Friday, October 30, 2009

Ubuntu 9.10 What's New?

October 29th marked the official launch of Canonical's Ubuntu 9.10 also known as Karmic Koala. I have been using 9.10 on my Asus Eee PC 1000 and thought that I would share my first impression/review/tour or whatever you want to call it. With 9.10, there are many changes since Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope so lets get straight to it.
The Boot Process:
The whole boot process appears to be much more streamlined and is almost Mac OS X like. From start to finish there is much less flickering and sports a much more elegant look. This is partially thanks to the brand new X-based splash screen (Xsplash). Not only does it look great, but it apparently cuts down the boot time by a few seconds compared to the old method. Here is a screenshot:

Despite the official claim that boot time has decreased, in my experience it has not improved since 9.04 and has even increased by 10-20 seconds. This issue has been reported and I am hoping that it will be fixed soon. I am getting boot times in the 90 second range for Karmic and I was getting around 75 seconds in 9.04. However the new boot process does look fantastic and many users are reporting an overall boot time decrease so the lesson here is your mileage may vary. Once booted, the login screen greets you with its brand new look. Now we just select our user name and password and off we go to the desktop.
Now we have made first contact with the Karmic Koala desktop which looks like this:

I can't say I agree with this choice of default wallpaper, it's quite different from the dark colours we were seeing during the boot process. Whats worse is I feel that it looks boring compared to what we have seen in the last 4 releases. 7.10 and 9.04 had nice darker wallpaper while 8.04 and 8.10 had their respective animals (the Heron and the Ibex). Despite all this, Karmic Koala does have a trick up its sleeve. For the first time ever the appearance controls comes with a nice selection of backgrounds including a space themed set of wallpaper that automatically changes the background every 30 minutes, cool! If you want more, there is a button you can click right in the appearance window to browse and download more backgrounds from This is actually thanks to the new version of GNOME that 9.10 sports. Here is my screenshot of the appearance controls and that button:

It looks like they are doing a good job so far with the look and feel. The new theme is a step up from 9.04 and the new icons are also a plus. Next we will see the other system features.

The System:

In general this isn't that different from 9.04. We still have the nice notification system that 9.04 introduced. The familiar menus are still there, but there are four items that I feel are worth mentioning.


I am going to be honest here and say that sound in Ubuntu has always frustrated me. The sound preferences were always unintuitive and in general just a downright failure to use for any of my sound issues. I found the terminal command alsamixer much better and easier to use than the confusing gui preferences. With 9.10 I feel that they have really cleaned up the sound preferences. Here is a screenshot of the new sound preferences:

Now we have new tabs that just make sense. The first tab controls sound effects for those that use a sound theme. The Hardware tab controls which device should be used to play a sound. I use a USB sound card from Turtle Beach as well as the internal sound card and this tab has been useful for when I want to switch between the two. Other tabs are Input which controls microphones, Output which controls speaker balance, and Applications which controls how loud you want your specific applications to play sounds. This is probably the least talked about new feature but I feel it is one of the most important. Proper sound control is much more important to me than a few second reduction in boot time. Unfortunately if your sound just plain doesn't work these preferences will probably do little to improve your situation, but that is an entirely different issue. In 9.04 I couldn't get my internal speakers to work even though my headphone port would play sounds just fine. With 9.10, my sound issues are a thing of the past but I know users that still don't have sound so again YMMV.

Ubuntu Software Centre:

During the Alpha versions of Karmic Koala this used to be called The Ubuntu Software Store, Which didn't make any sense since you couldn't buy anything. Since the Alpha, the name improved and this application has replaced the Add/Remove feature that has been around for awhile. This application reminds me of Apple's iTunes Music Store. It starts with a few categories to choose from or you can search using keywords for applications that you want or already have. Once you find your item you click an arrow and there you will see additional information a download or remove button, sometimes a screenshot, and lastly a link to the applications website. I went ahead and downloaded my favourite game available in the Ubuntu Software Centre (PokerTH) and it took care of everything in the background much better than the old Add/Remove. Here are screenshots for effect:

Overall I approve of this new feature. I do miss the popularity ratings applications had under the Add/Remove system, although I do recognize that it only represented popularity rather than quality. In the future I hope that they will add some kind of rating system to address this.

Disk Utility:

In the past, I would have had to download a program called Gparted to have some kind of partition editor. I consider myself an above average computer user and I like having advanced controls when it comes to editing file systems on my storage devices. Thankfully Ubuntu now has an out of the box solution to this thanks to its Disk Utility application. Again this application reminds me of Apple's Disk Utility. It has a decent look and feel and it seems powerful enough for all my partition management needs even with many devices attached. Heres a screenshot to illustrate what it looks like with many devices connected:

Having this feature built into the OS is a plus and I believe that it is the Gparted killer. Hopefully they continue to improve on this.

