Distro Review: Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal
It’s been a very long time since I did an in-depth distro review here, but today I’m going to write about my experiences of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal. I’ve been running it as my main desktop for about a month. The last version I properly reviewed was Ubuntu 9.10 and though I’ve used the other releases in the meantime, there’s still a lot of changes to talk about with Natty. Most notably the complete shift to the new Unity interface which feels very different to Gnome. I’d heard a lot about it but how would I fare? Let’s find out…
Distro base – Debian (though Ubuntu has diverged a lot by now)
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.38-8-generic
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.32.1 – The default interface is Unity sat on top of that though.
My test hardware – Dell XPS M1330n laptop. 2ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD, Nvidia 8400m graphics.Installation:
As mentioned in the intro, I’ve used most Ubuntu versions over the years, and in that time I’ve seen the Ubiquity installer evolve and develop. It’s always been good and it’s probably the best installer I’ve used on any major Linux distro. There’s nothing wrong with the other installers available, but Ubiquity just edges them out for me.
I installed Ubuntu 11.04 from a bootable USB stick which I created using UNetBootIn, a fabulous little tool for putting pretty much any ISO image onto a memory stick. I’d heard a lot about the big change with the new Unity desktop but when I booted up the live image I was taken to a standard looking Gnome desktop. I was pretty sure this must be because of my freedom hating Nvidia graphics card and the fact Ubuntu cannot distribute the drivers for it.
I’ve since confirmed this by installing Ubuntu the same way on a machine with an Intel graphics card, for which the drivers are free (as in freedom). I was taken straight to a full Unity desktop that time. A smart bit of thinking by the Ubuntu developers to work around this driver problem.
The installer itself looks very familiar with only incremental changes over time. If it’s not broken though why fix it.
I proceeded through the steps, entering my information, choosing a partition layout scheme and so on. I used my typical partition structure and since it’s been so long I should probably describe it again briefly.
In this machine is a 160GB hard disk. I use 12GB for the root (/) partition and 4GB for swap space. The remaining 140GB or so is my home (/home) partition. This enables me to move between distributions without having to move my 50GB of music each time, not to mention all the other stuff. That would be laborious.
A cool thing they’ve added in recent versions of Ubiquity (the installer) is the ability for you to enter information and do other things whilst installation continues in the background. This prevents the familiar scenario of entering all your information and then finally getting to a “start installation” screen, having to wait for it to actually start the job.
There’s just a progress bar at the bottom which ticks along as you’re entering your username and other such things. That’s really cool and I have to say I wish all OS installers worked like this.
The whole process from loading up the live image to booting into my newly installed desktop took about 20-30mins. This hardware is getting old though and I suspect on a newer machine, particularly with an SSD, it would be even quicker. Have a look at the installation slide show below if you really want to see the full process blow by blow.
FULL INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW – I encourage you to look through and read the comments I’ve put on these images too. There’s more than just the installation images.
It’s Unity Jim, but not as we know it:
On starting up the new install I was greeted with Unity, the new Canonical developed user interface, but not as we know it. Unity makes use of a lot of 3D acceleration and fancy graphics but my drivers are non-free as I mentioned earlier. I ended up with a more cut down 2D version at first. Interesting that the live boot gave me a Gnome desktop and not this in dealing with my driver problem the first time I thought. I was prompted by the Restricted Driver Manager that an Nvidia driver package was available. This is an old Ubuntu tool which first came into version 7.04 if memory serves me right, but don’t quote me on that though it’s been a long time.
It makes installing the drivers and rebooting a breeze. I expect this from most modern distributions, as I said Ubuntu has been doing it for years and while I can get the packages myself and even install the binary driver direct from the Nvidia website, it’s all too much hassle in this day and age. The developers have done a good job here in making this seamless by offering a dumbed down UI initially and an easy way to install the drivers you need. I had no complaints on that.
