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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
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.