Picture the scene. My HP server has just had its set of 4 x 3TB disks replaced, so there is a pile of 3TB disk sitting there, spare, on my desk.
Around the same time, as a result of seeing a work colleague’s high def monitor, I decide that I want one too. The annual hardware budget having been blown getting the new 4TB disks for the server, however, the chances of me soon acquiring a shiny new monitor of whatever definition are exceedingly slim. But I have a degree in cunning, so I decide to install a new NVidia graphics card into my OpenSuse-running main PC to prepare it to drive a shiny new high-def monitor. At which point, OpenSuse chokes, explodes and otherwise kicks the bucket: where previously my OpenSuse desktop had been glitz and glamour personified, now the drop-shadows around windows have gone; wobbly windows have stopped wobbling; the desktop cube has started pining for the fjords; and, generally, the entire OS I’ve been happy with for 8+ weeks now looks completely awful.
Faced with a spare pile of hard disks and a screwed-up PC O/S install: What would you do?
Me? I decided to swap in the four drives to make a new RAID array for my PC and take the opportunity whilst I’m at it to ditch OpenSuse Leap 42 and experiment instead with Ubuntu 16.04. This was probably a bit perverse on my part, since I’ve been delighted with OpenSuse for most of the time I’ve had it, and generally regard it as pretty wonderful. So parting with it was a bit hard -but inevitable, given its new-found graphical screwiness. Besides, I’m a sucker for trying new things out and Ubuntu 16.04 (codename: Xenial Xerus, apparently meaning, roughly, “friendly squirrel”) was released to the world just three weeks ago and most of the reviews of it sounded interesting.
I last used Ubuntu back in 2006 and/or 2008, so it’s been a while! I swore off it when they introduced Unity, the ghastly launcher-thing that sits on the side of your screen, vertically; that always struck me as determinedly awkward, given most people have horizontally-oriented monitors. I only considered Ubuntu 16.04 because, for the first time ever, the Unity launcher can be configured to display horizontally, where it makes much more sense and looks just like the launcher of any Windows or “normal” Linux distro you care to mention.
The other real reason for thinking of Ubuntu today? In a word: ZFS. Ubuntu integrates ZFS tightly into itself in a way that OpenSuse never does. So where on Suse I had to script the importation of my music zpool after every PC reboot, Ubuntu just mounts it automatically without me (almost) having to lift a finger. ZFS is important to me for data integrity reasons: a Linux distro that treats it as practically a native file system gets my interest.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself: first, I had to install the thing. And I have to say, it was an atrocious installation process. I was installing from a DVD I’d burnt from a downloaded 16.04 ISO. Every time I tried, it kept stalling on the ‘file 60 of 60’ mark. By (1) not selecting the option to update software as part of the install, nor to install third-party multimedia codecs; and (2) manually configuring a wireless network to my mobile phone acting as an access point, I finally managed to get this to stop being a problem. But even when, under these circumstances, the install sailed through to completion, the OS would fail to reboot properly when prompted and I was required to manually switch the PC off and on again. Short version: it was long, slow and flakey.
I subsequently tried installing it on a variety of old PCs, spare laptops and virtual machines …and the story was completely different. So it must just have been bad luck (or poor install media: those other installations were done from a bootable USB stick, not the DVD). But it left a poor impression, anyway.
So what’s it like when finally installed?
Well, for starters, I find Ubuntu to be nicely presented (once you change the slightly-hideous purple desktop background!), with a good choice of default fonts for the GUI and the terminal. OpenSuse is attractive in quite a flat way (the modern æsthetic, I guess), but Ubuntu feels attractive in quite a normal way by comparison. The only two exceptions to this are (1) the windows decorations (minimise, maximise, close) are on the left-hand side of the window, not the right and this cannot be changed in 16.04; and (2) Ubuntu’s use of ‘global menus’ and/or menus in the toolbar of application windows is pretty bad.
The global menu is just madness: if you’ve got a text document open in the bottom right-hand corner of your 32″ screen, you have to navigate all the way up to the top-left of the screen before you even see a ‘File’ menu. No thanks. Happily, in System Settings -> Appearance -> Behavior you can click the option to ‘show the menus for a window… in the window’s title bar’ and that problem is fixed. But don’t close the appearance configuration tool just yet, because another annoyance with Ubuntu’s application menus can be sorted whilst you’re here: by default, they remain hidden until you mouse over the application window’s header bar. Even when you hover, there’s a momentary wait before the menus appear… it’s jarring and slightly unnerving. It also means you have to aim your mouse at ‘nothing’, hoping you end up in the vicinity of the ‘File’ menu (or whatever you were hoping to hit). Chances are, you will miss, most often by quite a large amount! It seems a preposterous way of doing things to me. Fortunately, in the Appearance tool, there’s the option to set ‘Menus visibility … Always displayed’ -and then, finally, Ubuntu behaves as most other operating systems do!
