2013-01-12

Ubuntu 12.10 first impressions

First and last impressions... Yesterday, I finally couldn't resist all the hype and happy faces on YouTube, and decided to try Ubuntu 12.10, code-named Quantal Quetzal. Was I impressed? Was I disappointed? I guess a little bit of both.

tl;dr, Ubuntu puts "shopping" in "distro shopping".

Market this, shop that

If you have used any of the popular 'smart' mobile devices, you've noticed that it comes with something-market, or something-store, or something-else-shop. Despite the fact that those markets and stores come with tons of free stuff, it doesn't change the fact that someone's just shoved their store up your device. Most of us are fine with that, though, because that's how it is with mobile devices. That's the first impression, and, therefore, it becomes what we call 'normal'. What is not normal is when someone does that to your desktop/laptop operating system. What is even less normal is when people make happy faces about it.

It's not the Amazon icon, nor the notorious Amazon search (which I think was disabled by default, or somehow inaccessible to me out of the box). I am talking about typing nginx into Ubuntu's software center and getting a $6 magazine as the only search result.

I might be old-fashioned, but when I say 'nginx' inside a package manager, I usually mean "I would like to install nginx the web server, and please don't show me magazines that have articles about nginx, because you know... I have Firefox and Amazon for that." But that's where I'm wrong. See, the software center's icon is a shopping bag. Doesn't that sound like it should be called "Ubuntu market" or "Ubuntu store"?. To me it does. And it certainly is that in reality.

That's the part of Ubuntu I absolutely hate. The crippled software management app that cannot install anything I tried (nginx, mongodb, ranger, and a host of other command-line tools), but instead offers me stuff to buy.

Webapp icons

I know some people were unimpressed by this feature. On some web sites like Facebook and Twitter, Ubuntu's Firefox allows you to 'install the site X' (in their own parlance) so that it appears as a normal application icon in the dock.

To be honest, I like that feature. Let's face it. Most of us spend a lot of time online. And quick access to the hotspots we use every day is a great thing. But...

The way Ubuntu has integrated webapps is completely un-UNIX-y and unsexy. It currently supports only some of the social networks (plus Amazon). In other words, it's not generic. What I really wished to see was the ability to simply drag a tab to the dock, and make that a shortcut to that tab's top-level domain or something. Possibly configurable to restrict it to a path on the domain or something like that. Now, that would be useful. I would then be able to put stuff like BitBucket on the dock, and it would save me a bunch of time.

Buggy dock and other bugs

The dock in Ubuntu is truly buggy. It reminds me of the poorly conceived jQuery plugins with choppy animation and occasional DOM breakdown. Dragging items around is erratic, and the collapsed items (when dock has too many of them) are just useless. I guess it's one of those areas where Ubuntu will eventually add more polish and make people happier, but the first impression was that it's clunky. In fact, this is not the first time I've used Unity, and I don't remember it being this clunky.

In other news... Or perhaps, in this day and age, you don't really expect a window manager or compositing engine to crash. The Linux GUI scene has reached a level where nothing but tranquility and stability can be expected (save for one exception), and I've reduced my tolerance to such crashes to absolute 0 during the past two years. Seeing a bug with the window manager, desktop, or compositor, is a definitive turn-off. And this bug surfaced on the very first boot after install.

Hardware support

The main reason I am even trying things like Mint and Ubuntu is that I am getting a bit fed up with having to configure the OS for things like fingerprint readers, and Wacom tablets, which is the case with Arch Linux, for instance. Therefore I expected both Mint and Ubuntu to handle my hardware perfectly.

In Ubuntu 12.10, most things work flawlessly, but... no fingerprint reader out of the box. Unlike in Mint, though, you cannot simply type 'fingerprint' into the software management application, install the first package that looks like it would work, and expect it to actually just work.

UPDATE: See instructions on how to install and configure fingerprint-gui on both Ubuntu and Mint.

