Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) and other shells

Recently I 'upgraded' to Ubuntu 11.10 and was faced with being, as I thought, 'forced' to use Unity if I wanted to stay with Ubuntu in its latest version.

Recently I 'upgraded' to Ubuntu 11.10 and was faced with being, as I thought, 'forced' to use Unity if I wanted to stay with Ubuntu in its latest version. Having stuck with Unity for a few weeks I can say that I still dislike it.

I started to look for a solution and fairly quickly found that I had made the same mistake as many other commentators — even in Ubuntu 11.10, Unity is only the default UI. When Ubuntu 11.04 shipped it had the easy fall-back at logon of 'Ubuntu classic', which gave users a choice of selecting the GNOME 2 UI at startup. Mark Shuttleworth had said, in the run-up to 11.10, that in Oneiric Ocelot this choice would no longer be available.

Now Ubuntu is still based on Debian and GNOME, so there's no reason why it should not be possible to switch to another shell. What was distressing was that Canonical seemed to be saying that an easy means to do that would no longer be provided in 11.10, and at first glance this seemed to be true. However, it turns out that the shell switch is still included in the LightDM logon dialogue — it just isn't quite so obvious as it was in Ubuntu 11.04.

To be absolutely clear, Ubuntu 11.10 does not ship with either GNOME 2 or 3 shells as part of the basic installation, but they can be installed from the Software Centre. The GNOME 3 web site provides a link at the bottom of the Getting GNOME page. Clicking there will result in the GNOME 3 shell being installed via the Software Centre.

The default appearance of GNOME Classic on Oneiric Ocelot (11.10) is not as GNOME 2 appeared on Natty Narwhal (11.04) — the System menu has gone, with its entries subsumed into the Applications menu, and right clicking on the upper menu bar no longer opens the Add to Panel menu. Add to Panel is still there, but it now requires Alt + right mouse click; you can use it to add menus, shortcuts and any other GNOME applets, and make GNOME Classic look almost as it used to.

A tweaked GNOME Classic shell that looks almost like my old familiar desktop from Ubuntu 10.10

What a relief! I can now run Ubuntu 11.10 with the desktop UI I liked from two versions ago, and it's as though Unity and GNOME 3 never happened. If I'm in a sadomasochistic mood, I can easily switch to Unity or GNOME 3 through the logon panel.

The new LightDM logon, showing the menu choice of desktop shell

The key to all this choice of desktop shell lies in the cog wheel icon in the LightDM logon panel. A left-click here reveals a menu with (once you have them installed) a choice of; GNOME, GNOME Classic, GNOME Classic (no effects), Recovery Console, Ubuntu, Ubuntu 2D and User Defined Session. The first two choices are for GNOME 3 or GNOME 2, while Ubuntu and Ubuntu 2D refer to Unity in its 3D or 2D versions. Another 'stealth' feature of the new logon is that clicking on the text just outside of the logon panel operates a rotating choice of logging on as the named installer, Guest or Other.

GNOME 3 At present Fedora is the only Linux distribution with GNOME 3 as the default desktop UI, and with all the fuss over Unity I had not paid much attention to GNOME 3 — particularly as I had assumed from Canonical's announcements that it would not be available for, and would not run on, Oneiric Ocelot. I mean, surely the GNOME developers couldn't screw up a shell design?

I have now had the opportunity to try it, and am disappointed that it seems to be going in the same direction as Unity, with a minimalist desktop and large icons intended for touch-screens on tablets and smartphones. Having said, that I find its look and feel preferable to Unity, although it seems a little slow and unresponsive at times. It also duplicates a lot of icons with both a high-resolution and a low-resolution version displayed in the Applications display. Opening the Software Centre and removing menu-xdg — the Freedesktop.org menu compliant window manager scripts — seems to fix this problem.

The new GNOME 3 shell running on Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot); notice the duplicated application icons in the Applications Overview, now removed on my system

A vision of the future where all data and apps reside in the cloud and are accessed by a range of relatively dumb devices, all running scaled versions of the same interface, with users renting services on a mobile phone-style contract, is not one that appeals to me. I think a desktop system requires its own user interface design to remain efficient and easy to use, and don't believe in the concept of 'one user interface to rule them all'. However, in the short time I have used the GNOME 3 shell, I get the impression it's a better attempt at the 'one size fits all' UI than Unity.

Other 11.10 upgrade glitches I did run into three other problems following the upgrade to Oneiric: Samba — the network file and print sharing service — failed to install; my on-board FireWire interface stopped working; and I forgot to check and reload the proprietary Linux drivers for my Nvidia graphics card.

The Samba bug turned out to be due to a problem with the sequencing of the install process, and as far as I know is a bug that's still being worked on. Fortunately the workaround is to simply install Samba from the Software Centre once the installation of Oneiric is up and running.

I haven't so far been able to resolve the FireWire bug. I have an MSI motherboard with an on-board VIA VT6307 FireWire chip and it seems that — following the recent changes to the FireWire stack and Ubuntu now using the new Linux kernel 3 — that drivers are no longer loaded for this chip at boot time. The problem has been reported to the Ubuntu developers, although it seems likely it's actually a kernel problem. Hopefully it will be resolved soon.

Not loading the proprietary Nvidia graphics drivers is more a matter of policy than a bug, but the way this is handled is a little confusing, and some of this confusion arises from the previous version. With Natty Narwhal the Additional Drivers utility would advise you that the proprietary drivers should be activated in order to take full advantage of the graphics card's 3D features, but would continue to show the drivers as not activated, even when they were. In Oneiric Ocelot you're advised that (despite it being policy not to install them) the 3D proprietary drivers are required if you want to run Unity, although it's not the current version of the drivers you'll need but the 'post-release updates, version current updates'.

This screenshot of the Additional Drivers utility shows that the Nvidia accelerated graphics driver (post-release updates)(version current-updates) is installed and activated, without which my three shells won't run and display correctly

Following installation, Ubuntu 11.10 will appear to run just fine without any graphics problems. However, without running the Additional Drivers utility and installing and activating the post-release updates you won't be able to, for example, resize the Unity Launcher icons or run the GNOME 3 UI (without them GNOME 3 falls back to GNOME 2); also some graphics applications, such as Blender, will not run at all. In particular it's the Nvidia GLX drivers that are needed, and opening the Nvidia X Server Settings utility will show if these are present.

The NVIDIA X Server Settings show that the GLX drivers are loaded, providing a double-check that the right graphics drivers are present for full graphics performance from the system

Anyway, I'm getting back to shuffling three shells, all I need to do now is guess which one the pea is under.

Terry Relph-Knight