Ubuntu ‘Karmic’: my computer is a joy to use again

Yesterday I downloaded the newly-released latest version of Ubuntu, codenamed Karmic Koala (they all have an alliterative codename; the last was Jaunty Jackalope). I had been using Fedora version 11 since, well, it came out, and although it worked better than any of the other versions of Linux that were available until yesterday, there were a number of annoyances with it.

For one thing, it didn’t work properly with my graphics card. I had specified an ATi graphics card when I got my Dell in January this year. This is because I wanted a graphics card with dedicated memory, and I’d read that the cards produced by ATi’s main competitor, nVidia, did not work well with KDE at that time. So it was a bit of a disappointment to find that ATi’s drivers for Linux weren’t working with the latest version of the Linux kernel, and that kept up even after the release notes said that they now did work. Fedora’s desktop still worked, but you couldn’t enable the desktop effects; but in any case, I wasn’t making full use of my computer. This version of Ubuntu fixes that.

But I had other annoyances. Fedora’s package management, particularly the desktop front-ends for it, isn’t a patch on Ubuntu’s and it kept reminding me to do updates even when I clicked the “not now” button. It doesn’t tell you that you have to click “Select all updates” before clicking “OK” to actually do the upgrade. Sometimes, when you do a big upgrade, you got little windows popping up saying you needed to restart, except it did this at the beginning of the upgrade rather than the end (so if you honoured it, it would have interrupted the upgrade) and it did one box for every upgraded package that required a restart. Their KDE was also a bit flaky; when shutting down, it always told you the Plasma workspace manager had crashed, and didn’t remember where you put your file management widgets. Linux Format reported a couple of issues back that the response to Fedora 11 had been underwhelming, and I can understand why. It’s flashy at first, but there are a lot of niggling problems.

Installing Ubuntu wasn’t entirely smooth. I always use the text-based installer, which could use an awful lot of TLC - it’s several years old, and it shows. It failed to import my old user account properly, which meant I had to tell it that the contents of my home folder from Fedora were mine (SUSE has done this automatically for years). When I installed KDE and used Firefox with it, the sound wouldn’t work in Flash videos (solution: open up Konsole, type ‘alsamixer’, then press “M” so that the “MM” at the bottom of the slider reads “OO”). Finally, the terminal in GNOME didn’t seem as responsive as it should do. (But I was going to install KDE anyway, which has its own terminal.)

I have a couple of bugbears regarding the package management as well. APT has always been more fun to use than YUM in my experience, but none of the packages were signed, or at least not as far as the system could tell, which meant that every time I specified a package to install in Synaptic, it asked me whether I really wanted to install an unauthenticated package even though it was from Ubuntu’s own repository. When I installed KDE, it interrupted me mid-install to ask me whether I wanted to use the KDE or GNOME login program. It should ask me all the questions at the beginning, not in the middle of a big job.

But now that KDE’s installed and the sound problems are fixed, my computer is a joy to use again in a way that it hasn’t been for months. It starts up fast (shorter booting times are always on the agenda when engineering a new release) and things work smoothly and snappily. When I was out in Kingston earlier, I skipped a trip to the Apple Store to check my email and blog comments so that I could get home and use my own computer — the first time I’ve ever done that.

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