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.
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.