One area where the quality focus for Ubuntu 12.10 shines through quite clearly is with the version of the bundled file manager. The developers actually packaged an older version of Nautilus after having briefly tried the updated version during development. This was a conscious decision based on the fact that the latest release of Nautilus actually removed several features that many users deemed important. This removal prompted many irritated blog posts and actually led to the creation of a fork of the file manager by the Linux Mint team, with its lead developer calling GNOME's development direction on the program "a catastrophe". Because of this, the Ubuntu developers have opted to ship the older 3.4 branch of Nautilus, forgoing version 3.6, to give themselves time to devise a more permanent solution to the problem over the next development cycle.
One place where Ubuntu is ahead of the pack is with its support for UEFI Secure Boot. UEFI, a modern firmware to replace the aging BIOS, has been appearing in systems but became news when Microsoft announced it was going to use a feature of UEFI, Secure Boot, to ensure Windows 8 was protected from boot-time malware. This led to many Linux distributors having to consider how to deal with Secure Boot and a world where Microsoft's keys would already be embedded onto most new systems. Ubuntu 12.10 is the first distribution to ship with a solution to that problem by booting into an appropriately signed version of the GRUB 2 bootloader and then booting Ubuntu itself. The use of GRUB 2 did elicit some concern early on, with Canonical first deciding that it would use another bootloader (due to GPL3 concerns) and then being reassured by the FSF (the copyright holder for GRUB 2) that there would not be a problem. The use of GRUB 2 should make the process of installing Ubuntu on a system that was shipped with Windows 8 as simple as it currently is but we are of course still waiting for those Windows 8 systems to ship and systems that support UEFI Secure Boot are still relatively rare. But Ubuntu is still the first to ship a system that is capable of handling this scenario.
Other application changes include the usual updates to Firefox (16.0.1), Thunderbird (16.0.1) and LibreOffice (126.96.36.199). The default music player Rhythmbox has been upgraded to version 2.97 and while it is not installed by default, the latest version of GIMP, which includes the long-awaited single window mode, is also available from the repositories. Quantal Quetzal also features an updated X.org stack that improves smooth scrolling and provides much improved multi-seat support. The new multi-seat features make it much more feasible to plug several sets of monitors and peripherals into a single Ubuntu machine. This is usually done with special USB hardware and allows several users to use one computer at the same time. Ubuntu 12.10 also includes updated versions of the proprietary ATI and NVIDIA drivers. The NVIDIA driver now supports monitor configuration with the RandR extension.
The planned move to only include Python 3 packages in the default ISO image could not be completed for this release. To avoid unnecessary problems, the developers opted for shipping Python 2 packages as well this time around, as several included applications and tools still depend on them.
CD sizes and defaulting to accessible
Ubuntu's install process has undergone several changes as well for this version, the most important being that the developers finally decided to abandon the mantra that the default edition must fit on a standard-size CD. This means that users will either have to burn the image to a DVD or select one of the other installation options. Users can, of course, also use a USB stick to install Ubuntu. The process for achieving this has become remarkably simple and works with most sticks out of the box. It is also a lot kinder to the environment as it removes the need to burn a new CD every time an Ubuntu release rolls around. Users who want to support the development of the distribution monetarily have the chance to do so as the Ubuntu web site now shows a contribution page before the download links for the ISO images are revealed.
Other Ubuntu 12.10 features
- The ability to log into remote desktops from the login manager, using Ubuntu One, so a system can run as a thin client more easily
- Users can now take a photo of themselves using their webcam in the installer and use the resulting image for their user account
- LVM support alongside the encryption support in the main edition's installer
- PAE kernels become the default for 12.10
Another new feature in the default edition's installer is the ability to set up full-disk encryption. Up until now, it was only possible to set up encrypted home directories during installation. Since the most prudent time to set up a measure like this is on a blank hard disk before the operating system is installed, the addition of this option is very useful for users who need to encrypt all of their data securely (which is mostly the case in enterprise environments).
The developers have also made strides in improving Ubuntu's accessibility for handicapped users. While Unity 3D continues to have issues in this arena, Ubuntu 12.10 at least sees accessibility support turned on by default. While Ubuntu is still behind such distributions as Vinux, Trisquel or even Fedora, this is a step in the right direction and shows that the accessibility of the Unity interface is actively being worked on. This is even more important in light of the deprecation of Unity 2D which used to offer much better accessibility support than its Compiz-based 3D alternative.
For a release that started out with the expressed intention of putting the developer focus on quality, Ubuntu 12.10 "Quantal Quetzal" includes quite a few rough edges. The biggest problem is undoubtedly the poor performance of llvmpipe in certain situations, but during testing here at The H, instability and a certain sluggishness from time to time was also noticeable under full 3D acceleration. Features that were added relatively late in the development cycle, the omission of a release candidate build, and a repository freeze only just over a day before the final release all take their toll on the final product. Where Ubuntu 12.04 LTS was very stable at release, 12.10 feels like a step backwards.
The controversial inclusion of the Shopping Lens will most likely also be perceived as a downside by many. The feature does work as intended, but it often fails to show information relevant to what the user is actually searching for. However, this can be relatively easy remedied by switching off all online searches completely. It is regrettable that the developers have not provided the ability to easily disable only the Shopping Lens, but that might be rectified by further updates to the distribution.
All being said, Ubuntu 12.10 is a decent upgrade to the distribution, even if it is plagued by some problems. Examined in the light of Mark Shuttleworth's quality claims, however, it falls flat – especially when compared to its immediate predecessor. Users who are using Ubuntu 12.04 LTS at the moment and think they can do without the new functionality in this version might want to consider skipping Ubuntu 12.10 and going straight to the next LTS release. Since Ubuntu 12.04 is supported for five years, there is no rush to upgrade.
Observations in this article are based on a late development version of Ubuntu 12.10, as the final version was not released at the time of writing and there was no release candidate available.
For more information
More details about the new Ubuntu version can be found in the release announcement and in the release notes for Ubuntu 12.10 and images for the desktop and server versions of the distribution are available to download for 32- and 64-bit systems. For users who prefer not to use the Unity environment, or who want to sidestep any of the issues with the release, one of Ubuntu's many derivatives might provide a working alternative. Kubuntu provides a KDE-based variant, Xubuntu is based on Xfce, and users who prefer the LXDE environment can download Lubuntu.