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Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot – beautiful, but deadly

Canonical’s reshaping of Ubuntu is complete, but does 11.10 live up to the hype? Russell Barnes takes a look at the 15th iteration, Oneiric Ocelot, probably the only distro to be loved and loathed in near equal measure…

In Linux User issue 105’s beta review, we talked about how 11.10 appeared to be working hard to make good on plans laid out in the previous release. Where 11.04 was rough around the edges, with what was clearly a work-in-progress Launcher and Dash among other things, much more elegant solutions could be found.

It’s no secret that elegance and form are all very important factors for Canonical’s design team, but 11.04’s implementation smacked so heavily of form over function (a complaint arguably true of both ‘next-generation’ desktop experiences including GNOME Shell and Canonical’s Unity) that a positive reception would have been hard to wish for.

The ‘new’ Dash in 11.10 is strikingly beautiful with highly refined frosted glass effects and hi-res icons, but has made significant strides to address as many of 11.04’s misgivings as possible in the time allowed – it seems function finally got a look in. This is largely thanks to Lenses, which can be used to pivot the content you’re looking for within Dash, and Filters, which dynamically change depending on the type of content you’re looking for.

The new Dash offers a new Music Lens and Filters

The Dash itself is much more useful as a result, but (as is the case when you abandon drop-down menus as Canonical has done here) there’s still a fundamental flaw no measure of tweaking and iteration can truly remedy: it’s still too difficult and time consuming to find what you’re looking for (especially if you don’t know what it’s called).

The core problem with this kind of icon-led design is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t cater for a brief bout of forgetfulness that stress or tiredness can so easily induce. This being the case, the simple act of finding your preferred ISO burner, for example, can be an annoying chore that requires more key presses and brainwork than should ever be necessary. You could type ‘ISO’ or ‘DVD” into the dash and might get the result you’re looking for. There’s also a good chance you wont.

That’s not to say Ubuntu’s developers weren’t mindful of these difficulties – Lenses and Filters can resolve differences in programs, files and folders down to the megabyte. More tellingly perhaps, they’ve also added a System Settings launcher shortcut which is otherwise completely buried in the application window.

Finding apps is easier, but (by design) it's not 'one click' easy

The problem is that, while these are usable fixes to Ubuntu 11.04’s myriad issues, they’re not really solutions to the greater problem. We just can’t help but think that Unity, as a desktop environment, still has much evolution to endure before it can be considered any kind of revolution in desktop computing. Is it right to block legacy legacy desktop experiences in this way? Not to our mind.

For us the inability to use the desktop (to say, drag a terminal onto the desktop itself) is also something of a deal-breaker. We’re certainly not adverse to development, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense or courtesy to the user.

Though there are many other updates and changes to Ubuntu 11.10 like vastly improved indicator applets, updated packages and the fast-acting and fashionable LightDM, Canonical’s design team have wisely focused much of their attention on a trinity of features unique to Ubuntu and that neatly encapsulate the key selling points of the distro. If there’s one thing Ubuntu does well it’s marketing, after all.

The Software Center, now firmly part of the App Store generation

Besides the Dash, Ubuntu One and the Software Center make up this trinity, and have been on the receiving end of a good majority of the development work that’s taken place over the last six months.

Though many of the updates to the Software Center are purely aesthetic, it is arguably easier to find popular and specialised software alike. This is the age of the App Store, so its only fitting that the Software Center gets a makeover to incorporate app reviews and proprietary pay options.

The real story about the Software Center facelift, though, is that Synaptic Package Manager, which has been a mainstay of Ubuntu for some years now, is no longer installed by default in Ubuntu 11.10. It joins PiTiVi and Evolution as another package to fall off the defaults list, but will surely be missed more than the video editor and email client, which have been overshadowed by OpenShot and Thunderbird respectively over the last year. How you feel about these changes will ultimately boil down to your usage habits, but suffice it to say they each remain available in Ubuntu’s repositories.

The Ubuntu One service has grown dramatically in the last six months

Ubuntu One, as you may be aware, is Canonical’s cloud storage solution that syncs files and folders across multiple distro installs. The functionality of this service has grown recently to include music purchases (via the Ubuntu One Music store) and streaming services to iPhone and Android smartphones. Canonical has added another much-vaunted feather to its cap with the introduction of a Windows client too, which should go some way to tempt users of Dropbox and its many competitors, not least since the free storage quota has been raised to 5GB (more than double of some of its contemporaries) and it’s now possible to sync installed applications between desktops too.

In terms of design Ubuntu is really challenging Apple. In terms of compatibility and reach it’s certainly got Microsoft’s attention and where the open source ecosystem is concerned, it’s the most recognised brand alongside Tux himself. Does Canonical play entirely by the rules? No, and this is a very important problem for the project and there are many reasons why open source enthusiasts could (and perhaps should) steer well clear. But – and it’s a very big but – there’s no escaping the fact that Ubuntu is the most highly developed and refined open source operating system in the world today. The conflicts here make scoring pretty much moot – either you’re already enjoying it, or you’ve sworn never to grace Canonical’s mirrors again.

Read our interview with Canonical’s Gerry Carr about the launch of Ubuntu 11.10

Check out the latest posts from Linux User & Developer

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