Ubuntu One:

If you are familiar with Apple's iDisk or, Ubuntu One is essentially that, but not as restrictive and overall much better. It gives 2 Gb of free online storage, and more can be purchased if you need it. Once you sign up for the service you get over the web access to whatever you want to put in your Ubuntu One folder. This is useful if you aren't on your computer at home. When you are on your computer though, there will be an Ubuntu One folder located in your home folder. Whatever changes you make to this folder will get uploaded to the web and it is a really seamless way to upload your files. Here is a screenshot of the fresh Ubuntu One folder:

If you use Evolution, there is a way to sync contacts to your Ubuntu One account. Also if you download Tomboy Notes from the Software Centre, the notes you take can also be synced to Ubuntu One. Ubuntu One is a very nice addition to the Ubuntu experience and will continue to get better as it matures. I feel that with Ubuntu One, the competition is losing this battle. Apple's Mac OS X has the iDisk solution if you subscribe to their mobileme service which is expensive and restrictive. I feel MobileMe is pointless and can be defeated by using Ubuntu One and Google's various applications like Gmail, Google Calander, and Blogger. Microsoft's Windows 7 doesn't even have an answer to this yet but they are coming up with something similar to MobileMe. Ubuntu One is considered Karmic Koala's party piece and while I wouldn't go that far, it is a great addition to Ubuntu.

We've discussed what I feel are the four important changes with 9.10, but what a bout applications? Well that is up next so onward we go.


Every version of Ubuntu includes the latest and greatest Free Software available. The ever popular Firefox has been updated to version 3.5.3. The powerful spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and word processor apps from the Suite have been updated to 3.1.1. The Adobe Photoshop killer, GIMP image editor has been updated to 2.6.7. There are many other changes, but I will focus on just one since it is getting the most attention. I am talking of course about Empathy.

Empathy IM Client:

Before I get into this, heres a bit of my history regarding IM in general:

Empathy IM is a completely new experience for me. I was happy with Pidgin in Ubuntu 9.04. It was stable, fast, and supported file transfers in AIM. Pidgin even has the best status updater which for me, is based on mouse use. I go AFK quite often so if I am not using the mouse for more than 4 minutes, I automatically get set to away. When I come back, I move the mouse and my status automatically gets set back to Available. So right from the start I saw no reason to switch to Empathy IM, but as a technology enthusiast and since it was going to be bundled with 9.10, I started using Empathy a month ago in preparation for the Ubuntu Karmic Koala release. I use a variety of IM services including, AOL Instant Messenger, Gtalk, and Yahoo! Messenger. When I first tried Empathy, there was a nasty bug that prevented me from getting on Yahoo Messenger. I wasn't too bothered since it was fixed pretty swiftly, but it was the first set back.

And now we fast forward to Empathy IM:

As a Pidgin user the first thing I noticed was the conversation window is very simplistic. Not much happening here, just screenname:messege. The occasional time stamp would appear as the conversation went on:

This design reminds me of Apple's iChat. The Buddy list is also simple. a green circle icon represents "Available", while a red triangle represents "Away". My big complaint here is that it doesn't tell me when my buddies are using IM from their mobile phones. Using AOL Instant Messenger service in Empathy is disappointing only because it doesn't support file transfers. Yahoo Messenger in Empathy also suffers the same fate. The flexible status updater from Pidgin isn't quite right in Empathy. If I don't use my computer for ten minutes, it goes "Away" but once I come back, I have to manually set it back to "Available" which makes the auto "Away" feature useless.

Stability under Empathy is disappointing at best and generally unacceptable. Once in awhile Empathy decides to shutdown on me as soon as I send an IM. Therefore taking me a few seconds to get back on and asking everyone "did you get my messege?" Speed in Empathy is also a good joke. I feel that I don't receive instant messeges all the time. For those familiar with missing and dropping calls with a bad mobile phone carrier connection will probably understand my frustration here. The indicator applet in the Ubuntu top panel likes to exaggerate how many times a buddy signs on. I sometimes get four or five of the same buddy in the applet. It's crazy.

Despite the many flaws of Empathy, when it works it works great. Empathy's party piece is its excellent XMPP Protocol support. Jabber and Gtalk really shine in Empathy. File Transfers are supported and Audio/Video chat is also great. Goodbye Skype and Ekiga! Skype under Ubuntu is worse than useless and no one I know uses Ekiga. Another cool feature is screen sharing. For those familiar with Apple's iChat, it's a bit like their screen sharing feature but lets call it "still in development." For those unfamiliar with screen sharing, it's basically you and your buddy observing and controlling a single desktop. You can share your own desktop or your buddy’s and you both have control at all times. I consider Empathy's screensharing feature "still in development" because it is painfully slow. To get an idea, I would say its around 3 fps slow.

Another thing I like about Empathy is its previous conversation browser. it shows a calendar on the left and when you click on the dates it goes to that days conversation. Here's a screenshot of just that:

Empathy is a mixed bag. If you use Gtalk or Jabber, I definitely recommend using it full time. However for the AIM/YIM user I would still continue to use Pidgin. Personally, I switch back and forth between the two now. Empathy will become more stable as time passes, and I think it has more potential than Pidgin.

Final Thoughts:

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala is a step up from 9.04. Alot of the minor issues I had in 9.04 have all disappeared and the new versions of applications alone is improvement enough. I do feel that this release focused mostly on look and feel and that is not all bad. Many of the new designs reminds me of Apple but in a good way. Ubuntu will never be Mac OS X so theres no fear of that either. I found that the biggest disappointments were in the most hyped features which were Empathy IM and improved boot time. Features including, The Ubuntu Software Centre, Ubuntu One, and the new boot appearance makes this the best version of Ubuntu yet. Hopefully the next version of Ubuntu (Lucid Lynx 10.04 LTS) will sport a more stable Empathy and more uses for the Ubuntu Software Centre. This concludes my review of Ubuntu 9.10. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I just checked in OpenOffice Writer and this review is 6 pages long. I'm off to go play PokerTH. Feel free to leave comments.

Karmic Koala 9.10 is here