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Ubuntu raises the client OS bar

On the 28 April 2011 Canonical officially released Ubuntu 11.04 codenamed Natty Narwhal. The controversial Unity Desktop became the standard interface, merging the desktop and netbook versions, creating a scalable client operating system which can be run on desktops, nettops, notebooks, netbooks and tablet devices.

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Large screen smart phones, in-vehicle infotainment systems and possibly even home appliances such as high-end refrigerators could potentially also run Ubuntu.

Aside from the interface overhaul Canonical was determined to push a number of major updates through in this version. I was initially doubtful about their ability to achieve these ambitious goals within their six month release cycle but against the odds and despite a media barrage they’ve managed to not only deliver but set the bar very high for client operating systems as a whole.

They have produced a user-friendly, functional and beautiful OS while maintaining it’s competitive performance and introducing a level of scalability not available with any other major client operating system.

Installation

Upgrading Ubuntu from version 10.10 to 11.04 will keep all your personal files and will also maintain the installation of most, if not all applications installed through the Software Centre, third party applications such as Google Chrome will need to be manually re-installed however. The upgrade can be done by either committing to it through the Update Manager in Ubuntu or by booting from the 11.04 installation CD and selecting the update option.

The installation process has undergone a number of small tweaks and as, with the previous version the installation, it is very user friendly and will run the process in the background while the user sets up their user account and regional settings.

Natty Narwhal brings with it the latest versions of default applications such as Firefox 4. This release also replaces the Oracle owned OpenOffice.org with the Document Foundation’s LibreOffice. Finally, another controversial move has been made with Canonical deciding to install the Gnome built Banshee as the default media player.

Unity Desktop

Unity is comprised of four main aspects of the user interface; the Launcher, the Panel, the Dash and Workspaces. I will discuss below how they come together to create the simple, pleasant and beautiful Unity Desktop:

The Launcher

The Windows 7 style bar on the left is the Launcher, this is where you open and recall applications. Functioning very much like the Windows 7 taskbar, the Unity launcher does a good job of keeping the desktop organised without over complicating it.

The appropriately coloured back-lights are however permanently on by default, this may make for a pretty desktop but it’s not very practical for seeing which applications are open at a glance. Fortunately this behaviour can be changed by installing the Compiz Config Settings Manager available through the Software Centre.

The Launcher features four non-application links at the bottom of the list which include shortcuts to the Applications Dash, the Files & Folders Dash and the Trash as well as a convenient Workspace Switcher which I’ll discuss later. Any additional hard drives, flash drives or optical media will also be displayed here.

There are no windows previews which may have been a nice feature however the Launcher has been well designed for touch; large icons, drag to scroll and long press to rearrange icons. The launcher is definitely ready for the tablet era however some of Ubuntu’s other interface features need to do some catching up.

The Panel

The Unity Panel is used to host the Ubuntu logo button which launches the Dash. It also hosts the indicator applets on the right such as the Date & Time and the Network Manager.

The motivation behind creating the indicator applets was to align the operating system with developers preferred use of what was meant to be the “Notification Area”. Most developers used the notification area for quick access controls which Microsoft attempted to discourage in Windows. Instead of fighting this, Canonical made ‘quick controls’ the default functionality by adding things like Play, Pause and Next buttons to the sound applet.

They have also provided a means to manage one’s online presence. Chat and social media accounts can be managed through the messaging applet and the “Me Menu” gives the user a quick method of changing their presence (available, busy, etc.). Another controversial addition was the decision to move application menu bars (File, Edit, View, etc.) out of the applications and into the Unity Panel. The motivation here was to free up even more space.

Applications like Firefox and Google Chrome opted for tabbed browsing because of the cleanliness of having everything related to an application inside one window. So this decision in my opinion, achieves the space saving goal but breaks modularity in the process. I feel this is something that should be customisable.

The Dash

Possibly one of the best features in my opinion, the Unity Dash brings the classic Ubuntu menu in line with the functional design of the Windows 7 start menu. As well as clicking the Ubuntu logo button the dash can be brought up by pressing the “Super” key on the keyboard (the Windows logo key).

The first thing one notices are the large buttons for application groups as well as some shortcuts, the default should be sufficient for most people but these shortcuts should also be customisable. I hardly ever use these buttons however because the search functionality is the real gem of the Unity, that and the Launcher have made accessing applications in Ubuntu a pleasure.

One feature missing from the search is the ability to run console/terminal commands from the same box although they have added a separate “Run a command” Dash which can be accessed by hitting Alt+F2 for doing just that.

Another smart feature they’ve added is; once a user selects an application category, the bottom row will display a list of similar applications available for download in the Software Centre. Promoting apps in this way is an effective means of breathing life into the application ecosystem which is important because apps are of course the life blood of any operating system. Lastly touch interaction was clearly a consideration here as well however features present in the Launcher such as drag to scroll would complete it.

Workspaces

Neither workspaces themselves nor the Compiz effects being used are new in Unity, however the way it has all been integrated into the desktop environment opens up a whole new world of usefulness. Workspaces are a simple way of having multiple desktops on one computer while only needing one physical screen. As I mentioned before, there is a button on the Launcher which zooms out and displays all four workspaces at once, allowing you to easily switch between them.

Once you’ve experienced the screen real-estate afforded by multiple workspaces, it’s difficult to understand how you ever worked without them. The shortcut keys to move between them (Ctrl+Alt+Up/Down/Left/Right) quickly replace the need for a launcher button however the button provides a good way for new users to get accustomed to the concept.

Conclusion

Ubuntu may be revisiting the African influence by incorporating a colourful interface which is possibly inspired by the artwork of the Ndebele people of Southern Africa (but maybe I’m finding connections where there aren’t any). Either way, the visual vibrancy of Ubuntu 11.04 is very inviting.

Customisability and touch interaction are areas that need some attention although the latter is off to a good start. I did experience some bugs when changing settings in the Compiz Config Settings Manager however this app is not installed by default and the bugs were minor glitches.

The issue of not being able to use keyboard shortcuts while running full screen applications remains a problem however, we may have to wait for Wayland to be incorporated before this one is fixed. Overall we have a very attractive, simple to use and powerful operating system with Ubuntu 11.04 and I look forward to the streamlining we’re sure to see in future versions.

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