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Distro reviews

Looking at 11.04 Natty/Unity – Good or bad?

Theres been a 1001 different reviews of Ubuntu 11.04, so I hope to put a little bit of a different spin on the review.  Theres been much criticism regarding the direction Canonical have taken with Unity and then with every release of Ubuntu you always get a flood of FUD with people capitalizing on the issues of a minority as “proof” that Ubuntu is not fit for purpose.  This seems to mainly happen with Ubuntu so I can only surmise that Canonical’s offering is seen as the biggest threat to those who would rather you stayed with “traditional” products.

For this review,  I want to explore how much of the “doom and gloom” reported by other people is actually true in respect of 11.04 but in particular Unity.

So firstly the introduction.  I am coming from Sabayon, a Gentoo derivative.  Through my own silly fault and trying to partition whilst very tired, I hosed my system.  As much as I would like to blame Sabayon I can’t,  so being OS’less there seemed no better time than to test out Ubuntu 11.04 on my main rig and more importantly get my own views on what all the fuss about Unity is.

I deploy alot of Ubuntu to new Linux users, so for me it goes without saying that Ubuntu and “out of the box” are synonymous.  I usually stay at least one/two versions behind when deploying to new users, so this journey into 11.04 was more for my own curiosity and to check out Unity which seems to have caused so much fuss. When I deploy Ubuntu to a user its my reputation on the line every time i switch them from Windows. Happily, Ubuntu has not let me down yet.

First things first.  Unity is not a big deal, it’s not this digital monster invading your house and destroying your Ubuntu/Linux experience.  If you can get past some of the knee jerk reactions on the net and actually give it a go, you may find that it offers a surprisingly well thought out and smart UI for your desktop experience. That’s speaking as someone who enjoys for the most part a minimalist desktop and from someone who shies away from most desktop effects and widgets.

Unity represents a massive departure from my traditional way of working and in its default presentation, I expect many others would be the same.  So lets move onto the things I disliked about the experience.

1. The sidebar is not what I am used to.  My Gnome desktop usually consists of two taskbars, one at the top, one at the bottom.  The top to give me access to installed apps and system utils, whilst the bottom to keep hold of all my running apps.  I have multiple desktops so a switch between desktops and apps is usually very quick.   The side bar I found, was present when I didn’t want it, drawing my eye and then absent when I did.

2. Alerts from packages are brought to your attention with a “Zookeeper” like wobble.  It’s a nice effect to alert you say to a message in IRC with X-Chat.  Blink though and you’ll miss it.

3. Apps that have focus put their pull down menu into the taskbar at the top of the screen rather than contain them in their executing window.  This is concept which I’m finding difficult to get used to.  This also applies for your minimise, maximise and close window buttons when you have a given app maximised. If you have several small apps running in windows then giving them focus then moving to the top of the screen to access pull down menus saw me engaging in far more mouse movement than I should.

I’ll make a quick comment on Ubuntu 11.04 itself in that all my hardware was detected out of the box and just like previous experiences.

I did find though that my Mic was muted by default which meant I needed to quickly run alsamixer in order to rectify. Not an issue though.

Next up, I don’t like Evolution, I never have. Thunderbird, whilst with its issues does provide my all in one solution. Whilst Evolution is integrated well into the Ubuntu experience, it just doesn’t have the features I require.

I didn’t notice an IRC client packaged as default (I’m wrong here?) and maybe this is a sign of its declining/specialist usage on the desktop, however one of the important things about Ubuntu is community and since there’s much going on in the IRC ubuntu community then I suggest it’s a necessary package to include. – Please feel to correct me if I have missed a feature here.

Ahhh! Ubuntu is for newb’s not the l337!

Certainly more so in the past, I’ve seen a select few regarding Ubuntu for “newbies, newbs, lamers” et al.  In todays Linux world I think this elitism exists only in rare circumstances.  Its completely silly too, just because Ubuntu wants to assist in setting up your system and get you up and running as quickly as possible does not make it “for newbs” I know many very experienced Linux users who favour Ubuntu purely because they have better things to do then mess about with their OS just to become functional.  Anyone can install proprietary drivers, its simple, but if Ubuntu takes that task away by automating the process, I’m all for it.  There was a time where I enjoyed the challenge of getting one of the more “exotic” distro’s functioning on my system, but now with several projects on the go, what I want in a new distro is to be up and running as quickly as possible.  I’ve deployed (and used off and on) Ubuntu since 8.04 and can happily say that this has always been the experience I’ve had.

Conclusions

I always wonder why Canonical seems to be hit with the largest amount of critics, this undoubtedly is due at least in part to its popularity with the adage “you can’t please everyone”.  That being said opinions on Unity have me rather bemused.  For starters you can easily select the classic Gnome DE if you so wish and if you feel that strongly about Unity, then you can still have 11.04 in a “classic incarnation” – problem solved.

