Ubuntu 13.10: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The new Touch operating system for mobile devices is still a work in progress

The newest release of Ubuntu, dubbed Saucy Salamander, doesn't offer much in the way of new features -- except for the introduction of Ubuntu Touch for mobile platforms.

So, if you’re currently running Ubuntu 13.04, you should definitely upgrade to 13.10 in order to get the latest bug fixes, stability improvements and security patches. But if you're looking for a reason to switch from another operating system, 13.10 doesn't offer anything special. And we found that Ubuntu Touch isn't quite ready for prime time.

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We loaded Ubuntu 13.10 on three computers: an old Acer laptop, with around 1GB of RAM and a 2.13-GHz Intel Celeron processor; a desktop with 5.6GB of RAM and an AMD Athlon II x2 processor running at 2.80 GHz; and another desktop computer with 3.9GB of RAM and an Intel Core i3-2120 processor running at 3.30 GHz.  Saucy Salamander ran pretty slow on the Acer, but that's only to be expected.

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The good

With this release, Ubuntu backer Canonical continues its reliable-as-clockwork delivery of a new distribution every six months. The vendor's predictable release schedule makes it a good long-term bet. In addition, Ubuntu's future development has a kind of guarantee, in the form of a $10 million Ubuntu Foundation that will continue Ubuntu development work even if something happens to Canonical.

For users of previous versions of Ubuntu, the upgrade process was simple and seamless via the built-in Upgrade Manager utility. Although downloading and installing the new system, at around 900MB, can take some time, we were able to continue working while it loaded in the background.

We noticed a very slight improvement in performance after installation, upgrades to pre-installed software such as LibreOffice and Firefox, and a more comprehensive search functionality, but little else had changed.

We saw no driver issues on any of the machines we installed it on. Everything worked right away, including videos and wireless networking.

As with previous versions of Unity, you might want to download the Tweak Unity Tool in order to customize the behavior of windows and move window controls to the top right instead of the top left.

The bad

As with Ubuntu 13.04, Ubuntu 13.10 will only be supported for nine months. Prior to this year, non-long-term releases were supported for 18 months.

The next long term support release will be out next spring (Ubuntu 14.04) and will receive five years of support.

There are also a few known bugs with this release, though we didn't encounter any of them on our systems. They include problems when there are many partitions on a disk, freezing the install and requiring a restart. Upgrading encrypted volumes also requires a work-around, which is explained in the release notes.

Originally, this release was supposed to use Mir, a new display server that is supposed to work on both traditional and mobile desktops. Currently, Ubuntu uses X window since Mir doesn't yet fully support multiple monitors. Ubuntu is expected to complete the switch to Mir next year, a controversial move which puts Ubuntu at odds with some other versions of Linux. For example, Intel and Red Hat support the competing Wayland display server.

Mir was included, however, in the Ubuntu Touch component of Ubuntu 13.10, designed for mobile phones.

The ugly

There is a benefit to be had in being able to search for files you own on both local drives and in cloud services such as Google Drive and Flickr. That's the idea behind Unity Smart Scopes.

A prototype version of this search function was available in the previous Ubuntu release, which searched Amazon in addition to the local drive. Now, Smart Scopes also searches across such sites as Etsy, Wikipedia and Reddit.

The result is a cluttered mess.

The first thing many users will probably do after installing Ubuntu 13.10 is to get rid of most of these results. The quickest way is through the privacy settings, by turning off  “Include online search results” in the “Search” tab of the “Security & Privacy” settings window. Unfortunately, this not only turns off Amazon and Etsy searches but also disables your ability to search for the online files that you own.

Another option is to turn off individual types of results with the use of filters, available through a drop-down list on the right side of the Smart Scopes search results window. Unfortunately, the filters don't stick. We had to turn off the Web searches each time we did a new search.

Smart Scopes are supposed to get better the more you use them, but there doesn't seem to be any benefit in using them for general Web searches over, say, using Google. Clicking on the results will open a browser anyway, so you might as well just start there and use your favorite search engine which, chances are, will offer results that are better organized and more relevant.

And mixing generic Web results in with your own files is just confusing.

On the plus side, Google Drive searches worked well once we added Google Drive to our “Online Accounts” under “Settings.” In addition, visiting Gmail and Google Docs prompted us to install the related applications, which was convenient and useful.

On the other hand, search through other cloud-based storage platforms, such as Microsoft's SkyDrive, Box, and Dropbox, aren't supported. Of the three, only Dropbox has an Ubuntu app, available for download through the Ubuntu Software Center, but we weren't able to get Smart Scopes to find any of the files we had stored there, even if they showed up fine in the Dropbox folder.

Finally, Ubuntu's Unity interface continues to hide the Files menu when windows are maximized. When writing this review, for example, we were able to move the window close and minimize buttons from the top left to the top right, using the Unity Tweak Tool app. But the File menu stays invisible until you mouse over it, violating the principles of usability design with this bit of “mystery meat navigation.”

Experienced users won't mind, since this frees up screen real estate to show the name of the current application. But newcomers might have a moment of panic as they try to find the “Save As” or “Search” functions.

The mobile

The big breakthrough here is Ubuntu Touch, which can already be installed on Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 handsets to replace the Android operating system. Developers might be interested in installing it and checking it out, but everyone else should wait until the operating system is officially shipped with devices, which is expected to happen early next year.

One reason to avoid Ubuntu Touch, besides the fact that it supports only limited voice and text functionality, is that there are hardly any apps yet. Some basic apps are included, such as a calendar, a clock, a calculator, a terminal tool, a file manager, a web browser, a notepad and a weather app. The app store has a few more selections, such as Sudoku, Minesweeper, Mastermind and a stock ticker app. Other applications, like Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Dropbox, and Angry Birds aren't available as native apps but can be installed as “web apps” and used like native applications.

Canonical had tried to jump start Ubuntu smartphones with a crowdfunding campaign for the Ubuntu Edge this past summer. The campaign, which raised almost $13 million, still fell short of its $32 million goal and the project was scrapped.

Ubuntu is still aiming to take the No.3 spot for mobile operating systems, currently up for grabs. According to Gartner, as of the end of the second quarter of this year Android and iOS accounted for 93 percent of all smartphone sales, with Microsoft a distant trailing third with 3.3 percent.

Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at maria@tromblyinternational.com

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

This story, "Ubuntu 13.10: The good, the bad, and the ugly" was originally published by Network World.

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