After announcements of greater secrecy during the development process (in order to minimise critical pre-judgment of the release), suggestions about changing to a rolling release for the non-LTS desktop version, and hints from Mark Shuttleworth about exciting new features, Ubuntu 13.04 (Raring Ringtail) is here and — well, it's all a bit of an anti-climax.
To be fair, Ubuntu 13.04 is a good, solid release. It has a more finely tuned and polished Unity shell, with incremental improvements in the Linux kernel and in all the major preinstalled applications. But that's it — no amazing new features. It even loses a couple of things: there's no ability to install the GNOME classic shell (unlike GNOME 3.8 which does offer a classic mode); and no WUBI (Windows-based UBuntu Installer).
It is possible to install a GNOME 3 shell (version 220.127.116.11 at present) from the Ubuntu Software Centre, but if you don't like Unity, GNOME 3 may also not appeal, as you cannot even scale the size of its icons (or at least not without editing the gnome-shell.css file). Alternatively for GNOME die-hards there is now an official remix of Ubuntu, called GNOME Remix.
WUBI has always been a promotional tool for Ubuntu — a way to tempt Windows users to trial Ubuntu with very little effort. With the extra security features of Windows 7 and now Windows 8, Microsoft has, coincidentally, made it much harder for other operating systems to share a machine with Windows. WUBI has therefore been dropped from 13.04 and the Desktop download page on the Ubuntu website provides specific advice for installing Ubuntu on a computer running Windows 8 or using UEFI firmware.
Arguably, 13.04 has lost three things because Gwibber, the social networking client, has gone too. The recent introduction of the Qt/QML application development toolkit prompted Gwibber's author to update and rewrite it. As part of that process, the application was renamed Friends and as it's not yet fully developed it's no longer part of the default installation set. You can install it separately from the Software Centre though.
Although the icons and text drop-down menus at the right hand-end of the desktop top menu bar are still with us in 13.04, the navigation menus that would appear in 12.10 when the left side of the desktop menu bar was moused over have now gone. Those functions must now be accessed via the right-hand desktop menu, via Dash or Nautilus.
What might have been: Smart Scopes
Early on in the development cycle, Mark Shuttleworth hinted at plans for some startling new features in Ubuntu 13.04. However, the only new feature that briefly surfaced was Smart Scopes, which promised to short-circuit the browser by extending the scope of the Dash search bar.
So keen were Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu developers to include this feature in Raring Ringtail that a slip on the feature freeze date for the beta was authorised to try and accommodate it. This still wasn't enough time, however, and Smart Scopes are currently slated for Ubuntu 13.10.
Smart Scopes are designed to allow you to search for anything, anywhere (local or online) by entering a simple search term to the Dash search. The existing Dash scopes would remain the same (Home, Applications, Files, Music, Pictures and Video displayed as icons across the bottom of the Dash pane), but the Dash Filters are to be expanded with many further scope modifiers helping to increase the accuracy of the search. Online searches will be referred to a Canonical-maintained server using a learning algorithm (hence the 'smart') to refine searching.
In Unity 7 a new-look Nautilus file manager adds file operations icons in a bar above the folder and file window. This seems slightly at odds with the principle of the text drop-down menus for the current application always appearing at the top of the display in the desktop menu bar. The top-level text menu for navigation that used to appear in the desktop bar in 12.10 has now gone, so the only way to navigate to Computer, for example, is via the left-hand panel menu in Nautilus.
As mentioned in our Beta 1 preview some Ubuntu icons; the Ubuntu button, the Files icon, the Software Centre icon and the Software Updater icon, have been redesigned.
Apart from the changes to Nautilus and the new icons, many of the differences in Unity 7 are subtle and you might not notice them unless you were running two machines side by side performing the same tasks, one with Unity 7 and one with the previous version. These include: fuzzy search for application names in Dash; faster rolling reveal for launcher icons that overflow the bottom of the launcher bar; a further application-switching method using the mouse scroll wheel; and in the options list revealed by right-clicking on the applications launcher icons, if two instances of an application are open a dot appears next to the instance that has the focus.
As mentioned in our 13.04 Beta 1 preview, the Shut down and Log Out dialogues have been restyled to the Unity theme. However their new transparency does make them look a bit messy when another message is present in the background.
Linux Kernel 3.8.0-19
Improvements to the Nouveau driver in the 3.8 kernel (the previous Ubuntu 12.10 release uses the 3.5 kernel) mean that 3D acceleration is now supported, for all of the GeForce graphics chips available so far, without the need for further configuration. However, better performance may still be achieved via Nvidia's proprietary driver. Intel graphics are also well supported.
There are improvements to the file systems too, with support for Samsung's F2FS (Flash-Friendly File System) and upgrades to the still-experimental Btrfs and Ext4.
The preinstalled application on Ubuntu 13.04 are: LibreOffice 18.104.22.168 (office suite); Firefox 20.0 (browser); Thunderbird 17.0.5 (email client); Rythmbox 2.98 (music player); Shotwell 0.14.1 (photo manager); Remmina 0.9.99.1 (remote desktop client); and Brasero 5.6.1 (CD/DVD burner).
Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical have a stated goal of creating a platform-agnostic operating system — that is, an OS that will run on desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, all presenting the same user interface with touch support.
Current plans indicate that operating system convergence is to occur with the release of Ubuntu 14.04, due on 24 April 2014. A number of consequences seem to be rippling back from this aim point as the Ubuntu developers get to grips with what will be necessary to achieve this convergence. I've mentioned plans to move from X Windows to the Wayland display server in previous Ubuntu release reviews. One result of the convergence plan is that Wayland has now been dropped in favour of Mir, Ubuntu's own display server, which is currently under development.
Another consequence is that some of the features that were to be included in 13.04 have been shelved in favour of presenting a polished and solid release, with most of the improvements residing behind the scenes. As a result, Raring Ringtail may seem a bit of a disappointment. Some new features should appear in October's 13.10 release, but you'll have to wait until 14.04 for the really big changes.