It’s been a while since we last took an in depth look at Linux – we had a Linux training week early last year – and a lot has changed since then. Gnome 2, the default desktop environment on many distributions since the first time I dabbled with Linux, has been replaced by both Ubuntu and Fedora. Ubuntu now runs on a desktop environment previously only available on Netbook editions called ‘Unity’ and Fedora 15 is the first major distribution to come with Gnome 3 out of the box.
It’s for this reason that the new version of Ubuntu is so crucial in the future of the distribution. This isn’t just another 6-monthly update, it’s a completely different direction for both the developers and users alike. Switching to an entirely new interface is risky for any piece of software, but when you’re one of the most popular Linux operating systems out there it can be a dangerous move. If people don’t like Unity then they can easily switch to a different distribution — after all, there are more than enough out there.
So how does the latest Ubuntu match up to the up and coming Fedora 15? Is Unity a vast improvement over Gnome 2 or simply a classic case of style over substance? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Installation and Setup
I hear that Ubuntu’s servers were being worked pretty hard when the stable version of Natty Narwhal was released on Thursday, but fortunately I already had the Beta 2 version of the operating system installed on my computer, so upgrading was a simple case of running a software update and waiting for a few new updates to come down before I checked that I was indeed running the stable version. The whole process took no more than a few minutes on my home connection, and if you download the ISO from Ubuntu’s website, it’s only a 700mb image so it shouldn’t take too long at all on most connections.
Installation of 11.04 is really simple, and the install wizard even detects if you have Windows or OS X already installed on a computer and offers to install itself alongside your existing system to save you all the hassle of manually editing partitions. New users will certainly appreciate this if they are unfamiliar with Linux partitions too.
Once Ubuntu has installed it’s a good idea to check for updates if you didn’t select the option to do this automatically during installation. I installed Natty on my MacBook Pro, and all of the hardware worked fine out of the box. I had wireless internet, bluetooth and even multi-touch support for my trackpad (more on that later on…).
The only thing that wasn’t enabled out of the box was hardware accelleration for Unity, which is to be expected on most computers anyway. Ubuntu recognised my NVIDIA GPU and offered to activate the third party drivers which worked a treat, and after a reboot I was out of Gnome 2 and in to the new and unfamiliar world of the Unity 3D interface.
With the minimal setup involved in running 11.04, I was ready to use the system in a matter of minutes after installation. For my system at least, the days of hunting down Linux drivers for my machine were seemingly over, although this of course differs from system to system and you should expect to have to do at least a little virtual digging for drivers.
As with most Linux distributions, you will be confronted with an army of applications pre-installed on the latest Ubuntu. Firefox 4 is the default browser, with Evolution mail assigned with the task of taking care of your email. One of the more noticeable inclusions here is LibreOffice, which has replaced the troubled OpenOffice.org which saw some internal conflicts between Oracle and the open source community. LibreOffice is based upon the source code of OpenOffice, and maintains the version number of OOo as well.
There has been a number of updates to other key pieces of software in Ubuntu, such as the Software Center which now has support for user ratings and reviews to give you an idea of what other people think of a program before you download it. Ubuntu One, the cloud service that allows you to keep your music, bookmarks and files in sync, has also seen some additional features for Natty Narwhal.
For your music, Banshee Media Player comes with built in support for the Amazon MP3 Store, which is great to see for users who don’t want to be tied down to Apple’s iTunes. Unfortunately, ‘support’ does not extend to much of a user interface within the application, in fact the MP3 store option simply opens the amazon website within your browser. This could be a lot cleaner to offer a nicer experience, but whether this aspect of the application is being considered for an update I couldn’t say.
Shotwell Photo Manager offers a neat interface for managing and organising your photo collection, but unlike commercial options you won’t find a lot of powerful editing tools built in. It does, however, come with an ‘enhance’ tool, which takes care of some basic editing for you.
