The growing popularity of Linux has led to a resurgence of interest in the open-source operating system, which – in turn – has led to a profusion of new distributions, spin-offs, and custom platforms which cater to a wide variety of niches.
Sometimes, though, you just want a standard desktop distribution. Ubuntu, created by UK-based Canonical, is one of the most popular around, but its most recent incarnation – 11.04 , also known as Natty Narwhal – is causing quite a stir amongst its not-inconsiderable fanbase.
The reason is Unity, a custom user interface born of the Ubuntu Netbook Remix project and installed by default in place of the traditional Gnome look and feel. While it has its fans, the change has proven divisive – so we’ll plunge in head-first to find out exactly what’s going on.
A spin-off of the Debian project – named for its founder Ian Murdock and his wife Deb – Ubuntu is available in a variety of flavours, spins, and formats, and has even inspired spin-off projects of its own like the cloud-centric Joli OS we recently reviewed.
Ignoring the server build – which is, by default, a text-only installation with no graphical user interface at all – and spin-offs like Lubuntu and Xubuntu, the main choice to make when grabbing a copy of Ubuntu is the architecture: while some esoteric processor types like ARM and PowerPC are supported, the two most commonly used versions are i686 and x86-64.
For most users, the choice is simple: using the i686 build, which is a 32-bit operating system, guarantees the maximum compatibility with software like Adobe’s Flash Player plugin, and will run on pretty much any PC from the last decade or so. The x86-64 build, on the other hand, requires a 64-bit processor to operate – not a problem in this day and age, thankfully – and adds some refinements such as native support for more than 4GB of RAM at the cost of compatibility with certain proprietary software packages.
We chose the 32-bit i686 build, but whichever you pick you’ll be prompted to download an ISO which can be used a variety of ways: it can be burnt to a disc, written to a USB storage device, or even mounted and installed as a secondary operating system directly from within Windows, thanks to the bundling of a clever package called Wubi.
Whichever you choose, you’ll have to option to try the operating system out without making any changes to your hardware, and then to install it – either as a multi-boot option alongside another operating system such as Windows or Mac OS, or as the sole operating system on your device.
The graphical user interface (GUI)
Booting from the disc, the biggest change you’ll find from previous versions of Ubuntu is the graphical user interface. The familiar dual-bar layout of Gnome is gone, replaced with an icon-based system inspired by the netbook-oriented spin of Ubuntu, which has since been retired in favour of a single distribution for all device types.
It’s a move that was partially Canonical’s idea, and was partially forced on them by the developers of Gnome itself: the project behind the desktop environment used in previous editions of Ubuntu, Gnome, has jumped from version 2 to version 3 and has introduced a whole new look of its own – one that has just as many users up in arms as the Unity interface included in Ubuntu 11.04.
It’s true that the interface is something of an acquired taste. Because it uses an icon-based appearance better suited to a touchscreen device, Unity can look a little odd on a large-format display or a big laptop. Thankfully, it’s not enforced: the login screen gives an option for ‘Ubuntu Classic,’ which disables Unity and returns to a more traditional Gnome 2 appearance.
It’s worth giving Unity a try, though. It takes some getting used to, but for many users it makes common tasks significantly faster than with the traditional Gnome desktop. It also promises a framework for developers to add their own extensions, meaning future packages will be able to integrate with the Unity desktop for a smoother look and feel.
So long, Compiz
Sadly, for all that it can be a pleasant experience, Unity is also a trifle buggy. Its requirement for 3D accelerated graphics hardware means it’s also a no-go on older systems and virtual machines – but while that’s not a problem for many, there are bigger issues afoot.
Switching to Ubuntu Classic at the login prompt does, as promised, return the user to a Gnome 2 desktop. Sadly, it’s a desktop which is crippled in fundamental ways: attempts to use the popular Compiz package, which enables advanced visual effects like fluid zoom, desktop cube rotation, and wobbly windows, results in the system slowing to a crawl.
There’s no particular reason why this should happen, either. Although Compiz isn’t compatible with Unity, Ubuntu Classic isn’t running Unity – and therefore should work fine, as it did on Ubuntu 10.10 and all the versions before it. It’s a bug, and one that Canonical will surely fix – but it will likely take a back burner to other issues related to Unity itself.
The remainder of Ubuntu 11.04 is, thankfully, business as usual: the excellent Software Centre, which provides an interface for finding add-on software, continues to grow and offers thousands of packages – both free and commercial – for quick installation.
Many of the issues surrounding Ubuntu One, Canonical’s cloud-based file storage service, have also been resolved in this release, making it a real competitor to the likes of Dropbox, SugarSync, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive for web-based backups.
On the multimedia front, the somewhat outdated Rhythmbox has been replaced by Banshee, which includes access to online music shops including the Amazon MP3 Store and the Ubuntu One Music Store for easy purchase of songs along with support for subscribing to podcasts for automatic download.
If you’re used to OpenOffice.org as a productivity suite, there’s another surprise in store in Ubuntu 11.04: it’s gone, replaced with LibreOffice. That’s not something that should concern you, however: LibreOffice is a fork of the OOo project by many of the same developers, and – aside from a new splash screen – will be instantly familiar.
Ubuntu has always been well known for its excellent hardware compatibility and this latest release is no exception. Aside from the aforementioned requirement for a 3D accelerator card supported by Linux – without which the operating system will install, albeit without access to the new Unity interface – there’s little that will throw the system off its tracks.
Even small bugs with certain hardware – like the trackpad on HP Pavilion dm4 laptops, which required a third-party patch to fix on Ubuntu 10.10 – have been resolved in this latest release, which will be a welcome surprise to anyone familiar with the bad old days of tweaking config files for hours trying to get a new distribution to work on a particular piece of hardware.
Sadly, performance has taken a hit in this latest release. The Unity interface seems more power-hungry than Gnome 2, and you really need at least 512MB of RAM to make the most of the operating system.
As long as you’ve got that much memory in your machine, however, you can expect a pretty nippy experience: recent changes in the Linux kernel have improved performance on many machines, and Ubuntu benefits from this in the same way as other Linux distributions.
If you’re on an older machine, however, Ubuntu 11.04 might not be for you. Instead, consider something like Xubuntu or Lubuntu: these are Ubuntu spin-offs which swap out components like Unity in favour of faster, more memory-friendly versions like XFCE. Many of the advantages of Ubuntu – such as good third-party software support and a wealth of packages in the repository – can be gained even on older hardware in this way.
In some ways, Ubuntu 11.04 feels like a retrograde step: like Microsoft’s Vista, it’s a fairly fundamental change to the look and feel of a long-established operating system, and that’s been enough to cause a serious outcry from fans.
Despite some flaws, however, it’s still an impressive operating system – and as the bugs in Unity and the underlying Gnome desktop are worked out, it will continue to improve.
For now, though, there’s little reason to upgrade from an earlier Ubuntu version, and if you’re on a Long Term Support release (such as 10.04, which offers three years’ worth of updates without needing to be upgraded) or Ubuntu 10.10 – which will be fully supported with updates right up until the launch of 11.10 in October – we’d recommend you stay where you are until the next release.
- Installation is slick, and there's plenty to keep you occupied in the Software Centre.
- The Unity interface is divisive, and underlying bugs cause applications like Compiz to fail.