Ubuntu Best Linux Distribution for Desktops

The latest version of Canonical's Linux distribution, Ubuntu 8.10, still outshines the Linux desktop offerings from Red Hat and Novell, and is the best open-source alternative to Microsoft and Apple operating systems. However, both Red Hat's Enterprise Linux and Novell's SUSE distributions are ahead of Ubuntu 8.10 in the server space. Canonical's Ubuntu 8.10, the latest version of the popular Linux-based operating system for desktops and servers, hit the Internet in early November bearing a modest assortment of updates to the open-source software components that comprise it. Based on my tests of Ubuntu 8.10—which is more fancifully known as the Intrepid Ibex—I maintain that Ubuntu is, without question, the best Linux distribution available for desktops, and the ablest open-source rival to the more broadly used desktop operating systems from Microsoft and Apple. That's because while most Linux distributions come with the same software components, Ubuntu distinguishes itself with its attention to usability, its large selection of ready-to-install software packages, and its large community of users and contributors. If there's a piece of Linux-supporting software that you wish to run, the chances are good that it's available in pre-packaged form for Ubuntu. The same goes for hardware components, where Ubuntu's support is among the broadest of any Linux distribution. What's more, through its various platforms for facilitating communication and collaboration among its users and developers, the Ubuntu project does a good job corralling the questions and answers, bug testing, and integration grunt work of its large community into a body of knowledge and solutions that's readily accessible from your search engine of choice. For instance, I tested Ubuntu 8.10 with an MSI Wind U100 netbook, which ships with a Realtech wireless adapter that none of the Linux kernel's built-in drivers support. I searched for a suitable driver for Ubuntu, for Red Hat's Fedora, and for Novell's OpenSUSE distributions, and found compilation instructions for a suitable driver for all three. However, for Ubuntu, I also found a pre-compiled, packaged, and ready-to-install driver that had been produced by a volunteer community member. Among alternate desktop Linux options, Ubuntu 8.10's stiffest competition is the distribution's elder sibling, Ubuntu 8.04, which is also known as the Hardy Heron release. Version 8.04 was a Long Term Support release, which Canonical pledges to provide with updates and support for three years in its desktop incarnations, and five years in server installations. Ubuntu 8.10, in contrast, will be supported for 18 months before its update pipeline closes, requiring users to upgrade to a newer version. Fortunately, Ubuntu is very easy to upgrade, either from a bootable CD or USB media, or in-place, using the system's Update Manager. Conversely, as a server operating system, Ubuntu 8.10 doesn't stand out in the Linux distribution crowd in the same way that it does on the desktop. For server implementations, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux, and its all-free clone distribution, CentOS, loom larger than Ubuntu. Red Hat's enterprise distribution, as well as the company's technology vanguard distribution, Fedora, are well ahead of Ubuntu in security facilities, including the well-implemented SELinux security framework. Ubuntu does ship with the Novell-led AppArmor security framework, but Ubuntu's AppArmor integration work is proceeding much more slowly than are Red Hat's SELinux efforts. What's more, the new compiler-based security enhancements included in Ubuntu 8.10, such as compilation of certain network services as position-independent executables, had been integrated into Red Hat's distributions some time ago. Similarly, Ubuntu's firewall efforts, which have seen modest improvement in 8.10, with the introduction of service-aware port opening for the system's Uncomplicated Firewall (ufw), still lag behind Red Hat and Novell's Linux firewall facilities. Red Hat's distributions also lead Ubuntu in virtualization capabilities—the vibvirt and KVM systems on which Ubuntu's virtualization tools are based are developed at Red Hat, and the company's distributions tend to offer more up-to-date versions of those components than does Ubuntu. However, Ubuntu server scored a notable win recently when the Wikimedia Foundation, purveyors of Wikipedia and that site's massive architecture, announced its decision to standardize on Ubuntu server. Also, Ubuntu server now allows administrators to interact with system services from the command line using the same "service start|stop|status" syntax employed by Red Hat, which should make administration a bit more familiar to those accustomed to running Red Hat's distributions. Ubuntu 8.10 ships with the latest versions of the GNOME desktop environment and Linux kernel (2.24.1, and 2.6.27, respectively). GNOME 2.24 was a fairly minor update, highlighted by the addition of a tabbed browsing feature in project's Nautilus file manager. From a user perspective, Linux 2.6.27 is significant primarily for its additional driver support, which is outlined here. Ubuntu 8.10 does not include October's OpenOffice.org 3.0 release, which came out after the feature freeze deadline for the release. However, OpenOffice.org 3.0 is available all packaged up and ready to install through Ubuntu's Personal Packaging Archive service here. I upgraded from Ubuntu 8.04 to 8.10 on my primary work machine, a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 notebook with 3GB of RAM and an ATI Mobility X1300 graphics adapter, first through the Ubuntu update manager, and later (after testing Fedora 10 for a few weeks on that machine) performed a clean install of Ubuntu 8.10. I was pleased to find that the display errors I'd encountered in Ubuntu 8.04 with the default open-source driver for my X1300 graphics adapter had been resolved in 8.10. On the clean install that I conducted, I was disappointed to find that the standard LiveCD-based Ubuntu installer continues to lack any option for installing Ubuntu with encrypted partitions. To install Ubuntu in this way—which is vital for notebook systems—I still had to install the system from Ubuntu's alternate install disk. In my tests with the CD drive-less MSI Wind U100, I installed Ubuntu from a USB stick, and was annoyed to find that the installer placed the bootloader on the master boot record or the USB stick, rather than on my system's hard drive. As a result, I had to boot the system with the USB stick inserted, and then reinstall the GRUB bootloader from the command line. No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.

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