- ✓Easy migration from, and co-existence with, Windows
- ✓Better application-level security
- ✓Even easier for non-techies to use
- ✕Free software-only distribution may not have the best drivers for your hardware
Ubuntu keeps the Linux 'release often' tradition alive with version 7.10, codenamed Gutsy Gibbon, which adds some routine upgrades and some new features. The short gap between this and the previous 7.04 release of Ubuntu — only three months separate the two — means that there were never going to be any ground-breaking changes. However, it would be wrong to discount the improvements. As with 7.04, the new version of Ubuntu isn't part of the Long Term Support (LTS) programme, but in this case is supported until 2009 — the same length of time as 6.06 LTS.
Some of the new features in Ubuntu 7.10 are behind-the-scenes technical improvements. Better power management, increased application security, encrypted hard disk support and better thin client support won't make Ubuntu easier to use, but should make living with the OS a more pleasant experience.
If someone is away from their Ubuntu 7.10 machine and has locked their desktop, you can leave a message that will be displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen when they return.
Ubuntu 7.10 comes with GNOME 2.20, the latest version of the desktop environment. This introduces many small productivity improvements, none of which are specific to Ubuntu but are useful nevertheless. Highlights include the ability to leave a note for the owner of a locked workstation, so they know you were looking for them without needing to leave a physical sticky note on their screen; profiling of notebook batteries gives an indication of performance over time — the idea being to warn you when your battery is on its last legs; file management is improved so that recently used files should be easier to find; and you can use search from within the standard file-open dialogue.
Ubuntu now incorporates the Deskbar applet, allowing you to use a number of search or text-triggered services from your desktop.
The new Deskbar applet provides quick access to a number of search services, including desktop and web searches. Deskbar works by having plug-ins for whichever search services you'd like to use, and these aren't limited to standard search engines: you can pass the search string to any application capable of processing the text entered. This means you can, for example, use Deskbar to launch applications by name rather than by finding them in the menu structure.
Unlike Windows' user switching, this can be accessed directly from the Ubuntu desktop — you can also configure exactly how it works.
Fast user switching has been added to the user interface, so multiple users can be logged into the machine at the same time in the same way as Windows. It's accessible directly from the desktop, by clicking on your own name in the toolbar in the default configuration. You're presented with a drop-down list of the registered users on your machine to choose from. You can configure whether you need to enter your password on subsequent fast switches.
Another simplification is with local printer installation, which is now, it is claimed, completely automatic. We tried this with an Epson Stylus Photo R800, a USB printer, and it did indeed work perfectly. In this particular case we needed to tweak the printer settings slightly, but this was due to it being a photo printer — the default of A4 plain paper wasn't appropriate.
Although previous versions of Ubuntu could read data from a NTFS volume, 7.10 includes the ability to write to them as well, clearing a significant interoperability hurdle. This has been achieved by incorporating code from the NTFS-3G project. This makes it easier to share data between the Windows and Linux halves of a dual-boot machine. Since Windows is unable to read Linux disk partitions without add-on software, you have to rely on the Linux side to do all the interoperating. You could use FAT partitions to share data between operating systems, but NTFS is the default file system for Windows XP and Vista, and is much more secure than FAT32.
We tried this with an XP-formatted NTFS volume, and apart from needing the administrative password to use the feature, we were able to read and write to the disk without any further configuration. The need for the admin password prevents this being too much of a security risk, but be aware that this could be a good way to trash your windows installation if you're very careless.
The AppArmor framework has now been incorporated into Ubuntu by default — previous versions either didn't support it or required you to compile a new kernel manually. AppArmor is a security system, using the Linux Security Modules interface, that uses a set of profiles to prevent programs accessing files that they have no business accessing. This is often used to prevent network-based attacks against services running on a Linux machine, but could when configured appropriately even stop data loss through user error. On our review installation, the CUPS printer service was protected by AppArmor by default.
Should you upgrade to Ubuntu 7.10? If you're already on an earlier version, there's no reason not to — this isn't a significant enough upgrade to cause any worries. If you're on an old version of Windows, then there's now even more in Ubuntu to make switching operating systems easier.