There have been more rumours circulating about the upcoming 25 April release of Ubuntu 13.04, or 'Raring Ringtail', than is usual for an Ubuntu update.
Early on in the development cycle, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth said, in a blog dated 18 October 2012, that a more secret 'skunkworks' approach would be adopted for key parts of Ubuntu 13.04. His rationale was that Canonical's previously more open approach had resulted in critics attacking new concepts before they were fully developed. Participation in development would therefore operate on more of a 'by invitation' basis (to be fair, Shuttleworth did backpedal a little in a subsequent post).
In October 2012 it was announced that all Alpha releases and the 'first' Beta would be dropped; then during the recent online Ubuntu Developer Summit the idea of switching to a rolling release was once again discussed, the argument being that this would help reach the goal of device convergence by 14.04. Axing the 13.04 release altogether was even mentioned as a possible consequence.
Despite all this uncertainty, Ubuntu 13.04 Beta 1 has now been released — on the date scheduled in the roadmap on the Ubuntu Wiki.
Installation is by now very slick, even on the beta. You can choose whether or not to download updates while installing, and whether to install third-party software at the beginning of the install. The install prompts you to select a network connection and offers three partition choices: use existing free disk space; use all disk space; or manual partition selection. This is followed by a choice for keyboard layout (with an autodetect button). There is a 'Who are you?' dialogue for name, password and so on, and a dialogue where you choose a user picture. The install is fast — about 15 minutes on a Dell XPS M1210 laptop — and a single reboot was all that was needed to be up and running.
Following Shuttleworth's intention that Ubuntu should move towards a more elegant and beautiful user interface, there are new icons for the Software Updater, Nautilus and the Dash Home button, changing the look of the Unity Launcher. The appearance of the Software Updater has changed and is less cluttered, presenting clear options.
The file system icon on the launcher bar has a new look and opens a revamped Nautilus file manager with changes to the user interface. Instead of a text menu appearing at the right-hand end of the desktop menu bar, a row of buttons along the top of the file window now open search, file organisation and file operation menus. Activated buttons adopt a grey shade — the files as icons button, for example, is activated by default.
There is a new icon for the Software Updater and the update progress dialogues have been tweaked for clarity.
The shutdown or restart dialogue has now been harmonised with the Unity theme and displays two large button areas to shut down or restart.
The rather whimsical mouse and touchpad test display (System Settings / Mouse & Touchpad, Test Your Settings button) shows a graphic of a small girl flying a kite watched by a cat. Scrolling up with the mouse or touchpad reveals some birds, balloons and finally the kite. The round logo at the bottom responds to left clicks, right clicks and double clicks, changing colour as the mouse or pad buttons are manipulated. A previous — more conventional looking — dialogue allows users to set the mouse or touchpad responses.
The beta ships with LibreOffice 220.127.116.11, Firefox 19.0.2, Thunderbird 17.0.4 and Linux Kernel 3.8.0-12-generic (type uname -r in a terminal window and hit return to see the Linux Kernel version).
What's next? Even for this first and 'only' beta, the OS seems remarkably stable, fast and responsive — although admittedly there's little in the way of new features. Perhaps these are being held back for the big reveal, as promised by Mark Shuttleworth for the final release. Tune in for our next milestone review of the final beta release on 28 March, and a full review of the final product on 25 April.
As a footnote, GNOME enthusiasts will be glad to hear that GNOME will now be available in an official Ubuntu remix called GNOMEbuntu.