Friday, February 22, 2008

Alpha spotting: Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 5

Ubuntu 8.04, a.k.a. Hardy Heron, Alpha 5 hit the wires late Friday evening. I downloaded my copy around 8pm Orlando local time (EST). After super and kitchen duty I sat down and ran the release around the four systems I have at home to see how it worked.

It's definitely an alpha, and a very raw alpha. Unlike my experiences with 7.04 and 7.10, the testing of the 8.04 alphas has been much rougher, so rough in fact that I probably won't upgrade to 8.04 until the final release. And that's assuming that openSUSE 11 is another disaster like 10.3 was.

The four test computers consist of two desktops and two notebooks. All the computers are 32-bit, and only one, the M685 Gateway, is a dual core (Intel Core Duo). All the computers run Linux, and three of the four dual-boot between Windows XP SP2 and Linux. The notebooks dual boot between WinXP and openSUSE 10.2, and the desktops run Ubuntu 7.10. All operating systems are running with the latest patches from their respective suppliers.

Boot Up

Initial Screen

When you first boot into Alpha 5 you're presented with a confusing menu that is spread all over the screen. It took me a few confused seconds before I realized I was being asked for my native language. This is an excellent idea, but the implementation is so poor. It lies on top of the boot menu, which you can see 'sticking out' from underneath the language selection menu. The default selection is English. Off to the left you see a 30 second timer running down to 0. For a user with any experience it didn't take long to figure it all out. However for a newcomer with no Ubuntu experience this is going to cause some degree of confusion, to the point that the 30 second timeout will run out before they make a selection. This might work fine for English speakers but not so for others. I sure hope they fix the presentation of this menu before release, because it's a real mess right now.

Graphic Bootup

X1950 Pro (desktop), Go 7800), and on the much older desktops My four computers each have four different video cards: nVidia 7600GS (desktop), ATI/AMDATI/AMD Mobility X700 (M680 notebook), and nVidia GeForce Go 7800 (M685 notebook). Only the M680 with the X700 boots Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 5 into a fully functional desktop. By fully functional I mean with correct resolution (in this case 1680 x 1050) and with full effects (Compiz) enabled. Ubuntu failed with a black screen on the M685 (GeForce Go 7800), came up in failsafe mode with the 7600GS (800 x 600) and in very high resolution (1920 x 1440) but with effects disabled on the X1950 Pro. That's right. Based on my admittedly small sample of video hardware that's been released in the last three years, only one of the systems worked at full capability.

This is not the first time I've had these problems. I've been complaining that all the distributions have had video problems since late last year, starting with Fedora 8, Ubuntu 7.10, and openSUSE 10.3. They are regressions and they can all be traced back to the up-stream changes in Xorg. Earlier releases of these distributions (Fedora 7, Ubuntu 7.04, and openSUSE 10.2) had no issues. We're now testing the next cycle of releases, and once again Fedora 9 alpha and openSUSE 11 alphas exhibit the same video card problems that Ubuntu 8.04 currently exhibits. Somebody somewhere better start paying attention to this, because I'm not the only one documenting this. These are the kind of problems that drive people nuts and away from Linux and back to Windows.

I did manage to get the M685 to boot in failsafe mode after deciphering from the cryptic comment on the boot screen (after language selection) to press F4. Sure enough I got a little menu that allowed me to select failsafe graphics, and I was able to boot the system.

Networking

Hardwired networking seems to work, but wireless does not. On both notebooks I can set them up to use my wireless home connection and they'll indicate they are connected and have an excellent signal. But try to use them (Firefox) and you don't get anywhere. This is a regression from alpha 4, in which wired and wireless networking worked just fine. The M680 has an Intel PRO 2200BG wireless chip set and the M685 has an Intel PRO 3945ABG chip set. They work flawlessly under both WinXP and openSUSE 10.2.

Miscellaneous

The default wallpaper is certainly a welcome change from the defaults of the past. It's nothing to change it after installation, but the selections of the past have left a lot to be desired in my not so humble opinion. And again I'm not the only one to complain about the human theme. And speaking of themes, how about adding Nodoka as an option, if not the default? Introduced with Fedora 8, I like it so much that I've got it installed on my Ubuntu 7.10 systems.

Maybe it's the fact I couldn't connect, but I'm not too crazy about Firefox 3. I've tested beta 3 on Ubuntu 7.10 so I have had some exposure to it. But after having nearly all my plugins blocked because there are no current updates, I've begun to develop a strong resistance to moving to Firefox 3, a resistance similar to what I have for Internet Explorer 7. Right now Firefox 2 works just fine and all my Firefox plugins work just fine, thank you very much. I'm now waiting for the final release of Firefox 3 before I even consider a move. I'll test it on Ubuntu first before I even show it to my Windows installations.

Unlike the Ubuntu 7.04 and 7.10 alphas, the Ubuntu 8.04 alpha series is very rough and should not be installed without very careful consideration. Two strong reasons (at least for me) to consider moving up right now is kernel 2.6.24 and gcc 4.2.3. If you're a hacker this is probably a decent platform to target because of Ubuntu 8.04's native support for these two key features. But if you've the capability you've already stepped up to 4.2.3 and kernel 2.6.24 under 7.10 anyway. If I were to install 8.04 the first thing I'd do is 'sidegrade' Firefox by installing version 2 side-by-side with version 3, and just using version 2 for all my day-to-day work.

One more observation. I slapped the ISO binaries onto my thumb drive as I documented earlier and booted 8.04 alpha 5 off the thumb drive. This makes three consecutive releases I've been able to do that (7.04, 7.10, and 8.04). Ubuntu Live (and the derivation distro Mint Linux) is the easiest distribution to transfer to thumb drive.