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May 7, 2009
Because I was traveling, I didn’t get around to upgrading my desktop to Ubuntu 9.04 until yesterday. After what seemed like the fastest Ubuntu installation and quickest boot ever on my system, I was excited to log into Gnome and see what the stable release of Jaunty has to offer. Instead, I was met with a lot of frustration and loss of faith in Ubuntu’s commitment to stability, due to egregious regressions in the performance of my Intel video card.
In earlier versions of Ubuntu, my Intel 82945G graphics chipset was able to handle desktop effects and 3D applications like Blender seamlessly. After the upgrade to Jaunty, however, it was clear that, as the release notes warned, “Users of Intel video chipsets have reported performance regressions” (“disasters” would have been a better description). Desktop effects were jumpy at best, and the playback of embedded flash video was less than smooth. And searches on the forums suggest that I was one of the lucky ones: some Intel users report an inability to start X at all in Jaunty.
After a lot of googling (and two reinstalls due to a potential fix that left me with an unbootable system), I was able to solve the video problem by reverting to the 2.4 Xorg intel driver. This solution was simple enough, but few inexperienced Ubuntu users are likely to find it, let alone know how to apply it. Instead, individuals who install Jaunty and find severe graphical performance problems are going to give up on Linux. And that’s a regrettable outcome that could have been avoided with a little foresight on the part of Ubuntu developers.
The performance regressions in the Intel video driver result from major code revisions in Xorg and the driver itself, which will ultimately provide a leaner and faster graphical framework for Linux. Those changes are useful and valuable. But I was very disappointed to find that Ubuntu developers had pushed the new code into Jaunty before it became stable on most hardware.
If I wanted to take my chances on bleeding-edge software, I’d switch to Debian Unstable or compile my own beta kernels. I use Ubuntu because I need my computer to work reliably with as little effort on my part as possible. In the past, Ubuntu’s commitment to usability and stability has stood out in the free-software world, where developers tend to sacrifice those features in order to push the latest and greatest code, regardless of how well-tested it may be.
The Ubuntu developers should have foreseen the problems posed for Intel users by the new version of Xorg–the issues were reported well before Jaunty came out in April–and saved the update for Ubuntu 9.10’s release next October, when the code should be considerably more stable. This may have proved detrimental to the few users who actually benefit from the revised code in its current state, but it would have made the Jaunty experience much better on most computers.
The Intel video fiasco is a rare exception among what has generally been a strong commitment to usability and stability on the part of Ubuntu developers. Let’s hope that the lesson of this mistake is learned, and that Ubuntu doesn’t squander its reputation by continuing to push out software before it’s ready for general consumption.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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