Ubuntu 10.4 beta is bloody brilliant
I’ve been playing with the Ubuntu 10.4 beta for the past two days, and it’s bloody brilliant. You’re sick of hearing it, I know. Every Ubuntu release sends fanboys scrambling for the same, old script – the one where Ubuntu cracks the mainstream, crushes Windows and convinces the ignorant public that open source can cure cancer and inspire world peace.
In the same breath, Windows and Mac users tut, admire themselves in their glittering operating systems and wonder why they’d ever bother switching. Canonical is smart enough to recognise that most of us are entrenched with Windows or Mac OS X, and rather than demand you abandon them, it simply offers a ladder and a chance to peek at what lies on the other side.
The first step on this ladder is the Wubi installer. Slip the Ubuntu CD into your drive and you’ll be offered the choice of running the OS from the CD, installing it from within Windows, or dipping a tentative toe in the water by dual-booting with your current operating system.
None of these require any difficult decisions or research. The implications are right there on screen, and Wubi handles the difficult stuff. All it wants from you is a couple of clicks. I should stress that Wubi isn’t new to the beta – it’s just a good example of how Canonical’s wrapping the big, scary Linux monster in bows, ribbons and warm towels.
The installation takes 15 minutes and once you’ve moved in, the first thing you’ll notice is the purple wallpaper. Much has been made of Canonical’s decision to ditch Ubuntu’s signature brown, and I’m going to hold my hands up here – I’m a big fan of the switch. Not just of the colour scheme, but of how tightly integrated everything feels.
Notifications – including instant messages, emails, tweets and Facebook posts – appear in the top right-hand corner of the screen and elegantly fade away. Firefox, Evolution, OpenOffice and the rest of the installed applications come dressed in a common interface, and while Ubuntu’s still not as flashy as Windows 7 or Mac OS X, it finally feels like an operating system, rather than a slightly awkward party with lots of different guests shuffling up against one another.
The biggest beneficiary of the new school uniform is Firefox. It seems odd to say, but just as Internet Explorer 8 only ever looked comfortable on Windows 7, so Firefox 3.6 nestles nicely into Ubuntu’s warm embrace. Its thick menus and bold icons find sympathy with the operating system’s chunky-icon chic, unlike the stripped down, violent blue of Google’s Chrome, which looks like a supermodel Smurf invited to a twilight tractor pull.
While I’m dwelling on particular applications, let me make special mention of Gwibber, which soaks up your Twitter, Facebook, Digg and Flickr feeds and presents them in a single stream, with a wealth of options for sorting the gold from the gibberish. It’s superb, easy to set up, and a perfect example of everything that’s good about the beta. Of course, the preinstalled software won’t be to everybody’s taste. I hate OpenOffice, for example, and would much rather etch words into my own flesh than use it for even an hour.
Thankfully, the wealth of free software that’s always been such an integral part of Linux’s allure can now be accessed through the Ubuntu Software Centre, which is essentially an open-source app store, complete with a “Featured Applications” section that provides a handy stepping off point for software experimentation.
It was through the Software Centre that I found the Wine Windows emulator, which is currently convincing Ubuntu to play nice with Word 2007 and Spotify – a task no more difficult that right clicking a mouse. Wine isn't any sort of panacea for recalcitrant Windows-only software (Outlook 2007, doesn't work, for example), but it's a good enough balm to ease the transition.
In previous versions of Ubuntu, my next stop would have been to run off and install the Thunderbird email client, but Evolution’s Exchange support is finally up to snuff and within 30 seconds it was happily connected to my work network, allowing me to fling insults at my colleagues without interruption.
The network printer – which Windows 7 ignores like a sordid secret - was installed within two clicks, my two monitors were configured correctly out of the box (a first for any Ubuntu release) and visiting the websites of Chrome and Dropbox automatically ushered me towards the Linux downloads section without confusion.
Once they were installed my documents and bookmarks were synched to my desktop, and 30 minutes after seeing the Ubuntu 10.4 splash screen for the first time, I’d picked a favourite chair and made myself at home.
So there it is. Everything works. Everything’s fast. And it’s free. Don’t listen to the fanboys, and don’t bother with the script, Ubuntu 10.4 speaks for itself, and it’s eloquent as hell.