Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thoughts on Ubuntu 11.04 and Unity

After waiting for a few weeks until the commotion died down somewhat, I thought I would have a look at the latest version of Ubuntu, version 11.04, codenamed Natty Narwhal. A major feature of this release is the new desktop environment/interface, known as Unity. This has created a lot of controversy on the internet, which initially made me hesitant to upgrade. Lots of people have complained that it removes a lot of functionality, that things are not where they once were, and so on. I thought that rather than just stick with the old version stubbornly, or switch to the KDE environment, I would actually install it and use it for a week or two, before passing judgement.

First of all, I used my laptop as a guinea pig. There is nothing of importance on it that isn’t backed up elsewhere, so if everything got hosed it would not be too much of a drama to do a clean install. Bringing up the update manager, I clicked the “Upgrade Now” button that has been teasing me for the last few weeks. The upgrade process started, and I left it to its own devices to scan the system, download, install and configure the latest versions of everything.

Much to my pleasure, when it was finished and after rebooting, the system actually started and loaded up the shiny new Unity desktop. All the effects were running, and this is machine had a fairly old ATI card and runs the open-source radeon drivers. It’s a bit of a departure from previous versions of Ubuntu, so I can see the concern other users have. A bit of experimental clicking around brought up my first problem - how do I launch more than one instance of a program, such as the terminal window? Clicking the terminal button on the side pane (which was there because it was configured as a button on the task bar on the previous install, along with Chrome) again just brought the existing terminal window to focus.


That’s not going to be much use, I thought - so a consultation of the Google was called for. Turns out, giving the icon a click with the middle mouse button is the secret to opening additional instances.

I recommend searching around for some Unity guides or tutorials  - a good selection is at this site to get an idea on how to use it. Some sort of guide or walkthrough should have been included with the default install - a link on the desktop or something, as this is a pretty big step. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but I think it has a lot of promise. Another little gem I found out was the use of the Windows key (or Super key) - a quick press brings up the dash where you can type in a program’s name, similar to the functionality in Windows 7; a longer press bring up the launcher, holding it down longer puts numbers on the icons that you can then use as shortcut keys to launch the programs.

Also check out this page of things to do/tweak after installing.

After one afternoon’s usage, I get the feeling that it’s not a massive backward step as people are saying, but a different way of doing things. It’s like the step from Windows XP to Vista or Windows 7 - things are in different places now, there’s some adjustment required, but after using the new features it’s difficult going back to the old way.

After mucking about with the laptop for a bit, I thought I would do a trial install on my main system. Still not willing to risk the main install, I grabbed an old hard drive, put that in my system and unplugged my existing drives. I then started the install process from CD, from scratch.

One of the concerns I had was that Unity is a part of Compiz - the desktop effects package that does not run on the open-source nouveau drivers for Nvidia cards. I have been running those on my desktop since they allowed the suspend functionality to work - the binary nvidia drivers did not do that. So this was going to be the big test - if suspend didn’t work on the new version, I would probably give the upgrade a miss or try KDE perhaps.

After quite a while of downloading updates and various components during the install (the default mirror must have had a really slow connection), the install completed and I rebooted. First impression - the loading screen actually worked properly. The nvidia drivers might finally be playing nice! Login screen came up, followed by the desktop. Going to the nvidia-settings program confirmed that the binary drivers are in use, so it was time to see if suspend worked or not. Clicking the suspend option in the main menu, the system actually powered down. No blank screen with blinking cursor in the corner, like in previous versions. I was impressed. I’d be even more impressed if the system came back up again. Hitting the power switch, the drive span back up, up came the password prompt to unlock the system. Entering the password brought the desktop back up, with a minor bit of graphical glitchiness on the side pane, but once I moved the mouse over it, it all came good. Success!

One thing I noticed was the behaviour of the launcher with a multi-monitor configuration. the way I have my screens set up, the second screen is off to the left of the main screen. So if I move the mouse to the left edge of the main screen, to bring up the launcher, if I move any further left onto the second screen, the launcher disappears again. Might have to look into that, whether I can move it to the right edge or something.

So far, that is my experience with 11.04. Further discoveries, from a longer period of use, will be posted in the future.

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