Ubuntu 11.04: Is Natty Narwhal the best Linux desktop ever?

If not the best, then certainly the most different

I said months ago that Ubuntu 11.04 wouldn't be the same old Ubuntu, and boy was I right. With its new Unity interface, Ubuntu doesn't look or act like any other desktop Linux you've ever seen. And, since I've seen almost all of them, I know what I'm talking about!

The basics are the same as you'll find in many Linux distributions. It's still based on Debian Linux; it uses the 2.6.38 Linux kernel; it still uses most of the same familiar applications; and its desktop is built on top of GNOME 2.32.1, but with the Unity desktop I couldn't blame you if you didn't recognize anything but the apps.

[ For screenshots of the new interface, see the Ubuntu 11.04 image gallery ]

The Unity desktop

You see, with Unity, everything is different. When you first see Unity, whether you've ever used Linux or not, you're not going to recognize it. It looks more like a smartphone or tablet interface than it does a PC desktop.

Instead of a top or bottom menu bar, Unity has a task dock on the left-hand side of the screen and a panel at the top with an embedded global menu. Whatever application you happen to be running at the moment will have its menu on that top, global menu. There's also a screen overlay that pops out of the top panel that gives you access to what Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company calls "lenses." Currently these include an application launcher lens; a file management lens and a search lens that can double for either of the others.

You see, the Unity interface brings a new way to access programs and files. While you can track down a file or a program through folders or look for its icon, Unity's universal search enables you to search your way to whatever it is you need. You can, of course, still go back to your usual way of finding applications or files but I found this new search method to be remarkably fast and easy.

That's by design. As Canonical marketing manager Gerry Carr recently told me, while you can still use folders and files for organization, you don't have to. "Search has become essential to how we organize Ubuntu. You no longer have to remember where you put files. Unity will take care of finding them for you."

He's right, and better still, it really works. I had expected Unity to be slow with this kind of work going on in the background. I was wrong. It's remarkably fast. It was even reasonably fast on that 2.8GHz Pentium IV box with its 1 GB of RAM, albeit on that machine Unity only worked in its Gnome 2.x mode rather than its full Unity desktop.

You see, while Unity is based on GNOME 2.x, it's not really GNOME, and it's certainly not the latest version, GNOME 3.0. Unity is a shell for GNOME.

Under Unity's hood, there are several technical differences. Instead of GNOME's Mutter windows manager, Unity uses Compiz for the windows manager. On top of this, Ubuntu developers use Zeitgeist, a framework that tracks and correlates relationships between the user's activities to supply applications with contextually relevant data.

The Unity display is meant to make the best use of screen real estate, while still giving you useful information. For example, when you're not using the left-hand Mac OS X like task dock, it shrinks into the left screen edge. The design philosophy behind this is in Project Ayatana. According to Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, there are two main aspects to this: Notifications, the sole purpose of which is to notify you of transient events, and Indicator Menus. These combine persistent awareness of a state with a set of options for modifying that state.

With Unity's indicators, the system's icons comes with controls that enable you to see what's what with your active programs and enable you to work with them. This way you can use an application's functionality without needing to minimize one program and maximize the other. So, for example, "if you're playing music using Ubuntu's media-player Banshee you can use the volume control indicator to select tracks to play rather than going to Banshee. The communications indicator gives you access to all your instant messages and e-mail in the same way, and so on.

Getting Ubuntu

As always you can download Ubuntu 11.04 to your PC. By June, if you have a high bandwidth Internet connection, you'll also be able to give the Ubuntu 11.04 desktop a try from the cloud. (Note: you can give Ubuntu 11.04 server a try from the cloud today.)

Once you've downloaded the ISO image of the operating system, you can either install it to a PC, dual-install it with Windows or what have you, or just give it a try from a USB stick or CD. On a Windows system, you can also try Ubuntu 11.04 within Windows using Wubi. With this approach, you treat Ubuntu just as if it were a Windows application and run it within Windows. There is no such "run with the operating system" option for Macs. You can, however, run it on a Mac or a Windows PC with a virtualization program such as such as VirtualBox or VMware Player.

