Year after year there is always some sort of contest as to when the ‘year of the Linux desktop’ will be. Well folks, that day is long gone. Not to sound pessimistic, but the reality is that Linux has now become such a huge success elsewhere else (yes, I’m looking at you, the mobile platform), that it doesn’t need to even have its own year on the desktop. That said, if there was a contest for the desktop operating system of the year, I definitely think that that award would go fair and square to Canonical’s latest effort Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin, a Long Term Support (aka ‘the Big One’ that only surfaces every two years). Yes, I know; Apple’s OS X Mountain Lion comes out sometime this summer, and Windows 8 is fast approaching, but when considering the innovation, speed, hardware compatibility, user experience, and efficiency, Ubuntu seems to be the only system that is making headway in a way that makes actual sense on the desktop. So…the following review is going to look at what makes this release of Ubuntu not only a must-have (or at least try) system for all the Linux users, but also a seriously viable alternative to the modern mess of corporate software ecosystems from the camps at Redmond and Cupertino. Shall we?
So let’s start out with the obvious and that is the user experience…better known as Unity.
|Ubuntu’s Unity in 12.04…all grown up.|
Ubuntu’s Unity’s début was exactly a year ago in the 11.04 release, much to the chagrin of the wider Ubuntu community. I’m not going to recap on what was a glorious mess of half-baked concept art, but let’s just say that while Canonical had good intentions for Ubuntu’s Unity as a concept, it was hardly smooth or integrated enough to be ready for prime time. One year later and ‘oh my, how you’ve grown!’
|Ubuntu’s Unity at it’s inaugural release a year ago…|
Not only has this desktop user experienced been polished so much it can’t help but shine, but this thing is actually starting to make sense…and at a time when all industry standards are drifting in quite the senseless direction! It is absolutely not a traditional desktop user experience like the one that was introduced ions ago with Windows…uh….3.1? No, it’s a sleek, modern user experience that – once adjusted to – is one of the most intelligent user experiences out there…period. At least for the way my regular human brain works. A simple press of the meta key (Windows key) and you have instant access to recently used files, apps, music, videos, photos and more from what is accurately named, ‘the dash’.
A simple type to search, and you can easily get your hands on whatever app, document, album or website you wish. Think of Windows 8 start menu + OS X’s Spotlight (which hasn’t really been touched in years) and add to that the ability to add more extensions or ‘lenses’ to expand functionality, and you have a formidable launcher that doesn’t even involve you taking your hands of the keyboard. Yes folks, no having to drag your mouse halfway across the screen like an idiot, or brushing/shoving your windows desktops around like an impatient artist on ice – just a clean and simple way to quickly get to what you want.
And then there’s HUD…
Touted as one of the flagship features of this release, the concept of integrating the open applications menu options into a searchable field toggled by the ‘Alt’ key is one of the most original and brilliant innovations I’ve seen all year, all of the last three years to be exact. Windows doesn’t do anything to help in this regard, unless you count scrambling all your menu options into graphically gorgeous pizzas known as the Ribbon interface, and OS X just puts them at the top of the screen…which by the way Ubuntu does as well. This HUD feature is not a new paradigm that is being forced upon its user base, but it is a killer feature in my opinion, especially when you start to get used to it in apps like LibreOffice, Gimp or Inkscape. Again, all of a sudden you are much more efficient because it’s one less reason to take your fingers of the keyboard when your in the middle of typing. Not only does the HUD integrate with the app you have open, but it also can control items and applets on the panel bar such as logging in and out, summoning the music/volume controls, etc. The potential of the HUD and the Dash combined is a potent force of keyboard driven efficiency. But it also tastes simply delicious to click and plunk your way around Unity with a mouse or touch screen as well, as the not-overly-sized-but-still-bright-and-colourful icons make basic navigation very newbie friendly. Let’s just say that your grandma is going to far less lost in Ubuntu 12.04 than Windows 8.
