Ubuntu 12.04 Review: This is the Distro you’re looking for.

There is a lot riding on Ubuntu 12.04 (aka “Precise Pangolin”) — this is a make or break moment for Ubuntu as a desktop platform.

Over the last few releases, Ubuntu has included a new desktop environment (Unity) as the default user experience (replacing the tried-and-true Gnome desktop of past releases).  And not everyone has loved it (to put it mildly).  But that was okay… most people understood that Unity was in development and were willing to cut it a little slack.

But with this new release, things are different.  Version 12.04 is a LTS (Long Term Support) release.  Meaning: this is the version of Ubuntu that many institutions will be running for years to come.  So it better be rock solid and people better like it.

The final version of 12.04 is due for release in 4 days and is, at this point, pretty much “wrapped and ready to ship”.  That being the case, now seems like a good time to kick the tires and do a full review so people know what to expect.

The short version: Ubuntu 12.04 is the best release they’ve ever had and absolutely blows the upcoming releases of Windows and MacOS X out of the water in just about every way that matters.

The User Experience

Let’s talk Unity for a moment.  Elephant in the room, and whatnot.

When Unity became the default user experience in Ubuntu last year… I was not thrilled.  I’ll be perfectly blunt: It was slow, buggy and a bit of a mess.

That’s not to say it didn’t show potential, but it was far from being ready for prime-time.  But that’s the past.  Let’s focus on what the basic user experience is for Ubuntu and Unity in 12.04 right now, today.

In short: It’s fast.  Stable.  And generally a pleasure to use.

Working with Ubuntu 12.04 is quite simple and elegant… until you want to sit down and see what applications are available on your system.  What you see to your right is the display of your installed apps.

Getting to this point is rather quick and easy — click the “Ubuntu” button in the top left, then click the little white icon on the bottom center that is, I assume, representative of “a comb, a pencil and a building with pacman on it”.   Then you expand the “Installed” section by clicking on the left/center of the screen.  Then you click on “Filter Results” in the top right.

Remember when I said “quick and easy”?  I lied.  What I meant to say was “takes several clicks on parts of the screen that are nowhere near each other and are not immediately obvious the first time you see them”.

Once here, you you can filter your installed software using a nice, simple looking interface.  Honestly I like the way this works quite a lot.  And, really, the process of searching through your installed apps isn’t something you’re likely to do all that often.  Once you become familiar with your system, you’ll either have your commonly used apps in the dock area on the left, or you’ll know the names and can bring them up quickly by just typing in the search box at the top.

In fact, this is my only big gripe with the Unity interface.  And it’s not a big one.  I’m nit-picking here.

Tablets and More

Earlier this week I realized that, when I was using Ubuntu 12.04, I was smiling a lot.  It made me happy in a nostalgic sort of way.  Then it hit me:

Notice anything similar?  App Launcher dock on the left.  All system menu’s up top, left aligned.  System indicators and applets in the top, right aligned.  Applications run full screen (or at least can) in the main area.  Nothing on the bottom or right sides.

That’s a screenshot of Maemo (a Linux distro for mobile devices, such as internet tablets) from circa 2008.  A, well designed, system I love and (still) use to today.  And, by golly, Ubuntu’s Unity fits right in with the same basic design ideals.

That’s when it really struck me just how well suited Ubuntu 12.04 is for tablets and hand-held devices.  The general user interface design being used here is tried and true.

Even the on-screen keyboard (Onboard) is a fantastic.

I found it to be highly configurable (which always wins brownie points with me) and a joy to use.  Multiple themes, definable macros (so you can have a single key type out your email signature, for example), options for when to auto-show/hide the keyboard, transparency, resizing, layout options and a bunch of other stuff.

Onboard is pure awesome in this release of Ubuntu.  I used it for the better part of the week on my Lenovo S10-3t tablet and it was astoundingly easy to use for even lengthy compositions.   When I first started using it I was annoyed with it… but once I realized how customizable it was, and spent a few minutes getting it set up “just right”… I was in touch-screen heaven.

