Ubuntu 20.10Just over a week ago Canonical pushed out their latest version of Ubuntu which was accompanied by seven official community editions. The new 20.10 release features version 5.8 of the Linux kernel and the main desktop edition runs GNOME 3.38. Developers and tinkerers will be happy to learn Ubuntu 20.10 includes version 10 of the GNU Compiler Collection and can run on Raspberry Pi 4 computers. This release also includes the ability to connect to Active Directory domains at install time and features nftables as the default firewall backend which replaces iptables. Ubuntu 20.10 receives a mere nine months of support and security updates, making it a better platform for testers and enthusiasts rather than people who need a stable, long-term support operating system.
While there are Server and single board computer images for Ubuntu, I downloaded the Desktop edition which is 2.8GB in size. Booting from the live media automatically starts a self-verification check on the media. Once this passes the live disc brings up a window asking which language we would like to use and we can pick our preference from a list. There is also a link to the distribution's release notes which will open in the Firefox web browser. The window also includes buttons labelled "Try Ubuntu" which launches the GNOME desktop and "Install Ubuntu" which launches the Ubiquity system installer.
The live GNOME desktop worked just fine for me and I will come back to describing it later. For now I just want to acknowledge that it ran without any serious problems and that I soon clicked the system installer icon on the desktop to launch Ubiquity.
Ubuntu 20.10 -- The GNOME Help documentation (full image size: 1.3MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The system installer provides a streamlined, graphical interface that quickly walks us through a few configuration options. Ubuntu's installer has not changed much in recent years and the screens asking us to pick our language, keyboard layout, and time zone are largely the same as in past releases. We are also asked if we wish to set up a Normal or Minimal installation. The Normal option includes a handful of desktop applications while Minimal appears to pretty much be the base system, GNOME desktop, and a web browser.
The installer asks if we want to download updated packages during the install process and if we wish to enable third-party software such as non-free hardware support and media codecs. When it comes to disk partitioning we can use a friendly, manual disk partitioning tool. Alternatively we can use guided partitioning which can make use of LVM and ZFS volumes. Earlier I mentioned the installer can connect to Active Directory domains and this option is presented on the screen where we create a username and password for ourselves.
Ubiquity accepted my choices, copied its files to my hard drive, and then offered to restart the computer when it was finished. So far things were going well.
My new copy of Ubuntu booted to a graphical login screen where I could sign into the GNOME desktop. There are two session options, though it took me a minute to find them as they are only presented when we click a button that looks like part of the background. The session option button appears in the bottom-right corner of the screen after we select which user account to use. By default Ubuntu runs the GNOME desktop on the X.Org display server, though there is a GNOME on Wayland option.
The first time I signed into my account a configuration wizard popped-up and offered to connect my local account to on-line accounts. Ubuntu, Google, Nextcloud, and Microsoft cloud services are supported. We are then asked if we would like to send our computer's hardware profile to Canonical. The following screens offer to enable location services and launch the Software utility to install additional applications. Then the wizard vanishes.
A few seconds later another window appeared and reported there were package updates available and asked if I would like to install them. As it turned out there was just one new package, Firefox, which was a 55MB download. I accepted the update manager's invitation and downloaded the new copy of Firefox which was applied successfully.
It was then I got my first serious look at the GNOME desktop. GNOME places a panel across the top of the screen which is home to the Activities menu on the left side, a date & notifications widget in the middle, the system tray to the right, and the far right corner holds the user & settings menu. Down the left side of the screen we find a dock which holds quick launch icons and acts as the desktop's task switcher. The bottom-left corner of the screen holds the application menu.
When I started playing with Ubuntu it was in a VirtualBox environment. The distribution performed well in some ways. The GNOME desktop dynamically resized with the VirtualBox window and was generally stable. However, GNOME ran very slowly and was painfully unresponsive in the virtual machine.
Ubuntu ran better on physical hardware. GNOME was much more responsive, though applications were still a bit slow to load, whether I ran the distribution on an ext4 or ZFS filesystem. Something I kept noticing was GNOME displayed a lot of animations. These make the desktop seem more dynamic, more busy, but ultimately makes the system feel slower. Each time a window is minimized, restored, or closed there is an effect to accompany it which starts out looking neat, but quickly becomes an irritation when we end up waiting for it to finish hundreds of times a day. There does not appear to be an easy way to disable these animations; at least I didn't find a toggle for it in the settings panel.
While using Ubuntu on my workstation a notification kept appearing at the top of the desktop letting me know a network connection could not be established. This notification appeared semi-regularly (once every few minutes), even after a network connection was set up and running. Sometimes it even appeared while I was transferring files over the network. I'm not sure what causes this inaccurate warning, but it quickly became an unwelcome distraction.
The distribution used a surprisingly large amount of RAM, 1.5GB when I was running the GNOME desktop with Ubuntu installed on a ZFS volume. Memory usage dropped down to 780MB when I ran the distribution on an ext4 filesystem. This is still higher than on most distributions I have tried this year. On the other hand, the system only required about 4GB of disk space, which is about average.
I mostly ran my GNOME session on the X.Org display server, though briefly tried Wayland too. I did not find there to be a significant difference between the too. This strikes me as good news as I typically run into problems of one sort or another when using Wayland, but this time the two were functionally almost identical.
Ubuntu ships with a fairly small collection of popular open source applications. Firefox is included along with LibreOffice, the Thunderbird e-mail client, and a calendar. The Rhythmbox and Videos applications are available along with media codecs. There is a backup application, the Cheese webcam utility, the Files file manager, a text editor, and the Transmission bittorrent client. I also found a document viewer and the GNOME Help application which explains how to navigate the desktop environment. The distribution ships with systemd which provides init and service manager functionality. Version 5.8 of the Linux kernel runs things in the background.
Ubuntu 20.10 -- Browsing the application menu (full image size: 1.9MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Managing software applications on Ubuntu is handled by a desktop utility simply called Software (or sometimes Ubuntu Software). This program has three tabs. The first tab shows us a collection of popular software ("editor's picks") along with recent releases. At the bottom of the first tab we find categories of items, though these categories do not correspond with normal application menu categories. There are categories such as "News and Weather" and "Books and Reference" but nothing familiar like "Internet" or "Web". This left me to mostly use the search function to find programs I wanted.
Search was a mixed bag too as the search feature was slow, taking a lot longer than using the APT command line search function. I also discovered that if Software was unable to find any matches to my search queries it would never stop the search. The spinning "busy" animation would play and Software would consume 100% of my CPU endlessly, even after 20 minutes of waiting for a result. Software was unable to find command line programs, meaning installing them required switching over to the APT command line tools.
The Software utility mixes together portable Snap and traditional Deb packages. At first glance there is nothing to distinguish them, though clicking on a program's entry brings up a full page description of the package. The repository of the package is listed in the program's Source field, which lets us know if the software is packaged as a Snap. The Software utility prompts us for a password every time we install or remove an application, which can be tedious after a while.
The two other tabs of the Software utility show installed programs, which we can remove with a click, and updates, if any are available. Given that Software was a bit sluggish, I preferred to use the smaller update manager I mentioned earlier to grab the latest versions of packages.
As I stated above, Software includes support for Snap packages and makes working with them seamless. One interesting feature Software offers is, after a Snap package has been installed, we can click a button to set system access permissions on an application. We can set, for example, if a program is allowed to access our home directory, communicate over the network, or print. There are other options and some programs have more options than others.
This is a great idea and it works; I tested it on the Chromium web browser with good results. Sometimes setting permissions was a problem though. If I toggled a permission off, usually the interface would immediately turn the switch back on. I would also be prompted for my password when changing options. This resulted in some situations where I would click a button, it would toggle back, then prompt me for my password. Then I'd click the button again, it would turn off, then back on, then prompt for my password again. I had to turn off printing access to Chromium six times before the switch remained in the "off" position. On the other hand the "record audio" and "play audio" permissions toggled off and stayed off the first time, so the bug appears to be random.
I tried installing a few Snap packages. VLC and Chromium worked fine, though the Falkon Snap failed to launch, reporting a missing file. In short, there are some interesting and useful ideas happening in the Snap ecosystem, but there are some practical problems too.
One interesting feature the GNOME desktop offers is the rearranging of icons. We can drag launchers around the application menu, drop them into categories, pull them out, and change their order. I like the flexibility this offers and how smooth it is.
Speaking of items in the application menu, there is a tool listed called Livepatch. I believe this is connects with the Canonical service for live patching (updating a kernel without restarting the computer). However, clicking the Livepatch icon brings up a message saying Livepatch is not available for this release. Which I suppose raises the question of why it was included in the menu for 20.10.
Ubuntu 20.10 -- Trying to run the Livepatch tool (full image size: 1.5MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One bump in the road I ran into was that on the second day of my trial Ubuntu failed to boot. After the boot menu I just got a blank screen and had to hard restart the machine. This only happened once and it was not immediately after an update or any other problems so I do not have an explanation for it.
Another weird glitch showed up when I was using LibreOffice. If I opened the About screen and attempted to move it, the entire LibreOffice window would shrink down to a thin column. The width varied, sometimes it was about an inch wide, other times it was barely big enough to display the window's "Close" button. Either way, closing the About window allowed me to resize the LibreOffice application back to its usual dimensions.
Ubuntu 20.10 -- The LibreOffice window goes into hiding (full image size: 1.4MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Canonical did not do anything really surprising or new with Ubuntu 20.10. There are some new features and some improvements. I like the ability to set up ZFS volumes with a click and the support for Raspberry Pi 4 computers will be welcome to many. The permissions on Snap packages will be useful for people who want to sandbox applications and I think having a relatively friendly interface for that is a good move.
I like that we can run GNOME in either a X.Org session or with Wayland. At this point the two technologies appear to be about even. Ubuntu is sticking with X.Org for the default which probably still makes sense given the few corner cases where Wayland can still struggle.
There were a lot of little problems with this release. Putting aside performance in VirtualBox, which was poor, I ran into a number of issues. Things like the Software utility consuming all of my CPU endlessly when it could not find a package match, the same utility not returning any results sometimes even when I was typing names of programs I knew were available and found later using the same search. The constant warnings on my workstation about the network connection not being established while I was downloading files was alternatively comical and annoying. Having the system not boot once during my trial was unpleasant and not confidence inspiring.
The odd thing I found was the unevenness of the experience. The installation is polished and smooth. The GNOME desktop, while very heavy on resources, is well put together and fairly consistent. On the other hand getting spammed with network errors while the network was functioning and regularly seeing sluggish animations that were more distracting than helpful was unpleasant. I started using the command line and APT just to avoid using the desktop and the Software utilities more than absolutely necessary and that is not a good sign when the user is trying to work around your interface.
There are some good ideas happening in Ubuntu 20.10, but the distribution does not feel polished or smooth once it is installed. There are some good tools and good concepts on display, but a lot of little problems, distractions, and glitches too. I'd recommend passing on this release and hoping things get ironed out in time for Ubuntu 21.04.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: