Troubleshooting the new Ubuntu Gnome release

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Lead Image © alhovik,

Lead Image © alhovik,

New Face

Not all Ubuntu users are unreservedly enthusiastic about the Unity desktop. If you don't want to give up on the distribution altogether, consider Ubuntu Gnome 13.04 as an alternative – but you might need to do some troubleshooting.

Unity has divided Ubuntu users into two camps: believers and unbelievers. The controversial Unity desktop, which has been the default option in the past few Ubuntu releases, has caused much disturbance in the ranks of veteran users. And, Canonical's threatened introduction of the Mir display server to the Kubuntu project has caused a whole new round of uncertainty (see the "Kubuntu and Mir" box).

Kubuntu and Mir

Ubuntu Gnome sees itself as an alternative for Ubuntu users, much like Kubuntu, who eschew the Unity desktop. Given the fact that Canonical is planning its own display server with Mir, and the KDE project and Gnome developers have committed themselves to Wayland as a display server, the future of projects like Kubuntu and Ubuntu Gnome is currently unknown.

KDE developers have recently made it clear through KWin maintainer Martin Graesslin [3] that KDE isn't supporting Mir. From KDE's perspective, Mir wouldn't provide a single advantage over Wayland and could even cause instability and licensing problems.

Developers of the Kubuntu, the KDE-based Ubuntu variant, have announced their own support for Mir. Kubuntu users would have to apply downstream patches, which could cause additional stability headaches.

In the long run, the only users who are universally accepting of Unity and its Unity Next successor will be the beginners, including converters from Windows, and especially the Mac world, because Unity has the basic look and feel of Mac OS X. Sharp tongues claim that many Windows converts opt for Ubuntu because it's hard for them to deal with "real Linux."

Ubuntu users who can't deal with the Unity desktop have several options. You could always turn to an official Ubuntu spin-off with an alternative desktop, such as Lubuntu, Xubuntu, or Kubuntu. Other spinoff distros, such as Linux Mint, have also been gaining popularity. You could also install an alternative desktop manually through the package manager after your system is already up and running. The Ubuntu community, however, has finally bowed to popular sentiment and approved a more seamless solution for the Gnome faithful. Since its "Raring Ringtail" release, Ubuntu Gnome [1] has offered an official Ubuntu version with a Gnome desktop. If you're interested in trying out Ubuntu Gnome, the fastest way to download it is through Canonical's image server [2].

The installation is essentially indistinguishable from any other Ubuntu. Unfortunately, the graphics stack has some issues and operation on a virtual machine is still risky.

If you feel like experimenting with Ubuntu Gnome, the tips in this article will help you get started.

Stack Issues

The problem with the graphics stack is largely caused by an llvmpipe-based redirect mode that allows the use of Unity 3D or Gnome 3.8 on systems that don't have an OpenGL driver. (Ubuntu uses the llvmpipe to calculate the graphics by the CPU rather than the GPU, which sometimes leads to intolerable sluggishness.) The use of llvmpipe might be a workable solution for native applications, yet it nudges the limits on a virtual machine. You can find out whether the Gallium llvmpipe driver is being used by checking the system settings under Information | Graphics (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Llvmpipe is the source of the slow performance for virtual systems. Currently, the only alternative is converting to KDE, Mate, LXDE, or XFCE.

In the Virtual Machine

Regardless of the llvmpipe problem, the first order of business when operating Ubuntu Gnome under VirtualBox is installing the VirtualBox Guest Additions drivers. These drivers provide at least a reasonable resolution with acceptable color depth and solve the "runaway pointer" problem.

During testing, the installation failed from Software Center. It didn't run properly in the virtual machine, and it aborted the startup attempt with an error stating that a problem with the system application was found. The application didn't fully crash, but I could not add sources or use the search function. To install the VirtualBox Guest Additions drivers, you can either add the downloaded extension package in File | Preferences | Extensions (Figure 2) or use the command line and install the VirtualBox drivers directly from the Ubuntu repository of the guest system (Figure 3), as follows:

Figure 2: Adding the extension package in VirtualBox. The version numbers for VirtualBox and the Extension Pack must be identical.
Figure 3: The VirtualBox Guest Additions drivers are also found in the Ubuntu repository.
$ sudo apt-get install virtualbox-guest-utils virtualbox-guest-dkms

It is a good idea to install the Synaptic Gtk package manager with apt-get install synaptic and integrate the first upgrade with apt-get upgrade . The default kernel is at a fairly current status with version 3.8.0-19.

This isn't true for the Gnome Shell, however, in that it is still at version 3.6 (Figure 4), even though Gnome 3.8 has been out since the end of March. The reason could be that Gnome 3.6 still includes the fallback mode, which the developers no longer want to maintain and completely removed in Gnome 3.8 (see the box titled "Fallback Mode.")

Figure 4: Ubuntu Gnome is still based on version 3.6 of the Gnome shell.

Fallback Mode

Because Canonical removed 2D fallback mode and set itself exclusively on llvmpipe [4] for graphics cards without an OpenGL driver, the use of Ubuntu with Unity on weaker hardware or virtual machines is often a performance or technical nightmare.

This problem also affects Gnome 3.8. Gnome developers were also known to have removed the old fallback mode with the introduction of version 3.8. Although Gnome 3.8 recently re-released a classic mode, it only serves to put the old menus at the upper edge of the screen to make Gnome 2 users happy. Nevertheless, the Gnome shell still runs in the background, which means that Gnome 3.8 can only run well with a functioning OpenGL driver or llvm-pipe.

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