Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal review - A great surprise


Updated: May 6, 2011

I must admit I approached Natty testing loaded with anxiety and trepidation, ready for a violent clash based on my previous experience with the Unity desktop. All right, I am a little bit exaggerating. But I was sure expecting a slow, buggy, crashful session with little usability and a handful of frustration. Biased and skeptical, that's the best mood to get your expectations shattered.

Today's review has a lot of importance. Ubuntu is shipping with yet another drastic change. It's called Unity, a radical new desktop interface in between Mac and classic Gnome, with emphasis on simplification that borders on dangerously toylike. This is not the first time Canonical has made a big change in its desktop. However, after Upstart, GRUB 2, two revisions of the desktop interface, revamping of fonts, removal of many core applications, and the package management refurbish, Unity desktop is the latest and definitely most cardinal change introduced by Canonical in the past five years. It is a make it or break it change.

Teaser

Love it or hate it

People will either love it or hate the new Ubuntu, there's no middle ground. Unity represents the pinnacle of why Linux has not yet made it big in the desktop market and why it may yet become a revolution. It is also the counterpoint to Gnome 3, which too has seen an extremely controversial development against the backlash of grudge and resistance from veteran users.

At stake is the final hope of seeing Linux reach the critical mass. It may take another six iterations until this actually happens, but if Unity does not manage to sway the masses, then nothing else will. OK, maybe Gnome 3 might do it. But here and now, it is Ubuntu 11.04, codename Natty Narwhal, equipped with Unity, that interests us. Is this something that masses would want and could use? Is this the final nail in the proverbial coffin of Linux desktop evangelization? Is this the sum of all good we have all been waiting for? Enough poetic drama, let's test Natty.

Live desktop, half a year of improvement

My first encounter with Unity was a disaster. It was Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) Maverick, and it was plain unusable. Slow, buggy, it crashed like mad. On top of that, you were robbed of core functionalities that you expected in a typical desktop. The integration of elements was quite bad.

Then, I tested Unity again on my T60p laptop with an aging ATI card, where it would not boot at all, and on my LG RD510 machine with a proper Nvidia card, where it worked well, but the results were still far, far from stellar or even just mediocre. Apart from stability and performance issues, Unity introduced a terrible new concept of a simplified, locked down desktop, supposedly optimized for Generation Y users, with no right-click almost anywhere and a touch-like interface suitable for smartphones. It was a far cry from what your average desktop user would expect.

Half a year later, lots of the bugs have been polished. Ubuntu 11.04 booted just fine on the T60p machine. Unity loaded just fine, including the subtle 3D effects and tricks enabled by hardware acceleration. I was not forced to try the classic Gnome fallback interface, which is also available, should you want or need it.

The live desktop looks ok. You get the familiar background. The top panel is virtually identical to its incarnation in Maverick. The big difference is the ribbon of icons on the left, which replaces the top/bottom panels and serves as a Mac-like icon dock, with some intelligent contextual functions. You also get two desktop icons, which seem out of place and are aligned too far to the left for comfort. They would be much better off intended a little or removed completely.

Live desktop

Here's the clean desktop:

Clean desktop

There's also a nice selection of wallpapers. One in particular, a black and white city show really blends well with the black-orange-aubergine theme, creating a peaceful, clutter-free and pleasing environment.

Live desktop, nice

The latest version of Unity ships with the right-click enabled. You can actually interface with your desktop. Nautilus remains virtually unchanged, except the File menu is removed from the window and embedded in the top panel, similar to what Mac does. This reminds me of Macbuntu, somewhat, although you need to roll the mouse over the panel to expand the menu.

Right desktop click

Nautilus

Contextual menu

There's overall improvement with the application integration. Firefox was one of the programs that misbehaved, no more. It has its own contextual menu, like the rest. The overall layout is pleasing.

Context menu, Firefox

Ubuntu logo opens the system menu, but you can also use the Super key. The interface that opens is a 10% transparent window that allows you to inline-search for your files and folders, start and install applications. The four white icons are misleading, as they feel like shortcuts with broken icons.

Menu

The search is not perfect. If you recall the examples desktop icon from earlier, Natty did not find anything when I used lowercase examples search. So the simplicity of the solution could definitely be improved. While searching, the ribbon is grayed out.

Search

There's a fair bit of mouse click tolerance, either left or right. When searching for your stuff, if you click anywhere outside the search window area, the search window will just gracefully vanish. The same applies to the top panel and the desktop. Nothing major will happen if you stray with your mouse around, unless you are looking to do something.

