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Monday, May 2, 2011

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal Review

     Well, April 28th has come and gone and Ubuntu has released another OS revision. 11.04 the Natty Narwhal tries to take things in a different direction from previous releases by introducing a new Desktop interface. The Unity Desktop was first introduced in the 10.10 Netbook Edition as the the default Desktop for the first time but was not very fleshed out. Since then Canonical has been working hard to put some spit and polish on the interface bringing it to the masses with 11.04. Alas, 10.10 was only 6 months ago and although alot of work has gone into the Unity interface much more work was really needed.

     First of all, the Unity interface requires 3D acceleration on the Desktop to function. If you don't have a compatible Video Card for 3D acceleration then 11.04 will tell you the first time Unity loads and default to the Ubuntu Classic desktop which is the same Gnome 2.x from previous releases. Check the hardware compatibility list to see if your Video Card will work with Unity. Now if all has gone well upon first login you'll be greeted with the Unity Desktop. It is fairly slick compared to a standard out of the box Linux Gnome install. The most noticeable change is the Launcher Bar on the left. It is a quick shortcut launcher for your favourite programs.


     You can add your own app shortcuts simply by dragging and dropping onto the Launcher. You can remove items you don't want from the Launcher by right clicking any item and essentially de-selecting Keep In Laucher. It's a bit of an awkward wording for the removal of items, but it is functional. To re-order the sorting of the app launchers you drag an item by pulling it off of the Launcher bar and then back onto the bar in the location that you want. Again, a bit of an awkward way to be re-sorting the items.

      A second big change comes in the form of a Common Menu interface. Similar to Apple's Mac OS the application menu dialog has moved from the application window to the Panel at the top of the screen. The currently active application is controlled by the menu's at the top. Change the application and the same menu is now applicable to that new application. It allows a slightly better usage of the space available on the screen making more room for the actual application.


     One of the other things you will notice missing in this area is the familiar Applications Places System. Places is still up there but the word Applications has been removed and replaced by the single Button in the upper left corner. System can be found in a few places around the desktop, the easiest way to find it is under the Power button in the upper right corner. It presents the Systems settings in a Windows style control panel type of interface.


     The third area you'll notice the biggest change in is when you click the Button (formerly applications) to bring up the App selection. It looks like this:


     As you can see this is quite new and takes some getting used to for finding things. At the top you have a search bar. Enter any part of an application name and it will find it in the list. Below you have various App categories, Media Apps, Internet Apps, More Apps, etc. They hold what you would expect except for the catch all More Apps which literally holds everything else and is so overly full it's almost useless. Once you click to open one of the Root Categories you can select a drop down in the upper right that appears to refine the listing to be more like the familiar menu items you are used to. The perplexing thing here is that the drop down selector isn't available until you've selected a root category. It really should be available from the start.


     Finally, while I have no specific testing evidence the overall feel and responsiveness of the system seems improved over 10.04 and 10.10. Video playback, specifically for Flash based video seems significantly improved and the system so far has been very stable and reliable. It comes bundled with some good apps including Firefox 4.01 and Banshee for multimedia playback. Ubuntu One seems better integrated and and the Ubuntu Software Center is improved again providing an easy interface for installing applications both Open Source and Fee based.

     In the end Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal is a good OS with many improvements, speed and stability. However, the Unity Desktop leaves a lot to be desired for customizability and ease of use at the moment. Things feel Awkward and unfinished. For example there is no configurability of the Launcher Bar itself and it's graphical effects are seriously limited. Current products like GLX Cairo and Docky provide the same functionality as Launcher with huge advantages in flexibility and Graphics. In fact one could argue that you could have the same desktop interface as Unity with any previous Ubuntu release just by installing Cairo or Docky and placing it on the left side of the screen.

     It seemed to me like there was a lot of Hype surrounding the release of Natty and when hype is that high it is hard for anything to live up to those expectations. With Natty though it is doubly disappointing because of the Hype, and it truly is unfinished. Canonical should have taken another year to continue working on Unity and polish it until it shone brightly. There was no need to make it the default interface at this point in the distribution. I really believe that Canonical felt they needed to push Unity along due to Gnome 3 being released at about the same time.

     All in all I do believe that 11.04 Natty Narwhal is a solid release for Ubuntu and is a worthwhile upgrade. If you don't like the changes in Unity at this point you still have the option of running "Ubuntu Classic" which is the new release running Gnome 2.x. Either way the OS seems fairly solid and worth upgrading to.

     As always, I hope you found this helpful and informative, if you did leave a comment and let me know.

If you were wondering, I've customized my desktop to provide more colour than the default brown.
Redmond Controls
ClearLooks 2 Squared Berries Window Borders (Downloaded)
Oxygen Icon set.

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