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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 LTS Lucid Lynx Review

Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx has been out for a few months now, the few issues at the release seem to have been sorted out and all is looking pretty well. I thought this would be a good time to have a look at how it stacks up as an Operating System that claims to be "Linux for Human Beings". I have seen some reviews right after it came out but I think an opinion would be more fair if the reviewer has actually lived with it for a while instead of clicking random buttons after the install.

So we are going on three months and I have been thrilled for the most part with Ubuntu 10.04 both on my Desktop, Laptop and my wife's Laptop. So let's take a look at some of the strong and weak points by inspecting the different aspects of this OS.

Performance

Around Ubuntu 8.04 people were starting to feel a very noticeable decline in the speed of Ubuntu and it started a call from the community to not go down the Windows road and allow bloat to sink the OS. By the time 9.04 was on the drawing board, Canonical made performance a very high priority, looking at things like boot time and memory footprint. They have focused a lot of effort on this aspect ever since and once again in Luci we can see the fruits of their labour. Lucid not only is fast it seems fast and people often overlook that. You can have an immensely fast system, but of the controls and response feels sluggish it all feels slow. Lucid does excellently on both these fronts and I always have a little smile when I see my desktop while other people are still staring at their load screens. I will publish another post with some concrete performance benchmarks and comparisons to the competition but for now it is safe to say that Lucid is snappy, agile and a pleasure to use as far as performance is concerned.

For: It is fast. It boots in a flash, feels responsive and does not bloat over time like Windows.
Against: Not much. While Win7 pars it in some aspects of performance, it still remains much faster over all.

Look

Ubuntu has received much praise over the past few years but never for its looks. And it is easy to see why. While the tones of orange and brown may have been meant to be warm and soothing, it made most depressed. I would honestly spend all day looking at a text based terminal than staring at the old Ubuntu Default Theme for two minutes. To improve this two new themes have been added. Radiance and Ambiance, the latter being the default upon installation The orange has retreated into a secondary role, merely providing accents to the now dominant purple and black. And what an improvement. While I still feel that is does not look like the modern OS it is, it is a massive leap from the old scheme. It looks more polished and it is finally carving out an identity for itself that breaks away from being "The Ugly Duckling". The windows no longer look like the Menu bar was made by someone else and stuck on at the last moment and the entire look feels more coherent and solid. It is not perfect mind you. I still feel that Windows 7 looks more modern and stylish even though Ubuntu has better ergonomics. Ubuntu has come to the point where it looks more modern than Windows XP and while some may chuckle at this, for an OS that worries more about stability and security than shiny looks, that is a great move. The Linux purist in me does not want it to get too shiny but I have to concede that most common users like shiny things and you can always tone it down if you find it all a bit too "bling". That is the beauty of Linux, right? If you do not like the way it looks, change it.

For: A big improvement over the old colour scheme and a sharper identity. Also infinitely customizable so if you do not like the look, change it.
Against: Still looks a bit outdated out of the box compared to Win7. Needs to feel "fresher"

Functionality

This is perhaps where the most progress has been made and where it stand head and shoulders over its competition. Lucid, like its predecessors is based on the idea of "just works" and it really does. This is thanks to an excellent compliment of included software and excellent integration of all these nice features into the OS itself. Upon installation you are presented with a fully equipped Office Suite in the form of OpenOffice.org, a collection of Image, Internet and Media applications that will satisfy the needs of most common users right out of the box. While The GIMP has been dropped to the outcry of many I feel this was a smart move considering how few users actually made use of it. We now get Pitivi video editor, a feature I felt was sorely lac king in Ubuntu before. Xsane Image Scanner has been replaced by Simple Scan which I feel is a simpler application that common users will understand more easily. Empathy IM client stays with us but is now more smoothly integrated with the Panels, making it feel like part of the OS instead of another application. This makes setting up and using your chat accounts simpler and more efficient, consolidating various IM services like Google talk, MSN Live, Yahoo and AIM into one application. Finally Gwibber brings social networking onto the Desktop, allowing you to link to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and DiggUbuntu. Visio files are a big one I noticed. This is not Ubuntu's fault however.

For: Amazing compliment of standard applications, all well integrated into the Desktop
Against: Most issues are monopoly related but you might have to look around a bit to find a Linux equivalent to the program you need.

Ease of Use

This is the big one. This is what determines if people use an OS or if they return to the store and demand Windows instead. Here, I feel Lucid delivers excellently on some fronts but lacks severely in others. Ubuntu has always made an effort to make things as simple as possible for the user and for the most part have done quite well though some things like the fact that most codecs are not installed by default will confuse and frustrate some users. I understand why this is done but try explaining this to a common user and they will just moan. Still, all features that people use a lot are easily installed from the Ubuntu Software Centre which has been vastly improved. It is now possible to install libraries from the Software Centre itself and the entire application feels more responsive. Also, the grouping of applications and sources has been stunningly executed, making finding that app you need much simpler. Setting up things like connections, bluetooth devices and external hardware is simpler than in any other OS I have come across. Cameras, phones, scanners, printers, all can be so simply installed that even some of my low tech colleagues have managed to do so with ease, something they always call me to do in Windows. There really is that sense of everything "just works" with most devices you can think of. Plug it in and let Ubuntu do the rest. Linux still beats Windows hands down when it comes to out of the box driver support. The exceptions are of course from manufacturers who could not be bothered with Linux drivers and for these you might have to dig around or grab a geek to help you with. One aspect where I still feel some progress can be made is the simplification of common functions. Getting the Computer icon on your desktop is a lot more complicated than it should be. Inconstancy in the behaviour of icons as you drag them to the Desktop should be looked at as well. Setting up shares with Samba requires a good deal of Googling and for something that looks so simple at first it has had many people crying. The rights to the folder need to be edited from the command line at times and the fact that you can only create a share when launching Nautilus as root is still a massive let down in an otherwise simple to use OS. Setting up Remote Desktop Access is also not as simple as seems and will confuse many people who know that it is one simple click in Windows. Overall though I think good strides are being made. I just hope they do not overlook these small things that can throw users off quite quickly.

Of course the most debated issue is the placement of the "Close, Minimize, maximize" buttons, no located on the left side of the Top Panel on each window. I have to admit that the first time I used it I was highly frustrated. Mostly because I could not understand how such a fundamental convention could be changed. I changed my layout but after a while started wondering if I could adjust to it. I put them back on the left hand side and worked on. Quite simply I was astounded that by the end of the day I was reaching for them instinctively on the left. then I started noticing other little benefits. With the Application, Places and System Menu also located in the top left, I realized that my mouse travel was reduced considerably, the cursor hovering on the top left corner almost all the time instead of flying all over the screen as was usually the case. All and all I have come to love the layout and find it to be superior to the old convention. It seems that in some cases it is a good thing to have a second look at the Wheel.

For: Devices just work. Most settings easily reached and well placed.
Against: Needs to polish the simple things a bit more. Some of the most basic tasks still have no graphical way of doing them.

Stability and Security

I was worried when 9.04 came out last year. The Intel video driver made a lot of people angry and a lot of users turn away. I had to stay with 8.10 on my laptop until the issue was resolved in 9.10 but I started worrying about the trend this set. Fortunately stability seems to be back where it should be with 10.04 providing a very reliable base for all your work. I have installed it on various systems ranging from Core 17 Behemoths to Pentium 4 fossils and it has not let me down once. Odd hang-ups do still appear but hardly ever and I have not had any nasty surprises in the form of crashing systems. It is good to see that the bugs that crept in with previous releases have not become a precedent. The biggest gripe I have in this area is something that bothered me in Windows. Make your Error notifications more readable, guys. It will make it simpler for common users to troubleshoot or even report issues. On the security side, I can do nothing much other than smile. It is as secure as always, making Windows look like a prison with marshmallow walls. And of course the fact that you need not bother with or worry about Anti Virus software still makes it a winner in my book.