I believe this hints at the possible use with tablets and touch-screen enable devices, where user clumsiness must be taken into account. This is a very controversial decision, and it will surely annoy precision-oriented desktop users.

The ribbon is no longer annoying

I was not pleased with the ribbon menu in the past. Today, it behaves like a tamed piece of software. It is far from being perfect, but it did not make me want to blowtorch the computer. So it's an improvement, in a way.

You can rearrange icons, although you must do this when appending a new one or deleting an existing one. This is your window of opportunity before Natty decides you are just being silly with your mouse pointer. Then, the right-click menu has also been improved. It offers intelligent options for integrated buttons, like opening documents and performing various actions. The integration is quite decent.

Context menu, app 2

Context menu, app 1

Apps menu, right click

You can switch through virtual desktop aka workspaces using the Switcher, which does the transition with simple yet elegant effects and no delay, which was quite apparent in the alternative solution in Gnome 3. You will not be frustrated navigating between open applications across several screens.

Workspace switcher

What else is new?

A few more things. You will notice that scroll bars are fat and located outside the window's active border, yet another nod at the touchscreen hype. Luckily, they don't make the overall experience too flawed. And they can be removed, if you want.

Ubuntu One remains and is prominently featured with its own icon on the ribbon bar. The Software Center has also seen some small tweaks, making it more presentable to common users. The Featured software category is a nice touch.

Ubuntu One

Ubuntu Software Center

The biggest change is in the Applications menu, though. When you search for programs, you are also offered all kinds of installation candidates. I can only presume these are recommended programs, because some of the option seemed weird. For instance, I've never heard of DJPlay. I'm also not quite sure what JACK Rack is. Speaking of media, would it not make more sense to offer VLC, Audacity or alike, something more like what the Software Center suggests? And officially, the media player of choice has been changed from Rhythmbox to Banshee. If you don't like Mono, you have one more reason to dislike the default offering.

Media programs, recommendations

Another thing that may annoy you is the fact you don't have a desktop control icon or an indicator about your active programs. This is more like Mac, so it could take time getting used to, especially if you like to see the status of all your open applications all at once, even the minimized ones.

Speaking of integration, LibreOffice does not have its own contextual menu yet. It was Firefox in the first round, LibreOffice in the second. This can be fixed. We will see that soon.

Open apps, no indicator

Overall, the live session was okay. It wasn't remarkable or the most useful one. But it was fairly fast and free of crashes. Everything that was supposed to work did, including network connectivity of all kinds. And yes, Samba worked, this time, unlike before.

Installation

The installation remains virtually unchanged. You get more visual polish in the initial steps, using human words for partitioning rather than geek slang, but you don't get any extra help. The presentation layer has been improved, but not the actual ergonomics. In this regard, openSUSE still leads, as it offers much safer defaults than Ubuntu.

Begin installation

Partitioning

In my custom partitioning scheme, labeled Something else, I encountered a small problem with the installer. Namely, if I clicked the Change button to edit a partition, nothing would happen. The same action via the right-click on the selected partition worked. Similarly, typing in the mount point did not work, however using the drop-down menu did. This could pose a problem if you want to use custom mount points. Must be a glitch or alike, but it's definitely not a good thing.

The installation took an age, because Ubuntu servers were overloaded and data trickled like honey onto my disk. I opted to install both updates and the proprietary codecs, so I would have a fully usable and patched system afterwards.

Installing

Natty Narwhal ended up in a dual-boot configuration, alongside Windows 7. Once more, there's a GRUB menu change. You get a high-resolution menu with a purple background with tiny, tiny fonts wedged into the top left corner. It looks bad. Generic names instead of kernel versions would be an immense improvement.

Using Natty

The first thing I noticed is that the boot time is so much slower that before. I managed as little as eight to nine seconds on Maverick with an SSD, but easily just 15-17 seconds on standard laptop disks before. Even after the initial optimization, the subsequent boots were fairly slow, almost a minute. I have not done any accurate benchmarks, but this seems to be one casualty of the new desktop.

However, performance and responsiveness do not seem to be affected. On the contrary, Natty is a very snappy and lively desktop, so I'm wondering what kind of tradeoff was done under the hood.

Desktop installed

Nice desktop

Gestures

Another thing you will find in Ubuntu 11.04 are gestures. This is not a new thing. It comes from KDE via Windows 7, so Narwhal is only the third generation to embrace this kind of technology. Basically, dragging your apps into different corners or walls of the desktop space will expand, maximize or cascade your applications.

