Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Exploring Linux - Part 11
by Alan German

Over the past few months I have been using Ubuntu 8.04 in a dual-boot environment with Windows Vista. Ubuntu and its embedded applications, notably the Firefox web browser, the Evolution mailer, and the Open Office suite have served my needs admirably. True, there is some Windows' software, such as a proprietary GPS mapping program, that I can't run under Linux (not even by using WINE – but that's another story), hence the Vista partition on my hard disk. But, otherwise, Linux has the tools to do everything I need.

Ubuntu 8.04 is also a version with long term support (LTS), meaning that it will be supported for the next three years, i.e. until 2011. So, why did I need to download and try Version 8.10 that was released at the end of October? The answer, of course, is because 8.10 is a new version. And, because every recent version of Ubuntu Linux has provided some new key features, the latest kid on the block has to be worth a look. Or is it?

Downloading the software was no problem. The wget command, used to obtain Version 8.04 (see:
http://www.opcug.ca/public/Reviews/linux_part10.htm), proved equally capable of fetching its new cousin, this time from a server at the University of Waterloo.

I then created a bootable CD-ROM with the Brasero Disc Burning utility. This CD burner first came with Ubuntu 8.04 but, since I have always used Roxio's Media Creator on my Windows' platform, I hadn't previously tried this Linux program. It turns out that Brasero is extremely easy to use. The user interface sports just five options: audio, video and data file projects, copying a disk, and burning an image. After putting a blank disk in the drive, and selecting burn an image, the setup dialogue automatically selects the blank CD, and allows browsing for the ISO image file to be used as the data source. Click burn, and the disk creation process proceeds, with a final option to verify the burn. Making a bootable CD with Brasero? Nothing could be simpler. This is one slick little utility.

The Live-CD duly booted Ubuntu Version 8.10 on my desktop machine. But, this is my wife's lifeline to the world wide web. A friend jokingly refers to the machine as the “Toaster”. It's an E-mail and web browser “appliance”. It just has to work. It can't go wrong. Nothing must happen that might affect its functionality. Consequently, making any change whatsoever to this machine is strictly verboten. So, I'm a huge fan of LTS versions of Ubuntu, and the Toaster is running Ubuntu 8.04. (But, don't tell my wife that the machine does receive regular software updates – i.e. changes! – as part of this process.)

Now, life for some of us would be boring if we were stuck with essentially the same software for three years. So, we obviously must have a laptop tucked away somewhere that regularly gets used as a test bed for new stuff. So what if we overwrite the master boot record by installing a new operating system? Who cares if a new program consistently crashes the system? We just reload a backup image of the disk and we're back in business in minutes. Well, usually it only takes minutes. Sometimes... but, that too is another story.

So, no problem trying out Ubuntu 8.10. Stuff the CD into the laptop's drive and boot the machine. Except that the laptop won't boot from the CD. The process starts off fine. The installer asks if I want to try Ubuntu without making any changes to my hard disk, which is usually a safe bet. But then the display reads: “invalid compressed format (err=1) – System halted”. Clearly, this CD is not going to be loading Version 8.10 into memory any time soon!

Then I recalled a similar problem that had occurred previously, and the sage advice from Morris Turpin to burn the CD more slowly. Back to Brasero, look at the properties of the “Select a disk to write to” option, and find that maximum speed is set as the default for burning speed. Change this to 4.0x (CD), the lowest available speed, and burn a new CD. The second CD shows no errors when the disk integrity is checked, and the laptop boots into Ubuntu 8.10. Success!

Now, that little glitch could have been a show stopper. But it turns out that there is yet another workaround, and one that provides a new and very useful option for Ubuntu Linux users. While sifting through the Linux menus, on the Live-CD version that was running (happily) on the Toaster, I came across System – Administration – Create a USB Startup Disk. Ubuntu 8.10 now features a utility to install the Linux distro onto a USB memory stick.

Plug in a blank USBkey, run the above-noted menu option, and the installer's dialogue box pops up. All you have to do is to select the ISO file as the source, and the USBkey where the startup system is to be created. The utility will issue a warning if there is insufficient space available on the memory stick.

Since the Ubuntu distro comes loaded with a host of ready-to-go applications, such as OpenOffice, the installer also wants to know what it should do with files produced by the up-coming Live-USB system. By default, you can reserve 128 MB, or more, on the USBkey as a storage area for such files, or you can have them discarded when Linux is shut down. Once you have made this selection, and pressed the Make Startup Disk button, files are transferred to the USBkey and, in less than four minutes, you have a bootable USB disk.

Ubuntu 8.10 boots from the USBkey, just as it would from a CD. (And, yes, my laptop would boot from my USBkey, so this could also have saved the day!) You get the option to try the new system from the Live-USB, and you can install it onto the hard drive from an icon on the desktop. You also have a complete Linux system, with all the regular applications, on a USB memory stick. You can boot from this USB on a machine that isn't yours, use the Linux apps on the stick, and save your data files back onto the USB disk in the reserved memory space. A completely self-contained, portable Linux system. Neat trick!

So, apart from being able to create a bootable USBkey, what else is new in Ubuntu 8.10? Well, OpenOffice is a bit of a disappointment. It would appear that Version 3 was released too late to make the cut for the current distro and the version provided is actually 2.4.1. No big deal, since there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference in any of the recent versions of OpenOffice, at least not unless you need support for Microsoft's new (Word 2007) docx file format, which is a feature of OpenOffice 3.

But, on the other hand, there is a shiny new release - Version 2.6 - of the GIMP image editor (
http://gimp.org/release-notes/gimp-2.6.html). A quick look suggests that there may be a bit of a learning curve involved here. Two more-or-less familiar toolbars, one for actions like rectangle select, the pencil and brush tools, and a second for attributes such as the size, shape and colour of a brush, snap to the left and right sides of the screen respectively, while a main menu window (File, Edit...) opens up in the centre of the screen. The “Acquire” menu option, previously useful for running a scanner or acting as a screen image grabber, is nowhere in plain sight. Yup, this one is going to need a bit of work.

Otherwise, at first blush, apart from a somewhat darker-brown main screen, with a highly stylized Ibex (the current release is named Imperial Ibex), Ubuntu 8.10 looks a lot like its predecessor. But time, and a lot more use, will show if there are any must-have features in the new software.

Certainly, if you visit Ubuntu's web site (
http://www.ubuntu.com/news/ubuntu-8.10-desktop) and look at the press release relating to the new version, you will find more features listed. These include improvements to the network manager to detect and connect to 3G networks; guest sessions allowing you to lock down a session so that someone else can use your system without compromising your programs or data; access to on-line video, radio and podcasts from the BBC; and Gnome 2.24, the newest version of this desktop environment.

So, the latest version of Ubuntu is now available. One new feature that may be useful to a number of users is the ability to create a bootable version of the operating system, and its associated applications, on a USB memory stick. If you want the newest version of OpenOffice, you will have to wait for an update, or download and install Version 3 of this suite yourself. But, you do get a new version of the GIMP, with a somewhat modified user interface to get used to. Hey – no complaints – life would be boring if we didn't have the odd new toy to play with!


Bottom Line:

Ubuntu 8.10 (Open source)
Canonical Ltd.
http://www.ubuntu.com/

 


Imperial Ibex desktop


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Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

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