This review has been written over the period of a few days and one of the successes of Unity for me was that my wife immediately felt comfortable with it.  My initial reservations have melted away with the realization that a different way of working can, until accustomed to, be a frightening place.  Now that I’ve settled with Unity over the last few days, I will be keeping 11.04 on my main rig, I had intended to return to Sabayon, but now that I’ve got accustomed to Unity, there really is no reason for me to switch back at the present time.

Have I still got features I’d like changed? Well yes, little things (some of which I’ve mentioned above) although it should be noted that customizing Ubuntu to your specific requirements is something that everyone can do.  I intentionally did not do that for this article as I wanted to experience Unity and 11.04 in its default configuration (presumably how Canonical want you to experience it)

There are so many facets to discuss about Canonical and Ubuntu – “for purchase” software in the Ubuntu Store, Ubuntu One, Mono and many others, however I think these are side issues which distract from the fact that yet again Canonical have put a lot of work into a quality release.  A quality release I hasten to add which I will happily be deploying to the next batch of new Linux users.

As with any software, there will be people with issues, until such a thing as a standardized PC exists, the plethora of hardware configurations will undoubtably cause issues for some – that goes for any software and in respect of what I want to see changed I always say that the only application which is tailored exactly to your needs is the one you code yourself.

I think Canonical is on the right path and certainly have confidence in the distro which is probably the most “household name” of all the Linux distributions.  If desktop Linux is to become common place and not merely a talking point when people enquire what you are running if you don’t use Windows, then I think Canonical certainly has the product and determination to do that.

Tim (Goblin)

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About Tim Sparrow

Online tech writer, novelist/author of sci-fi literature and co-host of the TechBytes Show! I believe in multi-culturism & diversity. Luton Town FC supporter.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Looking at 11.04 Natty/Unity – Good or bad?

  1. 11.0.4 seems to be a bit hit n miss even without using Unity. I’m using the ‘Gnome Classic’ desktop right now and my HP nc4400 seems to be the only PC i can use it on, it was very buggy on my Toshiba Portege M200 and is not exactly perfect on this and is not enough of an advancement on 10.10. I could only use Unity for a short time, it was so buggy and doesn’t pay well with compiz, and the dock and large laucher just gets in the way of getting things done.

    Posted by CMD | May 20, 2011, 3:06 am
  2. I haven’t yet looked at 10.10 so for me it was a dive in at 11.04. Ive seen others make comments about Unity and compiz, personally with the features I use Ive experienced no issued.

    I’ll agree that the launcher can get in the way sometimes.

    Thanks for the reponse!

    Tim.

    Posted by openbytes | May 20, 2011, 7:11 am
    • Not liking Unity very much, at least not on a full desktop. On a netbook it’s not bad.

      Have seen some issues with (and had issues with) Nvidia’s driver. Say’s it’s activated but not in use. This was always an easy install in Ubuntu, so seeing this pop up was a bit of a disappointment.

      Flash performance is a bit rough also with FF 4. But I’ve seen that on other distro’s too, so it’s not really an Ubuntu issue I guess.

      Tried Gnome 3 for kicks, that’s got a little way to go to really be useable.

      Good thing I’m mainly a KDE guy. :)

      Posted by J.H. | May 20, 2011, 9:22 pm
      • Hi!

        I do intend to put this on an Aspire One at some point, in respect of KDE, I was considering shifting over myself recently, however I think I will be keeping 11.04 on here for some time, the added benefit being that my wife likes it and immediately found herself comfortable with it.

        Kind regards

        Tim.

        Posted by openbytes | May 20, 2011, 10:01 pm
  3. I have used Unity very little, my preference is for a different desktop style. The key is not whether I personally use Unity but does make using the computer relatively straightforward to use. On that point I think it does and has to be rated a success. The beauty of Linux is the ability to experiment and try different ideas from the minimalist to the full blown.

    Ubuntu and Canonical should be commended for making Linux more accessible to Windows refugees. One many never leave Ubuntu or one might move to another distro after getting used to Linux but where did many start, I did. Without Ubuntu how many Windows refugees would have moved to Linux, I suspect far fewer.

    Posted by jslozier | May 24, 2011, 3:45 am
    • Hi!

      “Without Ubuntu how many Windows refugees would have moved to Linux, I suspect far fewer.”

      Completely agree and as I said before for me Ubuntu is the most “household name” of Linux distro’s presently.

      Regards
      Tim.

