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As Linux matures, it's becoming more accessible to the average user and Karmic Koala is one step closer to that eventuality.

The Ubuntu Linux menagerie has birthed a new creature, the Karmic Koala, with the release last week of Ubuntu Linux 9.10. The successor to the release code named Jaunty Jackalope (aka version 9.04) boasts a herd of changes and enhancements that are so far making testers smile.

For those unfamiliar with the operating system, Ubuntu Linux, based on the popular Debian distro, is probably the most popular consumer desktop Linux around right now. Each new version gets an unusual animal name, sequenced alphabetically; after Karmic Koala comes Lucid Lynx, due out next spring. Version numbers are based on the year and month of release (hence 9.10, released in 2009, month 10).

Let's have a look at what's new with the critter.

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For starters, the installation image is on a Live CD - you just need to boot from it to experience the operating system, with no installation required, but the download is a relatively tiny 690 MB. This allows the unsure to dabble their toes in Karmic Koala (KK) waters, regardless of the OS actually installed on their system, without committing to it. If you do decide to bite the bullet, the installation is straightforward, even in a virtual machine (it runs quite happily under VMware, in a VM with 8 GB disk and 512 MB RAM).

Official system requirements are modest; you can likely use whatever hardware you have lying around, even if it can no longer run Windows.

Minimum System Requirements:

  • 300 MHz x86 processor
  • 256 MB of system memory (RAM)
  • At least 4 GB of disk space (for full installation and swap space)
  • VGA graphics card capable of 640×480 resolution
  • CD-ROM drive or network card

Recommended Requirements:

  • 700 MHz x86 processor
  • 384 MB of system memory (RAM)
  • 8 GB of disk space
  • Graphics card capable of 1024×768 resolution
  • Sound card
  • A network or Internet connection

Upgraders will likely be pleased with the slideshow that plays during installation, providing an overview of the new features (Linux novices, however, probably won't recognize most of the items under discussion). You can only do a direct upgrade to 9.10 from Ubuntu 9.04. Users of earlier versions of Ubuntu can only get to KK by either first upgrading to 9.04, then to KK, or by wiping their disk and starting fresh. Check the release notes for other upgrading gotchas.

The kernel (that's the basis of the operating system) is based on Linux kernel version 2.6.31. The new desktop is based on Gnome 2.28 (Linux veterans can download and install their preferred desktops later). It's clean and functional, and the Login Manager that gets you there has also been tidied up. It's all set up to make life easy for the Windows user making a first foray into Linux.

A generous batch of software is installed by default, too. You get OpenOffice, of course, including word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. The previous version's Pidgin instant messaging software is replaced by Empathy, which also easily connects to multiple services such as Yahoo, Gmail, MSN, Jabber, AOL, QQ and others, and can share connections among applications. (It's based on Telepathy, if you're curious).

E-mail, address book and calendar are courtesy of Evolution, which plays well with users of Microsoft Outlook. The installed Web browser is Firefox (it upgrades to version 3.5 during post-installation updates - yes, just like Windows, there are already updates to the shiny new OS). F-Spot is the default photo editor, and can upload pictures to Flickr, Facebook, Picasa or other services. For audio, you get Rhythmbox to download, store, buy and play music, or to stream video. There are also utilities such as Gimp, a graphics editing program.

At playtime, you'll find a good collection of games to amuse you, from old standards like Solitaire through Sudoku and a Battleship equivalent. If none of those strike your fancy, the Software Center offers around 400 games to choose from.

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In fact the Software Center contains an amazing selection of programs of all kinds, currently all freebies, for you to download and install. As well as games, its categories include Accessories, Education, Internet, Science, Sound and Video, Graphics, Universal Access, Science, Programming, System and Office. And, naturally, Other. You'll need to dive in and install a few things fairly soon; Flash, for example, is not part of the default setup. In fact, once you start exploring the goodies, it'll be hard to stop. It's all point and click, no typing on a command line required.

The Software Center also acts like the Add/Remove Programs app in Windows; you can view and alter installed software as well as exploring the goodies available for download.

Under the hood, new video driver technology enhances performance for Intel-based graphics, and boot time has been improved. Power management has seen some work, Grub 2 is now the default loader (it will, however, not be automatically upgraded to from 9.04 - you'll need to do that manually), and the file system has had an update to ext4. All this will be gobbledegook to non-Linux types, but accept that it represents important changes that will improve the overall user experience.

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The cloud has cast its shadow over KK as well. Ubuntu One provides 2 GB of free, Internet-based backup storage that can be shared with other Ubuntu One users. Early users report some hiccups with the service, but once they're ironed out, KK users will have backup space accessible by a click or two on the Applications menu.

As Linux matures, it's becoming more and more of an OS accessible to the average user. KK is another step in that direction. There are still a few foreign concepts for a Windows convert to absorb, but on the whole Ubuntu 9.10, Karmic Koala, is a package that won't be a horrible stretch for the novice, yet contains enhancements for the Linux guru as well.

And, as always, the price is right - it's free.

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