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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ubuntu 11.10 review: On the right track


Ubuntu is seen as Open Source's answer to commercial Operating Systems such as Windows and Mac OS. It's simple, fast and seems to have been created keeping the non-geek users in mind, which is necessary if Mark Shuttleworth wants to realize the goal of 200 million users in 4 years.

Table of Contents

0. First Impressions
I. Installation
II. Unity
III. Default Applications
IV. Ubuntu Software Center
V. Ubuntu One
VI. Other Stuff
VII. Conclusion and Final Verdict

The new 11.10 release is somewhat of a milestone release as Unity is the sole desktop environment (Natty gave you a choice between classic GNOME and Unity) and is the last release before 12.04, which will be an LTS release. Thus, it can be seen as a halfway point on the road to 12.04.

Note: As this is a review, I'll be reviewing Oneiric as a complete OS and not just the features that are new.

0. First Impressions

Ubuntu's desktop out of the box does look sharp and professional. It also looks quite clutter-free. A few years ago, if Ubuntu, Windows and Mac OS screenshots would have been placed side by side on a magazine, Ubuntu would have looked like an brown/orange blob compared to the other two. In this release, the default wallpaper, though not very memorable, matches the panel and the launcher very well. Ubuntu also manages to look different enough from either Windows or Mac to create an impression of uniqueness (in terms of color scheme, unity dash etc.). All this could be vital in getting new users interested in it.


Figure: Mac OS Leopard, Windows Vista and Ubuntu 9.04 [Click to enlarge]


Mac OS Lion, Windows 7 and Ubuntu 11.10 [Click to enlarge] 

I. Installation

The Ubuntu installation process hasn't changed very much in the last few years, but there are a few changes and nuances that need to be addressed.  

To new users: Ubuntu and many other Linux distros let you try the desktop without installing it. This is called a live session. All you need to do is boot from the CD or USB and then select "Try Ubuntu before Installing"

Installation seems simple and undaunting for a new user.

Over the past few releases, Ubuntu has allowed you to download media codecs during the installation so that you can enjoy music, videos and internet flash content out of the box. Since I was testing this on a laptop that seems to be allergic to Linux distros (hardly anything runs properly on it), this wasn't an option for me as I could not connect to the internet without the installation of proprietary drivers.

The next step is a choice between (1) installing Ubuntu alongside your current operating systems, (2) formatting your hard-drive or (3) manually configuring the partition layout yourself. Normally, I would have chosen the third option but since this is a review, I went ahead with the first option expecting a list of changes, as I remember in past releases (below).

But I was in for a shock. The installation process started promptly, and (not without horror) I could see it creating partitions. I killed the installation and started over.

When I booted up again and opted for the manual partitioning method, I saw that Ubuntu had created a 2.8 GB ext4 partition, as well as a 2 GB swap partition. This had been created without notification or confirmation. As many people are likely to pick this option, I would strongly recommend that the ubiquity installer show a list of changes that would happen before starting to write any data onto the hard drive similar to what was done in the past (above).

The manual partitioning hasn't changed as well but it doesn't have to. For intermediate users, it provides a simple layout for deleting, resizing and creating partitions.

Then I ran into my second problem.

I use a German keyboard, in which the placement of symbols is completely different from that of a US keyboard. When I had to specify a mount point, I had to use a forward slash. Thankfully, I do know where this symbol is located on a US keyboard but there will be many others who don't know. Ubuntu has now started to ask for the layout of your keyboard much later in the installation process and it could become an inconvenience as people from other countries, who use different keyboard setups would be hunting for the forward slash, while specifying a mount point.

Update: I've just been aware of the dropdown menu but my observation may still hold some significance for non-standard partition schemes [source]

The installer now also has a separate step in which you can connect to a wi-fi network.

Other than that, it is as you would expect, with a visually attractive and informative slideshow to finish, though you do have the option of taking a profile picture or "avatar" using your webcam.

To sum up:
The good:
  • Undaunting for new users
  • Professional and visually attractive
  • Installation process is fairly quick. ~12 minutes on an average Laptop.
The bad:
  • No list of changes
  • Keyboard layout should be asked earlier
II. Unity

I had initially tried Unity in 11.04 and earlier in Ubuntu Netbook Remix. I used it for about two weeks and then switched back to a combination of GNOME 2 and KDE (KDE for a month, GNOME 2 for a month) because:
  1. I found no real benefits of using Unity over GNOME 2 or KDE.
  2. It took a noticeably longer time to load than GNOME 2 or KDE.
However, 6 months have gone by and let us see whether Unity is a suitable replacement for Gnome 2 or not.

A. Speed
After six months of development, I could instantly feel a difference in terms of speed. The entire desktop felt faster, and altogether more polished. On a middle-of-the-road laptop, I had no qualms over the responsiveness of Unity. Booting from a cold start felt faster in Oneiric than in Natty.

While Unity used to take a lot of time to load after logging in, this time the loading time felt similar to the loading time of Gnome 2. The RAM footprint was around 270 MB after boot-up, which is pretty good for a non-minimalistic Linux distribution.

B. Interface

Dash is like a layer on top of your Desktop that gives you instant access to your applications and files. Pressing the Super key launches it immediately. Alt+F2 launches it under command mode, where you can easily run executables.

I am, however, reluctant to click on the top 4 icons because I share this guy's view that they look like broken shortcut buttons. I wish Canonical would create a different set of icons so that they stand out more and are more inviting to click.

I really like the search function in Dash. Just searching for a file by extension/name or a part of the name brings up search results almost instantaneously. Unlike Tracker or Strigi, Dash cannot yet search within (index) files but I've personally never required that feature and it takes up extra system resources as well.

Another good thing about file search is the feature to sort results on Dash.

Global Menu
Similar to Mac OS, the Unity interface makes use of a global menu for all of it's applications. When a Window is maximized, it receives the entire screen estate, as the Menu, Titlebar and Window buttons get merged into the top panel, while the Unity Launcher hides itself.

On the other hand, if one uses multiple windows at the same time and if they are not very large, it is awkward to move to the top of the screen to access the titlebar of a small window at the bottom of your screen as your eyes lose focus of the application that you were working on.

Though geared towards the Tablet-PC and netbook market, I, as the user of a 13.3 inch laptop, would prefer to keep the title menu at the titlebar of the window that I am currently using. I would be very happy to see an option to disable the global menu by default. Currently, one can do this by uninstalling the indicator-appmenu package but this could be a problem if the computer is used by multiple people on different accounts as this change would affect all of the accounts.

No matter how fancy an OS may be, it's primary purpose is to let you run programs and manage multiple windows at the same time. To manage your windows, you have the Unity launcher.

The Unity Launcher manages your open windows and stays out of your way.  By default, it comes with a "window dodge" setting, and quickly hides itself from view if a window comes near it or gets maximized.

After using the Unity launcher for a few weeks, I had no problems in managing a few windows at a time. However, when I have a lot of windows open simultaneously on multiple virtual desktops, I start missing the taskbar.

One thing that irks me is that you cannot select a window that is grouped under an application icon by right clicking. Although the decision to not include this feature might have been deliberate, the user spends that crucial psychological second more in clicking on the icon and then shifting his/her/whoever,doesn'tmatter focus on selecting a window based on its look, rather based on reading the title menu.

While having a couple of PDF files, some Libreoffice writer files, and some Nautilus windows open, I found myself wishing for this feature to be present.

The Alt+Tab window switcher has been updated for this release. It looked extremely sleek and also gives a preview of a window if you press the down key.

Overall, Unity is starting to look and function in a very sleek way, which creates a great first impression for new users.

C. Configuration
Unity does not have many configuration options by default. Without installing compizconfig-settings-manager, you can't change the number and layout of virtual desktops. By default, one cannot change the size of the icons on the Unity launcher or where the Unity launcher would be located. These are simple things that one would expect to be able to configure out of the box.

Similar to KDE, you now have an all-in-one settings manager on Ubuntu. Though it is a useful way of grouping configuration options together, it is lacking in some areas.

1. I use a laptop and it annoys me when the brightness of the screen keeps getting dimmed during inactivity (or when I'm just reading something carefully). Earlier, I could disable this option by going to power settings but the ability to disable this setting no longer exists. I realise that Ubuntu has to fit onto a 700MB CD but this is something that I would expect to be present by default.

Update 7/11/2011:  I just found this option under the screen settings, which is admittedly a weird place to move this setting to.

2. Though this is not as important, I was also surprised that there was no option to customize the theme by changing the icon settings. We have to install the gnome-tweak-tool to be able to do this. This is again something that we've always been able to do out of the box but is no longer there.

I was a bit disappointed with how much one can configure the default desktop. For the next release, I would be very happy if the configuration options that have been taken away be restored. After finding the "dim display" settings under Screen settings, I believe that that setting should remain under the power settings option.

