibility, and that's were its strength lies: it's been the top-dog Linux distribution for a long time. There is just no other distro that provides such easy access to so many free applications, and no other that has so large a user base to help you should a problem arise. Make no mistake, if you're new to Linux it's good to have friends, and with Ubuntu you'll have many.
As with any Linux distro, the user can change most any aspect of the OS that offends, including the sticky-sweet orange and magenta desktop wallpaper. But two nagging problems for many folk are more hard-wired to Ubuntu, those being the high memory overhead and the Unity desktop. Things tend to happen slowly in 14.04, although programs do seem to respond at least a little quicker than in 13.10. And Unity, while being a fully functioning DE, it does take two or three clicks more than normal to accomplish some tasks. But not all is lost, as those seeking a faster system with a cleaner desktop can give Xubuntu, an official Ubuntu variant with the XFCE desktop environment, a try. It's quite the snappy performer, and XFCE is just the ticket for folks that see this as a more professional-grade desktop.
The Bottom Line
As I see it there's nothing about Ubuntu 14.04 that should sway anyone one way or the other. If running Ubuntu suits your fancy then there's certainly nothing here that should dissuade you, and the updated kernel and software repository are certainly welcomed. Of course if you aren't already an Ubuntu fan then your stance isn't liable to change. This is a solid but conservative release, one that looses some of its relevance in light of the major changes just visible on the horizon in the form of the Mir display driver and Unity 8 desktop.