Ubuntu 11.10 review
Slicker and smoother than its predecessor, 11.10 is a refinement rather than a revolution
Canonical releases a new Ubuntu distribution every six months, each one coming with an alliterative zoological codename and a version number that reflects the year and month of release. The last update – Ubuntu 11.04, released in April and dubbed the Natty Narwhal – ditched the familiar Gnome desktop in favour of Canonical’s own Unity interface, previously seen only on netbooks. It was a controversial decision, but one that undeniably gave the friendly Linux distribution a character of its own.
This new edition, dubbed the Oneiric Ocelot (it means “dreamy”), is much less adventurous. It brings no new features to speak of, just a clutch of interface refinements, more like a service pack than a new version.
That’s no bad thing: we’ve always liked Unity, but its first incarnation felt rather basic. Now there’s an elegant new graphical logon screen, nicer graphical effects throughout the OS and prettified icons.
The search tool has been promoted to the Launcher, with direct links to applications, recent documents and media files. It’s also been given a name – it’s called the “Dash” – and its shortcuts to apps and documents are called “Lenses”. This doesn’t seem to make much sense, but at least it gives Unity a clear vocabulary, which it previously lacked.
Performance is distinctly improved too. On a powerful desktop PC, Ubuntu 11.04 was fast enough to find applications and documents as you typed, but on netbooks – a natural constituency for Ubuntu – searches were frustratingly sluggish. Now, in 11.10, icons pop up instantly, even on lowly Atom hardware.
You can customise the appearance and behaviour of the Launcher via the CompizConfig tool, but bafflingly this still isn’t included or advertised in the standard distribution – it must be downloaded and installed manually. Casual users will therefore probably never see the full flexibility of Unity.
On the positive side, some preferences are easier to access than before: the shutdown icon at the top-right of 11.04 has turned into a cogwheel, offering direct access to commonly used system settings and devices, as well as power options. There’s still no obvious way to remove the unified messaging icon from the menu bar, though.
And if you’ve upgraded from a previous version of Ubuntu, the dropdown messaging menu still directs you to Evolution, even though the default mail client in 11.10 has been changed to Mozilla Thunderbird.
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