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One of the problems with recommending Ubuntu to potential future users, especially those not particularly given to technical endeavours, is that there is a chance that upgrades will break their machine, and they'll have to pay or otherwise coerce some knowledgeable person into fixing them.

In my limited experience of running successive versions of Ubuntu since 8-something on a couple of different laptops, this chance is quite high. I'm not sure if I'm just unlucky with the hardware that I'm using, or if it's a result of the higher-than-average number of packages I have installed, or if upgrades are just typically problematic.

So I'd like to know the likelihood, for a casual user, of doing a release upgrade, for example from 10.04 to 10.10, without experiencing any regression bugs.

Obviously this is dependent on the hardware that people are running. Canonical seems to be making some efforts towards collecting data on this, for example with the "I am affected by this bug" checkbox on their issue tracker, and with the laptop compatibility reports, but I've not seen anything comprehensive.

I'm hoping for an objective reference here, for example a study carried out by relatively unbiased individuals. However, anecdotal evidence is probably useful too.

share|improve this question
"anecdotal evidence" is not evidence, it's a term used for supposed evidence that turns out to be subjective and unreliable :) I'm not normally this grumpy about it, and I see you've done well to ask a question that encourages objective answers. So don't take offence, I'm nit-picky sometimes :) – Stefano Palazzo Jan 17 '11 at 6:58
@Stefano: It's sort of a fallback plan for the likely scenario where there is no objective reference available. – intuited Jan 17 '11 at 7:49
Yeah, you're right. And I did fall back on it a little bit at the end of my answer. ;-) It's a tough question. – Stefano Palazzo Jan 17 '11 at 7:55
This seems unanswerable to me. "If I drive today will I get in a car accident?" – Jorge Castro Jan 17 '11 at 13:55
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'd love for someone to come up with some more numbers on this, here's my little analysis:

There are around 100 bugs tagged "regression-release", that are of "High" importance. A further three are marked "critical", two of those affect a bunch of specific ThinkPad models.

  • Have a look at the regression tracker, note only the ones that are tagged "regression-release".

    There are quite a lot of them, of course, but then the average bug affects only a few users (now that's a number I'd like to know). Note that pretty much all of the 'serious' bugs have to do with some specific piece of hardware, and thus wouldn't affect "well supported" hardware platforms.

  • Take the time to sort this list by importance and read some of the descriptions. To me at least, many of them appear very minor, or affect only a small set of users. But I can't be the judge of that.

The likelihood of a normal user experiencing a release upgrade regression is almost impossible to estimate. The hardware platforms vary immensely.

  • Note the affected packages, this will give you an indication as to the likelihood of a regression affecting your specific configuration. You'll notice many of them are filed against 'linux', and most of those are driver issues.

In my experience, everything works perfectly all the time. See how worthless that information is. ;-)

I fear that's all I've got. It's really not a problem that is discussed much, which is why I have to doubt it exists at all. People usually only investigate such things in detail, create comprehensive statistical analysis, if many users are affected; due to the way Canonical and the community test before they release, this appears to be rare.

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We do see a lot of discussion on this topic everytime a new release has come out. Most experienced users prefer a fresh installation to an upgrade, and indeed there always are some proplems from incomplete updates or from regressions that may not have come up when you had done a new installation. Still, this recommendations are not based on solid statistical analyses that would be needed to really tell.

Stefano Palazzo has already pointed out why it is difficult, or maybe impossible to perform such an analysis. Too many individual factors had to be considered as no system is set up like the other. We can only have a look at what people post in the support forums to get a vague idea what problems may arise.

No problems on upgrade

On a not too much individually adapted system where software was only installed from Ubuntu repositories and no proprietary drivers are needed there are only very few (if any) reports on defects after an upgrade. This leads me to believe that an upgrade of such a system is nearly 100% safe. Personally I never had any problems when upgrading such a system.

Upgrade fails

When proprietary hardware drivers or packages from sources other than the Ubuntu repositories were installed still, in most cases even this is very cleanly handled by an upgrade. However sometimes then an upgrade may cause problems where additional configuration/repair may be needed. We also have to consider those cases where both, an upgrade failed, and a fresh install after that did not work either because of unsupported hardware.

Subjective factors from supporters or experienced users come in because they are more likely to have highly adapted and individually configured systems therefore being much more affected by adverse effects from an upgrade. This explains why for them it may be less time consuming to simply perform a fresh install.

What to recommend?

Ubuntu allows to keep most of your individual settings even if you performed a fresh install. Also the time needed for a fresh install is in the range of 20 min. as compared to up to 2 hrs for an upgrade. Therefore a fresh install seems very attractive indeed.

This is especially the case for basic installations with only few additional packages where we don't have to do not much additional work. But it is exactly these systems that also would upgrade smoothly.