Of course, if you're already running Ubuntu, you can simply update your older version. I was able to upgrade my Ubuntu 10.10 without any trouble.

The new Ubuntu will run on any PC from the last ten years. I've got it running on several PCs and laptops here at my office and it does great on even my no-name 2006 PC with a 2.8 GHz Pentium IV, 1 GB of RAM, and a 60 GB hard drive.

Putting Ubuntu 11.04 through its paces

To kick the tires on Ubuntu 11.04, I installed it on several different systems, including the aforementioned generic PC, as well as a Dell Mini 9 netbook, and my Gateway DX4710. This PC, my main test box, is powered by a 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and has 6GBs of RAM and an Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100 for graphics.

The first thing I noticed was that Unity is designed for 16:9-sized interfaces. You can still use it on an older 4:3 display, but it looks and works best on a 16:9 display.

If, by the by, you decide you can't stand the Unity interface, you can switch back to the old Ubuntu GNOME 2.x style interface by just rebooting and choosing Ubuntu Classic from the bottom of the logon screen.

Although I wasn't able to test it, Unity also supports multi-touch via Utouch. A few months back, Shuttleworth told me that multi-touch would be be integrated into Unity and applications. "I think in the near future all laptops will have sophisticated multi-touch hardware. All the hardware vendors that are working on touch are talking to Ubuntu." After one look with the interface, I believe it. On the netbook in particular I kept wanting to touch the display as I would my iPad or Nook instead of using a mouse.

After playing with it, I found that the Unity interface is simple. Indeed, many Linux users will find it far too simple. That's because you can't really get your hands dirty with this operating system. Or, rather, you can, but like with a Mac, to get to the technical nitty-gritty, you need to dig past the interface. This makes Ubuntu 11.04 great for new users, but savvy old Linux fans might find it too pretty for their tastes.

That said, there are still some problems with Unity. For example, when I had an application running in one work space, then switched to another, and then tried to come back to the first program, I couldn't do it from time to time. If I used the search function, I was always able to make my way back to it, but when I just switched work spaces the old application would just sit and I couldn't communicate with it. Annoying.

The applications themselves worked just fine. Instead of OpenOffice, we now have LibreOffice, for office work, but it works even better than OpenOffice so that's fine by me. In addition, it does a great job with Microsoft Office 2007 and up formats.

For media play, the new default is Banshee. Again, that's all good news as far as I'm concerned. I've long considered Banshee to be Linux's best music application.

Ubuntu now uses Firefox 4 for its default Web browser. Personally, I prefer Google's Chrome browser for Linux Web browsing, but that's not a worry on Ubuntu. Thanks to the Ubuntu's Software Center, the easy to use application installer and manager, its simple to install new programs. The Software Center is also nicer than ever with its application ratings and reviews. No longer do you have to wonder whether an application is really any good except by trying it for yourself.

The other pre-installed applications are all first rate as well. In particular, I was very pleased to see Evolution as the e-mail client. For my money, Evolution is the best e-mail client around and far better than the promising, but never quite right, Thunderbird.

Final Thoughts

I have to say that I came to Ubuntu 11.04 not at all convinced that I'd like it. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Unix and Linux user. While I'm not so hide-bound that I consider the Bash shell to be the be-all and end-all of desktops, I do like getting to the engine of my operating system so I can tune it just the way I want it -- and that's not what Unity is all about.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I liked it a lot. And, better still for what Canonical has planned for Ubuntu, I found that people who'd never used Linux before actually liked Ubuntu. Mind you, they couldn't tell it was Linux under the hood, but I think that's the point. This is Linux for non-Linux users, and as that, I think it's a great success.

Is it good enough to get Windows users to switch? I don't know, but I do know, that as users switch more and more to tablets and smartphones, they're certainly more open to new possibilities and that's exactly what Unity is. It's not just a new take on the desktop, it's a new take on the interface for all devices. I fully expect to see Unity-based tablets sometime soon. And I think Ubuntu just might be the first Linux to gain a large number of ordinary users.

This story, "Ubuntu 11.04: Is Natty Narwhal the best Linux desktop ever?" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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