First Time Linux

Ubuntu - Breezy Badger

Ubuntu is another live linux distribution, with a similar aim to Knoppix in that everything runs from the CD and nothing needs to be installed on the hard drive. It's also based on debian, but comes as default with the Gnome desktop environment (rather than KDE as Knoppix does) so this is a chance to see some different applications, different styles and a different feel. Interestingly Ubuntu is also available as a full installable system, so if you decide you like it after seeing the live version, you should have a smooth path towards a full install.

The version under investigation here is 5.10 (October 2005), codenamed "Breezy Badger". Don't ask me why, it just is - the previous version (5.04) was called "Hoary Hedgehog" and I've still no idea what "hoary" means. Debian has their Toy Story characters, Ubuntu has alliterative animals.

Note: Since this review was written, a newer version of Ubuntu has been released. Codenamed "Dapper Drake" with the version number 6.06 (meaning June 2006), I haven't tried it yet so I can't make any comparisons, although Xubuntu 6.06 has been reviewed here. If you're interested in the Gnome version, see the Release notes for 6.06.

Getting it

As for Knoppix, getting a live CD of Ubuntu is as easy as downloading, checking, burning, booting. The download I did from the Ubuntu home page ( by following the signs to download the live i386 iso via BitTorrent. (Note the text for ubuntu-5.10-live-i386.iso.torrent says 'standard download' but it's really BitTorrent). This lets the BitTorrent client go to work downloading the big (627MB) iso file. I also downloaded the file MD5SUMS so I could check the iso before burning.

The BitTorrent download took several hours, but it could be easily paused and resumed as convenient. Once it was finished I checked the Md5 checksum with the java Md5 utility (see the downloads section) and made sure it was ok, then burnt to CD-R with K3B. As always with iso images, make sure you select to burn as an image, not just burn the file. With K3B it's in the Tools menu under CD -> Burn CD image.

A few minutes later, and it's ready. Now just reboot and select to boot from CD.

First impressions

Brown is the new black. The standard theme with Ubuntu follows a very stylish brown and orange colour scheme which makes a refreshing change. The icons are crisp, the text clear and sharp, and the feel is good.

screenshot of Ubuntu live with a selection of applications running

So what do we have after a successful boot? Interesting to see the differences between Gnome here and the KDE of Knoppix and Mandriva. Instead of a combination taskbar at the bottom of the screen, Ubuntu here comes by default with a split design, with the open applications listed in the slim task bar at the bottom of the screen, and the menu, quick-start icons and clock across the top. Obviously this is all configurable, but note the simplicity of the main program menu compared to the KDE ones - it's only 2 levels deep and has much fewer items in it. This makes it much clearer and less confusing.

And what about the applications? This screengrab shows a small selection of the included programs, including the Firefox browser (bottom left, reading the included Ubuntu docs), a console (bottom right, listing a directory), an image viewer (middle right), the file manager (called Nautilus, top right) and one of the included games called Gnome stones (top left). The main menu is open to show some of the other internet applications available (and remember, these are all included on the single live CD). The screenshot was made with gnome-snapshot.

There are plenty of other programs too, for example Gimp 2.2, and the whole OpenOffice 2.0 suite (Calc, Writer, and the rest). Plus sound and movie players, photo management tools and a host of accessories.

Good points

First of all, it looks good, and is a good advert for Gnome style. The icons, the colours, the text, the menus, it's all slick and neat. Interestingly Ubuntu gives by default a 1280x1024 screen on this laptop, whereas Knoppix goes down to a 1024x768 unless explicitly given a boot-time screen=1280x1024 parameter. Ubuntu's look becomes especially apparent after running the 855resolution patch (as required for Knoppix and Mandriva) to gain the native 1400x1050 resolution of the laptop screen. This makes everything a lot clearer and sharper.

Another good thing, Ubuntu was able to recognise immediately my USB drive as soon as I plugged it in, and made it available not only in the file manager (aka Nautilus) but also from the "Places" menu on the menu bar. It also recognised my camera when it was plugged into the USB port, and popped up the option to launch the photo manager - in this case called gThumb.

There are of course many applications included on the CD, all of which work and are easy to find from the simplified menus. It even comes with java, using a free version of the Gnu gcj toolset. Just a couple of oddities, the "Start" key on the keyboard doesn't appear to work, and the trackpad, although it allows tapping (which I hate), doesn't allow vertical scrolling (which I find useful). Handily the "Prnt Scrn" key launches the screen capture utility, gnome-snapshot, which has a large range of options for capturing screen output.


One real problem with this Ubuntu distribution is its speed. It's obvious that any live CD will be much slower than a fully-installed operating system, because each program has to be loaded in from the CD (including spin-up time), and then decompressed before it can be executed. But even comparing this Ubuntu with Knoppix 3.7, which also has to do this, this Breezy Badger is huffing and puffing its way around, rather than flying like the wind. It's slooooooooow, perhaps taking 50% longer than Knoppix to start programs and taking a whopping 4 minutes 50 seconds just to boot. Trying to be fair, maybe the Gnome makes a difference, rather than KDE, or maybe the updated versions of the programs are larger and more intensive than they were for Knoppix 3.7, but whatever it is, it's really noticeable.

Just to give you some impressions, here are a few timings made on this laptop, comparing Knoppix 3.7 with Ubuntu 5.10 starting from a cold boot and with mains power. Boot times didn't depend on whether the network cable was plugged in or not.

