The Ubuntu 14.10 Release October 23, 2014
Ubuntu 14.10 will be released shortly and I know you are chomping at the bit and want to know all about it.
There is some important news, for some, and there is some exciting news for others, and there is some boring news, and frankly, some bad news.
Before diving into the shallow pool of Ubuntu 14.10 (shallow in a good way) I want to go over some other ground first. I want to address this question:
“I have installed Linux and I don’t like the default desktop. How do I change that without ruining stuff?”
If you are a long time Linux user you know the answer has two parts. First, “Oh, hey, don’t worry, this is why Linux is so great!” and second, something like “sudo apt-get install yadayada, then log out and then log back in again with your new desktop” where “yadayada” is the new desktop. Easy peasy.”
Now, let is rephrase the question, and in so doing reveal the bad news.
“I have installed Ubuntu 14.04 and I don’t like the default desktop. How do I change that to gnome?”
The answer to the question is actually pretty simple, but has a very different form that I find deeply disturbing. Again, there are two parts. First, “Well, Ubuntu comes default with Unity, and Ubuntu with Unity and some other stuff under the hood does not actually allow you to just swap around desktops like you could in the old days without messing around a lot and depending on exactly how good the information you get on this is, and which desktop you replace Unity and all that with, you will probably break something.” Putting this another way, Ubuntu has broken one of the most important features of Linux, one of the features that makes Linux cool, and in so doing, Ubuntu has made Linux more like Windows. Ubuntu/Unity/Etc as a “distribution” is now vertically integrated across the usual layers to the extent that it is either take it or leave it (I oversimplify but not by much).
And of course, you can leave it. That is the second part of the answer. “You will need to essentially replace your current distro with another distro.”
How to replace Unity with Gnome on Ubuntu
There is a tool to do this, available from Ubuntu. This is actually a pretty amazing tool. It allows you to take a current distribution of Ubuntu and convert it to a different flavor. Ubuntu comes in many flavors. The default is with Unity and it is a desktop environment designed for the average user. Then there are alternatives that have either different desktops or that serve very different purposes, and mixing and matching is allowed to some extent. For example, Ubuntu can be a basic server, or a web server (called a LAMP server), or a mail server (or all three) perhaps without any desktop at all. Or, you can pick any of several distinct desktops like Kubuntu (uses KDE, which a lot of people like) or XFCE, which is what Linus Torvalds and I use, or Gnome 3, and so on.
The tool is called tasksel
You install and run tasksel (sudo apt update; sudo apt upgrade; sudo apt install tasksel; sudo tasksel) and you get a thingie that lets you pick a “Package Configuration,” which looks like this:
You then very carefully follow the instructions or you will ruin everything! But if you do it right, it should very cleanly remove Ubuntu’s default desktop and install Gnome 3 or whatever. HERE are the instructions and HERE is an excellent episode of the Linux Action Show that goes into detail.
Important additional information: First, this information is current in early October 2014. If you are reading this much later than that, re-research because things may change. Second, it is not perfectly true that Ubuntu does not let you install new desktops and use them. It is true, however, that this is not seamless, harmless, or even recommended. A clue to the seriousness of this is that if you use tasksel to remove Unity and install Gnome 3, you can’t then install Unity because Unity will not cohabit with the version of Gnome you’ve installed. There is too much stuff in the middle that does not work right.
I have installed multiple desktops on top of Ubuntu 14.04, including Mate, Gnome 3 and Gnome Panel. It was the first time for me that playing with desktops broke my system and I’ve been using Linux (and Ubuntu) for a long time, and I mess around with desktop a lot. This is the new normal (for Ubuntu). You will see instructions on what you need to do to switch around desktops on Ubuntu, but frankly, that boat may have sailed other than the use of extreme measures such as tasksel.
I will give you a recommendation below if you are confused or uncertain about what form of Linux you might want to install, based on my own experiences.
Now, back to what you need to know about Ubuntu 14.10.
The first thing you need to know is that Ubuntu 14.10 is almost exactly like 14.04. There are virtually no visible meaningful differences as far as I can tell. So if you are using Ubuntu and are sticking with Ubuntu, don’t expect pretty fireworks. This will not be an exciting upgrade.
Second, 14.10 has an updated version of the kernel, the deep guts of the operating system, and this is important. It is good to have a current kernel. Also, this kernel has some important new hardware support. Some Dell laptops have the ability to turn off your hard drive if it feels itself falling, so the drive is not running when your laptop hits the ground. The new kernel actually supports this feature so if you have a newer Dell laptop, you might want that. There is some improvement in the handling of Dell touchpads as well. The point is, you should absolutely upgrade to 14.10 for a number of unexciting but still potentially important reasons.
Want a better desktop, mate?
No, we are not in Australia. The third item is the big exciting news. If you think Unity sucks, and you liked the old fashioned Gnome desktop (back in the days of Gnome 2.0) you will find this cool. Gnome 2.0 was the best Linux desktop for most purposes, in my opinion. With the new approaches taken by both Unity and Gnome 3, and since forever with KDE, I get the sense that the purpose of the computer is to have a cool desktop. For me, the purpose of my computer is to run certain software and manage files. The purpose of the desktop is to facilitate that, ideally in a way that allows me some customization, but that stays consistent over time so an upgrade does not break my workflow or force me to relearn how to use the hardware, and often, that means just staying out of the way. For me, Gnome 2.0 was the sweet spot in meeting those requirements.