For: Everything. Stable enough for everyday and business use. Secure as it gets.
Against: Cryptic error messages.

Overall  Impression

Fast, Stable, Secure, User Friendly and rich in features, Lucid Lynx is a deserving heir to the Ubuntu Kingdom, making massive strides towards providing a viable alternative to Windows on the Desktop and in most aspects has it beaten already. Awareness is still the greatest hurdle it faces but I can confidently say that most people I have introduced to the Lynx love it to bits and will never look back. I can't wait to see what the next version, Maverick Meerkat, will bring to the table but it is safe to say that if Ubuntu keeps improving as it always has, the future is looking bright.

What were you thinking, dude?!

I am a Jaded Gamer.

I play about 20 games a year, which I know by some standards is quite low, but there is a reason for this. With all the games I have played in my life I have come to expect certain things from a new title. I have discovered over the years what types of games I enjoy and it takes something really special to make me look at something out of my standard genres.

Every month I see hundreds of new titles flooding the racks and half of them I will not even look at. Others get dismissed with a simple look at the back of the box. Why, you ask? Well let's look at what I expect from a game first. The single most important requirement is genre independent, seemingly obvious yet so illusive in the gaming world these days. I want to have fun. Simple as that. And flowing from that requirement, I do not want things in the game to stop me from having fun.

I think the single biggest reason I put a game down is some irritation, usually due to a rookie mistake on behalf of the Developers. Why is is that in an industry that is older than I am, we still have these well known, well documented mistakes made in game design? I mean with the millions of game reviews out there, the millions of tries these companies have had at doing it right, you would think that at each Game Developer's offices they have a big "DO NOT" list pinned against the wall for all employees to see. Yet still games come out every day where the scale of the obvious errors are only matched by the price tag.

Now what exactly am I talking about here? I am referring to design errors that spoil the core of the game. Some are genre specific, some are not and all they do is spoil what could have been a wonderful game because some studio didn't bother to learn from the heap of failed titles out there. So let's look at some of these more closely. In this article, specifically the genre related problems.

FPS - Clumsy Controls

I believe most people have played First Person Shooter games. You move your character with the keyboard and you move your mouse to shift your aim, press a button and hope that whatever/whoever was under the cursor at the time goes away. Simple, right? You can change the weapons, even replace them with spells or hurled sheep but the basic controls and style of play is what defines this genre. And seeing how Mouse Technology has matured considerably over that years, one would think that the concept of accurate mouse movement is something that not even the most half-witted coder could understand.

Not so, apparently. How many games have I picked up and put down 5 minutes later (mostly toying with the Mouse sensitivity settings all the time) because trying to get your character to turn around and shoot feels like the controlling the gun is done by turning a shopping trolley with a bad wheel and a hippo sitting on the front. How hard can it be to have the cursor move when you move the mouse, the speed of movement directly proportional to that of the mouse, allowing for the relationship to be adjusted by the Sensitivity slider and having the cursor stop when the mouse does? Can't be that complicated, right? Why then do I find so many games where the movement of the cursor seems to be controlled by BMW's Active Steering? Slow movements of the mouse do absolutely nothing and as the mouse movement speed increases linearly, the cursor speed does so exponentially. The result is that quick correctional jerks don't work and spinning around is usually over shot.

Then there is the "realistic" movement that some developers want to force on us. The most annoying of these is a delay on the start and stop of a movements. Your cursor is over the target, you stop moving the mouse but the cursor flies by like a car with no brakes, forcing you to try and correct by pulling back various times until you rest on the target. People tell me that it just takes getting used to and that it is more realistic. Really? Do me a favour. Pick up a slightly weighted object like a stapler or cup. Now hold it to the side and look at a target in front of you like the doorknob or that picture of Xena. No try to point the object at the target as quickly as possible. Did you overshoot the target? No, of course you didn't because your brain and your muscles work together to slow the momentum of the object in time. You can do this because there is a sense of weight. Force feedback if you will. You can not get this from a mouse so there is no sense of how to counter the imaginary weight of the gun you are aiming with. Gun momentum does not work in games. Stop doing it!

