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Ubuntu Reviewed: Hands on With Lucid Lynx

The Epic Switched Ubuntu Review
It seems that every time Ubuntu gets an update there's talk about how the new version will finally usher in the era of user-friendly Linux and turn the open-source operating system (OS) into a serious competitor to OS X and Windows. We've been running the latest version, 10.04 (code-named Lucid Lynx), since it first hit beta in mid-March. While we have a hard time seeing it replace Windows 7 anytime soon, the regular six-month intervals of serious improvements are finally paying off in an arguably consumer-ready OS.


A Completely New Look

The Epic Switched Ubuntu Review
For returning users, the most obvious change from past editions of Ubuntu will be the appearance. Previously, the most popular Linux distribution on the planet developed a well-deserved reputation as being a bit of an ugly duckling. Those weened on the blues and greens of Windows or the brushed metal and grays of OS X were understandably turned off by Ubuntu's glossy orange and brown scheme. The earthy tones have been ditched in favor of flat grays, whites, purples and orange highlights, giving Ubuntu a vaguely OS X feel. One of the more controversial decisions was to move the Close, Maximize and Minimize buttons to the left-hand side of the window, a la OS X, rather than the Windows-style, right-hand placement Ubuntu has used since its debut in 2004. Though the change initially irritated us, we grew accustomed to it rather quickly, and no longer consider it a barrier to ease of use.

Our main complaint about the new themes -- the darker default Ambiance and the lighter Radiance -- is that they're incomplete. There are several areas, including Firefox and Gwibber (the integrated social networking app) that are still using elements of older icon themes, and they simply look awkward relative to the otherwise polished interface. Other things about the default Ubuntu interface have remained the same, and that's not necessarily for the better. The standard desktop still sticks with two panels (similar to the task bar in Windows), and the space-wasting "Menu Bar" includes separate drop-down menus for applications, places and system settings. All of these things are easily customized, much more so than their counterparts in OS X and Windows, but many users may simply assume they're stuck with the default setup.

Ubuntu 10.04 Slide Show 1

Social From the Start, But the Media Is Up to You

The other major new feature to Lucid Lynx is the "Me Menu," a drop-down in the upper right-hand corner that allows you to change your IM status, post updates to Twitter and Facebook, and manipulate your Ubuntu One account. Ubuntu One debuted in 2009, and gives all users 2GB of free online storage. The cloud-based syncing solution has grown into a seriously high-quality product. You can sync contacts between computers and cell phones (including the iPhone), notes written in the top-notch Tomboy app, Firefox bookmarks and any file or folder on your computer with a simple mouse click. Most impressive, though, is integration with the new Ubuntu One Music Store, accessible form within the Rhythm Box music manager. Any songs purchased are automatically added to your Ubuntu One online storage, meaning your purchases are easily and automatically synced across all your computers. Even better, they can be accessed from any Web browser at the Ubuntu One site.

The Ubuntu One Music store is one of the major new upgrades to the Ubuntu ecosystem. The store is slickly designed, easy to navigate and completely DRM-free. The selection can't quite compete with iTunes (and there is no podcast library or videos available), but it's certainly not a disappointment; we found 95-percent of the music for which we searched.

The "Me Menu" is powered by Gwibber, an app that pulls in updates from Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Unfortunately, it lacks support for Twitter lists, and can't insert or upload photos. Pictures from cameras and phones can be imported and uploaded to Flickr, Picasa and other services, though, through the adequate, if not entirely intuitive, F-Spot Photo Manager. Lucid Lynx is also the first Ubuntu release not to come preloaded with the Gimp image-editing app (easily installed form the Ubuntu Software Center). The developers felt that Gimp was too complex for the average user (as that would be similar to all PCs coming pre-loaded with Photoshop), and that it often went unused. The newly freed-up space was put to good use by making Lucid Lynx the first version of Ubuntu to come pre-packaged with a video-editing program. Pitivi is a basic video-editing tool similar Microsoft Movie Maker (included with Windows XP). It's simple to use, but don't expect it to win any awards.

However, there are a few areas where Ubuntu might prove cumbersome for newbies. For one, Flash and the proper codecs for MP3 playback still aren't installed by default -- largely due to licensing issues. Ubuntu makes installing them simple, but the fact that you can't listen to MP3s out of the box might turn off some.

Ubuntu 10.04 Slide Show 2

The Good, the Bad and the Completely Risk-Free

Like any Linux distribution, there's a nearly bottomless supply of great free apps (GNOME Do, Tomboy, Shutter, VLC, Tasque, etc.), and you can customize nearly everything -- from the window-closing animations to the placement of those recently shifted window buttons. The issue is that sometimes these things aren't as obvious as they should be. Ubuntu has certainly made things simpler, but it still can't quite match OS X, or even Windows, in terms of simplicity. That being said, Ubuntu boots and runs faster than the competition, and is unaffected by malware. Additionally, Linux has come a long way in terms of hardware compatibility; the only issue we encountered had to do with the fingerprint reader on our ThinkPad.

Our quibbles with it are relatively minor, and we could easily find similar issues with both Windows and OS X. Besides, there are plenty of small features to love, like the virtual desktops, customizable keyboard shortcuts, and tabbed file manager.

Lucid Lynx is a "must upgrade" for current Ubuntu users. Everyone else should at least give the user-friendly Linux distribution a look. If you need access to specific apps, such as Photoshop or Microsoft Office, that aren't available for Linux, then Ubuntu probably isn't for you. (Although, they'll run with some limitations via Wine, and there are alternatives like Open Office.) You can try it without making any changes to your computer by downloading and burning the Live CD, so there is little excuse for not giving it a shot.

Oh, and unlike those other operating systems, Ubuntu is free, and always will be.

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