III.Default Applications

Programs such as Libreoffice, Firefox, Banshee, Shotwell etc. have been updated to their newest versions. The default list of programs is not very complete but this might be a good thing because: (1) It allows Ubuntu to fit onto a normal CD, (2) You get an uncluttered and clean looking installation and (3) a lot of people have their own lists of favourite programs and they can build from the basic installation as they please. However, there have been a few changes in the default lineup:
1. Evolution replaced with Thunderbird.

Evolution has been replaced by Mozilla Thunderbird. I've never used desktop email programs, but I think that this decision was received warmly by the community.

2. Deja-dup Backup

This is one of the highlights of Oneiric. Here's a backup program with an easy-to-use interface with plenty of features, one of them being its integration with Ubuntu One.

I won't go into too many details here but it has a 4 and a half star rating on the Software Center, speaking of which:

IV. Ubuntu Software Center

The Ubuntu Software Center is a re-imagined way of installing and managing your software. Some users may prefer Synaptic but USC is a great way of introducing the idea of a package manager to new Linux users.

USC Natty vs. Oneiric [Click to enlarge]
Many visual changes have come to Ubuntu's Software Center in 11.10. This time the focus wasn't on adding new features but rather on polishing the interface and improving performance.

Rating programs was first introduced in Linux Mint but this feature had also found its way into the USC in 11.04. This really helps in choosing applications that are more useful for the task at hand out of the 36,147 programs (at the time of writing) available.

V. Ubuntu One

Ubuntu One is a file synchronization program available for Ubuntu, Windows, Mac and for mobile phones. Compared to other sharing services that generally offer 2 GBs of free space, Ubuntu One gives you 5 GBs of free space by default. It also has a tight integration with Ubuntu and the option to sync any folder you wish to. This is an advantage over Dropbox and similar to SpiderOak.

This was the first time that I used Ubuntu One ever since its debut on 9.10. Here are a few screenshots that are pretty much self-explanatory.

I thought that the UI was pretty straightforward and easy to use, though not as feature-complete as SpiderOak. I would seriously consider user Ubuntu One if other distributions packaged it and included it in their repositories so that I could use it to sync my files between other Linux distros as well. Until then, I'm content with SpiderOak.

VI. Other stuff

This was present in Natty as well but pretty well hidden (a by-product of using Dash over the traditional menu). It's a program for testing your system.

Running this program in a live session would be a very useful way of testing your computer's compatibility with Ubuntu using an automated method rather than checking compatibility manually.

VII. Conclusion and Final Verdict

One major benefit of using Ubuntu is its hardware compatibilty. When Lucid came out, it was the only distribution to work with my stupid, incompatible Laptop. Till the last release, I had to change the brightness of my screen using the command line and enable sound for headphones by editing configuration files. With this release, I don't have to jump through these hoops anymore and I'm extremely grateful for it. To install the required proprietary wireless drivers that my laptop requires, I can just activate them using the additional drivers program on Ubuntu.  If my laptop can run Ubuntu, yours probably can too.

When Lucid Lynx (10.04) was released, I thought that Ubuntu was ready for everyone running Windows and Mac. By the next release of Ubuntu I predict that I will share similar sentiments as Unity would have been more polished by then. That is precisely Ubuntu's plan for its next release.

I have decided to award Ubuntu 11.10 with a grade of 8/10. Though this may not seem in sync with the praise that I have given it, if you have a look at my review meter and how to review software page, you will see that the top two categories are reserved for software that showcase perfection, or close to it. I still have a few problems with Unity and the installation process that I have highlighted above. I, however, strongly recommend that you try Unity on a live session before dismissing it as it has really improved.

Overall, I have been impressed with the development that has gone into Unity and hope that this long review has done it justice. Though I liked Unity in this release, I am still more comfortable using a traditional desktop UI. I will probably use KDE for the time being but will give Unity another try when 12.04 comes out.

You might like to see Ubuntu in action. The below video was created by OMG! Ubuntu! and gives a brief overview of Ubuntu 11.10.

Test System:
Lenovo Ideapad 13.3" U350
Intel Pentium Dual Core 2 x 1.30 GHz
250 GB HDD 5400 RPM
DO NOT  BUY THIS LAPTOP. My misery doesn't want your company.

Mission accomplished; over and out; come back next Wednesday.

[1] Ubuntu's official website
[2] Take a tour of Ubuntu online
[3] How to move the Unity launcher to the bottom of your screen
[4] How to disable the global menu on Ubuntu

Related articles:
KDE 4.6 reviewed: A power-packed desktop environment

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