Updated: May 2, 2012
I am officially kicking off the start of the spring hunting season with a long review of Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin. 'Tis a silly name, but it's a five-year Long Term Support (LTS) release. Previously, Ubuntu would only offer three years, and anyone using RedHat or CentOS would laugh at this. Not anymore, five years is a respectable figure, by all means.
Other than that, what can Ubuntu offer? Will the next five years be useful to potential Pangolin users, or a curse that must be avoided? Will this new trend signal a change in the way software is developed for Linux, so that you can actually use the same software in 2012 as you would in 2017. So let's have a splendid review.
Before we boot from live CD, or rather, live USB, let's talk a bit philosophy. It has to do with what Ubuntu is. Graced with the Unity desktop, it is not the darling of the Linux world anymore, surpassed by Mint. Still, last year, I crowned Ocelot the best release of 2011, as it worked beautifully. I was able to see beyond my close-minded geekiness and understand the potential of Unity as a viable desktop interface, in addition to whatever else it might be. Not perfect, but better than Gnome 3 by far, better than Windows 8 Metro thingie, probably near as good as contemporary KDE or Cinnamon. So that's one thing.
Second, the test setup. I am planning to refresh my huge arsenal of Linux distros, so I will probably follow up with an extra two or three reviews, showing how Pangolin behaves on my LG and HP machines with Nvidia cards, as well as how it revs on a low-end T60p 32-bit box. Today, I will be using my new old T61 rig, armed with a pair of SSD, which offer a fresh breath of air to this laptop. And we'll do all the usual checks, network connectivity, multimedia, installation in a complex quadruple-boot setup, user account import, apps, stability, usability, and more. Now we can begin in earnest.
P.S. Let's not forget Kubuntu, Xubuntu and all the rest - coming soon!
Ubuntu boots quickly into a familiar interface, which has more or less remained unchanged in the past two releases, with only small polishes here and there. Dominant colors are purple and gray with a touch of orange. The Launcher is set to default width of 48px, which is a bit too much if you ask me.
Notifications still pop one bar width below the top panel, which is annoying. The battery meter, when plugged in appears empty, which can confuse. Wireless connectivity worked just fine without any issues, and so did Samba sharing with Windows machines.
This is a new addition to Unity. The Head-Up Display (HUD), supposedly a solution designed to keep your eyes up on the screen, is a heuristic frontend for a terminal-like behavior in the system menu, with a touch of Ubiquity added for flavor. That's not the formal definition, but that's what I think.
The HUD is invoked by quickly pressing Alt. If you long-press Alt, the menu will come up, so it's easy to see that only people who will ever use this feature are super hardcore geeks. Functionality wise, it's nothing remarkable yet. For example, a simple search for proxy rendered nothing. The same nothing happens in the menu, and this has been around for a while now. All in all, something you should just ignore.
Speaking of the menu, it has been revamped, and now comes with video suggestions and online search, also known as the Video Lens. You can browse for watchable content on Youtube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, RTVE, and others. Not a bad idea.
However, not all is perfect. For example, the Recent Apps tab shows Thunderbird, although I've not used it yet, so it cannot be recent, can it? Then, under Videos, I was offered a handful of Indian movies and a few TED Talks clip. Why? How come the system decided this was what I might be interested in? And how come it came up with such a miserable record, as virtually nothing at all there was of any interest to me.
Next, I tried searching for some clips. For example, Miami Vice gives you only one relevant entry. Even if you explicitly search for Crockett's Theme, you still get Phil Collins. All of those are shown on Youtube Education and none in the regular channels.
App suggestions aren't much better. Instead of randomly listing apps available for download, why not offer the same collection shown in recommendations in the Ubuntu Software Center and retain uniformity of design across the board?
If you ignore the bulk of issue revolving around search, search suggestions and search algorithms, Pangolin was behaving well. There were no bugs, errors or weird glitches, it was stable, fast and elegant.
This step remains virtually identical to what it was five or six releases ago, with some visual changes and a fresh deck of slides. The installer is reasonable but not the smartest or safest, or precise [sic], compared to say openSUSE. You have to pay attention when configuring partitions and the bootloader. Moreover, the wizard tried to set my keyboard to the regional favorite, which annoyed me. If I select English at the start, this probably means I want to use that language, no? Other than that, I decided to imported my Roger Bodger account from the previous Ocelot installation.
On the good side, I installed Ubuntu only one day after the official release - and yet the repositories were lightning fast. And finally, the language setup step, which would always take a long time, wasn't there. So the entire procedure took maybe five minutes, plus some fast updates. Very nice.
The end result - Pangolin was now installed, replacing Ocelot, with its own beta and Kubuntu and Mint cousins keeping it company in a quadruple-boot configuration. Time to see how the system behaves after the installation.
The system came up with a blank desktop, which wasn't imported for some reason. But all other settings, documents and files were, including the Wireless configuration, browser profile, Launcher size, and the rest.
But then I quickly changed the wallpaper to this:
Once again, I must commend a fairly solid preparation for the massive surge of traffic in the first few days after the release. I was able to download updates in seconds and get on with the testing.
The Ubuntu Software Center looks quite polished. It's a very decent app store frontend, and unlike the system menu, it offers the top rated software first, which is, as it should be. Click on any one, and you're taken to a very rich app intro page, with a long description, screenshots, addons, suggested programs, and more. Spot on.