Stability and Performance

I’m going to keep this part brief:

Ubuntu 12.04 is fast – Very fast.  Is it possible for you to build a finely-tuned Linux Distro, that uses a lightweight desktop environment, and have a system that is even faster?  You bet.  But I found Ubuntu 12.04 to be generally “peppier feeling” than current revisions of a few other popular disro’s using KDE and Gnome Shell.  And a leaps and bounds faster than MacOS X or Windows.

Ubuntu 12.04 is stable – Not one single lock up or crash during this review on multiple machines.

Some Awesome Settings

Ubuntu 12.04 includes a nice, easy to use System Settings application.  But I want to talk about two specific sections in the System Settings that I think are incredibly cool.

First up are the “Privacy Settings”.

This provides settings for deleting the history of file activity, options to never record file activity for specific file types (or files in specific folders) as well as not logging activity from set applications.

While these settings alone won’t make everything on your system 100% history-free, it’s a great start if this is necessary for you (or if you are a wee bit paranoid).

Next is the “Backup” settings.

Just about every platform has options for some form of backup system.  But the ease of configuration, combined with massive flexibility, really takes the cake here.

You can set which folders to back up (including which folders to ignore), when to back them up, how long to keep them and, here’s my favorite part… where to back those files up to.

The options are awesome.  You can send those files to another local folder (such as a backup drive), a network share, a WebDAV server, an Ubuntu One account (of course)… or even back the files up over FTP or SSH.

The Software Center

In the interests of full disclosure: I sell one of my applications in the Ubuntu Software Center (in fact, I think I was the 7th piece of software to be made available for sale through it).  So I have a vested interest in seeing the Software Center succeed.

On the flip-side of that coin: That also makes me incredibly critical whenever there is any problem with the Software Center.  If people don’t love using the Ubuntu Software Center, then people aren’t going to buy my software through there.

So here are my thoughts.

  1. It’s a bit sluggish at times.  Not bad.  You won’t be spending the better part of your afternoon looking at spinning beach balls like some other software stores I could mention… but it’s also not as lightning fast as it’s predecessor (Synaptic).
  2. In the paid software section there are no categories.  Making it a bit cumbersome to find new apps to buy.  This isn’t a problem in the non-paid areas.
  3. In all other ways… it is awesome.

Finding software is easy.  Installing software is easy.  Rating and reviewing works great.  There are more and more, high quality paid applications available (which I think is awesome for the greater Linux ecosystem).

Final Conclusions

I love Ubuntu 12.04.  Good looking, easy to use, stable, fast.

For a tablet PC, I’d say this is the best system out there right now — and that includes the upcoming Windows 8, Android and iOS.  It’s not 100% perfect in that regard (there are some UI elements that can be a pain to touch with a big, fat, manly finger), but it’s close.  And the flexibility of the on-screen keyboard is absolutely killer.

If you are running a previous version of Ubuntu, it’s time to upgrade.  If you tried Unity out in 11.04 and didn’t like it, it’s time to try it again (keep an open mind and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised).

If you are running Windows: The choice is clear.  Make the jump to Ubuntu 12.04 and run any Windows-specific software you need via Wine.  Windows 8 is coming… and Ubuntu 12.04 just crushes it in every way that matters (other than having large squares… Windows 8 definitely has more large squares).

If you are running MacOS X: You don’t have the luxury of running your existing Mac apps under Linux like you can with Windows apps using Wine.  So the move is going to be a bit more problematic for you.  But, if you can find Linux or Windows versions of the software you need, I seriously recommend making the jump.  Perhaps start with a trial installation in VirtualBox to see how it works for you.

Now, as for me, I have a big soft spot in my heart for two other amazing Linux Desktop’s : openSUSE and Arch.

Does Ubuntu 12.04 make me want to give up running them and go 100% Ubuntu?

No.  But with how spectacularly good this release is, there is no way that I won’t have at least one machine running Ubuntu 12.04 on my desk.

