- Quick and easy to install
- Can be installed from within Windows
- Many user interface improvements
- Strong set of bundled applications
- Long-term support
- Known and unfixed bug prevents connection to a Windows/SMB/CIFS share
- Beta version of Firefox 3 included
Editor's note: This is an amended version of the original review, following further testing.
The Ubuntu update machine remains locked to its six-monthly cycle, more or less, with the release of Hardy Heron, officially labelled Ubuntu 8.04. With such regular spurts of evolution, there's far more in common with the last version — Gutsy Gibbon (Ubuntu 7.10) — than there is different. 8.04 is a Long Term Support (LTS) release, so parent company Canonical is promising support for three years on desktops and five on servers. The last LTS release was 6.06, nearly two years ago: we are still running that release as a domestic media file server, where it's currently clocked up 150 days of uptime.
We installed 8.04 over 7.10 using the update-manager -d command; that, a couple of mouse clicks and twenty minutes plus a restart was all it took to refresh the installation. Curious Windows users can try the live CD, as before, but 8.04 also includes Wubi. That installs Ubuntu as a file under Windows, and then sets up dual-boot: you can run the operating system on your computer almost exactly as if it were fully installed, without touching your existing Windows setup. Finally, 8.04 runs perfectly happily on any of the normal virtual machine packages.
Our initial impression of 8.04 is that it has made useful improvements in the overall feel of the system. Screen control is much improved — Canonical hasn't quite got rid of the demonic xorg.conf configuration file which controls screens, keyboards and the like, but it has created a much more efficient monitor resolution and refresh rate applet. Likewise the Compiz wobbly window/3D interface is fully integrated and enabled, albeit at a restrained level.
We did find some unfortunate interactions on our graphics hardware — Intel's embedded 82865G chipset — between the resolution change applet and Compiz. If we had the higher levels of Compiz enabled and moved from 800 by 600 resolution up to 1,280 by1,024, the active screen size remained at 800 by 600, sitting in the top left corner of the screen. This annoyance is easy to fix by disabling and re-enabling Compiz around the resolution change, but it's a sign that there's still work to do.
As before, Ubuntu ships with a full set of applications: OpenOffice.org 2.4.0, the GIMP image editor (2.4.5) and a mixture of multimedia players: new to this release are F-Spot (photo manager), Vinagre (multi-session VNC viewer) and Brasero (CD/DVD burner) There's a nifty multi-timezone clock (although it thinks the only Barcelona in the world is in Venezuela) and a security policy manager: of course, if you don't like any of the above you're free to supplement them with any or all of the 24,865 packages currently listed in the Synoptics applications manager.
One controversial update is the inclusion of Firefox 3 beta 5 in the 8.04 distribution. Canonical decided that the beta is close enough to release that having Firefox 3 (FF 3) from the outset made more sense than imposing a major upgrade so close to the launch of the operating system itself. Although FF 3 is getting a good reception in general and seems more stable, faster and less memory-hungry than its predecessor, it's still not entirely ready. We found printing web pages notably slow, for example and a lot of Firefox extensions aren't yet ready — including the indispensible Foxmarks bookmark synchroniser. Anyone considering Ubuntu 8.04 for an enterprise roll-out will want to wait for FF 3 to settle in.
Other improvements seem minor but make a big difference. A lot of system utilities have been cleaned up and given cleaner, more functional interfaces, while the integral document viewer has been speeded up and made better at handling PDF files. Together with 8.04's adoption of the Linux Kernel 2.6.24-12.23 and GNOME 2.22 (the latter accounting for many of the user interface improvements), the overall effect is of an operating system of considerable robustness, responsiveness and capability. This may be the first Linux distribution which is grandmother-capable — that mythical state of compatibility with the unique skill sets of elderly relatives.
Unfortunately, this may not be true if your grandmother expects to connect to a Windows/SMB/CIFS share. After upgrading, we discovered that we couldn't connect to our corporate servers with 8.04, despite having no problems with 7.10 and previous versions. Upon investigation, this proved due to a known and unfixed bug related to GNOME 2.22's new virtual filing system and Active Directory, which fails to establish authentication properly under various conditions. While this bug is extant, Hardy Heron cannot be recommended for enterprise use.
With that bug excepted — and it is a showstopper, which should not have been left unfixed — Hardy Heron is a worthy upgrade to a great operating system. For those not reliant on Windows shares, then it's an easy decision to move onto 8.04, or to use this as the excuse to try Ubuntu for the first time. However, caution is required for any mission-critical work: it'll be best to wait for the release to bed in and get tested further in the real world.
For more images of Ubuntu 8.04, see our screenshot gallery.