First look: Ubuntu 9.04 stays the course

The new edition of the friendly Linux desktop OS is more maintenance release than upgrade

Bottom line: Ubuntu 9.04 Desktop Edition brings minor cosmetic and UI enhancements to the easy-to-use desktop distribution. Highlights include new versions of OpenOffice.org and Gnome, as well as a new desktop notification feature. On the downside, installation was marred by missteps, and hardware support remains mixed.

Having rocketed to prominence as one of the most popular desktop Linux distributions in just a few years, Ubuntu has earned a reputation for stability and ease-of-use. The latest edition -- version 9.04, code-named "Jaunty Jackalope" -- continues that tradition and is mostly a maintenance release, but it brings a number of updates that should enhance its appeal.

The list of bundled applications is largely unchanged, but they're all new versions. Chief among these is the inclusion of OpenOffice.org 3.0, which should appease those who were disappointed that it didn't make the cut for the previous release. The new version of the free office suite maintains the same look and feel, and it still launches slowly, but it brings some new features, including improved compatibility with Microsoft Office 2007.

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Founder Mark Shuttleworth has hinted that big changes to Ubuntu's look and feel are coming with the next release in October -- changes that might even include abandoning its traditional, but controversial, brown color scheme -- but the cosmetic updates in version 9.04 are minor. There are new boot and log-in screens, new desktop background images, and a few UI improvements that came free with the upgrade to Gnome 2.26, but nothing that should surprise anyone who has used an earlier version of Ubuntu.

Be notified
Perhaps the most significant UI addition, one unique to Ubuntu, is the new desktop notification mechanism. Application messages -- anything from audio volume changes to alerts from your IM client -- now appear in black pop-up boxes in the upper-right corner of the screen. The idea is to make these messages as unobtrusive as possible by avoiding distractions such as modal dialog boxes. Whether it succeeds will probably depend on the user. This system is new to Linux, but it resembles features available on Windows and Mac OS X. What might annoy some Linux users, however, is the fact that it's not configurable. There is no preference panel to change its behavior and no way to switch back to the old notification system. Even if you hate it, you're stuck with it.

ubuntu-notifications.gif
Ubuntu's new notification feature offers unobtrusive alerts to system events such as audio volume changes, incoming messages, and status of print jobs.
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