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  • Steven

    If there were two ubuntu releases, one release for people who use their computer for… useful things, and one for stupid people… ubuntu 12.04 would be the one for the stupid people. Every single tool I needed to get my computer up and running was absent from this release. Not to mention the obviously un-customizable approach to the UI… blasphemy to what I though ubuntu was all about….

  • Bill

    Steven and Stephen Hardy have said it all. This is a toy. I have an iPad. I use it when I have to because the OS is a PITA! I don’t want my desktop computer to work like an iPad. I want my desktop to work like a real computer. Unfortunately, there is very little choice anymore. Windows 8, OS X Lion, Gnome 3, Unity are all turning computers into toys. I’m sure they’re great for updating your Facebook status. For doing real work, this is a joke!

  • frank

    Unfortunately I cannot confirm the statements. For an LTS-revision it’s surprisingly buggy and unfinished. On my Samsung Ultra5-Series I struggle with the following issues:

    - battery indicator doesn’t recognize plugging in or removing the cabel
    - lid close = suspend doesn’t work
    - bluetooth is switched on after suspend
    - upper panel crashes whenever I update/create an appointement in evolution
    - flash fullscreen mode doesn’t work with special compiz settings
    - and generally it appears slower and slower after a while (it runs on a SSD)
    - the shipped gnome-shell seems to have even more buggy and therefore I can’t use

    I really think of giving Fedora a try.

  • http://community.xianlabs.com ElectricPrism

    I was overall disappointed with the driver support in 12.04 for my 3 monitor setup.

    Linux is a love hate relationship – love features like Copying being separate tasks, Tabbed File Managers, Software Center – hate having to drop to TTY1 to install new NVidia drivers because the current version is buggy and broken.

    I wrote an extensive review also located here if anyone’s interested:
    http://community.xianlabs.com/topic/9825-ubuntu-1204-lts-review/

    I really agree with what you say in your Linux World 2012 video about Linux needing to honestly evaluate itself.

  • Mike S..

    I’ve been using Ubuntu since 2007 but went off with with version 11.04. Messed about with it again at 11.10 but soon dropped it again.

    Then went to Linux Mint 11 & 12 while all the time having a Windows 7 machine.

    I then decided to give it one last go with 12.04 and I’ve been very impressed. Easy to install alongside Win7, fast to install and get running on it. The performance is lightening fast and I’m running the OSX Lion theme + additional fonts and with Conky; looks amazing!

    Then a few days later I upgraded one of my laptops and did a fresh install of Windows 7. What a pain. What a pain.

    I didn’t realize how damned useful the software center is compared to Windows. With Windows you have to hunt around for free tweaks and tools, but with Ubuntu, they’re all there in Software center and/or Synaptic package manager.

    I’m now hooked back on Ubuntu.

  • telchar

    Great review. Been using Ubuntu and Debian for 5 years and this is my favorite release since 10.10. I have installed it on many computers with no problems. Runs beautifully even on netbooks.

  • EC Belikov

    I’m just starting to get into Linux with Ubuntu 12.04. Installed it on my Laptop alongside Win7. I really like the style but I’m having problems with it.

    It’s running sluggishly and I can’t get it to update Flash, nor can I get Scrivener installed (tried deb and tar.gz).

    I’m sure I’m just doing something wrong with the installs (what I don’t know, I’ve followed several different guides), but can’t figure out why it would run so much slower than Win7…

  • http://themikecraft.wordpress.com Mike

    Great review! I got a new laptop 2 days ago and I’m downloading Ubuntu today!

  • Ray U.K.

    I am very disappointed with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

    I have tried it on two Desktops, both Pentium D 3.0ghz,
    one 2GB Ram, other 1.5GB Ram.

    In both cases 12.04 LTS was Slow, Unresponsive, and Totally Unable to Multi task. Simple tasks like Moving a File from a USB Pen take 100% of resources. More than three tabs in Chromium Browser = Desktop Seizure.

    I have also tried Ubuntu 11.10 on two lower spec laptops, one a Pentium 4, the other Core 2 duo, both 1GB Ram,had similar experiences to above.

