Ubuntu 11.10 Review : I take it back. Unity is cool.

Today is a big day.  Today marks the release of Ubuntu 11.10 and, with it, the first real update to the Unity desktop environment that first shipped, 6 months ago, with Ubuntu 11.04.

I spent the last two weeks living in Ubuntu 11.10 Beta on my primary machine.  And am now upgraded to the latest and greatest bits of the final version that should be shipping any moment now (by the time you read this it is likely already available).

First, a little back-story.

When Ubuntu 10.04 shipped… I called it perfect.

When 10.10 shipped… I was pretty doggone happy with it.

Then 11.04 shipped, with the new Unity desktop… and… I just plain did not like it.  No sir.  Not one bit.  Unity just plain made me cranky.

So this new release had a lot riding on it for me.  The Ubuntu team had to show that Unity could really be great.  Not just great… but worth while.  With so many other great desktop environments (Gnome 3, KDE4, LXDE, Enlightenment, etc.), Unity had to show that it was both distinctly different and distinctly high quality.

And they pulled it off.  By Jove, they pulled it off.

Let’s go over the changes that I find the most interesting.

Better 32-bit support on 64-bit systems

Or, in short, “multiarch“.

It has always been possible to run 32bit applications on a 64bit system.  Usually this required installing 32bit versions of the various libraries (ia32-libs) and, often, building “64bit” packages for 32bit binaries.

In 11.10, Ubuntu is taking the first steps in improving this by providing the ability to simply install 32bit apps (and libraries) along side 64bit ones.  The end goal being to make a wider array of 32bit apps available to users of 64bit systems.

This may not seem like a big deal to many… but it is huge.  Let’s face it, most applications don’t need to be 64bit.  How much ram does a calculator really need?  So making it transparent to the user to run either 32 or 64bit apps is fantastic.

New Login Manager

LightDM.  A lot of people will pay a lot of attention to this over the next few days.  So I’m not going to.

Here it is in a nutshell: Light DM looks pretty.  It’s lightweight.  And it’s easy to customize (what with it sitting on webkit and all).

Some App Changes

Most notably: Thunderbird is the new email client.  And Deja Dup for backups.  No issues there.

The On Screen Keyboard

I have a Lenovo S10-3t.  It’s one of those “Netbooks with a swivel touch screen that turns into a tablet” machines.

And I love the heck out of it.

Ubuntu 11.10, like its predecessors, does an excellent job of supporting the touch screen right out of the box.  In fact every piece of hardware on this rig worked perfect without no fiddling around.

And, luckily, there is a fairly functionality (and rather… interesting looking) on screen keyboard that is available directly from the login screen.

So, if you are using a tablet, you can log right in without ever pulling out a real keyboard.

Unfortunately, this on screen keyboard is not quite so easily pulled up once you are logged in.  It takes a fair bit of clicking and digging.  But it’s there.  And it works.

It’s ugly as sin.  But it works.

Updated Ubuntu Software Center

I have a vested interest in seeing the Software Center improve (as I actually make a portion of my living by selling software through it).  And, what I see in 11.10, pleases me greatly.

Things are much more discoverable and approachable than in previous releases.  Ratings, application sorting/searching, categories… What’s New section.  It all feels much easier to discover new software.

Plus, it looks fantastic.  Clean and elegant, with the Ubuntu style.  Very slick.

The Software Center feels like a real, grown up application store.  And a damned good one at that.

Unity Improvements

And here we get to the main event.  All the other items… those are important (especially multiarch and the updated Software Center).  But Unity.  Unity is key.

If Unity sucks, none of the other improvements matter all that much.  Because you’ve gotta live in Unity.  Every moment.  Of every day.

Luckily – Unity is very, very far from sucking.

There are new features in Unity (including new alt-tab switching and the addition of some handy shortcuts to key settings in the power menu in the top right — including display settings, printers and more).

But those aren’t what makes Unity in 11.10 good.

Nope.  What makes Unity in 11.10 good… is three specific things:

1) Huge improvement in quality.  Both in terms of small visual refinements and, even more importantly, bug fixes.  Unity feels solid now.  In its first release, Unity felt like it would break if you looked at it funny (and, often, it did).  But in Ubuntu 11.10, I’ve yet to have any serious issues with Unity.  And that makes me happy.

2) Speed.  Massive, massive speed improvements.  None of us want to wait around for our desktop environments.  And Unity does an excellent job at being peppy.

