Under Ubuntu’s skin

I’ve written here before about Ubuntu Linux, but as Canonical – the company behind this distribution – has just released a new version 8.10 it’s worth taking an up-to-date look, especially as this latest incarnation includes a new, powerful network-management package that makes connecting to the internet a doddle whether you’re using a Bluetooth-tethered phone, an internal 3G network card, Wi-Fi, or plain old Ethernet.

Under Ubuntu's skin

Ubuntu rapidly established itself as one of the most popular and fastest-growing Linux distributions, and it comes in two main flavours: desktop and server. The latest version – which was released at the end of October 2008 – will be supported for at least the next 18 months. All versions are free, since Canonical makes its money by providing training and paid-for support. The company also produces Long Term Service (LTS) versions of Ubuntu, which have support and patches guaranteed for three years, the latest LTS release being 8.04.

Installation of Ubuntu 8.10 is a breeze: you can either order a CD from Canonical or download and burn the disc image yourself (but be aware that the disc image is about 700MB in size, so that download could take some time ). The CD provides both a “Live Linux” experience, where you boot from the CD and can immediately run Ubuntu without installing it to your hard drive, and an installer. When I tested it the software identified and installed drivers for my sound, video and network cards with no problems whatsoever – previous versions of Linux have been known to have problems spotting sound cards in particular, but that finally – hopefully? – seems to be a thing of the past.

The Desktop version of the operating system is pretty similar to the previous release in terms of visual appearance, since it uses the latest stable version of the Gnome desktop manager, although it looks as though there have been a couple of small tweaks to some of the themes. One thing you’ll definitely notice is that the desktop looks sparse nowadays, with absolutely no icons displayed by default. Personally, I find this is a bit much – although I do try to keep my desktop clean, at the very least I like to see icons for my computer, home directory and a trash can (despite the fact that I do most of my file management via a terminal window). Fortunately, this is relatively easy to fix by hitting to bring up the “run application” window, and typing in gconf-editor to bring up the Gnome configuration editor. Navigate to Apps | Nautilus | Desktop and you’ll see boxes you can check to show various desktop items such as the trash can – click the ones you want and they’ll appear immediately.

One of the key new features in version 8.10 of Ubuntu is a Network Connections tool, which you’ll find under the Preferences section of the System menu. This tool gives you control over your wired, wireless, broadband and VPN connections, and even handles DSL connections (although if you’re like most people you’ll have a router between your DSL modem and your network anyway, so that won’t be an issue). In my albeit limited testing, the Network Connections tool worked perfectly. When first installed the software created a connection called Auto eth1, which was my wired Ethernet connection, then it went out onto the network and acquired a DHCP address without my needing to do anything at all. Likewise, when I tested on a laptop with a wireless card it worked flawlessly, too. Setting up networks has always been something of a pain but this latest version really does make it as easy as – even easier than – managing a Windows network connection.

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