Karmic Koala: my top five changes

I first started using Ubuntu back in the days of the Warty Warthog. The distribution has come a long way since then. It’s easy to forget how much progress Ubuntu (and GNOME  – this is a review of GNOME 2.28 as well as Ubuntu 9.10) has made over the years.

There’s a lot to like in this Ubuntu release, I have to say. Here are my favourite five changes since last release:

  1. Epiphany WebKit. Epiphany (GNOME’s web-browser) now uses the WebKit rendering engine instead of Mozilla’s Gecko. The change is great. Loading is faster than ever, page rendering is clean and clear. With WebKit, Epiphany is turning into the application it has always aimed to be – a fast, light, well-integrated web-browser, with a clean and easy to use interface.
  2. GDM. GNOME’s login window has received an overhaul. The new interface is more attractive and easier to use. You no longer have to type in your username. Accessibility features are displayed by default. It is more secure and has better power management.
  3. Visual refresh. Karmic has a new set of icons and a new colour scheme. The effect is a definite improvement.
  4. Ubuntu One. Your own little bit of the cloud. A good way to make files always available. The ability to synchronise your Tomboy notes and Evolution contacts is particularly useful. The service is a little rough around the edges, but I’m sure it will mature with time.
  5. Startup experience. Boot times are faster and the experience is smoother, with fewer jarring visual changes. Ubuntu has committed itself to further improvements in this area in the future, but the progress that has already been made is impressive

These are the big things that I have personally noticed and liked – it’s a totally subjective list. There is a lot of other good stuff in the new versions of GNOME and Ubuntu which I haven’t mentioned.

Little things matter

Aside from the big changes there are myriad little improvements which make the new version of Ubuntu a much more enjoyable system to use. Those annoying system beeps have gone. Sound effects work properly. Evolution’s mail folders indicate when the contain new mail. Banshee’s track list displays the currently playing track. Streaming in the movie player is smooth. Evolution indicates which mail folders contain new unread messages.

One place where little improvements make a big difference is in the Empathy messaging program. Empathy has clearly received a lot of love since GNOME’s last release. It has a new custom status indicator, it remembers your favourite chat rooms (this was something I’ve had problems with in previous releases), scrolling in conversation windows has a nice feel, and it has a first run wizard to guide new users. All this adds up to making the chat program a much more enjoyable and effective application.

All these little improvements are as important as the bigger changes. They might not look so good in release notes or other marketing materials but they matter just as much in ensuring positive user experience.

Gripes

It wouldn’t be a review without a couple of gripes, would it?! My first is the more serious – my wi-fi card didn’t work with Karmic, despite having functioned with previous releases. The problem was solved by installing the necessary drivers from the backports repository (I had a long Cat5 cable to hand, thankfully), but that solution wouldn’t occur to most people. It does seem that each Ubuntu upgrade brings its own particular hardware issues. I don’t think this is the fault of the Ubuntu folks; it’s more a systemic issue stemming from Linux’s position in the marketplace, but it is a major problem nonetheless.

My other gripe is more minor. It’s the new status indicator icons. Though visually attractive, these do not communicate their states well. It is hard to tell how strong your wireless signal is or how much battery power is remaining. Their use of shades of grey rather than colour limits their intelligibility.

Karmic's new indicator icons

What are you telling me...?

Conclusion

Gripes aside, I think GNOME 2.28 and Ubuntu 9.10 are both great releases. Anyone who is upgrading from a previous version will be able to find a lot to like here.

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