3) Consistency.  Thanks to Unity 2D, the experience of using Ubuntu is astoundingly similar for both 3D accelerated desktops… and those less fortunate (often in virtual machines).  This also means that the experience of first booting Ubuntu 11.10, even if you haven’t installed proper video drivers with 3D acceleration yet, will be a first class experience that will be almost identical to what you will get with 3D support.

So it’s good.  But is it worth while?

Yes.  Yes it is.

At first I was, admittedly, hesitant about the direction Ubuntu was going with Unity.  I asked the same questions that so many of you have asked (“Why?  Look.  Over there.  Gnome 3.  Use that.”).  But now I get it.

Ubuntu is really doing its own thing with Unity.  And that, in and of itself, is worth while… so long as they build Unity in a high quality way.  Choice is, after all, one of the things that we all love so much about Linux.  And this is, most definitely, not Gnome 3 (which I have also come to have a healthy respect for).

And even more importantly — I have actually enjoyed using Unity.  Is it perfect?  Nope.  But it is good enough to make me smile.

Here is the final, important, question:

Is Ubuntu 11.10 worth upgrading to?

Yes.  Without hesitation.

I skipped 11.04 for my main machine.  But 11.10?  It’s staying on here.  This is a heck of a good release.

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  • Robert Dexx

    Just upgraded to 11.10 on my media PC. It’s a piece of junk – if I wanted a Mac OS, I’d have purchased one.

  • Boo Boo+

    Unity 11.10 – It SUCKS BIG TIME….

    Noy because the fundamentals of the OS are wrong – No actually some of it is really great…

    But the interface fucks it up totally for me.

    The menu bar on the left side of the screen – and it’s LOCKED into that position???? WTF?

    I prefer MENUS – up front, with full keyboard controls.

    I hate guessing games, having to remember “etherial” linkages between abstract symbols, paths and functions.

    Like since when is a FUNCTIONAL TOOL – the GUI, supposed to be designed by giddy headed clueless interns taking their first bottle of vodka?

    And 11.10 – the interface is a disaster – and it’s a disaster in lock down mode.

    If the moving of the windows controls from the right to the left was a dumb move in 11.04 – 11.10 is an exponential increase on “idiot interface”.

    I do not want journeys of discovery – I want up front controls – AND I want control of my system and it’s settings – and these “art students on acid” – just fucked it up totally.

    They even did a lock down in Ubuntu basic – could not move the menue bar up to the top – so I bailed out of their bullshit and into the XFCE interface.

    (Change settings on start up x 2)

  • Bijohn

    I think 11.10 using more resources…….. May be due to 3D acceleration…… I used to get 3:30 hours battery back up on Dell vostro 3550 while using 11.04. After upgrade it is 2-2:30 hours.

  • Bijohn

    ” I hate ubuntu Unity desktop. It is terrifically confusing………………………. ”

    That is an old story now…. 😉

    My Dell vostro had a graphics issue with 11.04. Upgrade to 11.10, was a good resolution. So I had to stick with 11.10 and unity even if it is using more resources. Spent 2-3 days on unity and

    “Now I am loving it …………………… “

  • Bijohn

    One more think guys……………… Booting time

    Compared to 11.04, 11.10 taking toooooo loooong………………… :(

  • thetall82

    Here’s another guy who gave KDE 4 a try, pushed by Gnome 3 first and Unity later.
    It’s now 3 months using Kubuntu 11.04 (KDE 4.6) on my home desktop every day and I’m pretty happy with it. It’s solid. I removed some of the bells&whistles and installed some more “soft” themes (white pearl colour scheme + g-remix desktop theme + kfaenza icons) and it looks polish and functional. It still has some “odd” behaviour and some minor bug but it’s really really worth a try in my humble opinion.

  • kaddy

    LoL Did Canonical Pay you to write this garbage? just sayin…..

  • Robert

    I am totally disappointed of UBUNTU 11.10 and looking for some other distribution. Gnome 3 is disaster. Please read this posting:



  • someone

    unity looks cool, sure, but its bloated like a microsoft vista. if you dont have a decent, dedicated video card then dont even bother. speed for lower-end systems has been completely disregarded by the canonical team. yet id wager most linux users are looking for speed and not bloat.

  • Maccus

    Don’t switch to 64bit. The reviewer failed to notice that there is no w32codecs for 64bit. The w64codecs deb contains no codecs. This will leave you unable to play many video formats like ASF/WMV.