So that is all fixable, but the windows controls are permanently placed where Mac users and southpaws will enjoy them …and I don’t! I am hopeful that the ability to move the window controls back over to the right will soon return. It was certainly possible to put them there in previous Ubuntu versions; hopefully it’s just a tweak or twiddle that will do the job once someone, somewhere figures it out…
As a bonus, Ubuntu loves my new graphics card and wobbles its windows alluringly and spins its desktop cube speedily, which makes me happy. Graphically, it’s pretty slick. Its choice of wallpapers and other theme-able elements is a bit lacking, however (Xubuntu 16’s selection is a lot nicer, in my view. Fortunately, it’s trivial to download the Xubuntu ones and back-load them onto Ubuntu by copying the contents of /usr/share/xfce4/backdrops to /usr/share/backgrounds, as root).
What Windows users would call the ‘start menu’ is, in Ubuntuland, called ‘the Dash’. I find it a bit of a problem, since it doesn’t present a nice hierarchical menu of application types into which you can drill at leisure. So you don’t get a small, simple, all-over view of what programs you’ve installed. Instead you get a ‘home page’ that lists recently-used applications and files/folders, which might be moderately useful if it displayed more, but its icons are huge and the data density is exceedingly low.
To see anything more, you have to click various icons at the bottom to activate various “lenses”: there is a specific one for searching for videos; another for music; another for files… and there’s one that looks like an artist’s easel which is actually an ‘A’ for applications. That’s what will show you all your installed apps in one go, provided you (a) go on to click the ‘Installed’ option rather than accept the default recently used/installed/dash plugins view; and (b) don’t mind huge icons and a lot of scrolling.
I don’t find it very useful; I rather think you’re supposed to type what you want in the search filter instead (but if you want to compose music, you have to know to type ‘m…u…s…e’ for ‘musescore’, which I don’t think works for a lot of things whose specific names I neither know nor remember).
There seems no easy way to alter the size of the Dash icons (changing the size of the launcher icons (i.e., the icons in what Windows would call the ‘quick launcher’) is a piece of cake: System Settings -> Appearance -> Look -> Launcher icon size. But that does nothing for Dash icons, leaving the Dash an extremely poor way of launching things (for me, at least: your mileage might well vary, of course).
By default, Ubuntu only enables one virtual desktop (a curious choice in my view: I regard virtual desktops as one of Linux’s best features). But it’s easy enough to switch them back on, at which point the Workspace Switcher button becomes meaningful. Sort of…
The equivalent 4-pane switch in OpenSuse lets you click on any of the quadrants to immediately switch to that virtual desktop; and if you’ve got a Desktop Cube effect switched on, the desktop will be ‘travelled to’ by spinning the cube. But not so in Ubuntu. Click one of those panels in the switcher button and you get this:
So I now have to click one of the displayed virtual desktops to switch to it. No Cube effect kicks in, and I’ve had to use my mouse once more than necessary. I wasn’t impressed.
Whether it’s a failing of Gnome or Unity or just of Ubuntu, I couldn’t say, but the notification system seems weak. In point of fact, there don’t seem to be many notifications in the first place, but when they do arrive (to tell you that there are software updates available, for example), you can’t do anything with them. You’d think (well, I would anyway!) that you would be able to click the notice to launch the software upgrade process, but you can’t. Instead, the notice just fades into a blur if you hover your mouse anywhere near it, so that you can’t meaningfully click it at all. You can’t dismiss the notice, either: it just sits there, pointlessly, until it decides to vanish in its own good time. I was fortunately able to install CustomizeNotifyOSD to fix that last issue (now I can ‘click to dismiss’ notifications), but it’s not ideal.
A word about stability: on both my main PC and my vintage 2012 HP laptop, Ubuntu has crashed since I performed a fresh install. I can’t say any more than that: there was no common factor I could identify and it could well have been an application common to both installs that was responsible in any case, rather than the OS itself. But I don’t remember OpenSuse ever crashing.
Finally: does it run Oracle? Why, yes it does… though I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many linking errors in one install before (I did the 184.108.40.206 install)! I’ll have to see if I can automate the fixes required, because there are more than a dozen of them! But yes, if you persist, you do get it installed OK:
…and the database actually works and returns results when asked nicely:
Ubuntu 16.04 is an “LTS” release -Long-term Support- which means it will be patched and supported until 2021. I barely keep an O/S long enough to make it to month 3, let alone year 5, but it’s a nice concept if you value stability and predictability over the new shiny.
Anyway, it’s now been a week. The main PC is functional; the two laptops are good. I can’t say I love Ubuntu: there are annoyances (chiefly the right-hand placement of the windows controls, I think). But there are pleasures too, and overall I’m enjoying it.
Summing up, then:
- ZFS integration
- Graphics performance
- Default fonts
- Horizontal launcher
- Weird Global and disappearing application menus can be fixed
- Oracle 12c runs on it
- Window controls unmovable on the left-hand side,
- Dash icon size: big and un-alterable,
- The workspace switcher doesn’t switch between virtual desktops… extra clicking is required!
- Oracle 12c has to be arm-twisted to run on it!
- Some crashes (not sure if it’s O/S’s fault, though)
- Relatively poor choice of default wallpapers (fixable by borrowing Xubuntu’s, and others)
- Slow and flakey installation process
- The Global Application Menu (which can fortunately be turned off)
- Notifications are visually intrusive and not very functional