Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), Reviewed In Depth


It's hard to not split our conclusion into two separate parts: Unity as a graphical user interface and Ubuntu 11.04 as a Linux distribution. Let's start with Unity.


Unity incorporates some great design concepts, but they are counterbalanced by other concepts that aren't so great. The new Panel is streamlined, and an explanation of the indicator colors is a welcome addition. However, the global menu is of questionable merit and the lack of GNOME applets is disappointing. The concept of Dash is much-needed on desktops, notebooks, and tablets. But the non-customizable layout and reliance on typed searches can slow down even the most basic tasks. The design of the new Launcher is definitely a high point, while its rigid auto-hide behavior is unquestionably a bummer. Although uTouch is a big-time success, that new global menu puts the kibosh on Unity for touch-only tablets. Combined, the final product becomes something that isn't really optimal for any type of device except keyboard-centric input. Keyboard shortcut junkies are well cared for in Ubuntu 11.04.

Unity is not as functional in a conventional mouse-oriented desktop environment as the GNOME 2 shell or the KDE 4.x Plasma desktop. If you utilize some of the tweaks we explained on page 11, though, you can mitigate some of our original efficiency complaints.

Hindsight is 20/20 and it's important to understand the situation that led up to Ubuntu 11.04. Ubuntu 10.10 was originally supposed to ship with GNOME 3, complete with the GNOME 3 shell. Obviously that didn't happen, and by the time the Natty development cycle began, Unity was looking pretty good. While we're holding off final judgment on GNOME 3 until our upcoming review of Fedora 15, what we've seen so far is not good. Based on our brief experience with the GNOME 3 live CDs provided by the GNOME project, almost anything Canonical could do to get off that crazy train before it derails should be considered a good plan.

It is also important to keep in mind that the multi-touch capabilities of Unity, global menu fail and all, are actually out-pacing the availability of compatible hardware, which puts Unity at the forefront of potential PC-style slate computing.

Also note that the most glaring design issues, notably the global menu and lack of configurable options for Dash and the Launcher, will most likely be addressed in the Oneiric development cycle already underway.

And then there is the Tony Montana factor. It took serious cojones to ditch the GNOME shell and develop an original GUI in-house. For that, Canonical deserves a measure of respect. Ever since we can remember, the top-tier Linux desktops have either gone with GNOME or KDE as their graphical front-end. Because Ubuntu has such as high profile, we immediately have a third viable option.

Unity as a solution is really close, but not close enough. It needs a little bit more time in the oven. But what Canonical accomplished in a short development window is pretty astounding. At the very worst, Unity is worth taking the time to explore.

So what do we think of Ubuntu 11.04 as a Linux distribution?

Ubuntu 11.04

As far as performance is concerned, there are compelling reasons for certain users to upgrade. There are also compelling reasons for folks to avoid this release at all costs. Linux gamers should see substantial improvements, while mobile users suffer a dramatic loss in battery life.

When it comes to deciding between Classic and Unity, we really see no reason to hold tight to the old GNOME 2 shell over Unity, unless of course your hardware won't play ball. In essence, if you don't like Unity, don't bother upgrading. Extras like Window Snap and minor theming tweaks can be applied to older releases easily enough. On the other hand, users of Ubuntu One and fans of categorically organized system settings may want to consider making the switch.

The Takeaway

Six months ago, we reviewed Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, and we handed it a mixed review. Meerkat frankly didn't bring much to the table, and we saw no real reason to upgrade from Ubuntu 10.04 LTS Lucid Lynx. In essence, Maverick was meh.

Today we are handing the latest version of Ubuntu another mixed review. But unlike Maverick, Natty is anything but average. Because its user interface represents the major new addition, Ubuntu 11.04 is bound to elicit strong emotions. Some people will absolutely love it, while others are sure to detest the drastic design changes.

For the average desktop user accustomed to computing with a mouse, holding off on an upgrade to Ubuntu 11.04 may be a good idea. We see no downside for keyboard-oriented users, though. Obviously, the global menu makes touch-only computing a practical nightmare, and mobile users may want to steer clear as well.

Developers and anyone simply curious about the future of Ubuntu, Linux, multi-touch computing, and UI design: go ahead and crack yourself open a Natty.

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  • jryan388
    One problem I faced with the standard unity desktop is the horrible performance even on my Athlon II @ 3.6 and Radeon 5750. I upgraded on launch day, so maybe canonical fixed it by now, but the performance was absolutely abysmal. The easiest fix is the unity-2d package. Great performance, doesn't look any worse.
  • ksa-_-jed
    U should add more distros to the benchmarks like Debian, Fedora, and open SUSE.
  • shiftmx112
    Meh is exactly how I described 10.10 Still gonna try Unity.
  • Yuka
    11.04 sucks; plain and simple.

    Power users can do little to nothing to fix things between gnome3 and the buggy Unity.

    I wouldn't even bother with 11.04 when 10.04 is rock solid.

  • davewolfgang
    I tried the upgrade, but unity is blech. I am still using the upgrade, but doing the classic.

