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Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), Reviewed In Depth


A couple of weeks ago, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, launched Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal', one of the most highly anticipated and controversial desktop Linux distributions ever introduced. What makes Natty a landmark release is the inclusion of the brand new Canonical-developed Unity user interface. Unity replaces the GNOME 2 shell that served as Ubuntu's default UI since the distribution's inception.

The timing of Canonical's decision polarized both the Ubuntu and GNOME communities, as the GNOME project also recently finalized GNOME 3. Ubuntu 11.04 was originally slated to use GNOME 3, along with the new GNOME 3 shell, as its default GUI. The GNOME 3 shell is no less a drastic departure from GNOME 2 than Unity, and popular opinion is split in all directions.

As the most widely-used desktop Linux distribution, Ubuntu was a major driving force behind GNOME's adoption. Linux Mint is the second most popular desktop distribution, and an Ubuntu derivative. Mint will use GNOME 3 in upcoming releases, but without the GNOME 3 shell. Whether you're a fan of Unity or GNOME 3, one thing was always certain: Ubuntu was destined to change in a big way this spring.

But enough with GNOME and the political back-story; we have a whole lot of Ubuntu 11.04 to cover. This is such an atypical release that the question “What is Natty Narwhal?” cannot be answered simply.

Let's start with the meaning of Natty. Here in the States, Natty is short for Anheuser-Busch's bottom-shelf line of “Natural” beers. If you were ever a struggling student, there's a good chance you subsisted at one point on ramen and Natty Ice. Consequently, it has also come to mean cheap, trashy, or sub-par. How's that for a rough start?

And for that matter, what is a narwhal? I mean, look at that thing.

Apparently, Canonical's name for this release gets worse. The word narwhal dates back to Norse seafarers who explored the Arctic waters where this horned beast lives. Narwhal quite literally means “corpse whale” because its skin resembles a water-logged corpse. Oof. Ubuntu 11.04: Cheap, Drunk, Dead, and Bloated.

Let's hope not!

We typically bring you an Ubuntu: Benchmarked and Reviewed article every April and October, but since Unity introduces such tremendous change to Ubuntu, there's a ton of new stuff to go over. Thus, we decided to include a full-on guide to the new OS. We have an installation walkthrough, a roundup of changes to the software, a spotlight on the graphical redesigns, a Unity tour, uTouch testing, keyboard/mouse shortcuts, and even a few essential tips to get you up and running in Ubuntu 11.04.

And of course we still benchmarked the new version of Ubuntu. However, this time there is a twist. Instead of testing Natty Narwhal against its predecessor (Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat) and the latest LTS (Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx), we replaced Maverick with Natty. That's right; since Unity is the big deal in this release, we benchmarked Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal with Unity versus Natty Narwhal with the GNOME 2 shell, now referred to as the 'Classic' interface. We took this route to see if the new GUI has any performance implications. Ubuntu 10.04 LTS is still a part of our data to provide a comparison to the latest Long Term Support release.

Before we get into the numbers, let's kick this off with an installation walkthrough of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal.