Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nano-review of Ubuntu 7.10 alpha 5, part 2

After booting this release of Ubuntu on a machine with an ATI graphics card, I moved over to my other box that has an nVidia-based Gigabyte 7600 GS AGP video card. I had no idea how Ubuntu would handle this card in a live situation. When I installed 7.04 on the machine it had, at the time, an older ATI 9600 SE video card. I replaced the ATI with nVidia after 7.04 was fully installed to take advantage of the nVidia graphics drivers.

The earlier experience with 7.10 and the ATI 9700 Pro was surprisingly good. The free driver gave me full resolution, and the desktop graphics effects were enabled and working. I was expecting a similar experience with the nVidia card. Unfortunately, it was not to be. When 7.10 booted, the desktop was in stock 1280 x 1024 resolution, and even though the Desktop effects tab showed normal effects, there were no effects. What immediately showed up on the desktop after boot was a notice that restricted drivers were available (see below). I found it odd that the notice was on the left of the screen instead of beneath the restricted drivers icon on the upper right of the screen. But it is, after all, an alpha.


Clicking the icon on the upper right in the upper panel kicked off the following sequence of dialogs.






The final dialog (Restricted Drivers, see below) provides a little lecture about the evils and problems of proprietary drivers. As a user of Ubuntu and long-time dabbler with similar distributions, I have seen this type of dialog (and warning) for years. And I believe it's time to drop it and move on. This type of language does not motivate the general Linux using public to rush out and convince ATI (AMD) and nVidia to release free and open versions of their drivers. Instead, it makes them pause and wonder what's wrong. And many then move back to Windows or another distribution (such as Suse) that don't seem to have this problem. The time has long since passed for this nonsense to stop on our end. If we continue with the attitude that it's free or nothing with video drivers, then Linux will continue to remain a niche desktop system no matter who is pushing us, or how hard. And that would be a shame. Ubuntu and other contemporary Linux distributions show considerable polish and quality. The attitude we show towards binary-only drivers, especially video drivers which we need now more than ever, is the proverbial cutting off our noses to spite our faces.


After installing the video drivers the installation process suggests a reboot of the system. You can't reboot the live session, because you haven't really installed the driver on the boot device; the boot device being a CDROM. Instead, I took a chance and rebooted the X desktop with [Ctrl][Alt][Backspace]. That was enough to enable partial functionality, specifically the graphical desktop effects I'd experienced on the ATI desktop. But once again we get a "restricted driver in use" bubble on the upper right desktop, which just happens to hide the bubble telling us a reboot is needed to fully enable those restricted drivers.


And finally, some simpler applications showcasing the graphical desktop effects such as transparency in the window borders, shadowing behind the windows, and real transparency in the shell window.


Normal desktop effects with a decent graphics card has come a long way in Ubuntu. When enabled the look is nothing short of beautiful, and in my eyes begins to rival the look you see on a Mac OS X desktop. It exudes a visual quality that all desktops will benefit from once it becomes widespread.

I also like the subtlety with which the features are offered. To my taste I believe they should be a little more configurable, but as Apple has shown so many times, less can be better than more. Far better. In spite of the lecturing on the evils of closed drivers, Ubuntu still makes it easy and straightforward to install said drivers, easier than say openSuse 10.2.

One other surprising note. Being a developer of sorts, I was surprised to see that Ubuntu is sticking with gcc 4.1.3 instead of moving to the 4.2.x release (4.2.1 being the current release). Release 4.2 has been out for a while, so I'm curious to read about (or hear from someone) why they continue to stay with 4.1, and if they have plans to move up to 4.2.

Overall I believe the progress between Ubuntu 7.04 and 7.10 to be quite good. Ubuntu, like any other distribution, is both a stand-alone product as well as a focal point for many supporting software technologies. The 'ecology' underlying all distributions is broad, deep, and rich. Across the board I see a constant maturing and polishing taking place, leading to a wave of distribution releases over the next six to twelve months that I believe will make a lot of folks quite happy. This strong diversity in the Linux ecology helps to create real differences between distributions to support real choice, rather than the stilted artificiality found with Windows. Putting aside the rancor and the politics of the first half of this year, everyone should stand back and truly appreciate what has been accomplished to date. I know that I do.