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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