Ubuntu Linux 12.10 review: Better, but slower

The newest version of Ubuntu Linux is almost here and it's looking pretty good, but it also has some quirks and it's slower than I'd like.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Say hello to the newest Ubuntu Linux: Quantal Quetzal.

On October 18th, Ubuntu 12.10, the latest and greatest version of this popular Linux distribution arrives. On the eve of its arrival, it's looking pretty good, but it's far from flawless.

There's been a lot of fussing over Ubuntu's business-related changes. Some people are upset that Ubuntu is actively soliciting donations. Others aren't happy with how Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, is dealing with Microsoft attempt to block other operating systems from Windows 8 PCs with UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) Secure Boot.. And, probably the most people were upset with Ubuntu's attempt to add Amazon search results by default to Ubuntu searches.

Those are all noteworthy issues, but they are also beside the main point: This is a new release of Ubuntu. What's new in it? How good it is? I've been using Ubuntu 12.10, aka "Quantal Quetzal, since its first beta and, hours before it's official release, I can safely say that this is a newer, better Ubuntu... for most users.

Slideshow: Say hello to Ubuntu 12.10 Linux

Let's start with the basics. I primarily tested Ubuntu 12.10 on my Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This PC has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. I also tested it on a variety of other PCs, primarily my old Lenovo ThinkPad R61. This 2008-vintage notebook is powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and has 2GBs of RAM.

Underneath the new Ubuntu's hood, you'll find the 3.5.4 Linux kernel. On top of that, you'll find GNOME 3.6 applications and libraries. What you won't find, of course, is the GNOME 3.6 shell itself. Ubuntu gave up, as many other Linux users and developers have, on the GNOME 3.x interface. GNOME still serves as the foundation though for Ubuntu's Unity and Head Up Display (HUD) interface.

Ubuntu hasn't embraced all of GNOME 3.6 for its under-pinnings though. After toying with the idea of adding the widely disliked GNOME Nautilus 3.6 file manager to Ubuntu, the programmers wisely walked away from that notion and returned to the more usable Nautilus 3.4 file manager.

Canonical had also intended to move Ubuntu to Python 3.2, but they were not "able to convert everything to Python 3 for Ubuntu 12.10." So, for now at least Python 2 will continue to be supported. Eventually, though, if you're building applications with Python, you won't be able to rely on Python 2 being there by default for you.

As for programs for those of who don't like getting our hands dirty with deep technology, Ubuntu 12.10 includes the latest versions of many popular Linux desktop applications. These include: Firefox 16.01; LibreOffice 3.6.2, and Thunderbird 16.01. For movies, Ubuntu is using Totem; for photography, it's Shotwell; and for music, it's Rhythmbox. If you want other programs, I know I do, it's easy enough to install your preferred apps. For me, for instance, I much prefer Banshee for music and Evolution for e-mail.

That said, what's new and interesting here. For starters, there are more "lens," special purpose search result windows in the HUD dash. With them you can now search for your songs, videos, apps, documents, and photos. You can also search not only on your PC and network drives but on Web sites as well. So, for example with photos you can search for your images by name, tag or Exchangeable image file format (EXIF) data and on Facebook and Flickr.

Once, you've found what you might be searching for, you can also now do a quick, right-click preview look to see if the file you really want. It's a nice feature, but it does make the screen a little cluttered and I, for one, don't need to see full-screen previews every time I look a brief look at a file.

Ubuntu is also continuing to integrate the Web into the desktop in other ways. While it hasn't gone as far as Google Chromebooks or the Ubuntu-based Peppermint desktop Linux, you can engage with such services as Facebook, Twitter, Last.FM, and Google+ from the desktop. This integration, which relies on Firefox, works fairly well, but it can take a bit since Firefox isn't that fast anymore. These services are on top of the Ubuntu One cloud storage and music streaming service.

One result of all this "live" Web activity is that Ubuntu is no longer directly supporting PCs that don't have 3D graphic acceleration. Instead, it uses Gallium llvmpipe, a 3D software graphics accelerator to support a common version of Unity for all PCs. That's great for developers, but it's not so hot for those of us using older hardware.

I found Ubuntu 12.10 to look and feel slower than Ubuntu 12.04.1, the recently released long term support of Ubuntu. I also found some other video quirks that may or may not be related to the shift to llvmpipe. These have included videos played by Totem playing in very dark tones and my Dell system's inability to stay at its maximum resolution.

All-in-all, I like this new Ubuntu. I must say though that I don't love it. It's not the interface, Unity, unlike GNOME 3.x or Microsoft's Metro, is useful. Mind you, I still prefer a more traditional desktop interface such as Cinnamon, but Unity with its multitude of lens can be very handy. In particular, I think new users will like it.

No, the real problem is that Ubuntu is just slower than I expect a Linux distribution to be on older, slower hardware. I'm sure it will be fine on newer, faster PCs, but one of the things I've always liked about Linux is how it's let me extend the lifespan of my PCs for years more than Windows or Mac OS X would. That's just not the case with Ubuntu 12.10.

So, my recommendation is that if you have a newish PC, go ahead and give Ubuntu 12.10 a try. If not, then either stick with what you've got or give a distribution such as Linux Mint a try. Its newest edition may be months old now, but it's still my best Linux desktop of 2012.

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