To be fair, though, it does provide a Wacom tablet configuration tool unlike Mint, which I think is nice for people who do own a Wacom product.

Granted, the only exotic piece of hardware I have here is the fingerprint reader, which is not exactly a common thing. So overall, I'd say that hardware support was great. This is more of a software management issue than a hardware issue.

What I like about Ubuntu?

So you are probably thinking: "All the super-positive reviews out there, and this guy has nothing positive to say? That's quite odd." (If you didn't think that, you're probably being a bit irrational.) And yes, there are a few things I like about it.

I like some of the things people hate the most.

For instance, I like that it will extract the titlebar and menu into a single strip at the top of the screen when window is maximized. Menu for the current app is always there, but when an app is maximized, titlebar also goes to the top. This saves a lot of space, and it takes about 30 seconds to get used to.

Keep in mind that in traditional interfaces, titlebar and menu are two separate pieces of UI which take up two distinct pieces of screen real estate. On top of that, you have the top panel, of which 70~75% wasted on a taskbar, whose functionality is, frankly, better provided by docks. Merging these things into a single universal bar is really not a bad idea.

I also like that Ubuntu comes with Ubuntu One cloud storage with whopping 5GB of free space all integrated into your system. I don't need to explain why this is great, right? As an aside, Ubuntu One is also available on other platforms like Windows and Android, so it's not like it will exclusively sync with Ubuntu.

There is another big thing. Perhaps the biggest thing. Ubuntu has practically become a reference Linux platform in many areas. Most Linux-supporting commercial software vendors will at least support Ubuntu. According to Shuttleworth, Quantal has been downloaded over 7.5 million times during the first 24 hours of its release. Mainstream media such as PC World compares Ubuntu 12.10 to Windows 8, which you must admit is quite far from the random whinage of average Ubuntu fanboy.

Where does this lead? Basically, when Steam decides to support Linux, it starts with Ubuntu, and that makes a lot of sense. And other vendors will likely follow the same pattern. As someone who tried to get Steam up and running on Arch Linux, I can tell you: it's possible, but it sort of reminded me of the times when we still thought running native Windows apps on Linux was a cool pastime. If you want to be on the cutting edge of commercial software support in Linux, you want to be using Ubuntu.

Conclusion

Yes, yes. I know what you are saying right now. "This guy is nuts. He comes from Arch Linux, and thinks sudo apt-get install fprintd is too much work.

But here's the corny car analogy. If you buy a kit car, you expect to build it yourself, and that's ok. If you buy a regular car, do you ever expect to open its hood and tinker with the engine before your first ride? Frankly, to me it's not a biggie to play around the command line, and apt is my preferred way to install software. I am just making a point: Ubuntu is not your average geeky-nerdy thing. And yet it doesn't really live up to "Linux for (average) humans" label it is usually labeled with.

There are other, more serious issues with Ubuntu that I can't just brush over.

In some cricles, Ubuntu has come to be associated with such words as "adware". When I first saw that remark somewhere on the Web, I thought it was a joke, but now I know it's, sadly, very true.

About the only thing I truly love about Ubuntu is the context it created for its derivatives. It made Mint possible, and Mint is currently the most popular Linux distro. Moreover, thanks to Ubuntu's becoming the reference distro for commercial vendors, Mint users can also enjoy all the benefits. You have to admit that's a good thing.

To conclude, if you want a normal operating system, that is truly local to your machine and not laden by random ads and web-based content, and want all the other benefits of Ubuntu that are not all up in the clouds, go for Linux Mint. If you want a shopping-mall-up-your-box type of experience (the kind you get on iPhones and Androids), go for Ubuntu. If you are happy typing away at your terminals, and don't have exotic hardware that you don't want to configure yourself, go for Arch Linux. In my mind, Ubuntu has left a bad enough taste in my mouth to warrant swift removal after circa 30 minutes of uptime.