Ubuntu 11.04 Review

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Ubuntu 11.04, dubbed Natty Narwhal, is one of the most controversial distributions to be launched in recent years, but not in regard to other operating systems. It's hard to anticipate how it will fare, however it's safe to say is one of the biggest leaps, in terms of accessibility, any developer has taken for quite some time.

Canonical has made great strides with its Ubuntu operating system in just a few years, more than other developers have made in a decade. Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu distribution, is known for his risk taking nature and Ubuntu 11.04 is evidence of that attitude.

Natty Narwhal has been promoted as a groundbreaking Linux distribution, especially regarding the new and almost unique interface, called Unity. It's still unclear if Canonical has managed to pull it off, as there is major resistance in the open source community towards embracing Unity and all its features, but we hope to shed some light on the new and improved Ubuntu 11.04 OS and sway people in a direction or another.

Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) has passed through the usual steps before reaching a stable version (3 Alphas and 2 Betas), but respecting the allotted schedule which practically states that a new version of Ubuntu surfaces once every six months.

We could have rushed a review in the first couple of days after the official launch or even have a so called review, based on previous unstable versions, online in the same day as the launch. We prefered to actually test it for a couple of weeks so we can give a pertinent opinion and not some hateful first impression.


Testing an operating system is not an easy task and cannot be compared with a simple software review. Therefore we had to test on several configurations (older and newer) making sure we would cover a larger base of users. The following hardware configurations were used:
· MSI P35 Neo2 Motherboard
· Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 Processor
· Nvdia GeForce GTX 460 Video Card        
· 2 GB RAM
· IDE HDD 500 GB Seagate
· Asus CD-RW/DVD-RW Drive
· 19" Samsung 940N LCD

· Intel Gigabyte GA-965P Motherboard
· Intel Pentium 4 3 GHz
· Nvidia Leadtek Geforce 7300GS 256 VRAM
· SATA HDD 80 GB Seagate
· Samsung WriteMaster CD/DVD RW Drive
· 19" DELL LCD
· AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 4200+        
· GeForce 6150 LE
· 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM
· 250GB 7200RPM HDD
· DVD+/-RW Optical Drive
· 21" Samsung LCD

· Asus P5p43td Motherboard
· CPU Intel Core 2 Duo Quad Q8400
· ATI Radeon HD 5750
· 500 GB 700 RPM Western Digital HDD
· DVD+/-RW Optical Drive
· 21" Samsung LCD                                 
Ubuntu 11.04 comes as usual for 32-bit and 64-bit machines, on a 700 MB ISO image. Either you install it from a CD, an USB key, or from Unetbootin, the procedure is the same as it was in the last Ubuntu distribution, with the same steps.

Unfortunately, during the installation we've encountered what we consider a serious bug. When users choose to manually partition their hard drives and select a custom mount point, the installer won't allow any editing to that particular field, so users have two options: either use a predetermined mount point from an available list, or install the operating system after booting it in a Live CD session and simply pasting the custom mount point from a text editor. As far as we know there is no other solution to this serious bug, and Canonical doesn't seem to take into consideration.

The rest of the installation should go smoothly and there are no major differences from the previous release of the Ubuntu distributions.

First impressions

Lets assume that most users don't actually install alpha and beta distributions. What's the impact of a new interface, radically different from anything that has been done before, on the user's ability to maneuver and successfully comprehend what the developers have actually intended?

The first minute of contact with the new Unity environment is one of wonder and appreciation. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when people don't want to learn new stuff in order to use an operating system or a new program. That is precisely the reason why Linux, Microsoft and Apple developers don't make big jumps in terms of design and functionality, as they don't want to alienate people from their operating systems.


For some users, Unity is too big of a leap. Canonical has decided to scrap the conventional two-panel look and replace it with a lateral dock menu, which so far is stuck on the left side of the screen (sorry left-handed users). Unity can be shrunk and most of the icons can be moved or deleted, but some of them are fixed and, for now, can't be interfered with.
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Right about now, Ubuntu users are probably grinding their teeth if they want to use Unity or not, thinking they can never accept an interface which is not as flexible as the old one. I promise, it has a lot of good features and even if we don't want to admit it, this is the future.

Some call it an omission and others call it negligence, but the feature that is most missed in Unity is the ability to group icons by category, like Internet, Office, Audio and Video and so on.

We don't want to be picky, but we have to mention that there are two icons on the bottom of the dock, that seem to have the purpose of gathering all the software installed in the system, in one single place. They are cumbersome and most likely will get redesigned in the near future or with Ubuntu 11.10.

