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24 April 2009, 12:12

Ubuntu 9.04 on the test bench

by Dr. Oliver Diedrich

Not much has changed on the outside, but Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) incorporates a huge range of technical enhancements. These include a much shorter boot time and support for the new Ext4 file system.

The makers of Ubuntu have now been ploughing their successful furrow for nearly five years. You take an established, technically mature Linux distribution with a huge software pool (Debian GNU/Linux), polish up the default configuration and visuals, update the software, add a user-friendly installer, a range of intelligent automations and a few configuration tools. Then you reduce the software bundle to the programs a desktop user really needs to get down to work on his or her computer.

The result? A system which is easy for users with little Linux experience to get started on whilst leaving all options open for experienced users. This approach has seen Ubuntu enjoy an almost uninterrupted run at the top of DistroWatch's list of the most popular Linux distributions since 2005.

The Ubuntu Desktop
Zoom The Ubuntu Desktop retains it's familiar appearance

The recipe for success includes making only careful changes to the appearance of new versions of Ubuntu. The desktop in Ubuntu 9.04 retains the familiar shades of brown and – as long as the hardware supports it – discreet 3D effects. The panel at the top edge of the screen has barely changed since the first version of Ubuntu. As ever, the default system, with a complete Linux desktop, fits on a single CD. As usual, Ubuntu 9.04 comes as a live system, from which the distribution can be installed onto the hard drive. There are minor cosmetic modifications, most notably with the new progress bar during booting and the new background for the login screen.

The software has of course been brought up to date, with Kernel 2.6.28, 7.4, Gnome Desktop 2.26 with integrated Evolution mail client and Totem movie player, OpenOffice 3.0.1, Firefox 3.0.9, Gimp 2.6.6 and various additional internet, graphics, multimedia and system tools. The package manager, imported from Debian, allows more than 25,000 additional program packages to be installed, including further desktop applications, developer tools, server programs and system tools. The required repositories (Main containing the core distribution, Universe containing further free applications, Multiverse containing non-free software and Restricted containing proprietary drivers) are already set up in the package manager.

Ubuntu 9.04 is available in 32 and 64 bit versions, with desktop (live system with graphical installer), server and alternate install (with a text-based installer) flavours. The Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR), a version specifically adapted for netbooks, which runs on systems including the Acer Aspire One, the Asus EeePC 900 and 1000, the Dell Mini 9, HP Mini Mi and Toshiba NVB 100, should be ready in a few days time. Likewise the ports to the PowerPC (all installation versions), PA-RISC, IA-64 and SPARC (server and alternate install) architectures and for computers with Intel's Atom processor (alternate install only).

Installation using the graphical installer from the live system has barely changed since the previous version. A few clicks are all it takes to install Ubuntu 9.04 onto your hard drive. If you have much less than 512 Mbytes of RAM, installation from the live system runs very slowly. In this case you are best advised to select the installer with no live system ("Install Ubuntu") from the start menu after language selection or to use the alternate install image's text mode installer. Automatic hardware detection worked flawlessly with all our test computers, though these admittedly did not include any brand new hardware.

An email notification
Zoom A unified system for notifications

The first thing to strike you on the desktop is the new notification system. All notification types, whether system notifications of new updates or calendar appointment notifications, are now displayed uniformly in the top right corner of the screen. The developers' aim has been to declutter the notification area on the panel and achieve uniformity on the desktop.

An unfortunate side effect is the disappearance of the update tool icon, which informed users of pending updates in previous versions. Instead, the update manager starts automatically when updates have been available for a week or more. Users are informed of security-related updates within 24 hours – but only with a one-off notification in the corner of the screen. If that doesn't strike you as a very good idea, you can restore the behaviour from previous Ubuntu versions with the command:

gconftool -s --type bool /apps/update-notifier/auto_launch false

Enhancements and extensions

Of more interest are the under-the-bonnet changes. Booting and shutting down are now much faster. Compared to Ubuntu 8.10, we measured a reduction in boot time of around 30 per cent – on a Core 2 Duo system (2.13 GHz, 2 GB RAM, 250 GB 7200 rpm Seagate Barracuda ST3250620AS), it takes barely 20 seconds for the login screen to appear. Shut down and desktop start up after logging in are also significantly faster.

Boot and shutdown times
Version Start to login Shutdown
Ubuntu 8.10 28 s 9 s
Ubuntu 9.04 19 s 6 s

Users supposing that the substantial acceleration is due to fundamental changes to the boot process are barking up the wrong tree. In common with its predecessor, Ubuntu 9.04 uses the newer Upstart init daemon solely to emulate a traditional SysV environment for classical init scripts. Ubuntu 9.04 achieves the majority of its time savings during booting (five seconds) whilst working through the init RAM disk. In the new version this unpacks to around 4 MB smaller than in Ubuntu 8.10 and contains fewer modules, a substantially trimmed down program for displaying the splash screen and in particular a significantly reduced Udev rule set, so that less hardware is detected and initialised during the initial phase of the boot process.

Ubuntu 9.04 achieves the remaining four second time saving through various enhancements to the init scripts, which also more frequently run in parallel, and through enhanced hardware detection and initialisation.

Suspend to RAM (standby) and suspend to disk (hibernation) have been revamped and should now work with more computers. The suspend to disk function in Ubuntu 9.04 does indeed work on a test computer containing the Intel 965 chipset and ATI graphics card (Radeon X1600) which could not be put into standby mode under Ubuntu 8.10. On both of the laptops tested (Lenovo Thinkpad X300 and Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook S7110), both suspend to disk and suspend to RAM worked impeccably.

Ubuntu 9.04 already includes the forthcoming Ext4 file system, although the default installation file system remains Ext3. This can be changed by partitioning manually. The decision to use Ext3 as the default file system is certainly wise. New file systems can, as evidenced by the delayed allocation problem, always throw up unpleasant surprises. Ubuntu consistently relies on the tried and tested Ext3 file system, but offers users who enjoy tinkering the option of trying out the new features in Ext4.

Overall, Ubuntu 9.04 appears to be a well-rounded system, with the reduced boot time and improvements to power management particularly welcome.

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