Ubuntu 7.10: adding some 'bling' to Linux

Ubuntu 7.10 (codenamed 'Gutsy Gibbon') could arguably be called the 'bling' release of the world's most popular Linux distribution. Swish 3D desktop effects, coupled with a new display configuration tool, make eye-candy the focus.

Could this be the version that makes you switch from Windows or Mac OS X? Here's a quick run-through of the most notable new features and changes in 7.10.

Gnome 2.20

As always, Ubuntu's default desktop is Gnome - fans of KDE and Xfce can find their desktops in the package repositories (or install via the Kubuntu and Xubuntu distro flavours).

Gnome 2.20 brings enhancements to the Evolution mail client, such as a new backup/restore feature and notification icon, while Evince, the PDF and PostScript viewer, now supports interactive forms. Helpfully, the disk information panel now provides a pie chart of disk space usage, while Gnome Power Manager is better at gauging remaining battery life.

Fans of Spotlight on Mac OS X will be chuffed to see Deskbar, a small applet that sits in the panel and lets you perform super-fast searches on your applications and files.

Tap in 'Firefox', for instance, and it not only shows the program launcher, but documents and chat logs containing references to the browser. This is powered by Tracker, a zippy back-end searching facility that's much easier on system resources than Beagle.

Extra eye-candy

As mentioned, visual polish has been a goal of Ubuntu 7.10, and Compiz Fusion delivers some impressive desktop effects.

This layer of GUI goodness has now attained sufficient stability to be enabled by default - well, on graphics cards that support it. PCs with a graphics chip made in the last few years work well; even onboard Intel chips do a decent job. The standard effects include smooth virtual desktop transitions, drop shadows and wobbly windows; more can be enabled via a configuration panel.

X, the base graphical layer on Linux systems, has been notoriously difficult to configure over the years, often demanding time at the command-line and poking around in arcane configuration files.

Ubuntu 7.10 hopes to rid the Linux world of this problem once and for all, with a new 'Screen and Graphics' tool: this rolls display, resolution, graphics card and multi-monitor settings into one small utility.

It's not perfect yet, and some users have reported the need to still manually edit xorg.conf, but for the vast majority of users it works like a charm.

Extra security

At the system level, 7.10 sports the ability to write to NTFS partitions. Prior releases of the distro limited users to read-only support for Windows disks - an ugly and frustrating limitation if you're dual-booting. Now, however, thanks to the NTFS-3G project we have write support for these partitions, so users don't need to fiddle with USB flash keys when transferring data.

On the security side, this release includes AppArmor, a security framework championed in Novell's SUSE Linux distro. AppArmor competes with SELinux (used in Fedora and RHEL) as a system for providing fine-grained control over programs.

Whereas the traditional Unix security model is based around filesystem permissions, AppArmor lets you create and modify 'policies' for programs, limiting the resources they can use.

For instance, you may want to make sure that a piece of software can't chroot (switch to a virtual root filesystem) or do something nasty to a group of files in /etc if compromised. AppArmor is geared towards server admins rather than desktop users, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.

All this is built on kernel 2.6.22 and glibc 2.6.1, compiled with GCC 4.1.2. On the whole, 7.10 is another solid showing from Canonical and the community, paving the way for 8.04 (aka 'Hardy Heron'). Hardy will be the next Long-Term Support release, with five years of updates on servers.

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