    Ubuntu is not for me or friends that have tried it, we have found Ubuntu to be fairly User friendly, but always painfully slow compared to XP or even Vista.

    I am going to uninstall and go back to XP on laptops and Vista Premium on Desktops, even Vista is faster and can Multi Task.

    What a shame Ubuntu, you have spoilt my Linux experiment, Its Windows 7 for me soon.

  • David

    I have tried several Linux distros. Ubuntu 12.04, Mint 13, Fedora 14, Zorin OS 6, and so far I have been fairly impressed for a number of reasons.
    For all who want to know. I am running an Acer 7551g. Everything works out of the box. Wireless, Ethernet, Touchpad, everything. The only thing that I had to install was the ATI drivers. That was easy in Additional Drivers.
    Ubuntu 12.04 was a little sluggish in boot, but I blame that on what it is. My Hard drive is 5400rpm. Its going to be slow.
    But where I am impressed is.
    1) It booted faster than Win 7.
    2) It used less ram than Win 7. ( I am a multi tasker. I make my PC’s cry. My win 7 will go up to using 3.5gb out of 4gb of ram. Ubuntu got up to 1.5 at its highest.
    3) I use both Windows and Linux. I use Windows for gaming. I use Linux to fix other computers. (Conveniently from a External)

    I am the guy most people call when things go wrong with their windows XP machines. I have done this for a short time (6 years or so) I love both Windows and Linux, BUT I use the tools for what they excel at. If your not an idiot, you use a hammer for pounding and pulling nails and a screw driver for screwing screws.

    Find what makes you comfortable. Unity, its ok. I am indifferent, it has its use for people that use it. I like what ever allows me to get my work done.

  • realbezo

    Hi, i even don’t want to talk about Unity, it is a disrespectful desktop environment, it is not customizable, not useful etc.
    That’s why i have chosen xfce as a desktop environment and installed official Xubuntu 12.04 LTS but after 5 months, after so many updates, it is still instable. By the way it is supposed to be a lightweight DE but it is not. The chromium browser uses 1.3 GB ram with 10 tabs open and it crashes occasionaly.
    Sometimes xubuntu behaves like Windows, it freezes and i cannot even determine what causes this freeze because i have to reboot my computer with force shutdown…
    Summary is, the last (x)ubuntu 12 lts release is totally dissatisfying, i think i have to choose another distro for stability and usefulness…

  • Tim

    Thanks for the positive spin. Makes me feel somewhat better about installing 12.04. So far, I wish I had stuck with 10: much faster.

  • Alyx

    Ubuntu lost me when it lost Gnome, but I tried 12.04 anyways and I am still not impressed. Little to customize in the Unity shell and feels restrictive, has a use it one way and that way only feeling to it.

  • jParnell8839

    ok… Ubuntu 12.04/12.10 is awesome. its the first distro that has made me SERIOUSLY dropping my windows partition and just running a VM for the very few apps that I need that wine cries about.

    I’ll give it this: it is much faster than the other distros. but on my HP Omni All In One desktop, certain applications lock up ever so often (with the tell tale sign being the entire app window darkens and stops responding). I have noticed, however, that with increased use, this happens less frequently. dont know why, it makes no sense, but like i said, primarily a windows user and am considering moving over completely.

    Now, something about your review I absolutely 100% disagree with. Tablet use. Windows 8 did it perfect for x64 based tablets. Touch interface is refined, smooth, and extremely responsive. and the Win 8 touch keyboard is incredible. Ubuntu leaves much to be desired, including cursor interaction with touch (I still dont know how to right click), responsiveness/smoothness, and the horrible OnBoard. if you try to resize the keyboard with your finger on a touch device, it will get stuck in resize mode and there’s nothing you can do to get it unstuck without plugging in a mouse and exiting OnBoard.

    long story short, as a desktop machine Ubuntu 12 is incredible. I’m still amazed that some windows native apps run better in Ubuntu with Wine than in Windows. as a mobile tablet-centric rigg… well… lets just hope Android-x86 can make it right