The first of these two icons is called “Applications” and has three categories (each with six entries), one holding Most Frequently Used applications, one with Installed applications in alphabetical order (making it practically useless) and one with Apps Available for Download, listed in some random order.
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The second icon is called Files & Folders and is grouped like the one we explained above, only this time with other categories: Recent Applications, the Downloads Folder and Favorites Folder. All these can be expanded to show more entries, but this would be rather pointless. Only the Recent Applications has some use, but it's no excuse for the other ones lack of usability.

All in all, two Unity icons trying to do the function of a single one, in GNOME, and failing miserably.
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Ubuntu 11.04 comes by default with four separate workspaces and a switcher on Unity named, obviously, Workspace Switcher. The transitions are smooth and applications can be moved around between all four workspaces. This is a nice feature which has to be enhanced with CompizConfig manager in order to set it the way you like it.

Another setback in Unity is the application preview. There is none. If a user opens, for example, multiple LibreOffice documents, all will be listed under the same icon, but there is no discernible method to open a specific one. As an alternative, you can use ALT-Tab, but not if the documents are on different workspaces.

In Windows 7, a short pause with the mouse pointer over the dock icons brings up a small preview off all the windows grouped under than icon and users can make selections without much hassle. This is still missing from Unity!

In Ubuntu 11.04, a click on the icon opens all the windows grouped under it and will show all of them, in the same time, in the same manner multiple workspaces are shown. It seems like a workaround and not a valid solution. We can only hope that Canonical will work on it.
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The dock will hide if an active window needs that space, sliding out of the screen with ease. If there are too many icons, it will shift to a sort-of-3D perspective. You can still scroll through them, but it's quite weird.

We found that heavy users, like yours truly, will actually try to limit the number of docked icons and use the amazing implemented search function. For example, we haven't pinned Synaptic Package Manager in Unity and just preferred to write the first three letters.
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Unity's dock is not the only novelty. The other major modification in Ubuntu 11.04 is the menubar which has been stripped from the windows and moved, in a global fashion, on top of the screen. Until Ubuntu 10.10 it was possible to hide it and even add icons and applications to it.

Even if it looks the same, the purpose of the upper panel has been changed completely so it houses the menu of the active application. For example, in Firefox, the entire menu is now on top of the screen and not attached to the main window. It may seem weird at first, but this is not actually something new, as Apple has used this system for some years.

Both the dock and the panel respond in a limited fashion to right click, the menus being contextualized for each icon. Lacking a better comparison, Unity looks like the brain child of the Windows 7 Start Menu and the Mac OS Dock.

In light of all the problems we have pointed before, we still liked Unity. Canonical may have rushed it with Ubuntu 11.04, but in spite of all the shortcomings this is definitely the future.

For those of you that are not yet convinced, a GNOME interface is still present, called simply Ubuntu Classic, so there is no need to bash Canonical for the brave move.
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Other changes

The biggest change, except Unity, is, of course, the introduction of the LibreOffice office suite, instead of outdated OpenOffice.org. This is a really good choice, LibreOffice being a lot lighter in memory usage and a lot prettier. It's still using the ODT format so there's no need to worry that your old documents and other projects from OpenOffice.org won't work.

Another significant change is the replacement of the old music player, Rhythmbox, with Banshee. I can't say it's much of a difference as they look very similar, but apparently it's a lot more stable. Even if it's written in GTK# and Mono, it integrates really well with the new menubar so users will have an easy time using it.

Lots of other software packages received smaller changes, but the last one worth mentioning are the new overlay scrollbars. Nautilus now uses a new set of scrollbars which are smaller and placed outside of the actual window. When the mouse gets close to where the scrollbar should be, they change their size and become draggable. It's a nice touch and it makes you wonder why this hasn't been done before. The environment looks a lot cleaner and spacious this way.
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It's really hard to draw a line and take a firm stand, saying it's either good or bad. As we see it, Ubuntu 11.04, including Unity, is a major step forward. We would like nothing more than Canonical to use all the criticism and improve this amazing interface.

As we said in the beginning of the review, people have a hard time adjusting to major changes, but Unity is more than a change in perspective. It will be the new face of Ubuntu, and, like all major stars, it will endure some corrective surgery to make it more appealing to the broader masses.

It may seem odd to complain about tons of problems with the new interface and in the same time make a recommendation in favor of that interface, but the bottom line is that we liked Unity, with all its issues, and we hope that it will improve and finally move forward beyond what is most likely the last remaining bastion of a bygone era.

Ubuntu can only keep itself on the edge and in competition if it improves and changes faster than users expect. Change drives the innovation and Canonical has proved, with Unity, that they can compete in the next decade with all the major players in the world, when it comes to great operating systems.
user interface 4
features 5
ease of use 4
pricing / value 5

final rating 5
Editor's review
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