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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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