Ubuntu Linux 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) is out
Ubuntu rolled out its latest Linux distribution — 11.04, which has been dubbed Natty Narwhal — was released on Thursday (April 28) and comes with a couple of new features worth mentioning.
Let’s get the irritating parts of the distribution out of the way first. First of all, this thing takes a couple of hours to install, including the download over a broadband Internet connection and the expected configuration, obnoxious prompt screens, etc. The download and upgrade takes quite some time, clocking in at over two hours form start to finish. That’s two hours when you can’t use your computer to do much of anything and the prompts you’ll have to answer to keep the process moving along means you can’t just set it, leave it alone and come back to it later.
Still, anyone who’s spent time installing operating systems knows that the process does typically take some time. A long upgrade time is forgivable (particularly when comparing the Ubuntu upgrade to a major one for Windows), but that blasted Unity desktop bundled with the latest Ubuntu distribution is downright frustrating. Yes, Unity was bad under the last major distribution, but it might have actually gotten worse with Natty Narwhal. It’s slow, clunky and — in spite of the hype — about as revolutionary as an IBM Selectric.
Unity is, in essence, a strip of icons that sits mockingly on the left side of the screen and makes running and switching between applications very clumsy. Think of the Unity desktop as something similar to those icon-laden task bars under Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows 7, only slower and less useful. Apple and Microsoft are years ahead of Ubuntu in that regard.
It’s buggy, too. In order to save space, the Unity icon strip will automatically hide and pop back up when the mouse pointer gets anywhere close to it. The “buggy” part rears its ugly head as the weird, auto hide feature is rather hit or miss — the desktop might pop back up when you want it to or it might not, leaving the impression it’s either lazy or shy. Scrolling through the icons is a cumbersome process, indeed.
The Unity desktop is the default for Ubuntu 11.04, but the Gnome 2 desktop is still available to people who don’t care one whit for Unity. Getting rid of Unity is an easy enough matter — simply click the “shut down” icon in the upper right hand corner of the screen, choose “system settings” from the pull down menu, go to “login screen” and the select “Ubuntu classic” as the default session.
Bear in mind that I’m running Unity on a netbook and it may work better on faster hardware (I may test that theory one day by setting up my desktop as a dual-boot system, but that’ll wait until later). Regardless, one of the selling points of Linux is that it uses even systems with meager hardware resources efficiently. Unity is a bloated mess that appears to fly right in the face of that philosophy.
And that seems more than a bit odd as Unity was the standard interface for netbooks under 10.10 and it was apparently designed initially to work well with small screens and limited hardware resources. That focus has shifted in that people using netbooks and older systems are steered to the lighter Unity 2D desktop, while the standard Unity has a lot of bells and whistles and the drain on resources to match.
Unfortunately, it seems Ubuntu won’t use Gnome 2 as a backup when 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) is released in a few months. Here’s something else for Linux fans to consider — seen Gnome 3 yet? The same philosophies that gave birth to Unity appear to be firmly in place with the latest version of Gnome 3. Those days of the Gnome 2 interface (which still looks a heck of a lot like Windows XP and/or Mac OS 9) are clearly numbered.
Look at it this way — Gnome 2 is great for mouse-driven systems, but what if we’re heading toward more touch screens and the like that will make navigating in interfaces like Gnome 2 downright impractical? Unity (and Gnome 3, for that matter) make a lot of sense when one thinks about where technology could be headed. Still, Unity needs quite a bit of work in terms of both stability and working out another issue. Finding applications under Unity, see, means either finding the program directly under the sidebar or searching for an app by typing its name and searching for it (and pinning it to the dock for easy future access if you want to do that). How is all that typing going to work well on a touchscreen?
Think of it this way — you can search for apps by typing them in on your iPhone, but how often do you do that? No, you’ve got icons for everything and you touch them to launch them. The Unity dock simply doesn’t have enough space for icons for everything, so how is that going to work? To be fair, Windows and Mac OS will struggle with the same issue (and probably are already).
That said, another change that is decidedly major but will be invisible to most users is the inclusion of the latest Linux kernel — 2.6.38. You get the expected bug fixes and support for more hardware, but perhaps the most significant update has to do with the so-called “wonder patch.” You can read the specifics about that here, but the wonder patch is supposed to speed up the system by tweaking the way processes are handled by the Linux scheduler. As Linux proponents tend to point out the speed and efficiency advantages of the operating system, that comes as good news.
Ah, but does the patch make a noticeable difference? It does appear to make the system a bit snappier, at least when comparing 11.04 to 10.1o under the Gnome 2 desktop. Speed improvements are evident when accessing Web sites and — interestingly enough — starting up The GIMP. You’ll find some discussion of the speed enhancements of the patch here. For a look at the major upgrades in the new Linux kernel, go here.
Another major change is that OpenOffice.org — the default Ubuntu office suite — has been replaced by LibreOffice, which is very similar to OpenOffice.org and based on that suite. It, like OpenOffice.org, is compatible with Microsoft Word and seems to run quite a bit faster than its predecessor.
Another change is that the trusty Rhythmbox music player has been replaced by Banshee. No complaints there as Banshee is a solid player. You also get the latest version of Firefox by default in the latest distribution of Ubuntu.
The workspaces feature is new, too (or, at least easier to find than in earlier distributions). Users can easily pull up the different workspaces up on the screen at once to allow for side-by-side manipulation. Of course, one of the hallmarks of Linux is that it has traditionally taken multitasking quite far by allowing independent workspaces to handle separate tasks.
And, yes, there’s some more refinement Ubuntu One, which is the developer’s foray into cloud computing. It’s a bit easier to set up and use than last time around and allows pretty effective sharing of files and media streaming to portable devices.
All in all, 11.04 is — on the surface — a refined release rather than a huge leap forward from the last distribution. Outside of the dreadful Unity interface, there’s really not a whole lot to criticize. One does have to wonder if Unity will improve with the next distribution or just got more bloated and irritating.
The final verdict here is this — if you’re happy with Ubuntu 10.10, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’ll gain that much with 11.04. Once Unity is turned off, the system looks and behaves much like it did running under 10.10 in spite of the upgrade. You’ll get the latest kernel and the aforementioned wonder patch and those are enhancements worth mentioning, but this release still seems centered around the Unity desktop. Honestly, I’m glad I went ahead and upgraded as there are a few enhancements and — with Gnome 2 activated — my system acts like it did under 10.10.
If you’re on the fence about upgrading, you can always download it, install it on a CD or USB drive and try it out before installing.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.