Unity much improved in Ubuntu 11.10
It’s October and that means it’s time for the latest distribution of Ubuntu Linux.
This one — 11.10, dubbed Oneiric Ocelot — is a regular, incremental update of 11.04 (Natty Narwhal, which came out in April). The changes are minor for the most part, but the Unity desktop is much improved.While Unity has been around for some time, Canonical made it quite clear with 11.04 that it was going to be phased in while the older, tried and true Gnome 2 shell that had anchored Ubuntu for years was going to be put out to pasture.
Such a bold decision, of course, brought on some negative reactions (yes, I was one of the complainers and wrote a nice, long rant about how much I hated Unity here). Here’s the thing — the Gnome 2 desktop is very familiar with its Windows XP-like layout and behavior. Does it look dated? Sure it does, but people don’t want to replace “familiar and effective” with something new and shiny that doesn’t work that well.
Unity, under 11.04, was slow, buggy and annoying (at least on my netbook — can’t say how it looks on our desktop or laptop because those are both running Windows 7). Unity was so awful that I couldn’t wait to get rid of it, much less keep it up and running in case it was improved.
The most significant change in 11.10, in my mind, is that Unity is now good enough that I’m keeping it. Is moving to it from Gnome 2 more than a bit jarring? Yes, but the upside of Unity and its stability make it well worth learning and using. In fact, that’s more or less the attitude that Canonical appears to be making a gamble that we’ll take — Unity is supported whereas nothing else is, so it’s obvious that we’ve been told to like it or lump it.
Unity, of course, tosses out the notion of keeping programs tucked away in menus and allowing the user to access running applications through tabs on the bottom of the screen. Instead, the more common applications are “pinned” in the launcher on the left of the screen and one can add applications to that screen very easily (simply select “keep in launcher” when a program is running and it will remain there after the application is closed). Active applications are selected from the launcher, too, and the layout conveniently lets users know which programs are running and provides the means to switch between them.
The launcher auto hides when it’s not in use on my netbook, thus saving space. It activates when the mouse hovers over the left side of the screen and vanishes when the mouse is moved. A problem with Unity under 11.04 was that the launcher would either come out of hiding too willingly (thus robbing me of the ability to do anything with the left side of the screen) or it couldn’t be coaxed out at all. Those problems have been resolved, making interacting with the launcher pleasant rather than irritating.
Unity under 11.04 was also aggravatingly slow. That, too, has changed. The launcher is now quick and allows one to scroll through applications pinned to it with ease. For those who want things to move along even faster, there is the Unity 2D option that can be chosen at the Ubuntu login screen. You don’t get the animations and faux three-dimensional look of the “regular” Unity when that is selected. Unity 2D, by the way, is the default on weaker hardware. The launcher looks pretty good even at the lower settings and is quite easy to use.
Another major change in Unity has to do with the “search” feature in the dashboard. How does one find a program that’s not pinned to the launcher? You type in a search. Under 11.04, it was about as straightforward as that. In 11.10, there are “lenses” which filter through results, thus making them easier to find. Furthermore, just clicking search from the “dash home” sorts programs so that the ones most frequently used are displayed and there’s an option to look at the icons for everything else. That that search works on everything, by the way — programs, documents, music and anything else you can imagine. The unified search may be a bit daunting at first for those of use who are used to simply picking programs from a list and then clicking on them, but it becomes second nature in a hurry.
Canonical is to be applauded for its work on Unity. In just six months, Unity went from being an annoying gimmick to a very useful tool.
Of course, since we’re talking about a Linux distribution, users are free to simply replace Unity with something else if they hate they new launcher. However, some who’ve hated Unity in the past may well find that it’s worth learning and using. Give it a try — you just might like it. Canonical is betting people will, as evidenced by the fact the ability to fall back to Gnome 2 is missing in 11.10. Will that omission be a mistake? Only time will tell there — it’s not hard to imagine that those who hate Unity enough will look at other distributions as Ubuntu isn’t the only game in town.
Of course, there are more changes in store than just Unity. One of them isn’t obvious — improved Adobe Flash support. Under 11.04, Mozilla Firefox handled Flash poorly — it was slow, cumbersome and might just crash the browser. That problem isn’t as prevalent in Firefox under 11.10 and I can’t honestly say whether the new version of Ubuntu, some changes made by Firefox or better support for my netbook’s modest hardwrae are responsible for the better Flash performance. Regardless, Flash works better with Firefox now, but still not as well as under Google Chrome. That’s ironic in that Firefox is the default Internet browser sent along in Ubuntu distributions.
Another change is that backups can be configured and done automatically through Deja Dup, which is installed by default. It would be great if one could set up those backups to be done through Ubuntu One, but that’s not the case unless you want to buy more storage space. No complaints there — five gigabytes of free storage through Canonical’s cloud solution is generous, so it’s hard to begrudge the company’s attempts to make a few bucks for people who want more storage so they can backup their systems or whatever else. Of course, Deja Dup allows for local backups, so plug in that external hard drive and go nuts. Deja Dup is easy to use and pairing it with Ubuntu One for backups makes a lot of sense — I’d not be surprised of plenty of Ubuntu users decided to shell out a few bucks and do their backups that way.
Another change worth mentioning is that the Evolution mail client has been replaced with Mozilla Thunderbird.
While some might not get overly excited about incremental updates from Ubuntu, 11.10 is quite solid and well worth downloading and installing. That process, by the way, took a couple of hours — a 900 megabyte download (or thereabouts) and then the usual amount of time needed to install everything, update packages and clean up the new distribution. The upgrade went off without a hitch and — if nothing else — is worth installing for the improved Unity launcher.
If you want to make the jump and either upgrade Ubuntu or switch to it, just click here.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.