Interest that would be normally be mounting in anticipation of the next revision of the Ubuntu desktop has been somewhat overshadowed by the Ubuntu Edge superphone project. As a result, we've seen little news about, or indication of significant changes for, Ubuntu 13.10 (codenamed Saucy Salamander), which is due for final release in October.
Ubuntu 13.04 (Raring Ringtail) was a solid but unspectacular release, and 13.10 is shaping up to be more of the same. Perhaps Canonical's goal of reaching convergence in 14.04 is such a challenge that any changes in 13.10 are restricted to those that will help it get there.
Mir and XMir: next-generation display server
The biggest change for Ubuntu 13.10 is the appearance of Mir — Ubuntu's next-generation display server and replacement for X Windows — and XMir (an implementation of X running on Mir). Graphics cards lacking Mir-compliant drivers will fall back to XMir — a fallback that will not be retained in 14.04, according to Ubuntu. A constantly updated page on the Ubuntu Wiki lists graphics cards that are currently Mir compliant.
It's likely that getting Mir developed and running — a necessary step to eventually support Unity Next/Unity 8 and vital to the convergence plans — has been a massive undertaking for the Ubuntu developers. If Mir is the only big new change in the final release of Ubuntu 13.10, it still seems like a significant step forward. Jono Bacon, Ubuntu Community Manager, notes in his blog that Mir is not turned on by default in the development versions of 13.10.
Unity 7 and 8
Ubuntu 13.10 features Unity 7, while Smart Scopes — the feature dropped from 13.04 — are scheduled to return. A selection of scopes will ship with the release, but Ubuntu says that, at least for 13.10, you won't be able to add new ones from the Software Centre.
The Unity 7 Dash click behaviour for applications has now been refined so that a left click will launch the app rather than opening a preview. Application previews can still be opened with a right click, while the preview still displays a Launch button.
Unity 8 (aka. Unity Next), which will be the shell for the fully converged 14.04, can be installed on 13.10, but it's an early alpha preview version — a demo that doesn't replace Unity 7, and is far from complete on the desktop. Even so, it closely resembles the Unity shell running on Ubuntu Touch Preview and as convergence approaches, even the name, Unity, assumes a greater significance.
Ubuntu is changing to phased updates: rather than roll out updates to all users at once, updates will only be applied to a preset portion of the user base; if there are no problems, the updates will be offered to further users, and the process repeated until everyone has the updates. If problems are reported, then updates are held until they are resolved. Users of Ubuntu 13.04 are already receiving phased updates and this will continue through 13.10 and beyond. Ubuntu developer Brian Murray explains the process in more detail on his blog.
The look of several GNOME utilities, including the Nautilus file manager and System Settings, has been improved with a fix to the toolbar colour themes.
Software shipping with the 13.10 beta
There were early plans to change to Chromium as the default browser for 13.10, but a number of issues have ensured that, for now, Firefox has been retained.
The 13.10 beta ships with the LibreOffice 126.96.36.199 office suite, Firefox 23.0 browser, Thunderbird 17.08 email client and Linux Kernel 188.8.131.52 (type 'uname -r' in a terminal window and hit return to see the Linux Kernel version). Ubuntu 13.04 is currently running kernel version 3.8.0-27.
The Final Beta is due on 26 September, which we will report if there's anything of significance to add; a full review of the final version will follow shortly after its 17 October release. The official release schedule for Ubuntu 13.10 (Saucy Salamander) is available here.
Daily build install images can be found here — note that current images are 'oversized' and will not fit on a CD. Ubuntu 13.10 is still in development and the betas are not recommended for production or mission-critical tasks.