Linux distributions like Ubuntu are release based, which means when a new version rolls out, everyone rushes to upgrade. Many folks do this without a care in the world, believing that if the previous version worked great then the latest version should also be free of bugs.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. In this article, I'll explore the benefits and downsides to upgrading to a brand new release of Ubuntu. Plus, I'll offer up some critical considerations to remember, so you can avoid jumping into an upgrade with both eyes closed.
Do you need to upgrade?
With Ubuntu upgrades, I've found the only time you should consider upgrading is if you meet one of the following criteria:
- New hardware supported by the new release. Perhaps the latest kernel supports hardware you own is supported, but the previous release/kernel isn’t.
- New software release available. Sometimes Ubuntu's latest release has a new version of a needed application that presents a bug fix or new features not found in the previous release.
- Broken installation in need of repair. This is a common situation when upgrading to the latest release of Ubuntu makes a lot of sense. Since the repair installation has to take place anyway, you might as well install the latest version available.
- Migrating from one LTS release to the current one. Upgrading an installation of Ubuntu LTS to the most current one will extend long term support. This is perhaps the single biggest reason to upgrade, as staying current with the longer term support is critical to many businesses and institutions.
Despite my examples above, there are some individuals who will upgrade to the latest Ubuntu version for no other reason than it might offer a new experience. I hate to break the bad news, folks, but outside of some mild speed improvements and other behind the scenes polish, Ubuntu 14.04 isn't going to feel that different. See, the 14.04 release isn't designed to be a bleeding edge feature release. This means if you're looking for cutting edge features, keep waiting, this release isn't it.
Using an older release
There are a number of Ubuntu users out there who happen to believe sticking with an older release for another few months is a good idea. I happen to be among them, baring the exceptions listed above. The reason is that there will be various bug fixes and issues being addressed during this period. It happens with every Ubuntu release, so sticking with a working installation for just a bit longer does have its benefits.
While I use a variety of distros these days, I still own an Ubuntu box. The approach I've always used when holding off on upgrading to the new release goes something like this:
- Test the new release Live Environment via a USB flash drive. If this proves to be successful, I'll then take the leap and install it to a USB hard drive for additional testing.
- Install and test critical applications that I rely on. This is usually where most of the "surprises" I find with distro upgrades tend to crop up. Usually the issues discovered are software libraries (libs) that haven't caught up to the latest release yet. For example, a new release of an application isn't offered, yet a dependency library has been updated, thus breaking the application under the new Ubuntu release. While I acknowledge this is both rare and NOT Ubuntu's fault, it's a potential break in my work flow.
- Watch for updates to see if any issues have been resolved. Whether the issue is a bug or a library update that outpaced a legacy application not found in the standard Ubuntu repositories, usually frequent updating will resolve the issue at hand. For example, the legacy app's PPA updates, making the application work with the new release of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu upgrade checklist
After weighing the benefits versus the potential for inviting new issues that may yet to be worked out, you may very well decide that you want the cutting edge version of Ubuntu. Before jumping in blindly to the upgrade process, be sure to do the following first.
- Backup your home directory. Without question, this one act can save you more frustration than anything else. While you should be completely safe upgrading Ubuntu, and using the default partition layout, accidents can happen.
- Lose the "But it's never happened before" mindsest. Seriously, it astounds me how people will exclaim that upgrading has always gone smoothly for them, therefore any kind of caution is just paranoid behavior. Taking responsibility for your data isn't paranoia, it's called common sense.
- Purge old files with care. I'd say 99.9% of the time the Ubuntu upgrade tool suggests you purge a set of files, it's completely in the right. However I've personally experienced that 00.1% of instances where it actually screwed something up, leaving me to fix the issue manually later.
Follow these tips and I'm willing to bet your upgrade experience will be a whole lot more pleasant overall. Playing it safe is a healthy way to use your computer.
Final thoughts on upgrading Ubuntu
Usually when I write these articles, I find I get two types of responses. The first is that Ubuntu is horrible and how dare I even suggest it be used. The second is the idea that Ubuntu is infallible and the upgrade process works great for "everyone." Both statements are bunk and claiming otherwise does everyone a disservice.
To counter the first statement, I'll simply point out there are individuals who either have a legitimate grievance with Ubuntu from a developer's point of view or instead, simply can't handle the thought of Ubuntu being the "face" of the Linux community. As for the second statement above, suffice it to say the idea that "all upgrades go flawlessly" is just naïve.
The fact is, there are plenty of people out there who have had mixed experiences. And that's okay, it's the nature of software to have mixed experiences. But to claim something doesn't happen when it in fact does, gives the Linux community as a whole a bad name.
At the end of the day, upgrading to Ubuntu or any non-rolling release distribution can be really exciting. Some upgrades offer needed bug fixes, others offer brand new features that users are anxious to try out. In both cases, upgrading isn't a bad thing whatsoever.
To make it clear – upgrading is a good thing, I never made the claim that it wasn't. The key is not simply upgrading for the sake of upgrading. That would be silly and offers little value to anyone. Upgrade if you can gain legitimate value from the experience. Security, features, support or bug fixes are legitimate reasons to upgrade. And following the tips I've provided here will ensure that upgrade experience happens to be a pleasant one.