The Real Unity:
With my graphics card sorted I booted into the genuine 3D Unity desktop for the first time. I’d heard tons of things about it from others and even tested older versions on a netbook myself. It never performed well for me and had too many glaring bugs. I thought for Canonical to nail their colours to the mast with this as the main interface in this release was incredibly brave. It reminded me a little of JFK famously declaring the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The wisdom of this decision is still not clear to me. The Canonical one I mean, not JFK. I’ve been openly critical of this move away from Gnome and particularly Gnome 3, but I’m a fair and open minded individual so I decided to give Unity a proper chance. Using it full time on my laptop and netbook for a good few weeks. No half measures. It’s the only way to see if I could get used to it.
The public misconception is that Ubuntu 11.04 doesn’t use Gnome any more. It does. The file manager is Nautilus and Gnome 2 is very much at work below the surface. I see Unity more as a new layer put on top of Gnome 2, obscuring it from view. It’s as if someone has decided that while Gnome 2 is a good work horse it’s not “pretty” enough to be seen in the front of the shop any more. Instead they’ve relegated it to the back office in favour of a younger model.
This presents an interesting dilemma because the Gnome project has now released version 3.0, and while the 2.x series will carry on for some time, code rot could quickly set in. This is what happens when developer interest in a piece of software evaporates and shifts to a newer version. How will Canonical deal with this? Will they try to keep Gnome 2 going as a fork, or at least the bits they need? Who knows, time will tell. For now though I’m veering away from the actual review.
(update: The comment below by Florian Diesch prompted some research of my own. It seems the plan is for future versions of Unity to be based on Gnome 3. This makes sense and takes care of the Gnome 2 code rot issue I envisaged.)
Unity is a simpler interface than Gnome 2. Simpler in the way that a Fisher Price washing machine is simpler than a real one, but can it get the job done? It reminds me of a mobile phone UI. Big icons, auto hiding docks and maximised screen real estate for whatever program you’re focusing on. I’m not sure it suits my high res laptop screen, I’m not short of space. On a small screen I could perhaps see the logic.
Many people say Ubuntu is trying hard to copy the Mac interface but I don’t know if that’s fair. Maybe there’s a little truth in it somewhere. One thing that definitely has a Mac influence is the universal menu. I was lost with this at first and even after weeks trying to get used to it, I just can’t. What this means in real terms is that application windows no longer have the “File, Edit…” menu on them. Instead this stays at the top of the screen and changes on depending what application you have in focus. See the image for an example.
There’s a major problem for me, the menu doesn’t actually appear until you scroll over the top toolbar with your mouse. It’s all very counter intuitive and I panicked like hell as I was editing a podcast in Audacity and couldn’t work out how to get any of my menus were. I only noticed when I scrolled over the top toolbar by accident, and if you have multiple windows open on one workspace lord help you. People more used to the interface might laugh but I don’t think I’m alone. There’s a dock on the left edge of the screen which contains app launchers. Ubuntu Software Centre and Ubuntu One feature prominently there when you first install but you can add and remove the shortcuts.
I customised it by adding Audacity and the other apps I use most. I generally like docks, not just because I live in Liverpool. Hopefully some of you will get that joke. I often use Avant Window Manager and even the Docky extension to Gnome Do. The Unity dock is ok but it’s a very poor man’s AWN for me. I also don’t like the fact it’s on the left of the screen. I like my dock to be at the bottom. There’s probably some way to adjust this config in Unity, but I don’t know it. I work with a lot of windows open at once and I like to have a list of them all on my screen at all times. The auto hide feature of the dock takes this away, there’s no list of windows like you have in Gnome 2. I regularly lost some windows behind others and didn’t know how to find them again at first.
Unity does retain multiple workspaces which I’m a strong advocate of. The only basic change I can see in this regard is your 4 workspaces are now arranged in a square rather than side by side. I was fortunate to interview Sam Spilsbury, maintainer of the Compiz 3D desktop not long ago on FLOSS Weekly. I found it interesting to discover that he now works for Canonical and has a strong link with the desktop team, the people making Unity.
You can see a lot of the Compiz 3D effects such as the desktop wall as evidence of this union. Many desktop environments have their own 3D effects these days and there’s been a move away from Compiz lately. I think it’s good that Sam is keeping it alive though and Canonical are investing.