There's new emphasis in Pangolin in that it tries to distance itself from Compiz. In other words, in the past, you needed the Settings Manager to control the Launcher dodge, hide and other behavior, as well as its size. You can now control these elements from within the Appearance settings menu. This means fewer people will be tempted to fiddle with Compiz plugins and break things.
Yet another small detail that most people would fail to notice is the loading of available wallpapers. For a change, you are not watching the for loop vomit the little thumbnails one by one, it's finally fixed and works fine.
Ubuntu 12.04 comes with a relatively humble collection of programs. It has all the essential stuff, the deadly combo from Mozilla - Firefox and Thunderbird, the complete office suite in the form of LibreOffice, Rhythmbox for music, and a few more. But don't expect to be dazzled, which seems to be exactly the strategy that Canonical aims at. They want to provide a simple, yet robust baseline that users can quickly build upon. And they want you to want to visit the Software Center so that you learn about it and grow to appreciate it and perhaps even develop a slight dependence on its presence. For future use, so to speak. Cheese also works fine, which used to be an issue on some of my 64-bit systems.
LibreOffice still suffers from the lack of menu bar integration, but only when not fully maximized, and you have the chunky overlay scrollbars that annoy the hair on my back. On the bright side, iBus is now tucked away and does not shout. And the Jockey uses the words like additional and proprietary drivers instead of restricted.
If you've ticked the relevant checkbox during the installation, you will have both Flash and MP3 playback available. Rhythmbox works just fine, it integrates with the top panel and has a mini-mode that only shows the track playback without all the rest.
The HUD again - so it was stupid in the live session. Maybe it's better now? Nope. It remains tremendously oligophrenic. Either I am a moron for trying to use it for something that it's not meant to do, or there's something wrong with the Top Gun school of computing. I choose the latter.
It's obvious that Mark wants his distro to succeed on smartphones and tablets, so he's introduced all kinds of buttony things designed to satisfy apes with large digits as they smear their will across plastic surfaces. But overall, it's well toned down. The tricky double feeling of desktop and tablet is maintained with a precarious balance. You're not feeling like you're being fed too much idiocracy. And the bits that do cater to the non-desktop audience are rather humble and soft, so it just works somehow.
For instance, I liked the new power meter, although it conflicts with the little icon in the system area in the top panel, and the workspace switcher cursors are also cute.
The cloud sync software is probably the worst part of the desktop. It's buggy. All of the system bugs focus inside its stack of code. It would spin the wait icon forever and would only advance when I clicked the Next button, and eventually failed to do what it had to. Moreover, it's design stands out against the rest of the desktop with a rather tricky gray theme.
Another novel addition to Precise Pangolin is the Privacy settings menu. There are several more, like color management and Landscape Management Service, which always reminds me of landscaping, so to speak, ahem, but the big one is the privacy.
People who want to keep their por ... their activities unknown can set their system to delete the usage history, much like browsers. There's a fair level of granularity, including the ability to choose the time frame, specific file types, media types, applications, and more. Quite lovely for those who care about this kind of thing.
I am not yet 100% sure how much memory should a typical Linux distro use on this machine, as I've not tested that much. Typically, a 32-bit distro would eat some 350MB while a 64-bit one would go for 450MB. With high-end Nvidia cards, the toll climbs to twice or even thrice as much. Pangolin on top of a T61 with a 64-bit processor, an Intel card and two SSD would swallow around 500MB of RAM without any apps running. That's not much, but then it's not a low figure either. CPU was quite most of the time, and the system was extremely responsive, even in relation to Ubuntu 11.10 previously tested on this same hardware. The change is noticeable.
Suspend & resume worked fine, taking about 2 seconds. However, you would sometimes see the system messages flicker behind the purple splash. In this regard, the Canonical teams needs to work a little more to improve their presentation layer.
I have not yet measured the boot time - that will come in another article, but I can definitely claim the shutdown sequence is much faster in Ubuntu 12.04 than it was in previous versions. The moment you click the shutdown or restart buttons, the system will cycle or power down in no more than 3 seconds. That's quite nice.
Stability wise, apart from the one stupid error from Ubuntu One, there were no other issues. I am surprised, in fact. Normally, the first few days are always a bit rough, with slow repos, last bugs forgotten and unresolved, occasional mysterious glitches and such. None of that this time. The LTS release is super-rock-solid.
Let's begin with the bad things first - The menu + HUD are disappointingly stupid. Ubuntu One is a weird beast. Then, there were a few tiny problems like the menu bar integration for LibreOffice, the language and keyboard selection during the installation, and some others. But that's it.
On the bright side, Precise Pangolin is beautiful, fast and robust. It offers a very decent desktop experience, despite its tablety deviations. The software management is smooth and elegant, the application choice balanced and solid. And you get five years of emotional peace, knowing it will be supported until 2017. Not bad for a chunk of free software that fits onto a CD.
Taking everything in perspective, I feel quite pleased. There were no showstoppers. Unity is usable to a very high degree, although nothing beats a classic menu. The stability and speed were amazing. Throw in some additional perks, like the privacy changes, built-in backup and sync, when it works, and you're in for a treat.
Ubuntu 12.4 Precise Pangolin gets 9.5/10. Very beautifully done.
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