Of course, the major change in Ubuntu 11.04 doesn’t come in the form of any radical new included applications or an overhauled setup wizard, it comes in the form of Unity. I’ve already touched on how risky moving away from Gnome 2 is for Ubuntu, and how it’s even more of a risk to develop a brand new interface in-house rather than use the Gnome 3 environment. So does the risk pay off? In a way it pays of perfectly, due to the excitement it’s generated amongst many users and the fresh look it has given a mature system. In another way it’s not, as it is still packing a few bugs that need to be ironed out and lacking some features that a more mature environment would offer.
With Unity as your default environment there is no bottom menu bar as there was in Gnome 2, only the top menu bar and the dock, called the launcher in Unity, on the left hand side. This looks far neater in my opinion, although I never did like having to use two separate menu bars to control my applications anyway so this was always going to be win-win for me.
The launcher behaves mostly as you would expect it to. You can place launchers for applications that you want quick access to on there, and when an app is running it has a small triangle to the side of its icon to indicate that its open. Right clicking a logo gives you the option to quit the application, choose whether it’s kept in the launcher and view its open windows. Unfortunately there’s no quick shortcut that I could find here to force quit an application that’s misbehaving like you can in the dock in Mac OS X. This isn’t the end of the world though, a quick ‘xkill’ command will have you sending programs to the sin bin in no time.
Another major change from the Gnome 2 interface is the lack of menus on the top menu bar. The ‘Applications’, ‘Places’ and ‘System’ menus have all gone and are now replaced by a single button in line with the dock at the top of the screen that opens the new search area and gives you quick access to some default applications to browse the web, view photos, check email and listen to music. Unfortunately these default shortcuts cannot be changed in the initial version of Natty, at least not easily. This is a huge drawback for me, as I use Chromium over Firefox, Thunderbird over Evolution and Spotify over Banshee, so these shortcuts aren’t a huge help to me. Mark Shuttleworth has said that in the future these icons will become editable which is good news, so it’s just a matter of time waiting until it is implemented as opposed to wondering if it ever will be implemented.
I have mixed feelings about this Unity search area. On one hand it looks great. It’s a lot cleaner and more accessible than looking through menus and sub-menus of applications, but applications could be so much more accessible than they are at present. From the search area at the moment, you can select the ‘More Apps’ option if you don’t know the name of a program that you’re looking for (if you do, opening it is as simple as typing the first letter or two and hitting enter), which shows you the applications which you can open. However, this has been split in to three sections: most frequently used, installed and apps available for download. I understand the logic behind placing most frequently used apps at the top of the window, but if I wanted to see which applications were ‘available for download’, I would look in the Software Center and not the search area. If I select to see more apps, then that is exactly what I wish to do, so it would be so much more efficient if your installed applications took precedence here and dominated this window, keeping available downloads in the application to which they belong.
If you want to concentrate on a single window, you can enter full screen mode, with most applications moving their menu structure to the menu bar at the top of the screen, which is revealed when you roll over with your cursor. Unfortunately this behaviour varies by application. Some programs will keep their menus within the window, some will have it on the menu bar, some like Chromium will hide everything behind a single button.
For any potential Natty users with an Apple multi-touch trackpad, you’ll be pleased to hear that Unity also packs in a host of gestures that make every day operations that bit quicker. You have a standard two finger scroll for documents and web pages, although this has to be enabled in your settings first. If you want to make an application go in to full screen mode without clicking the relevant button on the window, you can do a three finger zoom gesture for this, and dragging with three fingers will move the window around the screen with minimal effort. You can also use a four finger tap to open the Unity search dialog for quick access.
Many aspects of Unity will be loved by some users and hated by others, as is any drastic change to software which has been around for a while, but for the most part I think not only has it been necessary for the Ubuntu development team to update the look of a growing operating system that has been around for quite some time.
In many respects the move has succeeded by modernising the look of the interface, including some cool new features for fans to take a look at. There are bound to be some features missing at this point, but as the environment matures and finds it feet in the Linux world it will certainly get stronger and stronger with each release.
If you’re not a fan of Unity, or want to see more of Gnome 3 for comparison, we’ll be taking a look at Fedora 15 when the stable version is released in under a month, so keep your eye out for that.
What do you think of the new version of Ubuntu? Is the change to Unity a beneficial one, or will you be reverting to Gnome 2 as soon as you install? Let us know in the comments!