Ubuntu 11.04: Strengths and Weaknesses

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Canonical, founded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, releases a new version of Ubuntu every six months. Because of this, new versions make the news headlines, but they are usually not that revolutionary. Version 11.04, codenamed “Natty Narwhal”, however, has sent waves through the Linux community by introducing its new Unity interface.

The first thing you should know is that I am a long-time KDE user, so while I have tried almost every Ubuntu version, I prefer Kubuntu (the KDE-based version). Plenty of Gnome users have commented on their impressions of Unity, but I thought it might be useful to give a KDE user’s perspective.

I have spent the past week running Ubuntu 11.04 on my 12” notebook and have identified several strengths and weaknesses that define the overall Ubuntu 11.04 desktop experience.

Strengths

1. Style – As a KDE user, I have always found Gnome to be lacking in style. While Gnome 3 aims to change that, Unity does a pretty good job as well. The launcher is attractive, and its animations feel very natural. KDE has nothing like it.

2. Speed – Compiz was one of the first 3D graphics compositing window managers for Linux, and it is still arguably the fastest. Unity makes use of it to power many of its features, and it is generally fast on computers with decent 3D hardware. Do not expect to be blown away if your hardware is ancient, but it will work nicely for both computers and tablets.

3. UI Functionality – The user interface is defined by three aspects: the launcher, the dash, and the panel. All three work nicely with each other and integrate applications well (with a few exceptions). Maximized windows blend into the panel, and the launcher fades away when a window intrudes on its space. The dash overlays part of the screen and animates its form and icons as you move through it. You can also drag and drop icons from the dash to the launcher. It all feels effortless, and the numerous keyboard shortcuts make it a cinch for power users.

Weaknesses

1. Customization – If you are a KDE user, you live for customization, from Plasma desktop themes to custom widgets. While Unity does have some potential, it is largely static, offering few customization options. One that may particularly annoy KDE users is that the launcher is stuck on the left side. Moving it to the right or bottom is not an option. Other features do have the possibility for customization (such as removing the global menu), but they are not simple point and click changes.

2. Fast but not retro fast – While Unity is fast on modern hardware, do not expect your Pentium II to fire it up and perform well. Gnome 2 was certainly not lightweight, but it could still be scaled down to run on slower machines. Unity, however, requires 3D acceleration, and its 2D version still needs some decent power. For most this is not a problem, as even smartphones these days run at least 1Ghz processors, but if you want a truly lightweight option, you will probably want to look to LXDE or something similar.

3. All or nothing – KDE 4 users may be familiar with this problem. When Plasma crashes and fails to restart, you are left with a black screen, krunner, and whatever windows you had open. Similarly, if Unity crashes, you are left with even less: only the Nautilus wallpaper and icons. Because the window manager, panel, launcher, and dash menu are all tied together, any problems with it affect your entire working environment. A restart of X is almost inevitable if it crashes and does not return. Fortunately, the only time it crashed for me was when I was attempting to tweak it, not under normal operation.

Overall Impression

Ubuntu 11.04 caused a great deal of controversy, even before its release, but much of that is simply due to the Linux community’s flair for creating drama. While many of the concerns of Gnome users were definitely warranted, Natty’s release was not the apocalyptic disaster some had anticipated.

Its primary strengths make Unity easy to use and fun for new users. It is attractive, clean, and simple. Its weaknesses highlight the fact that it is immature and that its simplicity can become a liability. One thing that is evident is that Ubuntu has changed the desktop Linux game by introducing something new, and a little healthy competition is always good.

Tavis J. Hampton has been using Ubuntu and its derivatives since the early days. He has several years of Linux system administration experience, mostly on servers like those available from clustered hosting company 34SP.com.

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