Ubuntu 12.04 Wins Me Back

Monday Apr 30th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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The Ubuntu release offers significant steps forward yet some improvements are still needed.

Over the years I've found myself having a love/hate relationship with Ubuntu.

My first experience with it dates back to testing Ubuntu 5.10. I made the switch not too long afterward with the Ubuntu 6.06 release. Coming away from a KDE-centric distribution, I found the switch to a Linux distro offering GNOME as its preferred desktop to be interesting. Previously I had used KDE almost exclusively, so having an opportunity to spend some time with GNOME piqued my interest.

Sadly, the last two releases of Ubuntu have proven to be rather lackluster. Unity wasn't quite there yet and the overall speed of the releases was pretty poor. But then came Ubuntu 12.04. Given this is a Long Term Support release (LTS), I suppose the vast improvements to speed and stability make sense. But perhaps even more importantly, Unity ran really well.

In this article, I'll highlight my own experience with the Ubuntu 12.04 release, discuss areas in which the release did well, and share areas where improvement are warranted.

Networking

One of my biggest gripes is how some Linux distributions jump ship to newer native wireless networking drivers that, to date, have never worked well. Take, for example, the Ralink wireless driver for Linux known as rt2800usb. Newer than its older counterparts, this particular driver has been pushed forward since Ubuntu 10.04, perhaps even earlier.

In Ubuntu 11.10, rt2800usb offered up very poor performance. Basically, it would connect at no more than 64 Mbps. That said, it did work. Using the older rt2870sta driver for the rt2870 chipset actually provides flawless 802.11n wireless speeds. This successful connectivity is something that rt2800usb still fails to do, unfortunately.

I give props to the developers handling this code for the update, but it's still not a replacement for the legacy driver.

On the flip side, I tested another wireless dongle with the rt2501/rt2573 chipset using the rt73usb driver. Just as it has in the past, it provided solid 802.11g speed without any problems. It seems that working legacy drivers that are left alone continue to do well.

The final piece was to see how well casual (non-SSH enabled) file sharing did. As luck would have it, you can still use "right click, sharing options" to make a folder accessible to other Linux distributions.

The only thing that is still missing is a newbie-friendly approach to making "sudo smbpasswd -a " something that comes up when using a GUI to share folders. Otherwise, it continues to confuse newer Ubuntu users. Even a prompt to enter this into a terminal would be a start.

Printers, webcams and other peripherals

While my success with wireless networking was a bit mixed, I was pleased to see that webcam and printer/scanner support remains solid. I tested my usual peripherals, ranging from a HP all-in-one printer to my various webcams. In each instance, everything worked very well without any configuration.

Next up, I plugged in my Sony external DVD writer, two external USB hard drives and a USB Plantronics headset. Everything I plugged in worked flawlessly. Even my little Kengsington Bluetooth dongle presented me with zero challenges. This pleased me immensely, and lends itself to making this release a good option for me.

The final and perhaps most important item for me personally, was my dual-monitor setup. Since I am using an ATI card, past releases of Ubuntu have been hit and miss when not relying on the proprietary video driver for dual-monitor support. And while it worked with the open source video driver in Ubuntu 11.10, I found that 12.04 provided a much more stable ATI experience that rendered my need for the proprietary driver unnecessary. Ubuntu 12.04 did very well with my ATI Radeon HD 4550 card.

Pulseaudio sound server

One area I hear people complain about often is with the experience surrounding Pulseaudio. Usually this involves individuals with select Creative brand cards or other related standalone sound options. For those of us using sound cards built into our motherboards, however, it's rarely a problem.

As I expected, Pulseaudio did very well with my headset and my default sound card. Since the headset is a USB device, it's seen as a separate sound card, which is a nice touch. Nothing has changed on this front as I've never personally had any problems with Pulseaudio. However, despite the new and faster Unity UI, the continued reliance on the existing Ubuntu sound settings applet is growing tiresome.

Unless you stop using Pulseaudio and opt to take a more forceful approach using an ALSA configuration, you will have a great time trying to tell Skype or other VoIP software which mic is the default one. The problem is that setting up the default input device rarely works correctly. Instead you'll need to run the Pulseaudio Volume Control, place a VoIP call to someone, open up the Recording tab in the Pulseaudio Volume Control, and then choose the input device you wish to use.

This issue isn't the fault of Pulse developers, rather the lack of a recording tab under Ubuntu's default sound manager. While Ubuntu users can operate software such as Kazam or Google Plus Hangouts as they offer a means of selecting the sound device, apps such as Skype remain dependent on the Recording tab described above.

Desktop experience

Despite some of the challenges I highlighted above, I've found that Ubuntu 12.04 is actually a really great release. It's fast, stable and, despite some minor annoyances, quite usable by most people wanting to run a Linux installation of their own.

Yes, there is the fact that Unity takes some getting used to. But the good news is, you're not bound to it.

Even without installing anything new, you can choose GNOME classic from the login screen. Even better, install Cinnamon from a PPA repository! I run Cinnamon as a secondary desktop environment and love it. Its legacy experience amounts to using the next generation of the GNOME 2 desktop, without losing a next generation type of experience.

Use LTS Ubuntu releases

As I type this on a PC running Ubuntu 12.04 exclusively, I should note: As a general rule, I recommend sticking with Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) releases.

The reason why is that LTS releases are generally more stable than those Ubuntu releases that come in between them. Obviously the switch to Unity was a bit of a shakeup to this reliable experience. But on the whole, a LTS release is the best option if running a reliable desktop experience is your goal.

For those of you wanting a bleeding edge installation of Ubuntu, updating to the latest and greatest release regardless of what the version type happens to be is where it's at. However, users of these Ubuntu releases should understand that bugs and stability issues are to be expected.

Regardless of which type of release you happen to go with, the one thing I recommend is making sure you have a solid home directory backup plan. Applications can always be replaced easily, but recreating your home directory can be a bit of a nightmare.

Therefore, I recommend daily backups along with running a dedicated partition for your home directory. That way, even if a new Ubuntu release doesn't work as well as you might like, reverting back to a more stable release is relatively simple.

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