Having rocketed to prominence in just a few years as probably the most popular desktop Linux distributions, Ubuntu has earned a reputation for stability and ease-of-use. The latest edition - Ubuntu 9.04, aka, "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 OpenOffice.org 3.0, which should appease those who were disappointed that it didn't make 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.
Under Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope's bonnet, there's a new Linux kernel that promises improved stability, and support for the latest Ext4 files system.
Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has hinted that big changes to the system's look and feel are coming with the next release in October - changes that might even include abandoning its traditional, but controversial, brown colour scheme - but the cosmetic updates in Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope are minor.
Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope has new boot and log-in screens, two alternative desktop backgrounds, and a few UI improvements that came free with the upgrade to the Gnome 2.26 interface; but nothing that should surprise anyone who has used an earlier version of Ubuntu.
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 the distractions of unwanted dialogue 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's no preference panel to change its behaviour and no way to switch back to the old notification system. Even if you hate it, you're stuck with it.
This is not unusual for Ubuntu, which often sacrifices some configurability for the sake of ease-of-use. For example, while Ubuntu includes support for GUI bling by way of Compiz Fusion, some of the more talked-about effects - including the famed "desktop cube" - are disabled by default. To enable them, users have to install an unsupported software package that provides a new control panel.
Ubuntu 9.04 is guilty of worse sins, however. When we booted the installation CD, it cheerfully informed us that our computer had no operating systems installed on it and offered to partition the entire drive. In reality, the PC contained not just a previous version of Ubuntu, but Windows Vista and an abortive installation of Mac OS X as well. Luckily for us, we knew how to manage partitions manually, but that won't be the case with all potential upgraders.
During installation, the system offered to migrate user information from the Windows drive that it failed to detect earlier, but upon logging in, no data seemed to have been transferred. Firefox showed only the default bookmark entries and nothing from either Internet Explorer or the Windows installation of Mozilla Firefox. On the positive side, Ubuntu recognised our NTFS partitions after boot and made them available for mounting without a hitch.