21 May 2005

KUbuntu - a step closer to Linux Heaven

I currently use SuSE Linux 9.2 on my main PC, and Gentoo on my laptop. While I love both of these distributions in various ways, I've been keen for quite a while to try a Debian-based distribution because of the excellent reputation of the installation tools apt and dpkg. After looking briefly at Debian itself and MEPIS, I decided that with all the noise that Ubuntu is making at the moment, I should try it.

For those of you who don't know, KUbuntu is the KDE version of Ubuntu - the same base system, just a different desktop environment. I installed Hoary Hedgehog, otherwise known as KUbuntu 5.04. which was release in April 2005.


The installer is very straight forward, and asks a bare minimum of questions. The most complicated part was the partitioner, which because of where I was installing it was a little complicated, but that's more my fault than Ubuntu's. The most surprising aspect was that it didn't ask you to make any package selections - there is the default install or the default install, so to speak. Fortunately the default install is very well chosen - a KDE desktop with generally only one application to perform each task. Fortunately again, they seem to choose the applications that my experience teaches me are the best. After a bit I had to reboot, and with a bit of manual tweaking of the bootloader (again, my fault rather than Ubuntu's because I didn't trust it to change my bootloader, but the evidence suggests that it would probably have done the right thing) it spent a long time 'doing stuff' with the
packages that it had installed, i.e. configuring them. This would have been a good moment to take steps to prevent caffeine deficiency, had it not been midnight.

This is where I came to the only real fly in the ointment - and a big fly it was too. Last time I tried Ubuntu I messed up the X configuration, because it asked me what driver to use, and I gave it the driver it would need on my desktop, whereas I was trying it on my laptop - Doh! So my fault in a sense, although a novice user would probably be confused by this step. I was only able to rectify this by manually editing xorg.conf. This time it didn't ask me what video driver to use, but auto detected the correct one. So this is a definite improvement. However, it only gave me a resolution of 640x480 - Aaaarghhh! There were no tools to reconfigure this, and I had to manually edit xorg.conf AGAIN. What was worse is that had I not had a working xorg.conf file from Suse that showed me settings that worked, I would have been totally stumped. The tweak was totally non-obvious and even with a working xorg.conf as reference, I had to google to find out which bits were relevant. Maybe some of the fault for this lies in the complexity of xorg.conf itself rather than Ubuntu, but there should be some tool to help inexperienced users round this.

Ubuntu seem to have taken the "Restart X Server" option out of the KDM menu, so I had to do a total reboot for changes to take effect. As I had now tweaked the booloader and wanted to test it, this wasn't really a problem.

Score: 8/10


So now I had a very nice desktop which just worked almost exactly as I like it. Networking worked out of the box (as I have 2 network cards, the installer asked me which one I wanted connected to the internet), so did sound. For those of you who are familiar with KDE but haven't tried version 3.4, it is a real step in the right direction, adding a lot of polish and general 'look and feel' improvements. OpenOffice is included, although I didn't try this in detail. By and large KDE is left in it's default state, which is in part a testimony to how good KDE is.

Score: 10/10


Now for the one test that I was keen to do - getting DVD playback working, with CSS decryption. I fully understand the reasons why distributions are reluctant to ship this working out of the box when there are large countries with very damaging patent laws (although Gentoo don't seem to have a hang-up with it), but how this issue is handled varies a lot. Suse ship software that is deliberately crippled (very bad, IMHO), Red Hat just don't ship the controversial packages (acceptable), Ubuntu have information on their website which explains that if it is legal in your jurisdiction, this is what you should do. There is even an example script that downloads the packages and installs them. Yes!! So by installing libxine and xine-ui and running the script I was able to watch my legally bought DVD collection. In my opinion the existence of a minority of users who are subject to retrograde and damaging patent laws shouldn't prevent distributions from shipping packages that are perfectly fine elsewhere, but with suitable disclaimers warning those for whom it might not be legal. Amarok is included as the music player, which in my opinion is the best music player/manager available for Linux at the moment, and will probably take over from the trusty xmms given time. This has support for all the usual formats including ogg, mp3 and many more. As I said before sound just worked, and unlike other distributions the volume was set to a suitable value so I didn't have to search for a volume control app just to verify it really was working.

Score: 8/10


I tried installing a few packages using Kynaptic, and I realised just how good apt/dpkg are as a toolset - it's far faster than using rpm on Suse, and very intuitive. Kynaptic doesn't appear at first sight to have more than the basic functionality, but that's because it doesn't need it. What's more, packages are configured with sensible default settings, which minimises the interaction required if you are not trying to do anything out of the ordinary. What I did miss, however, is a general set of configuration tools similar to SuSE's YaST or the Mandriva Control Centre. Having to manually edit config files is not friendly towards beginners, and KUbuntu is definitely aimed at beginners. I believe there are tools in the non-KDE version of Ubuntu, but KDE users need an equivalent. I hope Breezy Badger includes a set of suitable tools. Having said that, Ubuntu aims to be a desktop system rather than a general purpose system, and a lot of the configuration settings are for configuring services, so not that relevant to the target market.

Score: 6/10


As someone who likes lots of knobs and buttons to let me tweak stuff, Kubuntu is definitely simplified somewhat, but the power is not taken away, just moved away from where it can be intrusive. What they have simplified is sensible and well thought out, and to be honest I loved it. Stuff just worked. The default settings were excellent.

I'm looking forward to trying out Breazy Badger when it come out. I think they should do something about the X configuration issue, and provide a tool similar to Suse's SAX to let you change the display settings. Kynaptic is very simple and straight forward, but lacks one or two features that it's Gnome counterpart Synaptic has - I'm sure these will be implemented soon.

All in all, it's a great system built on a solid foundation. Very few things would need to change in my opinion to make it almost perfect for desktop use. From a usability point of view, it's the best distribution I've used so far.

Overall Score: 8/10

1 comment:

Donald Allwright said...

Please post corrections here.