The beta of the next version of Ubuntu Linux has arrived, though judging by its stability and polish you'd be hard pressed to tell it's a testing release. Ubuntu 8.04, code-named "Hardy Heron," is scheduled to be an LTS (Long Term Support) edition, and you can tell its developers have worked diligently to make it worthy of the title.
Ubuntu, the leading desktop Linux OS, has settled into a stable look and feel over the last few releases, and this time the cosmetic changes are minor. The familiar brown and orange color scheme remains, as does the overall fit and finish of the windows and controls.
Under the hood, however, Ubuntu 8.04 has improved considerably. Between a new kernel, a new version of the Gnome desktop, improved windowing and graphics layers, and a number of default configuration tweaks, nearly everything about Hardy Heron feels snappier and more responsive than the previous version. Windows and menus feel less sluggish, disk access is improved, and programs launch more quickly. It even boots faster.
Installation itself may be Hardy Heron's biggest revelation. This release offers a new, optional installation utility called Wubi, which promises to lower the barrier to entry considerably. Wubi runs as a Windows application and can install a complete Ubuntu system as a single file on a Windows hard disk. There's no need to re-partition your drive and no risk of wiping out your existing data. When you boot into Ubuntu, the system reads and writes to the file as if it were a standalone drive. Later, if you decide that Linux isn't for you, you can uninstall it like any other Windows application.
Ubuntu's own application suite has also been updated for version 8.04. Most notably, Firefox 3.0 -- itself still in beta -- will be the default browser that ships with the OS, and it looks to be a promising upgrade. Other new applications, such as the Brasero CD/DVD burning software, feel lackluster when compared to similar software for Windows or Mac OS X. But overall, Ubuntu continues to provide a good selection of applications for most purposes, without overloading the system with excessive and redundant software options as some Linux distributions do.
Other new features are likely to be overlooked by desktop users but appreciated by systems administrators. There have been security improvements, including better memory protection and a fine-grained access control system called PolicyKit. What's more, Ubuntu 8.04 offers easy integration with Active Directory environments for the first time, thanks to a new software package called Likewise Open.
Despite its present maturity, Hardy Heron is definitely a work in progress. In fact, immediately after installing the beta, the software update manager informed me that there were already 106 updates available. And some longtime users will question the inclusion of some of certain bleeding-edge features, such as the new PulseAudio sound layer, which is not yet compatible with a lot of current Linux audio software.
If this first taste is any indication, however, Ubuntu 8.04 is shaping up to be a worthy upgrade for existing users and a good jumping-on point for new ones. Wubi, in particular, makes it ideal for anyone who has hesitated to give Linux a try before now. Look for the final version to be available in April.