Ubuntu 14.04 review
A stable, up-to-date platform, but those seeking shiny new features will be disappointed
Canonical is pushing hard to expand Ubuntu into new consumer markets. In the past year we've seen shiny prototypes of Ubuntu-based mobile phones and tablets, and the company hasn't given up on its 2012 vision of getting Ubuntu onto TVs either. What's more, serious work is underway on converging all of these roles into a single chameleonic OS, something even Microsoft hasn't attempted. Read on for our full Ubuntu 14.04 review.
Against that backdrop, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS (codenamed Trusty Tahr) seems curiously unambitious. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise: Canonical's biannual release schedule typically brings only small incremental changes over the previous release. And since this is a long-term support (LTS) release, supplied with the promise of five years of support, Canonical has a particular incentive to avoid taking a punt on any experimental new technologies.
As a result, 14.04 looks and feels all but identical to Ubuntu 13.10. If you squint at the screen, you might notice that the embossing effect around the edges of windows has gone, and if you're using a very high-DPI screen (such as on a MacBook Pro with Retina display) you'll see that problems with tiny or blocky interface elements have now been fixed. There's also now a new tray icon at the top right of the screen showing your keyboard language – useful in some specific scenarios, but eminently switch-offable for most.
Ubuntu 14.04 review: what's new?
Perhaps the most welcome change to the Ubuntu desktop is hidden away in the System Settings. Since Ubuntu 11.04, application menus have appeared in the bar along the top of the screen, in the OS X style.
The ergonomics of this are very much up for debate, and we've always thought it rather cussed of Canonical not to provide the option of having menus incorporated into their respective application windows. In 14.04, such an option has quietly appeared, but the implementation takes a little getting used to: rather than each window having its own menu bar, menus appear directly in the title bar when the mouse is placed over it.
Another quiet change is the removal of the Ubuntu One front-end, since Canonical has thrown in the towel on its own-brand cloud storage and music-download service. That must be a blow to the company's pride, but we're hopeful it will inspire the developers to focus more actively on working with established cloud storage and media services.
The integration of 7digital, Amazon, eBay and other sites into Ubuntu's Dash search (a process that begun in Ubuntu 12.10) suggests that Canonical has been thinking in the right direction, but it will have to come up with something slicker than this to wow consumers.
For now, it's on the enterprise side of things that Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is strongest. The OS itself may not have evolved much, but since the previous LTS release the supporting components have taken some big steps forward. That includes Canonical's "Metal as a Service" (MAAS) server-provisioning system, which was barely out of beta in the last LTS release, and the latest version of the Juju software-deployment system.
The best news is that, for the first time, Canonical has pledged five years' support not only for the Ubuntu 14.04 LTS Server OS, but also for the OpenStack cloud computing framework bundled with it. Factor in upgrades in the 3.13 Linux kernel that improve support for networking, virtualisation and security and, even though LTS 12.02 still has three years of support on the clock, we suspect many businesses will already be preparing a switch.
Ubuntu 14.04 review: verdict
It's easy to feel a little disappointed in Ubuntu 14.04 LTS; it's a conservative release that feels at odds with the future-focused talk coming out of Canonical. But in the end that's the point. Ubuntu takes its enterprise role seriously, and this stable, supported wrap-up of the conventional desktop and server distributions is just what many businesses will have been waiting for. Smaller organisations and individuals seeking a switch from XP are well covered, too: it's notable that for the first time the "community flavours" – Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, Ubuntu GNOME and so forth – are all promised long-term support as well.
With a stable platform thus established, Canonical now has some breathing space to focus on more ambitious works, such as the forthcoming Mir display server and Unity 8 front-end that will underpin the next-generation, multi-platform, consumer edition of Ubuntu. In other words, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS may not be exciting in itself, but it sets the scene for bigger things to come.
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