First Impressions: Symphony, Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon

Ubuntu 7.10: Sneak Preview

In other news, my copy of Symphony is running on a prerelease version of Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, aka version 7.10, due to release next month. I tend to pull down a beta of new Ubuntu releases about a month before their final release, because by that time most of the major bugs have been worked out, and as updated packages stream down from day to day, it's kind of fun to see the finishing touches get put on the OS. ("Oh, they updated that icon today. Shiny!")

I'm already loving Gutsy because it works properly on my laptop, a ThinkPad X31 that is showing some signs of age but still gets the job done. The previous Ubuntu incarnation, Feisty Fawn, released last spring, refused to play nice on this ThinkPad: Suspend and hibernate functions didn't work (or, more precisely, they worked, but resuming from those states did not). Gutsy has banished those bugs, and it brings me a wealth of new features besides, arriving as it does with version 2.20 of the Gnome desktop environment--the interface that gives you your start menu and your taskbar and your window dressings and everything else that makes up the look and feel of the system, plus some powerful default apps as well.

(Note, by the way, how differently open-source projects present themselves to end users: Compare the release notes for Gnome 2.20 to the release notes for OpenOffice 2.3, and then tell me which group looks more serious about communicating clearly with the user base.)

A Closer Look at Gutsy Gibbon

For an in-depth look at everything that is new and exciting in Gnome 2.20, see this exhaustive review over at Ars.Technica. I'll just point out a few highlights I've noticed. First, I can--at long last--drag and drop files out of zip and tarball archives. (And thus one of my wishes for 2007 has been granted.)

Gnome 2.20's Appearance applet is a new way to skin your interface just the way you like it.
Gnome 2.20's Appearance applet is a new way to skin your interface just the way you like it.
The e-mail client, Evolution, has a cool new feature (suppressible with one click; quit your whining) that harangues you when you seem to be forgetting an intended attachment. Several disparate applets in the Gnome Control Panel have been brought together in the new Appearance applet, too.

Totem, the media player, has much improved automatic codec downloading and installation. (The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, the most powerful tech journalist on the planet, recently criticized this feature for referring to codec packs that are "bad" and "ugly," but he failed to note that the feature works perfectly for a wide variety of media types, and that nothing like it exists on Windows or the Mac.)

The power manager icon on my Gnome panel now provides a constant, dependable approximation of how much battery life is left, and even tells me if my creaky old battery is shot. It also lets me suppress, finally, its more inane warnings. 'The system is now running on battery power'? Yes, thanks, I know that, I just unplugged the beast. Stop bothering me.

Gutsy includes other niceties that are unrelated to the new Gnome release. When Firefox encounters a media type it doesn't know how to handle, it now uses the system's package-management tools to locate, download, and install the Ubuntu package for the necessary browser plug-in, all automatically.

A PDF-generating virtual printer lets you easily produce PDF files from any application that can print. A new, friendly tool helps with graphics-card and monitor setup. The Tracker desktop-search tool is now installed and enabled by default, as are snazzy desktop effects (windows that fade in and out, Exposé-like task switching) driven by Compiz.

It will be interesting to see how that last feature turns out: Compiz can be pretty quirky, and continues to do unexpected things with my windows on odd occasions, such as when I do something as innocent as clicking a maximize button. If those bugs aren't squashed before release, some people's first experience with Linux might be rockier than it should be.

Gutsy is still a beta, so I render no final conclusions about it here; I will say, though, that I like the changes I see, and I'm hungry for more. Luckily, Hardy Heron, Ubuntu's first Long Term Service release since Dapper Drake in spring of 2006, will come along next spring. In the meantime, I'll be as free as I can (though back here next month!), and I invite you to do the same.

Matthew Newton is PC World's QA Engineer and in-house Linux guru.

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