Say hello to Canonical's new Linux desktop: Ubuntu 12.04 beta review

If you like Unity, Ubuntu Linux's unique GNOME-based desktop, you're going to love Canonical's Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Even in beta, Ubuntu 12.04 is looking great.

Even in beta, Ubuntu 12.04 is looking great.

Canonical's next long-term support release of its flagship Linux distribution, Ubuntu 12.04 is in late beta. This next release, due out on April 26th, is in beta now. I've been using it for several weeks now and so far, so good.

Indeed, the new Ubuntu is good enough already that I've it on my default Ubuntu system: 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. No, it's not fast, but unlike Windows 8's beta, you don't need a fast computer for Ubuntu.


To do all this I first, of course, had to download a copy of the early release from the Ubuntu beta site. Once I had it hand, I burned the image of the operating system to a CD. With it, I then booted my computer off the CD.

After I booted it from the live image I tinkered around with it long enough to make sure that the basics worked-primarily making sure that live version could connect to the Internet-and then I installed it on my hard disk.

I've also been running this pre-release Ubuntu on a VirtualBox virtual machine. The one trick you need to know before running it on VirtualBox is that you'll need to enable Physical Address Extension (PAE) under Settings/System/Processor to run it successfully.

In both cases, there was really nothing else to do except hit a few keys and give myself a user name and password. If you can put a CD in a computer and type you can install Linux these days.

Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin Specifications:

Ubuntu is based, as ever, on Debian Linux. For its Linux kernel, 12.04 uses the 3.2.6 Linux kernel. Under its Unity desktop hood, you'll find GNOME 3.3.20.

A first look at Ubuntu Linux 12.04's Unity desktop (Gallery)

It supports the full range of Linux file systems including Btfrs (aka Butter), ext3, ext4, JFS, ReiserFS, and XFS. By default, it uses ext4.

You can run Ubuntu on as little as 512MBs of RAM and with a 486 processor. Faster is better, but for practical purpose any recent system with a GB of RAM will work just fine with Ubuntu.

If you happen to have a system with an Intel Sandy Bridge chipset, you'll also see much better power management. Starting with this version, Ubuntu can turn the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) all the way down to zero watts if it's not being used. Canonical claims that "comparing under idle loads with machine state where RC6 is disabled, improved power usage of around 40-60% has been witnessed." I didn't see that much difference, but I did notice that my battery life on my new Lenovo ThinkPad, which uses the latest Sandy Bridge chipset, idled for much longer than I'd expected.

Putting Ubuntu through its paces:

Once I had Precise Pangolin installed and booted I started working with it. It felt very, very familiar. While Ubuntu plans to eventually change its default interface to Head Up Display, for this version, its primary desktop is still Unity.

A first look at Ubuntu Linux's Head-Up Display (Gallery)

Some people hate Unity. Me, while I prefer Linux Mint's retro GNOME 2 Cinnamon interface, I rather like Unity as well. What Ubuntu's developers have really been doing with this release is not so much getting HUD ready, as they have been cleaning Unity up and getting it ready for business users.

For the most part, they've been successful with that. Unity works both quickly and smoothly… for the most part. It does have its rough patches. For example, Ubuntu uses LibreOffice 3.5 for its office suite. It works well, but it still uses its own menu interface instead of Unity's universal menu. Let me make this clear. This doesn't get in the way of using the program at all. It's barely noticeable. But, it's still not as integrated into Unity as say its default Web browser, Firefox 11.

I also found that while Ubuntu has made Unity a little easier to customize, its still essentially a "What you see is what you get" desktop with little room for tuning. Old time Linux users will not be amused. People who just want a simple, easy-to-user interface though will like it though… so long that is as you like the launchbar to be on the left.

Yes, that's right. It's still on the left period. You can, of course, make it so that it disappears if you don't want it around all the time, but you can't put it on the top, bottom or right. Sorry guys, that's just the way Ubuntu wants it. I suspect that's because Canonical want future Ubuntu tablet smartphone and TV users to have the same experience as they might on the desktop.

On the other hand, I found that Ubuntu 12.04 worked extremely well with my local network. I run a variety of servers on my network for testing purposes and Ubuntu was the first desktop operating system to pick up all my LAN's servers--Samba Primary Domain Controller (PDC), Network File System (NFS), Windows Server Active Directory (AD), and Windows Workgroup--without any fuss or muss. Color me impressed.

I also continued to like that Ubuntu comes with its own cloud service, Ubuntu One. This gives you 5GBs of free storage that you can use not just from your Ubuntu or other Linux systems but from Windows boxes as well.

Ubuntu also comes with its own app store, the Ubuntu Software Center. While this replaces the old-style Synaptic, new users will find it mindlessly easy to use. It also comes with new recommendation feature that checks your applications to see if you're missing a complementary program.

That's nice, but what I liked better--and I confess that it's actually already present in Ubuntu 11.10 and I somehow missed it until now--is that you can synchronize applications between Ubuntu desktops. So, for example, once you have your Ubuntu PC set up with your preferred applications, it's easy to download and install them on your laptop as well.

Canonical has also made some changes in its default software selection. GIMP, open-source's answer to Photoshop, is back in. In addition, the default music player is now Rhythmbox in place of Banshee. As a long-time Banshee fan I'm not crazy about this change. But, thanks to the Software Center it's only a matter of minutes to download and replace Rhythmbox with Banshee.

The default e-mail client is Mozilla's Thunderbird 11. I'm not happy at all with that choice. As far as I'm concerned the best e-mail client on any operating system is Evolution. Evolution, which can work well with Microsoft Exchange, is also simply the better choice for a business desktop.

Still, like any Linux distribution, Ubuntu makes it easy to pick and choose applications. I had my preferred applications up and running within an hour. And, thanks to the application sync feature, I could clone my choice of applications to any other Ubuntu desktop in minutes without any thought.

I also liked that Ubuntu has a set of privacy options. With it you can delete your file and application use histories and not record activities with a wide variety of file types, applications, and services. Ubuntu easily out does any other desktop operating system I've seen to date when it comes to let you control your personal activity information. Now if only Facebook would do the same!


I think most users should still wait for the final release, but I also think they won't be disappointed with Ubuntu 12.04 when it does arrive.

No, it's not the old GNOME 2.x style desktop. If you want that I think you're better off with Mint 12 with its optional Cinnamon interface. But, if you want an easy-to-use Linux desktop that works well with business networks, I think you'll like Ubuntu 12.04 a lot. I know I do.

Related Stories:

Shuttleworth on the Ubuntu Linux 12.04 beta

Ubuntu 12.04 'Precise Pangolin' goes beta

What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

Linux users cautiously optimistic about Ubuntu's Head-Up Display desktop

Beyond the desktop: Ubuntu Linux's new Head-Up Display

Editorial standards