It’s also the little things that make the user feel at home in Unity. The fantastically soft notifications gently remind you of appointments, mail, chats, tweets, music track changes, battery info and so on. Also many of the default apps on the launcher now have ‘quicklists’ available, meaning that you can right click to display a few of the most common tasks that you would perform with that app. For example, the quicklist for the file manager gives you quick access to all of your bookmarks in your home folder. Thunderbird’s quicklist gives you the ability to quickly compose a new message, or search your contacts. Definitely a productivity booster.
|for every occasion.|
Many of these features have been developed and integrated in the 3 releases since the last LTS (long term support) release, but it’s all coming together in 12.04…and so it should be given the experience’s ‘unifying’ title. Yes, the launcher is still immovable (grrrrr…) and seeing all of your installed applications at a glance is still somewhat awkward to access, but that said, the speed, simplicity, efficiency and sheer ‘wow’ factor of Unity is more than enough to give the boys at Cupertino and Redmond something to ponder.
With the all the UI stuff out of the way, let’s move on… to discuss the speed, stability, hardware compatibility of the Precise Pangolin.
With the widespread simplication of the Gnome 3.4 desktop due to lighter GTK 3 libraries, and the huge performance tweaks that the Unity interface has undergone, Ubuntu 12.04 feels like the fastest Linux distribution I’ve ever used without having to sacrifice functionality. Considering all of the background processes Ubuntu is executing to make Unity flow, search, and launch smoothly, you never notice its impact. Applications launch almost immediately, and I have yet to experience a system wide lock-up or bottleneck in performance. Although the boot speed has not improved dramatically over the last three releases of Ubuntu, the time it takes to login to your desktop is almost instantaneous. Compare this with Windows 7, which – at least on my hardware – takes about the same time to ‘boot’, but takes more than 30 seconds to login and be ready for work with only one third-party app loading at startup. Obviously the performance of Unity combined with the efficiency of the (give or take) latest Linux kernel leads to some serious performance boosts even since 11.10. Even OS X Lion feels slightly sluggish on identical hardware. Compiz (or the 3D window manager) works very smoothly as it unobtrusively summons your windows to and fro, and the ability to customize Compiz using the Compiz Control Settings Manager is readily available by installing it from the Software Center. Overall, the hard work that the team at Canonical have put into optimizing Unity has clearly paid off as the system feels incredibly responsive, efficient and intuitive.
I would be very happy to pass this edition of Ubuntu on to an average consumer, and to be honest, I already did – as of the Beta 2! It was simply that stable. ‘Nough said.
Next, stability. What can I say…this is Canonical’s Long Term Support Release, meaning that this is the release that they will offer the enterprise, the educational institutions, the governmental institutions, and the average consumer – providing updates and security patches for the next five years on the desktop. In other words, stability had better not be an issue when offering your system to the world entirely unashamed. And thankfully, for the sake of Ubuntu’s reputation, this system has been utterly immovable in my testing since its first Beta release, and all remote signs of instability have completely vaporised in lieu of the final release on April 26th. I would be very happy to pass this edition of Ubuntu on to an average consumer, and to be honest, I already did – as of the Beta 2! It was simply that stable. ‘Nough said.
Finally, hardware compatibility. This is the genuine hit and miss arena of the Linux world, simply because, despite hardware manufacturers unwillingness to provide drivers for the Linux system, the incredibly dedicated kernel team, and all of its supporters do an incredible job to support most hardware scenarios out of the box. Of course, if you want/need a proprietary hardware driver for your obscure WiFi chipset, or beastly 3D grapics card then the appropriate installation option will present itself after install. So to summarise an incredibly long and awkward sentence stated above, all of my hardware on three different systems worked fine out of the box, and chances are…yours should too. And if it doesn’t, a fantastic support site called ‘Ask Ubuntu’ will be sure to give you some sort of workable solution.
Shall we discuss software?
By default, the downloadable ISO image weighs in at just slightly over 700 MB, and by default you receive a healthy array of software to cover the most basic needs…and in this respect, I have no complaint because installing your favourite is an absolute cinch. However, upon install you get the Mozilla duo: Firefox 11 for web browsing, Thunderbird 11 for email and feeds, Rhythmbox for music, LibreOffice 3.5 for all your office needs, Empathy for instant messaging, and Gwibber for managing all of your microblogging in the Twitter and Facebook universes.
|A Mozilla Suite!|
And now after all that effort…here is my video review from my YouTube channel.