Ubuntu 11.04 review: Unity is no Gnome

 

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For the last 6 months or so, Ubuntu 11.04 (AKA Natty Narwhal) has been generating a lot of discussion among Linux users especially with the announcement of Canonical’s decision to push Gnome to the back burner and push its own in – house Unity as the default GUI. How does Unity stack up as a desktop environment? Well, it handles quite nicely, but it’s still *no Gnome*.

At first glance, Natty looks polished, smooth, and appeals to the eyes. Unity makes great use of screen real estate and the gradients between windows lend a nice touch and helps the user to quickly differentiate between windows if multiple are open simultaneously. The application icons on the launcher look much more refined and focused as well. Gone are the days of blurry icons and those horrible jarring colors of Unity’s icons in its 10.10 incarnation.

Canonical also listened to feedback and finally implemented keyboard shortcuts within Unity. These short keys closely mirror Windows’ and Gnome’s so transfer of key combinations and function is quite smooth. Related to this is Unity’s new “window snap” feature that allows you to “snap” or resize open windows to take up different portions of the screen. Windows users may have to adjust a bit since there doses not seem to be adequate short keys to snap a window, but a quick mouse drag and drop does the trick.

11.04 also comes with some software improvements. The leaner, faster Firefox 4 comes preinstalled alongside some old favorites like Evolution. Natty also made some changes to the software preinstall lineup with its controversial decision to include Banshee instead of RhythmBox and LibreOffice instead of Sun Java’s OpenOffice. Despite these changes, old and new Ubuntu users should appreciate the better coherence these software changes provide and should have no trouble getting to the down and dirty of their computer uses. The panel also got some redesign love with a new MacOSX – like global menu system, better access to system preferences and settings, and a redesigned notification system that seems to make more intuitive sense than previous Ubuntu releases.

The Ubuntu Software Center also gets some love with a new rating and review feature and some killer cool apps. I’ve had quite a bit of fun perusing the new software packages available to Natty and have already discovered some new favorites.

Unfortunately, Natty fails in very glaring regards. Despite the usual expectations of bugs being present in any new operating system release, Natty seems to suffer from these more so than any other new Ubuntu release before. In fact, upon writing this review, a previous window snapped to the forefront and was stuck in a resize loop that seemed incurable. Natty also suffers from system lockups every now and then that requires a minute or so to subside. Switching between multiple windows and even workspaces rapidly can be a chore too. For instance, switching from a word processor to a web browser and back again will take more time than it should. The launcher handles frequent switches clumsily. Unity does a great job at providing quick software execution, but it just about blows when you have to switch quickly between open programs. The snap feature is very useful for making the multitasking smoother, or, at least, it would be if it actually worked like it should consistently. Occasionally, upon snapping a window to the right or left, it will resize itself and snap to the center. It is little bugs like this that make it a lackluster feature right now.

Unity is different, Unity is new, but it is not bad. In some ways, it provides a better desktop experience Gnome ever could. Launching software is easy and fast. The relationships between the launcher, dash, and desktop use function smoothly and coherently. Unity definitely excels in these regards, but it fails in others. It’s lack of intuitive use for the novice user may present a learning curve for the first few hours, but offers clear advantages once users familiarizes themselves. Unfortunately, Unity still needs work. Switching between multiple applications and even multiple windows of the same app just feels clumsy and can get a tad frustrating. Even the familiar mouse click, switch workspace now feels clunky (though the keyboard shortcut does a nice job of switching). Unity is worth a shot and is by no means horrible, but it’s still no Gnome.

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