A contentious and subjective issue, but is Ubuntu the fairest of them all?
Before we start ranking the latest release of Ubuntu, version 12.10, on its aesthetics, let’s get one thing out of the way: the appearance of a desktop environment is incredibly subjective, and the source of almost as many bitter flame wars as Vim versus Emacs. What follows is by no means an attempt to state that any given distribution is objectively prettier than another, but simply a subjective analysis of recent changes in Ubuntu and how other distributions have reacted.
With that out of the way – and on the understanding that a distribution isn’t tied to its desktop environment, with replacements often a single package manager command away – we can start looking at the newest Ubuntu release.
Ubuntu’s appearance is dominated by Unity, the icon-heavy user interface first developed for Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Remix. Now Unity is the default for both accelerated and non-accelerated hardware, following the development of a software-rendered version, it’s clear that Canonical has thought hard about making Ubuntu attractive to newcomers. The Unity Launcher – a series of icons found at the left-hand side of the screen which hide when applications are launched – uses a smooth, rounded style for its icons that presents uniformity and brings Apple’s OS X Dock and iOS design to mind.
Graphical flourishes abound, with animations – the Launcher sliding in and out, for example, or the Dash fading into view – and some effects that previously would have required add-in software like Compiz (including a neat blurring effect to the background of the find-your-files- and-applications Dash which ensures you can still see your last app without it making the text hard to read) adding a particular visual panache.
Unity isn’t for everyone, however pretty its visual niceties may be. Ignoring criticisms regarding its usability on a desktop – which we’ll get into later – the layout is rigid and inflexible, with the Launcher locked to the left-hand side of the screen unless you’re willing to install unsupported third-party hacks. Unlike the old GNOME-based Ubuntus, it’s difficult to tweak Ubuntu 12.10 to your individual requirements – instead leaving you with how Canonical boss Mark Shuttleworth feels a modern desktop OS should appear.
The Competition – Linux Mint
For those who find Unity a turn-off, the most obvious choice is a switch to Linux Mint. An Ubuntu derivative, it’s the closest you’re likely to find to the old, GNOME-based Ubuntus without trying to hack GNOME 2 into Ubuntu 12.10. Offering a choice of the GNOME 2 fork MATE or the GNOME Shell fork Cinnamon – along with the usual alternatives including LXDE, Xfce and KDE – it provides plenty of scope for customisation and more advanced effects while providing a familiar-looking platform for those who are coming from a GNOME 2-based Ubuntu.
Once the go-to choice for newcomers, have others surpassed Ubuntu’s famed usability?
For years, Ubuntu has been lauded as the Linux for newcomers. Its combination of simple graphical package management – and there’s certainly no doubting that the Ubuntu Software Centre is a major achievement, having directly ‘inspired’ the launch of both Apple’s Mac App Store and Microsoft’s Windows Store – and a clever installation program, Wubi, which allows it to be installed from within a Windows environment without having to repartition the drive, mean that many Linux virgins have taken the plunge into Canonical’s waters.
From an installation standpoint, little has changed: Ubuntu is still offered as a bootable CD or DVD image which includes the clever Wubi installer. As before, those just trying things out can use the live CD to test-drive the operating system, or to create a bootable USB with persistent storage – something Microsoft has caught onto, offering a similar feature for the enterprise-centric version of Windows 8.
From a first-use standpoint, however, Ubuntu 12.10 is something of a mixed bag. The changes wrought by Canonical’s move to Unity from GNOME 2 have given the entire OS a major reshuffle, with the result that Windows users may find themselves lost. By contrast, those who use OS X as their daily operating system are likely to find themselves more immediately at home: the location of the window controls on the left-hand side, the icon-centric ‘dock’ and the moving of the window menu to a bar across the very top of the screen are all reminiscent of Apple’s desktop design ethos.
The loss of the Applications menu, the full-screen nature of applications – with the GNOME 2 taskbar vanished in favour of adding icons for running applications to the Launcher in among all the existing shortcuts – and a sometimes flaky search system conspire to make it difficult to get things done when you’re new to the Unity experience.
With time, Unity can begin to show its true colours: the full-screen experience makes the most of your display’s available real estate and shines on low-resolution laptops and netbooks, and many of the more hidden features – including some very clever ‘Lenses’ for the search system and handy mouse-over hot-spots – can speed your multitasking.
The Competition – MEPIS
Warren Woodford’s MEPIS, based on a combination of Ubuntu-derived binaries running on a Debian Stable base with backported applications, is considered by its fans to be extremely well suited to first-time Linux users. Designed to ‘just work,’ its KDE-based user interface places menus and icons in roughly the same location as Windows, providing an easy means for emigrants from that OS to click and explore. Coupled with good documentation and a friendly community, those who are looking for a distribution to recommend to less technologically-literate friends and family could do significantly worse.