Hopefully that very rambling assessment of Unity makes some sense to you all. I’ll reserve my verdict for the final section. No prizes for guessing though.
Next I’d like to talk about Ubuntu One, Canonical’s attempt to make a seamless user experience between all your Ubuntu machines. Ubuntu One is a web service. It’s been around a while now and gets heavily criticised for being closed source. I’ve never really used it so I thought I’d need to create a new account. You get 2GB of free online storage the same as Dropbox. Thankfully though Alan Pope of Ubuntu UK podcast fame told me I could use my existing Launchpad account. Apparently this means I already have an Ubuntu One account through some Ubuntu single sign on programme, news to me.
After reminding myself of the email and password I used for Launchpad, I logged in and set up Ubuntu One. The wizard is very good and you’re immediately presented with the Ubuntu One Control Panel (see image). This is actually a great little piece of software which allows you to manage all the devices you’ve got linked to your account, right down to maximum upload and download bandwidth per device. Impressive stuff. There’s an iPhone app (yawn) and I believe an Android app now too (yay). I should also give credit to the developers for making links to support services very prominent and producing a great UI.
Put simply, Ubuntu One allows you to sync your files and settings between machines, provided they are linked to your account, much like Dropbox. It does a little more than Dropbox though in syncing contacts and bookmarks from Firefox too. I had to click the “install desktop couch” button to enable these extra features. Sadly nobody knocked on my door with a comfy new sofa, it just installed some software. CouchDB is a popular solution for storing data and it’s particularly popular among developers right now. The sync features seem to do their job but I found the lack of a tray icon to notify you of uploads and downloads disappointing.
You can see file transfer activity by looking at each folder in Nautilus, but a more prominent progress display would be nice. I think a major motivation for Canonical with Ubuntu One is to create a consistent revenue stream through subscription services. Something they really need to do if rumours that Ubuntu still doesn’t break even are credible. I think selling extra storage and web services makes good business sense, the whole world is obsessed with “cloud” storage right now. Buzzword of the moment.
There’s also the Ubuntu One Music Store now, which allows you to buy music direct from Rhythmbox or Banshee and import it to your collection. It’s powered by 7digital and they have a good selection of artists and formats I think. I decided to test it by purchasing the new Beastie Boys album.
I opened Banshee and clicked on the Ubuntu One Music Store link. A quick search for “Beastie Boys” brought up an artist link and I found the album I wanted easily. I was also able to pay with Paypal right from within Banshee. I hope to God it uses SSL for this, but I took the plunge anyway without confirming. In for a penny in for a pound. The screens were a little slow to load at times but this seemed to be down to network traffic, I don’t think it’s the software.
After checkout a queue of files to download was presented and I waited, this didn’t seem to do anything after a few minutes. A new folder was created in Ubuntu One called “Purchased Music” and the files just sat there in the queue. I eventually noticed a button in Banshee saying “subscribe”, warning me I wasn’t subscribed to this new purchased music folder. Once I did that the files were quickly downloaded.
They must have been put in my Ubuntu One account but not downloaded to the local machine until the new folder was explicitly linked. This all seemed a bit convoluted but the process did work, and I presume subsequent downloads would just work. I must say, loading your purchased music straight to cloud storage is a cunning way to use up the free 2GB allowance and encourage you towards paying for more. Whether it’s possible to buy music and download it direct without using Ubuntu One Storage I’m not sure. You could also move files around to make more room, only temporarily using the cloud storage. But it’s all geared to encouraging you towards paying.
Many community members don’t like the direction Canonical is taking with these increased efforts to make money but they are a business and not a charity. I don’t think you can blame them for that, sooner or later that chicken was always gonna come home to roost. It’s smart business.
I’m pleased to say 7digital music is all DRM free, I wouldn’t buy it otherwise. I tend to buy music from the Amazon MP3 store but I would seriously consider using the Ubuntu One Music Store instead. Mainly because I like the idea that a little bit of my cash goes to support a Linux distribution. Ubuntu is trying hard to be a lot of other things and may not often call itself a Linux distribution much any more, but that’s what it is, no matter what else is bolted on.
