Sunday, 8 November 2020

Say Hello to Ubuntu 20.10 ‘Groovy Gorilla’

Ubuntu 20.10 Groovy Gorilla desktop

The upgrade to Ubuntu 20.10 couldn’t come soon enough. Say hello to the ‘Groovy Gorilla’. Terrible release name.

Having broken my less-than-stable install of Ubuntu 20.04 over the Summer, the October release of 20.10 was very welcome. And surprisingly stable.

Standard releases in the Autumn used to be more experimental than the Long Term Support (LTS) releases in the Spring, as Canonical’s developers could take more risks on new features without the long term commitment to support.

Recently these have been less ambitious as the Ubuntu road map has settled down with fewer radical departures from the Linux mainstream. Spring and Autumn releases since 18.04 have looked fairly contiguous as the Unity UI, Amazon ad-ware and other proprietary Canonical software are gone.

Ubuntu also has serious competition from other distributions - Linux Mint, Manjaro, and MX Linux - with equally smooth installers, technical support and stable desktop environments. Linux being Linux, all the distributions have equal access to (almost) all of the available software.

So is 20.10 the 300 pound gorilla to reclaim the top spot?

Desktop and Boot

Reverting to a Gnome desktop from Unity certainly stripped some of Ubuntu’s radical chic. The customised Gnome 3.0 with its responsive Gnome Shell desktop is an established, mainstream UI. I still don’t get on with it which is why I opted for the old-school (Gnome 2) Cinnamon desktop. Despite sitting on top of the Gnome 3 framework, Cinnamon is noticeably faster than the native Gnome Shell desktop. For example, GIMP 2.10 is waaay faster to load up and process changes on large images. Libre Office also loads faster. 

To give a little more context, Firefox takes a lot longer to load when starting a session right after booting. Starting a new session without rebooting and Firefox will launch in the blink of an eye. There's clearly a long tail of boot tasks still running to hinder Firefox when startings from boot, but nothing in its way from a clean session.

This release include GNOME desktop version 3.38, the latest Firefox version, LibreOffice 7.0.2, and Thunderbird 78.3.2 (if you’re still using desktop email clients).

However if you’re coming from Linux Mint or Manjaro, the startup and shutdown times for Ubuntu 20.10 are long; not as long as Windows 10 on my benchmark laptop, just longer than you want. With a choice of established and stable desktops available, that leaves most of the improvements for the engine room below decks.

The OS seems to be working very hard, given it runs on the 5.8 Linux kernel along with security improvements, driver support, and performance improvements which kick in once the desktop is up and running. It is perceptibly faster than 20.04.

New Since Ubuntu 20.04

The corporate Amazon web-launcher has gone. The grey and orange Yaru theme has evolved to a point that’s not so shocking. The Settings manager has gained some additional privacy options while the Applications tab now controls which applications are allowed to send you notifications. Taking it’s cues from various app stores around the web, the Ubuntu Software application now includes reviews, screenshots and relevant categories. 

Kernel Update

Support included in the new kernel features include

  • USB 4/Thunderbolt 3
  • Wi-Fi connection quality,
  • Intel Gen 11 and 12 graphics
  • Active State Power Management (ASPM)
  • Importantly Canonical has left out the latest NVIDIA 455 graphics drivers for the GeForce RTX 3080, RTX 3090, and MX450. The promise of an update ‘real soon’ indicates they just weren't ready for prime time.

Development libraries including GCC 10, glibc 2.32, golang 1.13, LLVM 11, OpenJDK 11, perl 5.30, php 7.4.9, Python 3.8.6, ruby 2.7.0, and rustc 1.41 may not seem exciting to non-developers, but it does enable Ubuntu to move with the times supporting more applications.

For security, Ubuntu 20.10 has replaced the venerable IPTables-based firewall with the faster and more up-to-date nftables.

Tasbar icons indicators and notifications have become (or reverted) to more useful versions, although the Clock/calendar widget still doesn’t link to an actual user calendar/diary/scheduler application.

Not using Gnome Shell, I haven’t played with the applications grid with it’s new behaviours and drag-and-drop options for sorting and grouping. Elsewhere in the settings, there’s much more granular control of desktop settings including graphics resolution and fractional scaling. It males for a much sharper desktop without resorting to fancy experimatal drivers.

Finally if you run 20.10 on a laptop, you can turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot authorised using QR codes in place of passwords.

Verdict

There’s very little daring or radical in 20.10. Ubuntu releases now roll off the production line with incremental improvements to the user experience that probably don’t reflect the sheer amount of work modernising and integrating below decks. For the most part that means reassurance in terms of stability; except… My install of 20.04 was plagued by frequest crashes in Gnome Shell, often multiple crashes in every session. Switching to Cinnamon I now get only one or two non-fatal crashes per session in 20.10. As far as I can tell, one is Gnome Shell and the other is Cinnamon launcher. 

Overall, 20.10 is a much more stable release than the ‘safe hands’ 20.04 LTS, and the more welcome for that. Go figure. RC

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