Easy to install and to keep updated, Ubuntu Linux 5.04 is highly usable by default for seasoned users and beginners alike.
The first version of Ubuntu Linux wasn't perhaps your typical Penguin distribution — with everything plus the kitchen sink thrown in — but it was nicely put together and "just worked" without any fuss. It was a good starting point for those wishing to explore Linux, both as a desktop and a lightweight server.
The new Ubuntu, 5.04 or "Hoary Hedgehog", is even better than its predecessor, with updated software packages and further polish added to the integration. Isle of Man-headquartered Canonical is responsible for this Debian-based Linux distribution, together with contributors around the world. Canonical's general philosophy that underpins Ubuntu aims to produce free software that's usable for people in their own language, despite disabilities. I wasn't really able to test the latter on "Hoary Hedgehog" but certainly, the language and locale support is impressive with support for numerous Rosetta translations (ONLINE://https://launchpad.ubuntu.com/rosetta) of the applications offered with the distro.
I used the Intel 32-bit image for review but Ubuntu also has a version for AMD and Intel 64-bit systems as well as one for PowerPC boxes. There are also "Live CDs", or bootable discs, that start up Ubuntu without touching the hard disk — handy for demos or trying out the OS. All the images can be downloaded from www.ubuntu.com and, uniquely, ordered for free online [ONLINE: http://shipit.ubuntulinux.org/] including a complete DVD with all packages on it.
Sometime soon, Linux reviews won't need to mention the installation. With Ubuntu, there's not much say about the setup, despite the text installer. The defaults are sensible and will get you up and running fast, but can also easily be overridden in case you need to tweak any installation options — like the disk partitioning and the file system choices (including Reiser3, XFS and JFS) to use on the drive.
My test system was an Insite AMD Athlon 64 box, with 1GB RAM and an 80GB hard drive. It's fairly new kit, but Ubuntu detected the hardware in it with no difficulty. I had to install the Nvidia binary driver for the graphics card separately due to licensing restrictions, but that was really the only slightly tricky part, involving some hand-editing of configuration files.
Once installed, I was curious to test one of the new features in Hoary — the faster boot time, due to read-ahead of disk content prior to use and other tweaks to the system. It does work: on the Insite test system, Windows XP Pro still out-boots Ubuntu, but not by much. Ubuntu is by far the fastest-booting Linux distro I've tried. This and the support for suspend-to-RAM and disk makes Ubuntu a good candidate for laptop use, especially since Intel and AMD processor frequency scaling is now included. As the notebook-oriented features don't work on every portable, I would recommend trying with a Live CD before committing Ubuntu to the hard disk, however.
Another necessary feature for any Linux distribution, updating of software, is handled with Debian's apt program, or the Synaptic front-end for apt and related utilities. Here, I missed the ability to pick up security updates during installation, and felt perhaps that the separation of supported and un-supported ("Universe") packages could be a bit tricky for newbies to work out.
Ubuntu's graphical interface is based on the Gnome 2.10 environment, and has, as far as I can tell, not changed at all from version 4.10. I'm not a huge fan of Gnome, or Ubuntu's brown-hued artwork for that matter, but it's certainly usable. For KDE fans, there is now a Kubuntu version which sports version 3.4 of the competing open-source desktop.
On the balance of things, Ubuntu has succeeded in creating a polished, stable open-source desktop that's a pleasure to set up and use, even for beginners. With a raft of software behind it — the Debian project counts some 16,000 different packages — it's a good first step into the world of open-source software.