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Ubuntu 11.04 beta review – Natty Narwhal’s naughty but nice…

Ubuntu 11.04 is one of the most controversial and highly anticipated releases of the popular Linux distro. And the first beta of Natty Narwhal gives you a chance to preview many of its innovations - including the brand new Unity interface...

This article is due to appear in issue 100 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Ah, spring! Snowdrops and crocuses pop up everywhere, the birds start their usual frantic nesting and mating routines, and Canonical releases the first beta of the next Ubuntu release. By now, you might already have heard about the most significant change in the upcoming Ubuntu 11.04 dubbed Natty Narwhal — the brand new Unity interface designed in-house by Canonical. And since opinions on the new interface seem to be divided (to put it in the mildest way possible), we were eager to give the beta release a try to check out the new interface for ourselves and see what else the Ubuntu 11.04 has to offer.

The installer tool features a few subtle but welcome improvements

Let’s start from the very beginning: the installer. While the installation utility remains largely unchanged, it does feature a couple of minor but welcome improvements. For example, the new “Allocate drive space” dialogue simplifies the process of choosing the desired installation option. The time zone selection dialogue has also been tweaked, and you can now type the name of your current city and select the desired location from a list of matching results. Another useful addition is the ability to upgrade the existing Ubuntu 10.10 installation to 11.04 using the installation media (Live CD or USB stick). The installation procedure itself seems to be even faster than before. On our test machine equipped with a solid-state disk, the installer zoomed through the installation process in less than 10 minutes.

At first sight, the Unity interface doesn’t look all that different. The desktop is here, and so is a top panel with the usual assortment of icons. Then there is an Ubuntu icon in the top-left corner and a launcher containing various shortcuts. All of this doesn’t seem to be radically different from a regular desktop environment. But click, for example, on the Ubuntu logo, and you’ll quickly realise that things are not what they seem to be. Instead of a menu, you are presented with a full-screen dashboard, containing shortcuts to often-used actions, such as Browse the Web and View Photos, while the search field at the top of the window lets you quickly find any application installed on your system. The launcher holds shortcuts to default applications which you can launch with a single click. Thanks to the clever accordion-like design the launcher works well with screens of any size. When you expand the stacked up items, you can scroll up and down the launcher using your mouse (right-click and hold the mouse button while scrolling). When you open an application in the full screen mode (or you move the window close to the left border of the screen), the launcher conveniently hides away, and you can evoke it by hovering the mouse over the Ubuntu icon in the top-left corner of the screen. You can also control the launcher using the keyboard: pressing Alt+F1 selects the first item in the launcher, and you can then use the arrow keys to select other shortcuts.

All system settings are now available in one central location

That’s all fine and dandy, but the current launcher implementation has a few quirks. While you can remove a shortcut from the launcher by right-clicking on the desired shortcut and disabling the Keep In Launcher option, adding new shortcuts is less intuitive. You can’t just drag the application you want onto the launcher. Instead you have to launch the desired application, then right-click on its icon in the launcher and enable the Keep In Launcher option. This adds the shortcut in the application’s current position. Moving the added shortcut (or any existing shortcut for that matter) to another place in the launcher is a three-step procedure: grab the shortcut with the mouse, move the shortcut from the launcher, move the shortcut to the desired position in the launcher. All of this is not exactly rocket science, but it isn’t intuitive either. However, the biggest issue with the current launcher implementation is that it’s not immediately apparent how to resize it. As it turned out, resizing the launcher is a rather convoluted procedure. First, you need to install and open the CompizConfig Settings Manager tool, then select the Ubuntu Unity plugin, and switch to the Experimental section. Only then you can adjust the launcher size using the appropriate slider.

Continue to: Page 2 – Conclusion

Read our recent interview with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttlework – Mark Shuttleworth talks Narwhals

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