But Gnome has moved on. The current thing that looks and acts like Gnome 2 is called Gnome Panel. It kinda works but it has problems, especially (in my experience) on a laptop. It is not being kept up like it should be to be a current usable desktop. So, sadly, Gnome is no longer recommended for those who liked traditional Gnome. This not to say that Gnome 3 (or for that matter Unity) aren’t great. But they aren’t. Just sayin’
But then there is mate.
Mate is a fork of Gnome that intends to maintain Gnome 2 coolness. It has been around for a while now. It has been updated regularly, and the tradition seems to be to come up with the newest version of the mate desktop in sync with Ubuntu’s release schedule. I’ve tried mate a few times, and I’ve had mixed experiences with it, but in the end it is probably the desktop you want to install if you want Gnome 2-osity on any form of Linux.
This is a bit confusing unless you are already used to concepts like the difference between the terms “desktop,” “desktop,” “desktop,” and “desktop.” Mate is a desktop. Most desktops come along with software that is not strictly desktop but works with the desktop. There are two ways to get many (but not all) desktops. One is to install a “distribution” that uses that desktop, like installing Kubnutu to get the KDE desktop. The other way is to have some normal form of Linux on your computer, then you install the desktop onto that and later, you can chose to log into the newly installed desktop, or some other desktop that happens to be on your system.
Mate was available as an Unofficial Ubuntu Desktop. This means that the mate people would take the guts of a current Ubuntu distribution, and replace various parts with other parts so when you download and install the unofficial Ubuntu mate desktop you get Ubuntu with mate as your desktop.
Now, after a period of regular development, mate is an official flavor of Ubuntu. This means that you can do exactly what you could do before, install Ubuntu with mate instead of Unity or KDE or whatever. But it probably has other implications. I assume that being an official desktop enhances the degree to with an Ubuntu Mate distribution will install cleanly and function well.
It does not exist yet. I understand Ubuntu Mate as such will be released on October 23rd, the same day as Ubuntu. And it comes at a time when Ubuntu continues in the process of seriously downplaying the non-Unity desktops. If you go to the Ubuntu site and see what is there and download and install it, you can be forgiven for not ever knowing that you could have installed Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Mythbuntu, Ubuntu GNOME, UbuntyKylin, Ubuntu Studio or Xubuntu. You have to dig through a couple of layers of the site and then you get to a scary page that most people will think is just for techies. In the old days, Ubuntu highlighted the diverse alternatives. Now, the bury them. That concerns me.
What you should do instead of automatically installing Ubuntu
There are a lot of Linux distributions out there, and you are of course free to mess around with them. But I’m happy to give you my current advice (subject to change frequently!) about what you might consider doing.
A given Linux distribution, which includes its own distribution materials, may or may not work fully and easily on a given piece of hardware. Considering that when you are looking at or working in a browser or your favorite text editor, the system you are using isn’t that important most of the time, the ease and seamlessness of the installation is really one of the most important features of a distribution. It is my belief based on recent experience messing around with installing several different distributions on five different computers (four laptops, one desktop) that Ubuntu, in one form or another, will generally install the easiest. This includes getting the install medium, doing the installation, and getting help when something goes wrong.
Having said that, installing debian, a traditional well developed form of Linux, on which Ubuntu is based (as are many other distros and most installations worldwide, I think) is pretty easy. Having said that, I quickly add that you probably really want to install one of the “extras” versions of debian, which includes “non free” material and is stored in a scary place and not so well documented.
So, my first piece of advice is this. Get two sets of installation media (this is not hard). One for Ubuntu, the other for debian. Try to install debian. If you run into trouble, switch to Ubuntu. You’ll get the job done. The installation process is not too time consuming or difficult, so this is not a big deal.
My second piece of advice is to figure out what desktop you like. If you actually like Unity, then by all means go over to the dark side and install default Ubuntu. Have a nice time communing with the devil. See you on Halloween!
But if you prefer a different desktop, like Gnome 3 or whatever, then follow my first piece of advice, trying debian than Ubuntu. If debian installs well, then go to town installing your preferred desktop if it wasn’t the default during your install. If debian does not work, then pick the flavor of Ubuntu that has your preferred desktop.
My third piece of advice I’m giving with an important caveat. The caveat is that I’ve not tried this yet so I have no business telling you to do it. But I am going to try this and I think it might be cool. If a Gnome 2 style desktop is your preference, then either install debian and then install mate on top of that, or install Ubuntu Mate 14.10 when it comes out. Just for fun. It might work great.
My fourth piece of advice is this. If you like the Gnome 2.0 desktop and you want to use a well tested and tried interface, consider using XFCE instead. XFCE is quite like Gnome 2 in many ways, but even less in your face. You could install Xubuntu, the Ubuntu flavor with XFCE as the default (or if you have Ubuntu Unity maybe you can use tasksel to switch, depending on things I don’t want to advice you on). Or, and this is probably the ultimate solution, you can instal debian with XFCE. Which, tellingly, is the default desktop for the canonical Linux distribution that is not Canonical. (See what I did there?@?)
And remember, there are only two things you need to keep your eye on. First, you need a computer that will run your software, and pretty much all of these solutions should do that equally well; the only difficulty here is the match between the distro and the hardware, and for a desktop computer, any Linux flavor with any desktop will probably work so you won’t be pounding your desktop in frustration. For laptops you may want to be more conservative and go with the herd (Ubuntu). Second, whatever you do, have fun. And there is nothing in the world more fun than repeatedly reinstalling your operating system, right????