  • http://www.jonobacon.org/ Jono Bacon

    Glad you like it, Bryan! :-)

  • Ryan

    11.10 is the first Linux distro where I couldn’t wait to get back into Windows.
    It was slow (despite having a fairly powerful PC), encountered far too many crashes (not as many as 11.04) and couldn’t get many programs to work.

    With Unity and gnome Shell being utter failures, distros such as Ubuntu better start looking at spending more time focusing on KDE or some other desktop, because I’m finished with gnome/unity.

  • ron firebox

    What a complete load of nonsense

  • Jordan

    Hey Bryan, I’m glad that we agree on 11.10. I feel smarter as a noob when my initial reaction is the same as someone more knowledgeable like yourself. More customization would be nice and I am getting really annoying bugs in virtualbox under 3D acceleration. I’m forced to use Unity 2D (under virtualbox) but am still very satisfied with it.

  • Steve Owens

    I would just love it if Ubuntu could do a major release without fucking up something major. Last release they screwed up the gnome desktop, this release they have made it so that I can’t read my e-mail using evolution mail any more.

  • Kevin

    Come on, anyone who believes Bryan actually likes 11.10 is mentally deficient. He sells his software (which is really pretty good by the way) on the Ubuntu Software Center. Bryan is crazy, not stupid. He’s not going to bite the hand that feeds.

    For him to say anything negative about Canonical at this point would be downright silly.

  • Gerardo

    I just installed 11.10 and i am as happy as a clam. everything works and even stuff that was not working on 11.04 works now. I even love the sidebar and its hugemungous buttons. 😛 This release is awesome just simply awesome no issues no coaxing it to work. It gets the job done that winders couldn’t.

  • Martin

    Please, come back to the LAS! A special Brian reviews Ubuntu 10.10 would be great.

  • http://www.lunduke.com Bryan

    “Come on, anyone who believes Bryan actually likes 11.10 is mentally deficient. He sells his software (which is really pretty good by the way) on the Ubuntu Software Center. Bryan is crazy, not stupid. He’s not going to bite the hand that feeds.
    For him to say anything negative about Canonical at this point would be downright silly.” – Kevin

    When Ubuntu 11.04 came out I let Canonical have it. I basically straight up told them it sucked in the harshest possible way. I do not mince words.

    And, at that point, I had been selling software through the Ubuntu Software Center for half a year already.

    I sell software through the Mac App Store as well, and you won’t find me holding back my opinions there either. :)

    I tell things like I see them. And I, quite honestly, dig Ubuntu 11.10. I think it is an excellent release.

  • Eric

    Unity would be good if the icons on the side where like Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR). Using the normal categories like Internet, games, photo/video… The switch would have then made me very happy but instead it has made me want to switch to Linux mint.

  • Dankles

    When will you be back on LAS T_T

    You have a great voice for the job, and I love listening to your style of critique and opinions :)

  • Axure


    A tip: The on-screen keyboard app is called Onboard and it’s not really hard to dig out: just type Onboard in the search field in the sidebar launcher. If you want to use it often, you can drag the Onboard icon in the “search result” onto the sidebar.

    Also, the keyboard doesn’t have to be ugly. Once you’ve launched the keyboard, tap / click on the suspiciously empty space on the right of the keyboard and you’ll be able to open its Preferences. There you’ll find a couple of themes, of which at least one is quite nice (Droid).

    On a side note, I must say your review of 11.10 is rather superficial. From my experience, It’s rife with bugs, some of them very obvious, as if it was written by a bunch of sloppy students who don’t bother to test their work thoroughly.

    Just a very simple example: I like to change my desktop backgrounds quite often and I don’t store my wallpapers in the default Pictures folder, but rather on a separate “media” partition. So I go there with the file manager, I open a picture with the default Image Viewer, right click and set it as wallpaper. The funny thing is, it usually works only the first time. If I decide to pick another wallpaper, nothing will happen. So I’ll go to desktop background settings, and there it wrongly shows that the new wallpaper was set. So I’ve found a trick: If i change the wallpaper positioning from Center to Zoom, and then back to Center again, it’s properly refreshed and the new one appears.
    (And it’s not even a new bug, it was the same for months, if not years, in previous releases!)

    Unfortunately, Ubuntu is full off silly stuff like this. And I don’t even bother reporting these bugs, because:
    a) It’s a pain in the ass to report, it’s too complicated.
    b) Canonical simply doesn’t have the manpower to process all the bugs that it’s already getting.

