Today's the day: Ubuntu 13.04, codenamed "Raring Ringtail," is officially out. Now, countless geeks are posing the question: "Should I upgrade?" Here are some points to keep in mind for making that big decision.

First, realize that, in a technical sense, Ubuntu release dates are not actually too meaningful. Canonical sets the day and the hour of each release months in advance, and the latest edition becomes officially available at that time, regardless of its development status. In this sense, today is not as momentous for the Linux world as it may at first appear.

The Ubuntu developers do, of course, work very hard to make sure that a new release is completely stable and ready for action by the time the big day rolls around. But practically speaking, the fact that Ubuntu 13.04 has now "officially" debuted doesn't make the version you'll download today very different from the beta that was available yesterday or from the build a week from now. Give or take a few minor bugs, it's all the same.

Second, beyond the somewhat arbitrary nature of the official release dates, there's also the fact that Ubuntu 13.04, at least on the desktop, is not too different from its predecessor. There are some relatively minor performance and design enhancements, but as operating systems go, the jump from Ubuntu 12.10 to Ubuntu 13.04 is not an especially big one.

And third, there are the support considerations. 13.04 marks the first and probably only time in Ubuntu history that a release will actually reach its end of life before the version that preceded it, even though neither is an LTS (longterm support) edition. That's because Canonical has shortened the lifecycle of non-LTS releases to nine months from 18. The change takes effect starting with 13.04, which will receive official updates only through January 2014—in contrast to Ubuntu 12.10, which came out last October but will retain support through next April. So, if you don't want to be obligated to upgrade again in nine months, don't install 13.04.

Beyond the Desktop

If you've read this far, and if you're a desktop user, you might be thinking that there aren't any especially compelling reasons to upgrade to Ubuntu 13.04. And you might be right. But beyond the desktop, giving the new release a try could make plenty of sense in other scenarios.

If, for example, you want to take stock of Ubuntu's new directions onto tablets and smartphones, this is the release where that vision starts becoming reality. Unfortunately, for the time being the only mobile device on which 13.04 will run reasonably well is Google's Nexus 7 tablet. But if you happen to own one of those, it may be hard to resist the temptation to test it out with Ubuntu. It would be for me, at least.

This release also introduces some significant changes on Ubuntu servers that affect the cloud and Big Data. It features updated versions of the OpenStack cloud platform and Ceph distributed file system, among other rapidly evolving server technologies. Of course, most users would be ill-advised to deploy Ubuntu 13.04 on a production server, since its lifecycle is so short and it lacks the rigorous testing of an LTS release. Still, for a preview of where Ubuntu is headed on servers, and how Canonical is integrating traditional server applications with the cloud and Big Data, 13.04 has a lot of novel goodness to offer.

If you're pondering an upgrade to 13.04, then, the answer should be pretty clear. In contrast to previous releases, where users had to weigh the trouble of performing the upgrade against the potential benefits of new applications, the issue with this latest version centers mostly around what kind of device you're running Ubuntu on, more than which software you use.