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Ubuntu 13.10 Beta Review

The distro before the LTS comes with some new toys in the shape of Canonical's display server Mir. Is it a sign of good things to come?

Linux Mint

(Ed’s note – This review is based on the dailies leading up to, and including, yesterday’s Beta release)

Saucy Salamander is somewhat of an unfortunate entry in the Ubuntu line of distros, coming at the slightly awkward time before an Ubuntu Long Term Service release. This usually means two things for an Ubuntu distro at this stage of development – it’s testing out experimental features ahead of their inclusion in the LTS, yet it still doesn’t seem like a big leap forward over the previous release. On the surface, this also seems to be the case for 13.10, with a lot of features that were not even concretely going to appear in the distro.

One of the major new features being added to 13.10 is a first look of Mir, Canonical’s display server that they’re planning to replace X in the Ubuntu line of products. This has been placed as a competitor to Wayland, a more traditional display server replacement that is slowly gaining steam. There are some caveats though for the Mir integration in Ubuntu 13.10 – it only works with Unity, and only with hardware that uses standard Linux display drivers.

Linux Mint
Unity 7 doesn’t really change up the Unity workflow, and there are very additions or improvements to it

Mir to come

We had some serious graphical issues on the test set-ups we used. Regular graphical glitches and artifacting would occur when moving windows or scrolling through text – especially with dynamic objects that would change with mouse hover or mouse click, such as on webpages. Newly installed apps would attach themselves to the Unity dock bar automatically, however you wouldn’t be able to launch them from the new icon until restarting. These Unity and Mir problems, although perhaps separate from each other, are unacceptable for a mature desktop environment, or something as core as a display server.

As we’ve been testing the dailies, these issues have got slightly better as time goes on – and hopefully they will be a lot more serviceable for the stable release, although it doesn’t inspire much confidence for 14.04 right now. Aside from the graphical issues, how is the rest of the distro shaping up though?

First of all, there’s a nice little addition to the installer – you can now set up your Ubuntu One account during the installation process. While not everyone uses it, it’s an interesting idea to not only have a decent selection of apps installed, but also have automatic access to all your important files. The way Ubuntu One is set-up as well, it may also allow you in the future to save your package configuration.

Smart Scopes, Dumb Privacy

The new Smart Scopes are both a very interesting and extremely worrying feature. The idea is that it expands the amount of online services Unity can search in, such as your own Google Drive account, Facebook, deviantArt, GitHub, etc. These work the same as the Amazon search function though, and it’s easy enough to disable them and online search altogether. As always, these search results are not only just incredibly intruding on some of your searches, there’s also the fact that your data is fairly unsecure during these searches. Sensitive documents from Google Drive may be easily discovered even if you’re looking for something unrelated.

Linux Mint
You can now make in-dash purchases for paid content without having to go to the actual website.

Otherwise, Unity is the same as it’s always been – there are no new customisation options, and generally goes against a normal desktop workflow. Apparently, touch optimisations are coming in Ubuntu 14.04, which is somewhat surprising as Unity always seemed like it was created with touch in mind.

Speaking of touch though, there’s now support for the kind of apps we’ll be eventually seeing in Ubuntu Touch for mobile devices, called Click Packages. This is similar to old Debian tech that allows packages to not require dependencies between applications, and each app is installed to its own directory. This may prove useful in the future, but with no actual Ubuntu Touch devices coming any time soon, it’s currently a bit pointless.

By the numbers

So yet again, we’re left with an Ubuntu release that feels like Canonical are ignoring feedback and concerns to continue with their own agenda. Privacy concerns, the Unity interface and now Mir all seem to be poising the distro as its own entity, and not part of the Linux community as a whole, while still benefiting from its ties to it.

If this is a taste of what’s to come in the LTS, we’re not very inspired by what we’re currently seeing. To be acceptably stable, there still needs to be a lot of work done on the new technologies they’re trying to use, and at this stage of the process, we’re not very confident in that.

Verdict

3/5

The beta for the next Ubuntu is not looking good right now – there are some issues with the new technologies Canonical are trying to use that shouldn’t be occurring this late in the game. Hopefully, 14.04 does not suffer as a result

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