    Not to mention some truly misguided decisions, like putting window resizing buttons (max/min/full) on the left of the window bar. Why would you do that, when you’re targeting the “normal” people, who are supposed to switch from Windows? Mac users are happy with their system, and besides they are a tiny minority of all consumers. So why piss off 95% of your potential constituents? Because you want Ubuntu to look more like Mac OS and thus seem more sophisticated? And at the same time you serve more bugs than Windows Millenium Edition? WTF?

    I really want to like Ubuntu, I’m actually using it as my main OS for 2 months now. But apart from some positive aesthetic changes, its development turns out to be sloppy on every level – from buggy code to idiotic design decisions.

    And it drives me even more crazy, because this system could really be great. Honestly, someone should slap Mark Shuttleworth on the head and tell him to get his act together.

  • http://www.lunduke.com Bryan

    “A tip: The on-screen keyboard app is called Onboard and it’s not really hard to dig out: just type Onboard in the search field in the sidebar launcher. If you want to use it often, you can drag the Onboard icon in the “search result” onto the sidebar.” – Axure

    Unfortunately that method is completely un-doable for a purely touch screen system. Thus rendering any tablet type device without easy access to a keyboard.

  • Axure

    True. In that case you need to at least borrow an extension keyboard, say in a store, and set up the shortcut on sidebar.

    What personally irritates me the most, when it comes to touch in Ubuntu, is that I can’t scroll pages in the browser with my finger. (I’m using a 23” touch monitor.) I mean – yeah, there’s the scrollbar, but it’s hard to hit precisely. In Windows 7 I can just put my finger anywhere on the page and drag it, like on the iPad.

    Just one more proof, that thinking in Canonical doesn’t go very far. They’ve announced multi-touch-enabled Ubuntu with much fanfare, and yet it’s pretty much useless.

  • dotmatrix

    LAS is one long borefest without your presence. I hope that you’ll change your mind. Take care and sorry for the off-topic.

  • D. Smith

    I have had a bad experience with Unity. Unity crashes, a lot. I’ve been using Ubuntu since Warty, and I’ve never seen such brittleness in a UI. Also, the whole “It’s all full-screen all the time, baby.” thing is downright dumb. Currently, I have FF and Pidgin open on the same workspace. They both are normalized (not max or min), and if I am using either, I have to go scrambling about in the TOP BAR OF THE WHOLE SCREEN to access MENU items for EITHER. I also fail to understand the notifications that won’t go away, be less conspicuous, nor will they let you interact with them. The sometimes slider tabs are dumb too.
    I have seen closed programs that still have their titles and menu items in the top panel. And what is WITH the whole divots thing? So, there’s one divot if a program is open. If it has a sub-window, there are two divots that occupy the same size as one divot. then there is yet another divot on the opposite side to show you what you are currently using? Who cannot tell what program they are currently using? Why not make the divots more obviously separate? What if your background has divot-like elements in it that show through the side panel?

    From lightbulbs to lawnmowers to computers, if it turns on and you use it, you want to:
    1. Easily start it.
    2. Easily make it do what it does.
    3. Easily tell how and what it is doing.
    4. Easily shut it down.

    Unity does 1.5 of these things at any given time.

  • http://notnow.anytime.com longtimeubuntuuser

    Unity sucks! No matter how you wrap it up, it sucks. If you are a true Linux user and not one that is all into bling, Unity sucks!
    Did you realize that you have to click through so much crap to get where you need to go to configure something, add something or to just find something?
    It wasn’t that way before Unity.
    I like a desktop client where it shows you what you are looking for up front, not buried under a bunch of layers of crap.. You know, like Windows 7 does?
    To use Unity is to complicate life in general.. Isn’t life complicated enough?

  • Arniegeddon

    Since I can’t get on with Unity I decided I’d install the Lubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu Desktops. Each and every one of them look fantastic and I find each to be more functional than Unity. After each update I do try Unity again but the longer it continues to be awful is a step closer to installing Linux Mint or Pinguy OS on my Desktop.

  • Paresh

    Nice Reviews .. hope its good… i am uninstalling my fedora 15… its no good… video chats doesn’t work n etc. Hope ubuntu doesn’t come with these problems.

  • http://www.XianLabs.com ElectricPrism

    I can really appreciate that I can try out Ubuntu in VMWare again, 11.04 didn’t boot unity without going to LiveDVD – so the 2D consistency is a big plus.