Gestures

When maximized, programs will push the ribbon into auto-hide mode. This is not something I like. There's a bit of delay while the bar decides it needs to come back, and it's really annoying.

Applications

There isn't much to be said. The repositories are quite rich, but the default selection is fairly bland. It's more usable than Windows, of course. Moreover, there aren't that many choices for the average user to get confused by. Even so, it could be made livelier. And you still get the Additional Drivers, if you need them. But the actual applet reads Proprietary drivers, so someone heard me and fixed the Restricted thingie, but this is still a bit of an inconsistency.

Apps, recommendations

Drivers

Multimedia

Indeed, I had Flash and MP3, as expected. So this worked fairly smoothly.

Multimedia

Annoyances

Not all is perfect, of course. Far from it. Natty Narwhal is a fairly toy-like system, with many locked down options and features. This could infuriate veteran users, set in their ways. Luckily, lots of the small bugs can be squashed easily.

Webupd8 has a detailed tweaking guide, so you may want to take a look. Problems related to desktop, icons, notifications, system area, menu integrations, as well as Unity 2D, a desktop environment for unsupported system with weak graphics, are addressed.

I will probably have a separate article on Unity 2D, but that's a different story. However, if you can't wait for Unity 2D or you just hate this new look, in the login screen, you can change your session to Ubuntu Classic and you'll have the good ole looks back:

Classic desktop

Desktop effects & theme change

You can play with different themes, if you like. The default dark gray works the best. You can get away with Radiance, too. I'm wondering why all other themes, pure Gnome, were left or, at least, displayed in the Unity mode.

Theme change

However, do not, under any circumstances, try to play with Compiz. It is enabled in the background, but the configuration menu, either the simple or the advanced one, are not installed. In fact, if you try to install CCSM, you will see this error:

Compiz error

This is a good hint that you ought not to mess with the settings. In fact, if you start playing with effects and accidentally uncheck the Unity plugin, then you will ruin your session for good. Desktop wall, desktop cube, water effects, not here.

I managed to cripple my system for good. Best of all, the combination of an automatic login and the inability to launch and use any application after messing up Compiz will make it extremely difficult to restore the previous state. Like I said, I managed to destroy my session, so beware Compiz + Unity, please.

This is a very bad thing. I wonder why Ubuntu devs would allow something like this. If a technology is incompatible with your product, hide it, disallow its installation. Create some kind of a session restore, something.

System resources, stability, suspend & resume

On idle, Natty uses abut 230MB of RAM, a fairly decent figure that translates into solid performance. The experience is fast overall, with only a small number of details marring the impression. There were no crashes, whatsoever, and this on a system that Natty previously refused to boot. Suspend & resume worked just fine.

System resources

And I guess that would be all.

Conclusion

You will notice I have not tried to install Natty on my high-end laptops. That's right. There's a reason for that. And we will soon get to it. But let me first complete the thought cycle and explain why Ubuntu 11.04 is a great surprise.

I was expecting a slow, buggy, crashing system that can't be used. Instead, I got a very well polished, well integrated, visually pleasing, and extremely stable and fast distro that does what it is supposed to do. This is indeed a great surprise. Natty surpassed my fairly pessimistic forecast.

Comparing to Gnome 3, Unity is ahead, but then, it had a lot of time to mature, just like KDE4 eventually did. If you recall my initial reviews, I gave Unity 2.5/10. Today, that grade is more like 7.5/10. This is a tremendous improvement. This clearly shows that early, initial impressions can be deceiving, as well as the fact that things can get better after all. Unity may be aiming at the lowest common denominator, but it has enough to sway even the more hardcore Linux users.

Natty is actually quite usable. Will I run it as my primary production system? No. I will not, not just yet. This is why I did not commit the distro to my production machines. But is there any sense, logic and use for this Ubuntu? Definitely. I can actually see the common user running this. Even power users with only a spoonful of personality disorders can relate to Natty. Hating Unity is terribly easy, but it did offer 80% of what I needed. Of course, it's the 20% that make the big difference, but the experience was pleasant, simple, functional to a very high degree.

Spring 2011 brings an interesting new beast to the software zoo. Unity is far from being a failure, far from being for smartphones only, far from being Mac. It needs more time to grow into something that even professional photographers, architects, Web developers, and posh people driving Fiat 500 will want to use. As to the rest? Well, they should definitely give Natty Narwhal a spin.

Cheers.

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