New Linux Arrivals

You can almost set your watch by it nowadays: Twice a year, we have a new version of Ubuntu Linux to explore.

April will bring the release of Feisty Fawn, also known as Ubuntu 7.04. (The "04" indicates April; the "7" stands for 2007.) I've been running prerelease versions of Feisty for about a month. In a moment, some notes on what I've discovered. But first, a bit of context and history.

Ubuntu releases usually arrive each April and October. Version 6.10 (Edgy Eft) came out on time, but last spring's release, Dapper Drake, debuted two months late, and thus was christened version 6.06 LTS. The LTS stands for "long-term support," meaning that Canonical, the company that provides support for Ubuntu, will do so for five years; in addition, Canonical will make security updates available for the same amount of time, rather than for the typical 18 months for a non-LTS Ubuntu release.

Dapper remains the most stable, hassle-free Linux I have ever used--and I've been running Linux full-time on one machine or another since 1998. Edgy, however, reworked a few key parts of the system to take advantage of newer technologies, and the result wasn't as solid. My laptop's suspend, hibernate, and resume features, for instance, never failed when I ran Dapper. But since I installed Edgy, the machine sometimes fails to go to sleep when I want it to.

So I've been looking forward to Feisty, not only for bug fixes but also because one of the Ubuntu team's stated goals for Feisty was a specific intention to add cutting-edge desktop effects to the Ubuntu experience.

What sort of whiz-bang desktop effects am I talking about? Well, if you've ever used Mac OS X, or if you've been subjected to Windows Vista, you've seen this sort of thing: menus that fade in and out, windows and dialog boxes that zoom into place, applications that disappear genie-in-the-lamp style when you minimize them, and so forth.

Unfortunately, Ubuntu has met the goal only partially. Feisty has all of the drivers and infrastructure necessary to support desktop effects, but the new effects themselves are disabled by default.

Yes, it's eye candy. But in several respects, that eye candy makes for a more intuitive user experience. For example, when a warning dialog box pops up, I have an immediate visual cue as to which program spawned it, because the dialog box zooms out from its parent application. Besides, this is what modern interfaces look like, and we want Linux to keep up with the Joneses, right? So, why aren't these neat features enabled by default in Feisty?

Beryl: You Have to See It to Believe It

You can answer that question yourself by test-driving current desktop-effects offerings--and experiencing the glitches. Start, for example, with Beryl, currently one of the hot darlings of the Free Software world (if linkage from places such as Reddit and Digg is any indication). If you're running Ubuntu Edgy or Feisty, installing the very latest revision of Beryl is pretty straightforward, since the authors have provided a repository of Ubuntu packages.

From this page at the Beryl wiki, first follow the steps under "Graphics Card Drivers" (Edgy users only) and then try the Beryl "with AIGLX" steps. Yes, it is all a bit of a hassle, but keep in mind that this software is not fully baked (we can look forward to stable versions coming preinstalled in our distros someday), and if you do get it running, it will have been worth the effort. Believe me, your friends who run Mac and Windows will be jealous of your eye candy in no time. Beryl's effects really put everything else to shame.

But (and you just knew there was a "but," didn't you?) don't show off those nifty effects for too long, because sooner or later Beryl will crash. The program is still in its infancy, and many, many bugs remain to be worked out.

Take the time, though, to explore Beryl's absolutely labyrinthine Settings Manager, which has enough options to satisfy even a longtime user of the options-rich KDE desktop environment. You can get lost for hours playing with these options.

Spend some time with Beryl's Settings Manager, and you can customize the "Wheeeeee!"-inducing desktop effects to your heart's content.
Spend some time with Beryl's Settings Manager, and you can customize the "Wheeeeee!"-inducing desktop effects to your heart's content.
Some of Beryl's most impressive effects must be specifically turned on by the user. Personally, I like to assign the "Task Ring" effect--similar to Vista's Windows-Tab task switching--to Alt-Tab. I also assign the "Scale" effect--which mimics OS X's Exposé feature--to a hot corner in the lower right of my screen. For a more thorough walk-through of the possibilities Beryl brings, check out the fantastic overview at Ars Technica.

Beryl is an offshoot (or a "fork") of a similar project, called Compiz. Compiz doesn't have all of Beryl's hoopla, but many people find it more stable than Beryl, and it isn't burdened by a configuration dialog box that only a geek could embrace. This is why Compiz, rather than Beryl, drives Feisty's desktop effects (if you enable them via System, Preferences, Desktop Effects).

Feisty's Desktop Effects dialog box is an adobe hut compared with the high-rent condo tower that is Beryl's Settings Manager: You can enable only two options here, relating to "wobbly" windows and a "desktop cube" on which you can place your virtual workspaces.

In my testing, the second function never even worked--but Compiz hasn't crashed on me, whereas Beryl consistently crashes within an hour's use or less.

In future releases of Ubuntu, the Desktop Effects dialog box will surely contain additional options. Whether Compiz or Beryl will drive them is probably still an open question. It's a bummer that neither package can, at this time, provide both the good looks and the stability that are necessary for such effects to become part of a standard installation, but the Ubuntu team seems to have made the right decision to let these projects gestate further before including and enabling one or the other by default.

Desktop Effects are experimental in Ubuntu's Feisty Fawn release, and the options are spare.
Desktop Effects are experimental in Ubuntu's Feisty Fawn release, and the options are spare.
After all, there's no use in frustrating new users with a buggy interface. New arrivals to Linux often feel they've lost their bearings even when everything is working perfectly--not because Linux is hard to use, mind you, but because the new user must still get accustomed to the many small differences that everyone encounters (and always will). (It's usually only a dozen minutes or so before the inevitable "Where's my C: drive?" question arises.)

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