On the other hand, if your system is very individually configured with many additional packages loaded then you would probably save much time when upgrading. If you are unlucky and the upgrade failed you still haven't lost the option to do a fresh install but you may loose a lot of the saved time to find out if your system can be repaired or not.

From a practical view, recommend an upgrade when:

  • Many additional packages are installed
  • Individual settings outside /home need to be kept

Recommend a fresh installation when:

  • Proprietary drivers not provided by the repositories are needed for a running system
  • The upgrade failed

This is entirely my personal view biased by my opinion that it does not really matter much what you do.

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It should be noted that when 'reading through the forums', the people who didn't have any problem upgrading generally don't report it. So whatever impression you get, it's the impression of a very specific subset of users, and can't reflect the overall state of things. – Stefano Palazzo Jan 17 '11 at 14:04
@Stefano, that's a very good point. I do believe that Ubuntu upgrades are only very rarely problematic. The challenge here is to proof this. j-g-faustus tried with google hits compared to other OSs but - you already commented it - this does not really proof anything as Ubuntu users may post their problems more often than users from other Os, and searches for "problem" will find "no problem" as well. Checking forum post could help nevertheless - my impression is that problems related to upgrade only have become rare from the latest releases. – Takkat Jan 17 '11 at 14:40
I think it would be good if there were an optional set of system tests that you could run after installation/upgrade, and have the results sent in to Canonical along with your hardware profile. Any idea if they're working on something like this? – intuited Jan 17 '11 at 17:24

It's an interesting question, but also very hard to answer, among other things since "trouble free" is a quite subjective metric.

But we can try to triangulate some numbers:

The likelihood of having an upgrade (any upgrade) work perfectly for everyone is zero.

This is independent of which operating system we are talking about, it is merely a function of the enormous number of combinations of people, skills, use cases, hardware and software that exists in the world.

See for example

Microsoft employs 9,000 testers who test daily builds across thousands of hardware and software combinations for years before a major relase; probably noone else in the industry puts as much resources into testing as Microsoft does.

That doesn't stop problem upgrade "Windows 7" from returning 300 million Google hits (the numbers vary, that's what I'm getting at my location at the moment).

Apple presumably has a simpler job because they tightly control the very small number of hardware combinations their OS is intended to run on. Still, problem upgrade "OS X" is worth 8 million Google hits.

Ubuntu (and Linux in general) faces the same problems as Microsoft by targeting close to every hardware combination under the Sun; but unlike Microsoft they are doing so with a fraction of the resources of the major players. problem upgrade Ubuntu gives 21 million hits, while problem upgrade Ubuntu 10.10 is ~3 million.

These are obviously highly unscientific, rough and ready numbers (your Google numbers will probably be different - it varies with location, the exact phrasing of the search, and quite possibly the phase of the moon...), but I think the relative frequency of complaints can still be a better indicator than random guessing.

We need to weigh complaint frequencies against usage frequencies, hard numbers are again hard to come by.

But a random source close at hand says that Win 7 is used by 24%, OS X by 8% and Linux by 1.5% of some unspecified population. (I have no idea what Ubuntu's market share is of the Linux total, but it's almost certainly less than 100% :)

Combining these numbers with my own subjective experience and a vast quantity of anecdotes, hearsay and urban legends, I'm comfortable in believing that

  • No existing software can guarantee a trouble-free upgrade for everyone.
  • Upgrade troubles are more frequent among Ubuntu users than among the users of the major commercial alternatives.
  • But not massively so.

Personally I always wait a few months after a release before I do an upgrade (whether it's Windows, Mac or Ubuntu) so the worst bugs can be ironed out, and I mostly have a reasonable trouble-free upgrade. And it seems to be getting better at every release, at least on the kind of hardware I am using.

To future users I would suggest that unlike romantic partners, nobody will really mind if you flirt with several operating systems at the same time.

So as long as you can spare some room on your primary drive, you can install Ubuntu as dual boot and try out an extramarital OS affair at very little risk.

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You can't really compare Windows with Ubuntu as update paths from service packs to separately sold upgrade versions are very much different. I doubt that the average Windows user upgrades (buying an expensive upgrade version that may not even run on old hardware is too risky). – Takkat Jan 17 '11 at 11:21
@Takkat Good point, most Windows users uses what came preinstalled until they buy a new computer. (Which is presumably why Win XP is still the #1 OS according to Wikipedia.) My main point is that (major) upgrades are inherently hard even when you can control every variable to the extent that Apple can; I think it's amazing that Ubuntu version upgrades work as well as they do. But from the perspective of an end user who has always "upgraded" by buying a new device, Ubuntu upgrades give more flexibility but also an extra step where something can (and sometimes will) go wrong. – j-g-faustus Jan 17 '11 at 12:29
ACK upgrades can always be a problem (like your google calc) but with Ubuntu you are not lost. – Takkat Jan 17 '11 at 13:44
I couldn't find any relevant facts in this answer, sorry. – Stefano Palazzo Jan 17 '11 at 14:06

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