Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

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.

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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.

Page 2: [New Ubuntu Basics] »

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

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125 comments
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  • Unity 2D

    "...Unity 2D, the default desktop if you don???t have the graphic acceleration..."

    That's what I was wondering when I saw this article and now it's confirmed. Once Ubuntu 11.10 comes out I will definitely try it.
    statuskwo5
  • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

    hmm...." ... going to drop the GNOME 3.x desktop for its own GNOME-based desktop take, Unity "
    is that mean there will be no GNOME 3 ?? I hate Unity
    mdennyh@...
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

      @mdennyh@...
      There is official GNOME 3 in Ubuntu! With Canonical support and etc.
      Its just not on the CD! So you have to install it yourself (via Ubuntu Software Center).
      przemoli
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @przemoli yeah my system updated and I was back to that crappy desktop! Now I have to go get the GNOME Desktop because Unity blows.
        slickjim
  • I like it.

    Ubuntu 11.10 is fantastic, my favourite OS just gets better. I like Unity interface over the Gnome one. Canonical made the right decision.
    root12
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

      @root12

      Unless I can get an install image that includes Gnome3 I will not be using Ubuntu 11.anything. Unity deserves only the center bottom of the circular file. It is horrible. I will not be using it.
      Billsey
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Billsey
        So what if the CD does not come with it? I don't like Gnome and still installed debian default installation, then removed Gnome and installed Xfce4 desktop environment and Ion3 window manager as my options for desktop - whatever is installed by default is no concern for me if it's not a hard thing to replace.
        robsku
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Billsey Having started computing in the 1970's I've been there when these technologies started. Started using X windows on PDP's and early SUN workstations. Loved playing with Linux and ALL the GUI's that came with them.

        However, now, I can't be bothered tinkering with all this minutia. I believe Linux will get better acceptance on the desktop, if there was a unified Desktop. I nowadays don't want to play with operating systems, I just want to use them. It's simpler to learn one way to do things, then do it.

        It seems to me that Ubuntu is going the right way for a generally useful Desktop.
        I am Gorby
      • @I am Gorby .. agree completely

        @Billsey +1
        thx-1138_
      • @Billsey .. good on you!

        ... you wanna medal?!?
        thx-1138_
      • So who cares?

        Duh!
        @Billsey
        GoPower
  • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

    Look at that fisher-price interface. Every time I see linux I can't help but think of how it treats the user like they are stupid but in a weird twist of fate it wants them to do things the hard way like compile the applications. I sure do hope they fixed the many security issues involved, yes including the telnet port and sound issues. Not that anyone would use linux for anything serious anyway its still fun to watch the linux fanboys get their false hopes up. We should all be thankful that ubuntu finally decided to drop the brown poop smeared wall paper and theme.
    LoverockDavidson_-24231404894599612871915491754222
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

      @LoverockDavidson_ <br>What OSes do you use regularly Loverock?<br>Also what do you use them for?<br><br>Just interested to see how you come to these conclusions and what experience they are based on.<br><br>Do you consider yourself a basic user, power-user, admin, programmer, gamer?<br><br>Cheers<br><br>Mica
      Mica!
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Mica!
        Disregard what Loverock writes, it???s the same old lies.

        Great article Steven.
        daikon
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Mica! ignore him, you'll learn to recognize that name, he's a troll
        Queuecumber
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Mica! He's upstairs using his mom's Mac, cause his Windows 7 system won't boot, again.
        anothercanuck
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @Mica!

        Loverock's mom has been getting down on him for not wearing his safety helmet when he rode his tricycle last.

        lol...
        ScorpioBlue
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

      @LoverockDavidson_

      This is a bizarre off topic comment. Only intended to inflame, since there hasn't been a widespread need to compile apps since the 90's, and the telnet port and sound issues were so long ago I can't remember. The first sentence was about the article and expressing dissatification with Unity. Fair enough, but the rest was an irrelevant tirade.
      admiraljkb
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

      @LoverockDavidson_
      Tell Google they are not serious cause they use Linux :D

      Keep writing such comments. They make my day better!
      przemoli
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux 11.10: Unity comes of age (Review)

        @przemoli <br><br>Ignore Loverock. He's been on these forums for years trolling anything Linux. He's probably a disgruntled NT admin who lost his job because he couldn't pass his MS certs and they decided to put in some form of linux anyway.
        sheehaje