      Posted by openbytes | May 24, 2011, 5:20 pm
  4. I’m running 11.04 on my laptop right now. I tried Unity, but for now I’m sticking with a tweaked Ubuntu Classic that looks basically like OSX with the top bar and a bottom dock (even had one Apple user accuse me of pirating OSX on my PC laptop… funny, but beside the point)

    1) I’ve been using Ubuntu since 7.04, and to my knowledge, it has never included an IRC client out-of-the-box. They always have to be mindful of fitting the default package selection into the ~700 MB afforded by a CD, and most people have no idea what irc is. Ubuntu does typically bundle an IM messaging client, though, which more people are familiar with. In recent releases, they even cut GIMP out from a default install to gain more space. (All that said, I’d still appreciate it if Ubuntu would see fit to shave off Mono from a default install to free up space.) But with the Ubuntu Software Center, it’s not really that big a deal. Every cut package is just a click away.

    2) I’ve never liked Evolution either. I usually use either Thunderbird or a webmail client for my email. However, I’ve heard talk that Evolution may get axed in 11.10 in favor of using Thunderbird as the default email client, so there’s that.

    3) I tried Unity. I think it has a lot of potential, as does Gnome Shell. But while I found Unity functional enough, there were places where this first iteration seemed a little too clunky for me. For example, I found no way to easily see every installed application (categorized) at once. I could either see them as an alphabetical list, or I could see an individual category at a time (like “Office” or “Sound & Video”), but I couldn’t view a categorized list containing all the apps in the same way that I can with Gnome 2 or Gnome Shell.

    Posted by Will | May 24, 2011, 1:47 pm
    • –Sorry, meant to type more, but accidentally hit post early–
      Also, in Unity, opening multiple instances of some programs was a little clunky. I couldn’t right click or modifier click on the icon to open a second instance. I had to use Ctrl-Shift-number to do it. But this was only for certain apps, not all of them. There is still a general (minor) lack of consistency with applications and their behavior in Unity. LibreOffice doesn’t yet work with the Global Menu (though the next release will). As I said, some apps allow you to easily open a second instance, and others require that key combination (which I had to Google to find out about).

      All in all, I still think Unity has promise, but it’s clear to me that it could use another development cycle or two of polish and improvement. And that’s exactly what Canonical appears to have in mind. There have been bug reports about some things in Unity similar to what I’ve said, and I remember one of the answers was that substantial improvements were planned in that area over the next release or two that might wind up making the initial bug report moot.

      So basically I’m just hanging back with the Classic interface while I allow time for both Gnome Shell and Unity to mature a bit (and for Ubuntu to migrate to Gnome 3 libraries so that Shell will be a viable option on that distro), and I’ll make a judgment call on them later.

      Posted by Will | May 24, 2011, 1:55 pm
    • Thanks for the responses!

      Evolution we are in complete agreement! I think at present I have use of the main rig for pretty generic tasks (and the wife is using it alot) RE: LibreOffice and the global menu, I didn’t notice because its rare I fire up LibreOffice (prefering just quick text in gnote or using Google Docs)

      “So basically I’m just hanging back with the Classic interface”

      Its a very good piece of advice for those who find Unity a little too new at the moment, its one of the reasons why I cannot understand the “doom and gloom” when people are starting to look at Unity….you can always refer back.

      Thanks for both your posts!

      Kindest regards

      Tim.

      Posted by openbytes | May 24, 2011, 5:24 pm
      • Well, apparently starting with 11.10, the Classic interface will no longer be an option. It will default to either Unity 3d (i.e. standard Unity) or Unity 2d (Unity with effects scaled back for cards without 3d acceleration enabled out-of-the-box *cough Nvidia cough*)

        But even so, 11.04 will have 18 months of support. By then, Ubuntu will be on Gnome 3, a new LTS will be out, and both Unity and Shell will have had a couple more development cycles. And there there’s always distros like Mint that won’t be going over to Unity, or desktop environments like XFCE (which works quite well with Compiz to provide a DE very similar to Gnome 2).

        So I’m with you. I don’t know where all the “sky is falling” comments come from. People that can’t adjust to change? People that don’t want to see Desktop Linux do well? A bit of both? Neither? Who knows? At least this time it seems the transition is going smoother than the initial KDE4 era did.

        Posted by Will | May 25, 2011, 4:46 pm
        • I agree and despite earlier issues with KDE in its history, it turned out fine and I am sure there are very happy KDE users at present.

          One point though, Ive finally found the first bug for me…..

          Having tried the “wobbly windows” effect, found that it is rather buggy at present, sometimes locking the Window in focus in its warped state……no issue though since not having wobbly windows at present hardly detracts from the desktop experience.

          Regards
          Tim.

          Posted by openbytes | May 25, 2011, 6:02 pm

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