Some impressions of the new Ubuntu

Screenshot of GNOME Shell with this entry in a QTM windowRecently I installed the new version of Ubuntu (actually, it’s still in development as the final version is only due out on the 13th). It was sort of forced on me in one case, because I had installed the backported new version of KDE on my desktop computer and found that it had become a crashy mess, but I installed an earlier version (the October release from last year, codenamed Maverick Meerkat) and found it worked very well. Unfortunately, since then, major changes have been made to Ubuntu and although this version (version 11.10, codenamed Oneiric Ocelot) is an improvement on the release before it (from April, codenamed Natty Narwhal), it still has not reached the level of quality that was associated with Ubuntu up until last year.

Until last year, Ubuntu’s main desktop was GNOME, which had been around since 2002 and had developed over the years into something very stable and reliable. That wasn’t the main reason it succeeded in that; the main reason for that was that its competition in the free software desktop world, KDE, was based on a toolkit called Qt which could be used for free and open-source products but not commercial ones without a paid licence. The toolkit used for GNOME (GTK) could be freely used for either, although I do not recall many heavy commercial applications being ported to Linux using GTK (RealPlayer and VMWare used it, though). While Qt was released under similar terms to GTK after Nokia took over the company that developed it, KDE’s developers then radically re-invented their product in 2005, causing it to lose a lot of ground for years afterwards. By last year, however, KDE had returned to form and GNOME had come to be seen as a bit long in the tooth.

Both products offered essentially the same things — menus and applets which could be arranged on one or more panels, and these were often arranged so that they resembled a Windows desktop; GNOME more often resembled a cross between a Mac and a Windows environment. Interestingly, perhaps because display technology has improved and more computers have accelerated graphics cards that are capable of more sophisticated 3D effects, the new GNOME environment has moved to a more Mac-like feel. The new version of GNOME has a “Shell”, offering a “Dash” (obviously modelled on the Mac’s Dock), and windows that scale down at the touch of the Windows key so that you can see all of them (similar to Exposé on the Mac), although some of its other improvements are quite original, and not all of them are a great improvement. It still offers multiple desktops, for example, but using them is more involved than in KDE or the older GNOME.

Ubuntu does allow you to install GNOME 3’s Shell, but defaults to its own shell called Unity, which was originally based on the old GNOME and appeared on the Netbook version of Ubuntu from 2009 onwards, but became the main desktop for its main release for the April 2011 (Natty) version. It offers an even more Mac-like user experience, with a top-of-screen application menu and a permanent Dock (called the Launcher) at the left hand side of the screen. The trouble is, it doesn’t go the whole way. You can’t move the dock from the side, for one — which may suit wide-screen monitors fine, and most computers (and nearly all laptops) come with wide screens nowadays, but some of us are still suck on 1280x1024 displays, like me, and a strip down the side of the screen, even though the screen is wider than it is long, takes up what looks like an unreasonable amount of screen space. A strip along the bottom would give more space for icons and allow apps the full screen width, giving something more like the cinema aspect that is increasingly standard. Besides which, it’s a choice, which the Mac offers and Unity does not.

Even more irksome is the fact that you can’t program the launcher as you can on the Mac — you can simply set up a menu and apply it to the Dock icon with one command, and it will appear if you right-click (or long-click) your application’s icon. That doesn’t work on the launcher — you can add menu items to it, but although there may be a way of doing this from within a program (which is not well documented if it exists), but the standard way is to write a file with a set of commands that can be run whether the program is running or not. All very well, but some way of automatically running the program first if it isn’t running already would be very useful (as it is, you have to write a script yourself to do that). It still isn’t as much functionality as you get with a menu you can attach to the system tray icon (which Unity has been busy crippling), and it’s not as simple to program. GNOME 3’s Shell lacks even this functionality at present. Worse, it pops up a menu saying “New window” which does no such thing — it just starts a new copy of the program, which may not actually open a new window at all. The “Quit” item in the same menu in Unity is just as bad. It doesn’t actually close the program, just all the open windows. If the app has a system tray icon, that remains visible, i.e. the app is still running.

Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu and Unity) have been trying to get developers to address what they saw as the mess that was the system tray and GNOME panel structure. To be honest, it was inconsistent, as they say, with some items being buttons and others being menus, there were different stylings, and accessibility problems. However, it does provide a way of providing a global menu for a piece of software and it is a cross-platform standard, so apps written using it with one toolkit can run on all the major desktop environments, plus Windows and Mac OS X. Since Unity’s “app indicators” aren’t present on the Mac or Windows, an app that depends on that alone is tied to Unity — it will not even function properly on any other Linux distribution, or on KDE. Canonical acts as if its product is the Linux desktop, when in fact it is merely one version of it (albeit the single most popular) and Unity does not ship as standard on any other version of Linux. I’d be the first to admit that the Mac’s way of providing a global menu through the Dock icon is better than using the system tray, and if Unity had provided the same, I would have used it some time ago. But it hasn’t.

Canonical have some other funny design concepts, among them doing away with an explicit Quit command. They present the Quit command as a compromise dating from back when the only GUI was on the Apple Lisa, which had a 5MHz processor, 1Mb of memory and two floppy drives and only one application could run at any one time. More recently, they claim:

Mac OS X moved the “Quit” menu item from the “File” menu into the junk drawer that is the application menu. But quitting has remained a basic part of how Mac applications present themselves, and it has persisted for many applications in Windows and Ubuntu as well.

A few behemoth applications, such as LibreOffice and Gimp, still keep “Quit” separate from “Close” for the original reason — to save you from having to wait for the application to relaunch after closing its only document. But that is fixable, and all other applications have become fast enough that they don’t need it any more. After all, they’re running on hardware that is hundreds of times faster than it was in 1984.

How is the Mac application menu a “junk drawer”? Having the Quit command there, rather than the File menu, is a quite logical thing to do if the application menu exists. It doesn’t anywhere except on the Mac, of course, but that is their way of making the Quit command look like a throwback. They diverge into how modern environments such as smartphones do not have the Quit command. I have an Android and I can see the consequences: apps that just won’t die, and annoyingly keep throwing up notifications long after you last used the app. Some Android apps do, in fact, have a Quit command. There are still applications, even on desktops with dual-core processors and 4Gb of RAM, that are inefficient, bloated memory and processor hogs and being able to get rid of them when finished with them is not a throwback, it’s essential.

All that says, Unity works fairly well on my laptop. There are some nice features, including the Ubuntu Software Centre which starts if you try to load an application that is not there, giving you the option to install it; however, it should really have an easy way of running it from USC once you have installed it. On the 64-bit desktop machine, for some reason there are bugs which don’t seem to appear on the 32-bit version on my laptop: Google Chrome always opening to cover the whole screen (maximised), and regaining the GNOME title strip when you click the button that sizes it down (a known bug that has existed for a long time). On the laptop, it covers everything except the dock. That doesn’t happen in Unity 2D, but when you scale Chrome down there, it does not redraw properly and so bits of the old bigger window are still there until you move something over them. The icon for the text editing program GVim is missing on the desktop, but is there on the laptop. On my laptop, although it detected the Broadcom wireless modem and downloaded what it thought was the correct driver for it, the driver did not work and it took a browse of the Ubuntu forums to get the right packages. This bug was present in the last release as well.

On both machines, speed and responsiveness is good. I used the “desktop CD” to install on my laptop; it was incredibly slow and unresponsive, opening up with the installer program that I didn’t want to use just yet, and crashed when I tried to close that. It then started up the normal live-CD session, and when I ran the installer again, it failed while cleaning up after finishing the install, giving no indication of how to fix the problem. I rebooted into the newly installed operating system and nothing was amiss, however. On the desktop, I used the alternate installer CD (a straight text-based installer) and everything worked perfectly. There was, as expected, a huge update to be done afterwards; this is because I installed from a Beta CD, but by that time, the packages had been updated to the Release Candidate versions but no new CD had been released. I have always preferred to use the text-based alternate installer CDs and will continue to do so.

In short, an improvement on last time. I haven’t tried out KDE on this version yet, but might well do as none of the four versions of GNOME are quite satisfactory on the desktop. On the laptop, this one is a keeper.

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