This article is already really long and I could probably talk about my adventures all day, I have pages of notes, but I’ll spare you.
I’d just quickly like to mention a couple of other things. Firstly Skype, another freedom hating program I use, is now available direct in the Ubuntu Software Centre now. It’s really easy to install with just a few clicks. This is a positive point for me, though not for some people I imagine. A slightly negative observation is the update manager and it’s pop-under behaviour still persists. This changed a long time ago so it’s old news but I completely missed the fact an update window was there behind the others for ages, particularly in Unity. Without a list of the open windows I couldn’t tell. As I got more used to the dock I noticed that there are icons on there for the open apps. The dock is not always on the screen though and the way it groups open windows from one app is a pain to me. I can never find what I want quickly.
Ubuntu Natty is a brave release in many ways. Canonical seem determined to make Ubuntu different from every other Linux distribution. This is probably a branding exercise, a perfectly natural attempt to stand out from the crowd. But I can’t escape the feeling sometimes that the word “different” is wrongly confused with the word “better”. Being different just for the sake of it is a wasted exercise if your solution isn’t better. The switch to Unity as the default interface is a painful one for me personally and I think it will divide the community. Ironic considering the name. It doesn’t suit the way my brain works and I tried really hard to like it over the space of a month. I just can’t. Just as Unity doesn’t fit with my way of working it may feel almost telepathic to some others. I hope it does. I should also point out that I haven’t tried Gnome 3 fully yet and I have a feeling many of my criticisms will be the same for that.
I tried the Ubuntu Classic mode as they’re calling it, which allows you to switch back to Gnome 2. I’m writing this document in that mode right now actually. I hear this will be removed from upcoming versions and once that happens like many people I don’t know what I’ll do. We are now seeing a push from Canonical to tell users what is best for them and even limit choice. This is the reason why people love the Mac. Most don’t want a choice, they want you to tell them what to do. It’s so much simpler.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is all negative, it’s not. There are many good things in Ubuntu 11.04, despite my discomfort with the interface. I believe there will also be a way to use Gnome 3 if you prefer in coming releases. So maybe I’m wrong about them limiting choice. Ubuntu One is interesting and seems to be taking off. Having now tried it I think it could be useful once they bring out Windows and Mac versions to put it on a par with Dropbox. Though I am investigating Open Source replacements like Sparkleshare.
The music store seems to work well, though not having the option to save your purchased music outside of the Ubuntu One cloud is strange at first. In terms of company revenue I think this is the best solution for Canonical, or at least the accounts department. Whether it’s best for users, who knows.
If you drink the cool-aid and really buy into the Ubuntu philosophy, along with the decisions they make for you, you might love this. As I said, it’s the reason a lot of people already love Apple. I get the feeling that Unity has some way to go. It was bold to put all the eggs in this basket and it has improved a lot. The search boxes and other things work very well but the complete lack of accessibility features and integration with screen readers like Orca leave disabled people out in the cold. Not great PR. They say this will be fixed quickly and it’s a concern for the developers, I hope it is. They threw out all those years of Gnome accessibility work and now it needs to be replicated. If I had to sum up Unity in one sentence it would be this:
“They’ve definitely broken some eggs, but I’m yet to be convinced they’ve made an omelette”.
I know this reads a lot like a review of just Unity and not Ubuntu, but in this release Unity really is the story. I still recommend Linux Mint to new users (it has strong Ubuntu links) and I see nothing in Ubuntu 11.04 to change my mind. Try it for yourself and see what you think, leave a comment and let me know. I’m off to see if this Beastie Boys album will play in Banshee now. Party on!
Distro reviews have been slow to non-existent in the last 18 months but I plan to change that, for real this time. I’ll be packing up my things and moving to Fedora 15 fairly soon, complete with Gnome 3. I have a feeling it’ll be as challenging for me as Unity but I’ll give it a shot. I can’t say when I’ll get time to write about Fedora but I hope soon. In the meantime if you enjoy these articles or find anything useful here please consider clicking the Flattr button. You can also post this to your social networks and whatever else you cool kids do. Thank you!! I’ll see you on Fedora 15 🙂