TPS - That Camera

The play style of Third Person games are usually what necessitates this camera angle. You still control one person but the environment gets involved in your play style a bit more making it important to see your character's relative position to these things. Sometimes it is for tactical shooting that makes strong use of cover, sometimes for acrobatics making it important to see the environment so you don't, say, fall off a 30 story ledge. So we have firmly established that the reason for this play style is the need to SEE things. Why then do we get stuck with a camera focused more on the cracks in the wall or the heroine's curves? I mean I realised that being able to put Lara in a corner so you can have a better look at her is a big selling point but seeing where you are about to jump is just as important so you can make sure that your target destination is, well, THERE!

I sometimes thing that developers do not actually play their own games to see where the camera is focused. It is simple guys. When your character is stationary the camera should move pretty freely. When you move it favours being behind you so you can see where you are going and when you are hanging from a ledge, it should pull back a little bit and give you a wider field of view to you can see where you should be going. Leaps of faith belong in movies, not games.



RTS - Complexity and Micro Management

A wonderful genre that has recently gone down the drain with developers trying a little to hard. Maybe they have too much time on their hands, maybe they are too ambitious but why is that I now need to read 3 manuals, 4 online tutorials and spend the better part of a year trying to get to grips with all the options in these games? Strategy is as much reliant on instinct as it is on intellect. It is fast paced, requires reactions that approach subconscious thought level and 3 extra clicks can cost you a game.

Yet when I look at some games I find that each unit has a Redwood for a Tech Tree with tons of different upgrade options to drown in while you try to get to grips with the game itself. This is supposedly to allow you to customize units to your play style and give more depth with the countering of you opponents upgrade path with your own. Well on the first argument, play style is actually much simpler that people think and the second is just laughable as there is not always a clear way to see what upgrade paths your opponent has chosen so 50 tweaking possibilities on your foot solders is really just a pain in the backside. One or two options per unit type, no more please.

Then there is the Micro Management. Correct me of I am wrong but in an RTS you are a Battlefield Commander, not a Babysitter. Constantly adjusting unit attacks and tactics takes away from other things you should be doing like managing your Resources or churning out more of the useless gits. If I have to tell a unit to stand closer, further, change his fire rate, take a flanking position or duck enemy fire I might as well try and play 200 FPS games all at the same time. I do not want to check their formation and stance every 3 seconds. I want three stances. Aggressive for full on attacks, defensive for protecting bases so they don't run after enemies luring them away and Passive for when I am trying to sneak past an enemy without drawing attention to myself. That is it. I do not care about star and delta formations. I do not want to tell units when to try and flank and when to dig in. I manage an army, not a soldier's personal life choices. Stop tying to turn every soldier into a Sims character.

RPG - Work

You know I have always wondered why your Character has to work 10 times harder than you do. People spend years in front of screens having their character collect 100 golden nuggets in the mines before hunting 50 kobolds for some guy in the villages. Why am I sitting and doing the type of job I would turn my nose up to in real life? Are Developers so lazy and unimaginative that all the can have us do to grow is to do variations of the same boring quests over and over? I didn't buy the game because I thought my life isn't arduous enough! I want to escape from reality for a little while and do fun and challenging things, not emulate my day job. You are supposed to get better with practise not menial tasks. I want to become a better fighter by fighting things with meaning. Give us long term quests with stories and meaning that drive them, not just the 12XP at the end of it all. I think this is why I prefer single player RPG games. I grow with the story and in pursuit of the next chapter I do things, relevant to that storyline that improves my character. If I start up a game and get asked to run to the other side of the map to get 10 rat tails, I unleash the Uninstall Wizard on it.

So what flaws in games drive you nuts? I'd love to hear some opinions on what simple things can ruin a game for you.

Dave