If you don’t know what the word Ubuntu means, then hard luck – you’ll have to wait until the end of this review to find out (no peeking now!), because this review concentrates on what Ubuntu actually is. And that’s just an implementation of Linux, albeit one designed to be as freely accessible and user friendly as possible. Indeed, according to the developers, Ubuntu is essentially “Linux for human beings.”
With this aim in mind there are several attributes that make Ubuntu stand out from the crowd. These include being completely free of charge, no matter whether you choose to download the software from the Web or order it on CD-ROM. There’s even a free live CD version which enables the software to be booted and run without having to install to the hard disk first.
The Ubuntu project is also committed to making its software available in as many local languages as possible. Plus it’s fully supported by a global network of professional support partners, some charging for their services while others provide assistance free of charge.
The software also stands out in that it comes on just one disc rather than the handful required with other leading implementations. Despite this, you get the core Linux Operating System, loosely based on the Debian distribution, together with a clutch of useful pre-configured applications including the Firefox Web browser, Evolution e-mail client and Open Office 2.0.
Yet another key attribute is the rigorous update schedule, with new versions of Ubuntu released every six months. Moreover, like car number plates, the version numbers tell you everything you need to know with the latest 5.10 release, for example, launched at the start of October 2005 while the 5.04 version appeared in April. Or, if you prefer, you can call them by their release names with v5.10 also known as the “breezy badger.” Note too that, despite the six month release schedule, security patches and other updates for each release are guaranteed for at least 18 months.
So what exactly do you get? Well, with 5.10 Ubuntu it’s a Linux 2.6.12 kernel suitable for both desktop and server use that can be run on Intel x86, AMD64, EM64T Xeon and PowerPC based Apple platforms.
Installation isn’t quite the walk in the park that the marketing hype implies but we didn’t encounter any problems. The CD-ROM image (617MB) took just over an hour to download via broadband and the setup a couple more. Automatic hardware detection takes care of most things with Bluetooth support in this release along with new integrated drivers for common HP all-in-one devices.
Disk partitioning is where most newcomers get stuck, with lots of different file systems and settings to choose from, however the defaults provided by the automatic installer worked fine for us and overall the Ubuntu install was no worse than any other we’ve experienced.
Similarly, once up and running Ubuntu looks and behaves much like other Linux implementations. OK the graphics are unique but there’s a familiar Gnome desktop with a separate KDE version also available for those that prefer it. A menu bar at the top is used for navigation with separate application and system menus, the latter stuffed with useful tools to manage both how the software works and its look and feel. However, there’s no obvious root user account as with other Linux implementations. Instead you simply re-enter your password to make system changes which would otherwise require root privileges.
For desktop users, the OpenOffice suite, Firefox browser and Evolution e-mail client are all installed and available straight away and are no harder to configure or use than their Windows counterparts. Moreover, a huge number of other open source applications can be downloaded from the Web and installed using the Debian Advanced Packaging Tool (APT) which we found particularly easy to use.
All the usual network options also come as standard with Ubuntu so, for example, we were able to connect to and browse a Windows network with no extra setup work required. For server users the separate install includes both Samba and newly integrated thin client support. Plus you get automatic updates for both implementations, courtesy of links to launchpad.net through which it’s also possible to help with translation of the different Ubuntu language packs.
We found it all very usable, although whether it’s for you depends on what you’re after. As a server it’s got all the right components and can be easily extended using other open source applications. As a Linux desktop it’s as good as any and easier to get to grips with than most, plus the desktop tools are all there from the start.
However, it’s not Windows and if you’ve only ever used the Microsoft platform then switching to Linux, even if it is Ubuntu, can be a real culture shock. That said, there are lots of advantages, not least being cost, with the totally free Ubuntu release a good way of giving the Linux alternative a try.
And finally, that definition. Variously defined as a native African or Zulu word, Ubuntu is said to mean “humaneness”, “humanity to others” or even “too beautiful to translate into English.” The developers of Ubuntu Linux would also have you believe that it means “I am what I am because of what we all are.”
It’s up to you which, if any of these, you choose to believe.