    But I may go back to 10.10 for my EeePC.
  • adamovera
    jryan388One problem I faced with the standard unity desktop is the horrible performance even on my Athlon II @ 3.6 and Radeon 5750. I upgraded on launch day, so maybe canonical fixed it by now, but the performance was absolutely abysmal. The easiest fix is the unity-2d package. Great performance, doesn't look any worse.

    Wow, that isn't right, the old X2 test system which has a considerably older Nvidia card runs it great. What's the full specs?
  • adamovera
    ksa-_-jedU should add more distros to the benchmarks like Debian, Fedora, and open SUSE.

    Fedora 15/GNOME 3 coming up next. I have never had any luck whatsoever with openSUSE, will keep trying new versions as they come out though.
  • bellman80
    I tried 11.04. Unity was more annoying than useful. I installed the new Linux Mint instead, I'm a happy camper now.
  • Tamz_msc
    I'm going to stick with 10.04, because it has been running rock-solid without a glitch for almost a year. It was able to find drivers for my on-board audio which even Windows 7 could not find.

    Unity is not my cup of tea., though I'm looking forward to GNOME 3.0.

    Till then Lucid Lynx FTW!
  • RogueKitsune
    Unity is a nice idea, but not my cup of tea. Overall I am happy with the changes in 11.04. Right now i have my laptop(AMD Turion x2, radeon x1200)running it with no problems(everything worked out of the box)
  • Filiprino
    Well, Unity is a plug-in of Compiz so if you install Compiz-config GUI you can configure more options and a bunch of effects, window management utilites and shortcuts.
  • 3ul
    I think the performance issue in unity 3d is due to the vsync(not sure the name right or wrong) is on by default in compiz setting. Turning this off should fix the performance problem. This issue mostly affected by AMD card.

    BTW unity imo have bright future. This is 1st public release so expect some bugs. By the time unity matured, its going to be a great shell for gnome..
  • antemon
    I'm still waiting for better games for linux

    hope the big names in the industry follow suit with indie devs on this...
  • haplo602
    running the xubuntu variant so not bothered by unity. however ubuntu in general is a bloated mess. the only thing I like is automounter works out of the box.

    However I switched graphics cards and getting it to run again was not automatic. I expected a bit more :)
  • razor512
    the os is good but the UI sucks.

    The unity crap bar makes it hard to launch multiple windows of a program, requiring you to basically use options built into the program to open another window

    the side bar is annoying, when ever you go to click on something on the left side of the window, you can easily accidentally bring out that annoying menu

    the search bar is annoying and will at most drive new users away from ubuntu. Since it requires you to search for things, for a novice user if you don't know what specific option you are looking for but want to discover the options, this makes it hard to do.

    while hardware support has been getting better, the Os has also been getting slower overall. They need to shift their focus from bloat to speed.

    they need to take a lesson from professional software makers. Most new professional apps, eg check out the latest adobe audition or photoshop or maya 3d or the mental ray render engine
    Performance is always improved on the same hardware

    An upgrade is not really a upgrade if you are losing performance.

    Would you "upgrade" from a GTX480 to a GTX460?
  • killerclick
    Linux shouldn't try to be a desktop OS for grandma.

    It's strong in the server segment, it's nearly ubiquitous in the supercomputer segment and Android is now a force in the mobile market. It should build on that and leave the desktop market to Windows and OSX.
  • DSpider
    killerclickLinux shouldn't try to be a desktop OS for grandma.It's strong in the server segment, it's nearly ubiquitous in the supercomputer segment and Android is now a force in the mobile market. It should build on that and leave the desktop market to Windows and OSX.

    Why ? Linux can look like both of them and can do much more. OS for grandma ? Hahahaha. Don't compare Ubuntu to Linux in general. You think grandma can install Arch Linux or Gentoo ?
  • Spanky Deluxe
    I made the mistake of trying Ubuntu 11.04 a few weeks ago when I needed a Linux distro for my CUDA development machine. Can't believe the joke of a GUI that they're using now, Unity is one of the worst user experiences I've ever had. Took me ages to just find where to change the screen resolution - the search terms I put into the search box didn't bring it up. After a few hours I uninstalled it. I gave Fedora a try too but Gnome 3 wasn't much better in terms of usability. In the end I went back to good old Scientific Linux with it's 'traditional' Linux GUI.

    I don't know what these Linux folk are thinking. It seems they're trying to force GUIs that are only useful on Netbooks on everyone. Trust me, a Netbook GUI is a pile of poo on a 2560x1600 display - let alone a 3 monitor setup.

    I don't really understand the point in the whole oversimplification thing either. There is no way in hell that I would ever recommend Linux to any non 'pro' user. Not because of how complicated it may be, which they're trying to do away with here, but because a non 'pro' user would struggle to get support and would struggle to get the software they want. Windows is hardly a big premium on computer costs these days and besides which, if it were for a grandma who'd never used a computer before then I'd get her an iPad instead.

    It really looks like the movers and shakers behind these big Linux distros are disillusioned as to who their customers or potential customers are and they're messing up the GUI for the people that know and love Linux in a vain attempt to encourage a tiny tiny minority of new users. Linux as a whole just went seriously down in my regard.
  • winco
    Still no "shutdown when idle" power management? A big big drawback for me adopting Linux.
  • burnley14
    This should be the desktop background on a loop: