Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

Summary:Ubuntu's new GNOME-based Unity desktop isn't a toy anymore. It's a great desktop in its own right.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10, Oneiric Ocelot, country.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10, Oneiric Ocelot, country.

When Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company first announced that it was going to drop the GNOME 3.x desktop for its own GNOME-based desktop take, Unity, a lot of people were unhappy. They also weren't thrilled with Unity's first mainstream deployment in Ubuntu 11.04. Now, if these same people, if they give the brand new Ubuntu 11.10 desktop a try, I think they'll really like this new Ubuntu.

Don't get me wrong. Unity still isn't for everyone. Hard core Linux desktop users-and I'm one of them-will still find it keeps them too far away from Linux's fine-tuning controls for comfort. But, for everyone else, I think Unity may be the best pure Linux desktop interface I've ever used. And friends, as the former editor-in-chief of DesktopLinux and a Linux user since its early days, I've seen all of them.

What am I talking about, well let's take a look at the new Ubuntu and I'll show you what I'm talking about.

Meeting and Installing Ubuntu

Installing Ubuntu can be done by anyone with a pulse who knows how to burn an image to a CD or USB stick. Once upon a time, say the 20th century, Linux was hard to install. Now, anyone can do it. Don't believe me? Download a copy of the new Ubuntu for yourself and follow along my installation path in Gallery: Installing the latest Ubuntu Linux: Ubuntu 11.10 and you'll see what I mean.

For my testing purposes, I installed Ubuntu on a 2009-era Gateway DX4710. This PC is powered by a 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and has 6GBs of RAM and an Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100 for graphics. It's not the fastest computer out there, but then you don't need a lot of speed for Ubuntu. I also ran the new Ubuntu, Oneiric Ocelot, on a VirtualBox virtual machine. Ubuntu can live very happily with other operating systems so you can install it on a Windows XP or 7 box and dual-boot it.

If that seems too much for you, you can always take a tour of the new Ubuntu with Canonical's Ubuntu online tour. It's the next best thing to actually running Ubuntu.

Say Hello to Unity

If Unity looks like it's meant to be a tablet interface, well keep watching. I expect it will be some day. In the meantime, it wasn't so much as any big change about Unity that's convinced me that it's a winner as the accumulated effect of all the small improvements.

Unity was always pretty, but it was also always fragile. Using it felt like trying to walk through a china shop. You felt like if you made one wrong move, you'd break something. And, chances are you would bust something sooner or later. Oh, and did I mention it was slow? Well, it was.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10: Oneiric Ocelot (Photo Gallery)

Today, Unity looks even better than ever. Better still, I'm finding it to be both fast and quite stable. I've been running Ubuntu 11.10 in beta for weeks now and I've yet to see a real problem. In addition, Unity 2D, the default desktop if you don't have the graphic acceleration you need for full-scale Unity, looks and feels pretty much the same as its big brother interface.

There have also been some changes in Unity's desktop geography. The Dash application, which serves as a dual purpose desktop search engine and file and program manager now lives on from the top of the Unity menu Launcher. Dash, with its instant search feature is quite handy. Its new finder filter options are also quite useful. So, for example, you can search for particular file types from within Dash.

Ubuntu makes it easy to switch from one desktop, or one app, to another.

Ubuntu makes it easy to switch from one desktop, or one app, to another.

Linux has long supported multiple desktops, but Ubuntu makes it easier than ever to get to them. With all you need do is simultaneously hit the Alt and Tab keys or the Alt and Grave keys to switch between applications or application windows. Once you're in the multiple application window, you use the tab key to hop from one application to another. If like me, you have one window for e-mail, another for social networks, and so on, this can be a real time saver.

The over-all effect of the new Unity is that it just makes me doing your day-in, day-out computing work so darn easy. Is it great for getting down and dirty with your operating system? No, no it's not. But, if you want to quickly, and without fuss or bother, go about your work or keep yourself entertained, it's a great interface.

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New Ubuntu Basics

Under the hood, Ubuntu 11.10 uses the Linux 3.0 kernel and a lot of graphical basics from GNOME 3.2. You no longer have an easy option to switch to the new GNOME for your desktop though. Expert users can still install it yourself from the repositories. If you really want GNOME 3.2 for your desktop, you're better off getting a Linux distribution that's built around 3.2 such as the Fedora 16 beta. If you wish a plague on both the GNOME 3.x and Unity houses, I suggest you check out Mint Linux, which still uses GNOME 2.32.

Ubuntu though isn't just another Linux. Its builders are doing the best they can to integrate Ubuntu with its own cloud component: Ubuntu One. Like Apple's newly introduced iCloud, it's meant to work hand-in-glove with your operating system.

Ubuntu wants to marry the Linux desktop and the cloud.

Ubuntu wants to marry the Linux desktop and the cloud.

So, besides just giving you 5GBs of file storage in the cloud, Ubuntu One lets you sync your contacts and stream music on the cloud. This isn't just for Ubuntu use though. You can access your data from Windows, Android devices, and iPhones. This is only the start. Canonical sees this integration of cloud and desktop as being key for their future desktop plans.

As Gerry Carr, Canonical's marketing manager, told me that they want the Ubuntu 11.10 desktop to eventually be a gateway to the power of the cloud. "We're moving away form concept of local PC to one where the local PC and cloud will be equally important." It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

In the meantime, the default programs that come with Ubuntu have also seen some changes. Thunderbird 7.0.1, the Mozilla e-mail client, is now Ubuntu's default email client. I don't get this change. I've found Thunderbird to be a slow and often erratic program. Evolution, the program it replaces, on the other hand, is, from where I sit, the best e-mail client of all.

Adding insult to injury Thunderbird can't import Evolution's emails messages, contacts and calendar. If you're smart, you'll do what I did and re-install Evolution. On the plus side, this is the only real mis-step I've found.

The Gwibber social networking client, for example, is much faster and more stable. And, while I'd like to have seen Google's Chrome Web browser, or its open-source twin, Chromium, I can live with Canonical's choice of Firefox 7.01 for the default Web browser.

Besides, the newly improved Ubuntu Software Center, Ubuntu's built-in app. store, makes it a lead pipe cinch to find, download, and install new programs. Behind the Software Center's glossy exterior, Canonical has also been making it easy for independent software vendors (ISV)s to build and then sell programs to Ubuntu users. The result should be new and interesting programs for Ubuntu users.

In addition, it used to be you had to jump through some hoops to get proprietary software, such as the Adobe Flash Player into your copy of Ubuntu. That's in the past now. When you install Ubuntu, if, as you should, you add Flash and MP3 players to your choice of optional programs to install the Software Center will also get access to proprietary programs via the Canonical Partner Channel. You don't need to worry about what that means technically. For practical purposes, it means you can find and install proprietary programs such as Skype from inside the Ubuntu Software Center. No fuss, no muss.

Another really nice, new feature is OneConf. This is great if you have more than one Ubuntu PC. It lets you synchronize what programs and some settings you have from one PC to another. System administrators will want look closely at OneConf. It should make deploying multiple Ubuntu desktops very easy indeed.

There's anther nice, new default application that I should mention: the Déjà Dup backup tool. Seriously. It's not just another backup tool, it makes it easy for even people who hate to back up to keep their files safe on Ubuntu One cloud, other network locations, or another hard drive. What makes it special is its combination of ease of use and that it gives you so much flexibility in what you want to save and where you want to save it.

Put it all together and what do you get? I think you get the first great, unique Linux desktop. Don't get me wrong. This isn't a great desktop for hardcore Linux users. But, it is great for Linux newcomers. And, unlike GNOME or KDE, which at times have followed Mac OS X or Windows desktop models, Unity brings a new take on how to use a desktop and, the more I use it, the more I think it's a winner. Check out for yourself and see if you agree.

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Topics: Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

About

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka sjvn, has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system; 300bps was a fast Internet connection; WordStar was the state of the art word processor; and we liked it.His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications... Full Bio

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