The latest version of Ubuntu, codenamed Natty Narwhal, isn't just another release of the iconic distribution. We take a comprehensive look at the new interface.
It's not enough to be an efficient operating system these days. To capture the hearts and eyes of desktop usersm an OS must be intuitive, easy to use, and pretty.
We're visual creatures, and computers are no longer the domain of bearded geeks locked in dark rooms. Everyone has one on their desktop as PCs and Macs, in their backpack as netbooks or tablets, and even in their pocket as smartphones. And they must all make themselves so easy to use that the interface itself becomes transparent. If it gets in your way, it's not a good design.
The new Launcher (left-hand side toolbar) performs similarly to the Mac OS X dock.
Apple is arguably pioneering here with iOS, but even Microsoft has come a long way with Windows 7. Both are not only easy to use, but easy on the eyes too.
And while KDE under Linux has advanced and is equally as aesthetic, Ubuntu as the dominant desktop Linux distribution has relied on Gnome during this time, and the interface has started to show its age. If Ubuntu was to stick with Gnome, something would have to change. (And change it did.)
A new approach
Gnome may be late to the party but it, too, has evolved with the recently released Gnome 3.0 - a much improved and much prettier interface that will soon be the default for a number of popular Linux distributions.
But not Ubuntu. Creating what is perhaps one of the largest forks in the Linux community for some time, Canonical (the company that develops Ubuntu) branched the developing Gnome 3.0 Shell into its own bona fide design, later to become known as Unity, as the company didn't agree with everything in the direction the new Gnome was heading. At the time Unity was developed with netbooks and tablets in mind, but soon after Ubuntu 10.10 was released, Canonical announced that Unity wasn't just going to be the interface for the netbook-centric edition of the distribution: it was going to become the default interface for Ubuntu itself.
And with that news, many Ubuntu users raised virtual pitchforks and stormed the forums to decry the decision. What were they thinking? A netbook interface for a desktop? Heresy!
But what if Canonical is on to something? Now that Ubuntu 11.04 has arrived, we can all dip our toes into the pool to find out.
It's not the least bit ironic that Unity has split Ubuntu users down the middle. Through Alphas and Betas plenty of users have had time to play, and with the final release now widely distributed it's no less clear than before: some people love it, some people hate it. But what does Unity do that's so different?
The over-arching design is that screen real estate is precious. Why waste space with docks and bars and even menus that you don't always need to see? In trying to streamline access to programs and features, Unity simplifies the desktop and merges application Launchers with task bars, hides unnecessary menus, and makes it easier to work over multiple virtual workspaces. This ain't your Grandpa's Gnome; it's a very different interface.
The workspace switcher makes it easy to speed applications across multiple workspaces.
Pride of place is the new Launcher, which occupies the left side of the screen. It borrows from Apple here and some popular Linux docks: acting as both a place to launch applications, and keep track of which programs are running. Programs from the launcher that are active have an arrow next to them. If the program has multiple windows, multiple dots appear next to the icon instead, and clicking the icon will present an overview of all windows. Programs can be added or removed from the bar with ease, but in addition to running programs it comes with some extra features, too: the ‘Home Folder’ launcher, ‘Applications’ browser, and ‘Files & Folder’ viewer (similar to Places from Ubuntu 10.10), and finally the ‘Workspace Switcher’.
The latter is especially important - one of the design goals for Gnome 3.0 was to encourage the use of multiple desktop spaces, making them easy to access and easy to see, and Unity inherits this. Clicking the ‘Workspace Switcher’ shrinks all the workspaces to the current desktop, allowing you to see at a glance all the programs you have spread over multiple workspaces. You can change a workspace by just clicking on one, or drag programs around to different workspaces in real-time willy-nilly.
It's very easy to use, and very easy to browse. If you use a lot of programs at once (and who doesn't?) you'll find yourself using them as your main desktop fills up, because it is so intuitive. Said another way: this journalist never bothered with workspaces in almost 10 years of using Gnome. Two days into using Unity and they've become second nature.
The Launcher has other tricks too - files and folders can be dragged to the Trash to delete, or dragging a file to any one of the Launchers will automatically load it in that program. Helping you with this: when you drag a file over the Launcher, only programs that can work with the format are highlighted. For example if you drag a JPG to the bar, Firefox or the Gimp (if installed) will light up.
Another time-saving feature is the Applications browser and Ubuntu button, both of which allow you to type in a program name to quickly find and launch what you're looking for. It's even smart enough to start an application without spelling the whole name, if there's a closest match. Like workspaces, after trialling this for a while it becomes your modus operandi, as it's often quicker than navigating menus.
But all is not good with the new Launcher - it's fixed on the left side, and this isn't going to change. Mark Shuttleworth (the founder of Canonical) has stated that "[it] won't work with our broader design goals, so we won't implement that. We want the Launcher always close to the Ubuntu button.”
Which means if you'd prefer it on the right - or on the bottom, which makes more sense for desktop machines and could operate similar to Mac OS X's dock - you're out of luck. Considering one of the strengths of Ubuntu has been flexibility, Canonical is perhaps taking more than design inspiration from Apple with its locked-down mentality.
The Launcher isn't the only Appleism Canonical has borrowed - Global menus are now standard. Just like Mac OS X, the application that has current focus has its menus placed in the top menu bar, instead of in the application itself. This means if you're writing in Gedit and you want to go ‘File -> Save As’, you won't find it in Gedit. You need to point to the very top left of the screen and find the dialog there.
This is another controversial change that's splitting the Ubuntu userbase. To be fair, on netbooks this is an intelligent design - you save vertical space and programs are almost always run full screen, so the menus aren't actually far away. But what is true for netbooks is not true for a desktop computer with a 24in or larger monitor. Indeed the bigger the monitor you have, the more this feature is likely to irritate as you flick the mouse from the Global Menu to the multitude of non-maximised programs you use. It's more work, and let's remember the golden rule: if it gets in the way, it's not doing its job.
An entirely new way of finding applications, files and folders debuts with Unity.
And, like the fixed Launcher, Shuttleworth has said this isn't likely to change. Fortunately, enterprising Ubuntu users have figured out how to revert this feature.
The Global Menu has other implications, too. Gone are the Gnome panel plug-ins, which can no longer operate in the bar. This unfortunately disables a wide selection of useful mini-apps that many users are going to miss. Word has it that some of these programs can be rewritten to display in the notification area (near the clock), but it's unclear how widespread this is likely to be.
Finally, while the default theme, called Ambiance, is pretty, you don't have much choice if you don't like it - some of the other themes bundled with Ubuntu don't all properly support the Global Menu, with results like black text on dark grey being hard to read and window buttons out of place. Overall the Global Menu seems to bring little to the table while introducing a host of negatives. We'll have to see how it pans out in future releases.
What else is new?
The Launcher and Global Menus are the most prominent changes, but there's a lot going on under the hood, too. To drive Unity, 3D support is now required, so as a first for Ubuntu where possible 3D accelerated drivers will be installed (sometimes after doing an Update first, as we found) automatically.
Applications, of course, see an update with Firefox 4.0 now the default browser while the Rhythmbox media player has been retired in favour of Banshee, which looks and acts similar. Like its predecessor, Banshee handles iPods and iPhones seamlessly for playing and managing your music, as well as integrating online services such as last.fm and the Amazon and Ubuntu One music stores.
Ubuntu's Software Center makes it easy to browse and install thousands of applications.
OpenOffice.org has been upgraded too, though in a somewhat different form - after the developers split last year from Oracle, which owns the trademark on OpenOffice.org, they formed the Document Foundation and Libre Office was born, and this is now the default for Ubuntu. It's essentially the same product, however.
The Software Center now sports user reviews, which you can add right there from the interface, as well as a recommendation engine (though it's not immediately clear how these programs become recommended for you). The For Purchase section is still rather small, but includes some popular commercial indie games such as the physics-based World of Goo and old-school RTS Darwinia, which some Windows gamers may recognise. These are all welcome changes, and the humble front-end to Ubuntu's thousands of applications has really matured in recent releases.
An all new Control Centre, reminiscent of the Windows one, amalgamates the previous System and Administration menus and can be found as the last menu entry under the new power-off menu. This is much easier to browse and find settings than the previous Ubuntu versions and is another welcome change that really should have been done eons ago. There is a single plug-in here, called ‘Launcher & Menus’, to configure the Launcher - but only with respect to its hiding behaviour.
Other updates include the latest Xorg and Compiz to power the Unity interface, Linux kernel 2.6.38 which brings with it performance improvements and expanded driver support, and the latest GCC 4.5 toolchain which the distribution is built with. The installer has been updated too, now allowing you to perform an upgrade from the Live CD itself, rather than in-place in your running desktop.
Finally Canonical's cloud storage, syncing and music streaming service Ubuntu One deserves a mention: it's had a rather sexy makeover, with an entirely new interface that provides flexibility in configuring syncing speeds, folder sharing and account administration. It actually looks like a half-decent application now, and integrates with Ubuntu's messaging queue to provide updates.
Considering a free account provides 2GB of storage, there's little reason not to use it. Having set up Ubuntu One previously in Ubuntu 10.10, logging in and syncing the music folder made our collection available to Banshee without any further intervention. Brilliant.
Natty is nice. It boots fast, is slick to use, and Unity is the visual upgrade Ubuntu badly needs to compete in this age of Mac OS X and Windows 7. It's also bold enough to go out on its own limb and not emulate either competing OSs (though it does clearly borrow from Mac OS X). And this is a good thing, because we need fresh ideas every now and then to see if there's a better way of doing things.
But in doing so, it also brings some controversial changes not all Ubuntu users may like. The Launcher and Global Menus do take some getting used to, and some sacrifices have been made to bring them to us, but under the hood this is still the Ubuntu we've come to know and love. This is really one of those time-will-tell moments. Unity is either going to catapult, or bury, Ubuntu.
For the moment the classic Gnome desktop is also available as a fallback, but Canonical has stated this is likely to be removed in Ubuntu 11.10. Whether you're a seasoned user or you've been eyeing this Ubuntu thing for some time now, give it a go and let us know what you think.