Ubuntu 11.10 is important because of one major issue: Unity. When Ubuntu 11.04 arrived, the Unity shell interface for the GNOME desktop environment seemed to be a step backwards — at least on the Ubuntu front. It was buggy, based on dated libraries, and showed little promise. But with the release of 11.10, things have taken a turn for better. Here are the 10 factors that I think have given Ubuntu a fresh impetus.
1. Unity Dash
Unity Dash is a tool that opens when you click the Ubuntu icon in the top-left corner. It allows you to access applications that aren't on your favourites bar, and it opens files and search, among other things.
When Unity first arrived, Dash was as efficient as a web server without a network connection. But now, it has had a facelift that has made it work more efficiently, giving it features such as new filtering mechanisms. If the state of the Dash in 11.10 is a sign of things to come, Unity might have some serious firepower in store for end users.
2. Login screen
This point may not seem hugely significant, but the new login screen for Ubuntu 11.10 has noticeably improved. Not only have its look and feel been updated, but its ease of use has also improved. I like the way users are displayed and selected, as well as the improvements to selecting the desktop to be started. This enhancement may not be critical, but it gives Ubuntu a sleeker look.
3. 2D UI
The 2D version of Unity has finally been completed, so those whose hardware won't support the 3D version of the desktop don't have to avoid the latest version of Ubuntu. You don't have to make a choice or install anything specific because the 2D version of the desktop launches automatically if there is no 3D-supported hardware. The 2D version has been modelled closely on the 3D version, so 2D users won't miss too much.
4. Goodbye Evolution
With Ubuntu 11.10, Thunderbird 7.0.1 becomes the long overdue replacement for bloated Evolution as the default email client. Some users might miss Evolution's Outlook-like interface, but its size and scope had finally started to outweigh its usefulness. What's more, Thunderbird is an outstanding application.
5. Gwibber makeover
Until now, the Gwibber open-source microblogging client has been an application to avoid, with its tendency to hog CPU cycles and memory, and its ugly interface and inconsistent updating. Now an overhaul has made a difference, and the improvement in the performance makes it worth using. Its developers were able to make real and rapid improvements by switching from the Python and WebKit-based application interface to one based on GTK3 and Vala.
6. A real backup tool
Ubuntu 11.10 comes with a default backup tool, the incredibly easy-to-use Déjà Dup. It has few bells and whistles, but what it does have is a simple single-click backup and restore. Another nice touch is that the users' default backup destination is their Ubuntu One account. So not only do users get a backup, they get an offsite one.
7. Software Centre
The Ubuntu One Software Centre UI has been completely overhauled. Its look and feel now resemble that of the Apple App Store. Although I don't personally find this change an improvement, the average user may feel they are on much more familiar territory. But what is really useful about this redesign is the ability to filter by ratings.
OneConf is a great tool that lets you record software information from Ubuntu One so that it can be synchronised with other computers as needed. At the moment, this information does not include application settings and configurations, but that may become available one day.
9. ARM support
That's right, you can now use Ubuntu while using an ARM processor. This change means Ubuntu will be able to support tablets. Although Canonical is certain that the big deal with ARM will be multicore processor-powered servers, I believe the bigger deal is tablets. I can only hope Ubuntu jumps on that bandwagon as quickly as possible. I want a Linux-powered tablet.
10. New Compiz and Unity
Yes, the compositor is Compiz, and the combination is really starting to gel. But what is best about this partnership is the performance boost 11.10 enjoys. Running the compositor will no longer cause the desktop to lag. You will now enjoy an incredibly snappy and robust desktop that works exactly as expected. You no longer feel that Unity and Compiz are at odds with one another.
Big step forward
Ubuntu 11.10 offers significant improvements over 11.04, which is, of course, to be expected. What wasn't expected was for Ubuntu Unity to improve so quickly. Bravo to Canonical and the Ubuntu developers. They have worked some magic on a desktop that I thought was bound for extinction.
This story originally appeared as 10 things to love about Ubuntu 11.10 on TechRepublic.
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