 Knoppix 3.7Ubuntu 5.10
Full boot2 min 40 secs4 min 50 secs
Start OOo Calc35 secs1 min 10 secs
Start Gimp15 secs20 secs
Shutdown35 secsnever (makes noises for > 1 min then hangs)

Update: after also trying out Elive, another live CD, we see a similar picture - Ubuntu's slowness is not because it's a live CD.

Knoppix is slow, but you expect that from a live CD and forgive this weakness. But Ubuntu is slower than slow, and especially on a lower-RAM machine positively embarrassing. And it doesn't shut down, which is not a little disturbing. Hard resets make me wince.

Another gripe is that (unlike with Knoppix), the hard drives on this laptop aren't automatically recognised at startup. So instead of just clicking on the friendly desktop icon to mount and explore the hard drive partitions, you're left to try to manually mount them from the console. This is made even more challenging by the fact that only a root user can mount drives, and in Ubuntu there is no root user! So instead you need to use the sudo command to execute root-only operations. I found this confusing because in both Knoppix and Mandriva you enter root mode with the su command (with password if necessary) and then just enter whatever commands you want until you type exit to leave superuser mode. With sudo you need to prefix each command with sudo, which can get tiresome. So for example if you know that you want to mount drive hda3 you would have to open a console (found in the programs menu under Accessories - Terminal) and enter:

$ sudo mkdir /mnt/hda3
$ sudo mount /dev/hda3 /mnt/hda3

but it took a bit of searching before I figured this out. Not very user-friendly considering that anyone trying out this live CD will almost certainly want to access their files with it, and this console sudo hurdle is awkward.

Next gripe was network connectivity, in that it didn't work out of the box. For some reason my ethernet connection wasn't automatically configured (as it was by Knoppix) and I had to figure out how to switch it on before Firefox could access anything. To do this I needed to go into the System - Administration - Network Settings menu item, and examine the properties of my ethernet connection. From there I could click the 'enable' checkbox, select DHCP from the dropdown, OK that and then 'activate' this connection, at which point the network was available. Again, this isn't terribly tricky to figure out, but it's so basic that it shouldn't require any figuring out before it just works.

Other, less important gripes include the lack of mp3-playing ability (or at least none that I could get to work), distorted wav-playing ability, and a non-functioning battery meter (the task bar icon always says battery, even when the laptop is running on mains power, and always says 0% irrespective of the actual charge).

Why is it so slow?

I made some attempts to address the speed problem, and investigate whether it was fixable. The first suggestion was that the processor might be churning, with processor power being sucked up by some rogue process. This was not the case, as the sysem monitor shows a very low processor load, and the command top from the terminal also shows nothing special going on except idling. Of course, when loading an application then the processor hits 100% and the CD drive also spins up.

Next question - maybe the processor is clocked down to a low frequency? By looking at the file /etc/cpuinfo it shows a speed of 600 MHz (instead of 1600 MHz), but after the experiments with CPU frequency I don't trust that file at all. And Ubuntu has shown similar (poor) performance on two separate desktops as well, which don't have variable-frequency CPUs.

Now, maybe the CD drive is running sub-optimally? I did find the command hdparm which showed me that the CD was running with DMA (Direct Memory Access) disabled. I was able to set this to enabled with the command sudo hdparm -d1 /dev/hdc, but this had negligible, if any, effect on the load times for Calc or Gimp. Unfortunately this setting is reset at boot, so I was unable to test the effect on boot times.

So this just leaves what's on the CD and how it's stored. It's certainly possible that the software on Ubuntu has simply got bigger and more bloated since Knoppix 3.7, and takes more resources to load. It's also possible that the compression which somehow manages to squeeze such mammoth amounts of software onto a single CD is different, using a different algorithm or a different (higher, more expensive) compression ratio. Or maybe the techniques for finding out which bits need to be loaded is not quite as optimal - for example, I see the message Loading module 'floppy' for 'Linux Floppy'... during the boot, even though the machines I tested it on don't have floppy drives. And on each boot it shows this message not once, but three times. Which of course might be nothing.

Shutting down

As mentioned above, the shutdown process didn't work properly, and after a bit of hunting around I found some boot parameters controlling ACPI and APIC. Sadly even after experimentation with the parameters acpi=off, noapic and nolapic Ubuntu still requires a reluctant finger on the power button.


To conclude, this was an interesting experiment and it was good to see a Gnome system for the first time and the applications which come with it. It looks good and is easy to use (once the hard drives are mounted and the network activated). Above all though, the slowness of the system is debilitating, compared to Knoppix, and reduces the fun factor enormously. On a lower-specced machine (256MB RAM) it even ground to a crawl and took tens of seconds to respond to key presses. Not good. The somewhat confusing use of sudo is only a minor niggle, and easy to work around once you've read up on it. But for a live CD you shouldn't have to do any reading up on things to do basic things like read hard drives and access the ethernet network, so on this Ubuntu scores very badly.

Ubuntu does have a large and growing popularity though, so it must be that the installed system runs a lot better than this live version here did. For my part though, I'll stick with Knoppix for my live linux needs.

More info

The main Ubuntu site is at including some screenshots and links to download mirrors. If you have problems, the answers are probably either in the FAQs or on the forums. If you're hooked to KDE you might be interested in Kubuntu, which is a KDE-ified version of Ubuntu, currently also using the name Breezy Badger.