    Just saw your you tube hour session on linux sucks and I’m glad to hear a “matte of fact” realistic look at linux.

    Its very true that highly specialized skilled developers NEED a secure income to do their job, and its impossible in many advanced software suites to develop a project like GIMP without the financial safety net – ex: GIMP – where 99% users cant contribute code because its so specialized.

    Nice articles.

  • Fredo

    It still has quite a few bugs, though. Give it a little more work, and it’ll be just fine.

  • Scott Tenney

    My first experience of Unity was on 10.10 netbook edition. It was really different from what I’m used to, windows but I got the hang of it. When they introduced 11.04, I immediately upgraded and it was like, hell. The brightness was going haywire and I had problems with sound and videos. When 11.10 came out, I upgraded immediately, and am so thankful of the improvements. I was pondering on switching from Unity but now, it’s actually usable.

  • spike

    The best thing about Unity is that I could uninstall it.
    Unfortunately Gnome3 just weird me out and I cannot for the life of me figure out where the system menu has gone.

    Unity reminds me of Windows Vista…and we all know how well that turned out.

  • garegin

    some1 said that unity was sluggish. it has a lot to do with the x.org drivers. usually intel driver support is great to excellent. i used it on a nvidia chipset the other day and the thing was flying.

  • Greg

    Nobody who uses their computer for real work could find Unity anything but an impediment to productivity.

  • http://www.eridesktop.com eri

    to bad, ubuntu leave gnome, i love gnome so much…there is so many “hidden configuration” on gnome that i can do…:D (just my 2 cents)

  • marr

    Unity is already pretty good. Keep in mind it is a relatively new project. I think it will rapidly improve, by the time 12.04 is released I am willing to bet that Unity feels snappy and smooth on most machines.

    It took me a little time to get used to the way it felt in 11.04, but after those 6 months, and the 2 or 3 now on 11.10, I have to admit I Love it!

  • dikonikon

    Apparently its tough doing the right thing in a market that is highly outspoken, and yet strangely fond of the status quo.

    I have installed and tried so many distros now on the advice of friends and colleagues, and yet I keep coming back to Ubuntu 11.10, with Unity. It works really well, it’s simple, and doesn’t use up a load screen real estate, mostly it gets out of the way. Why are people so agin it?

  • joe

    I finally upgraded to 11.10 and it is a huge improvement. Love the look of the login screen. Still hate the menu on the top of the screen instead of on each window. Window min/max/close buttons never should have been moved to the left, so I keep hoping that Canonical will see the light and change that back. This feels a lot like a Mac now, but without all the shackles that Apple puts on you. One thing I noticed is that I still can’t run l4d2 at good framerates using steam on wine. Windows is still the best pc gaming platform for now. Looking forward to 12.04.

  • steve

    It is amazing, the anti unity crowd are almost as bad as the apple fanbois. Am surprised by that, I though Linux “people” had a little more open mind. I am with you, I love Unity, I like the first release and love this one. Super review, thanks. I don’t want to read some journal review where a staff writer spent a couple hours nashing around with this release and then declares that it is the salvation of Ubuntu or it sucks so bad you should never download an Ubuntu iso again. Solid review based on long time use. The kind of review that is truly useful for someone who does more than just tweet their computer and play with linux which is what a lot of people do obviously.

  • Penguin12

    So after first hating Unity and Gnome 3 after RTM I actually started to like both.
    I really started to like Unity. However the following things made me decide to uninstall:

    1. Performance. The normal unity interface ran pretty high CPU (up in the teens and twenties) and Memory (around 400 mb) (*caveat there may have been other things going on to add up to this), nonetheless ,however running unity 2d or gnome 3, they had better performance figures. Running this on a labtop so the less CPU usage the better = better battery life. I think it may have something to with compiz for example.

    2. Zeitgeist is what really put me off. I saw the service running, and looked it up in Synaptic (which I had to install manually, but okay, I can see a use for software center, as Ubuntu is trying to be normal user friendly. From what I understand Zeitgeist is used for filtering of the whatchamachigs, and as such, unity becomes disfunctional without that.

    Other than that, things such as the numbered keys when you press the (Ubuntu) logo key, are really a nice touch. As well as e-mail and chat integration. All in all it has a nice poished look. In the end I settled for gnome 3, as it is quite user friendly, does not require Compiz, and is quick to use. Stil have to figure out how to add a nicer theme though.