Open Source

Ubuntu 17.04: A mouse-sized step forward

Ubuntu 17.04 is almost among us. Jack Wallen takes a look at the latest from Canonical to determine if it's a worthy contestant for your desktop.

ubuntu17hero.jpg
Image: Jack Wallen

It's almost the fourth month of the year. You know what that means. A new Ubuntu release is upon us. This time around, the release number is 17.04 and the name is Zesty Zapus. For those that don't know, a zapus is a genus of North American jumping mice and the only extant mammal with a total of 18 teeth.

Which means the zapus is quite unique. Does that translate over to the upcoming release of one of the most popular Linux distributions on the planet (currently listed as fourth on Distrowatch)? Let's find out.

Are we at Unity 8 yet?

There's a saying bandied about the internet these days that the "official" release date of Unity 8/Mir equals the Current Release+1. In other words, no one knows when the next iteration of the Unity desktop will appear. Unfortunately, that saying applies here; which, in turn, means there's very little to get excited about with Zesty Zapus. Suffice it to say, there will be no Unity 8/Mir this time around.

Consider this: Ubuntu 16.10 was the seventh attempt at a pre-release of Unity 8, and it failed to deliver a working product. That's a long run of attempts. So long, in fact, one wonders why the whole idea hasn't been scrapped so all that attention could be focused on perfecting what Unity already is: a solid desktop that would be exponentially better by now (had so much effort not have been given to an already failed mobile platform and its subsequent convergence).

Seriously, I think it's fairly safe to say that the Ubuntu Phone (aka Touch) platform is a non-starter. I've tried (on so many occasions) to use Touch. I wanted to love it; truth be told, I would have been happy to just like it. Alas, I found the platform dreadful to use.

Okay, we get it. No Unity 8 for the foreseeable future. But what about the upcoming release of Ubuntu? What will we see? Here's the short list (and it is quite short).

Swapping the partition for the file

The biggest change coming to Ubuntu 17.04 is a move away from the old tried-and-true swap partition. In favor of the swap partition, Ubuntu is making the switch over to the swap file. On paper this makes sense, as systems are running with considerable resources now and a swap partition twice the size of available RAM doesn't really make much sense. In fact, most modern systems have enough RAM such that swap is rarely used. It's doubtful users will see any increase in performance with this. And if you use the LVM (Logical Volume Manager) option, this change will not apply.

So long gconf

For the longest time, the gconf tool was one of the best ways to get really deep into the muck and mire of configuring anything GNOME. Ubuntu 17.04 is finally doing away with that long-in-the-tooth app, in favor of gsettings. Of course, gsettings isn't a new application, by any stretch of the imagination. Gsettings is also a command line-only tool. To get a GUI front end, you'll have to install dconf-editor (sudo apt-get install dconf-editor). For most users (at least average users), this will not come into play.

The latest kernel

Ubuntu 17.04 will ship with the 4.10 kernel. There are some nice features to be found in this kernel. In particular:

  • Nouveau Boost support
  • Initial mainline Intel GVT support
  • Intel Turbo Boost Max 3.0 support
  • EXT4 DAX and XFS iomap support
  • Improved MS Surface and Raspberry Pi 3 hardware support
  • Improved ARM support
  • Writeback throttling
  • Fail fast support
  • Better HDMI support on Skylake CPUs
  • Early support for Tegra P1/Parker
  • Improved WLAN speeds
  • ATA command priority support

For a complete listing of the changes to the 4.10 kernel, read this changelog.

System settings

On a default installation of 17.04, I found two different System Settings tool. The first is the same old tool we've grown used to. The second looks very much like it was taken directly from Ubuntu Touch (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

The Ubuntu 17.04 new System Settings tool.

Clearly there are options to be found that have no bearing on a desktop machine (such as Rotation lock). In fact, most of the settings in this new tool do not even work for Unity 7. I tested settings for Background, Launcher, Accounts, and Mouse & Touchpad and nothing worked. That is, until I hopped over to the Unity 8/Mir preview. It's clear this tool is intended to only configure the Unity 8/Mir preview. Why it is available on the Unity 7 desktop is not only odd, it would be considered confusing for users who have no idea there's a preview option available.

Testing Unity 8/Mir

As with all of the recent releases of Ubuntu, you are treated to yet another preview of Unity 8/Mir. Treat, of course, is a stretch, as the preview is still in horrible shape. Performance is alpha-level at best and many of the pre-installed apps don't even run. I was surprised to see LibreOffice included in the app list, but even after a full update, it refused to launch. In fact, the only apps that do run are those that were developed specifically for Unity 8/Mir, and even then, you're lucky if the app will function.

I get it, this is a preview; but how long has Unity 8/Mir been in preview status? It seems to me, after so many years, if a product hasn't arrived, it's a bust.

Here's where the story ends

Guess what? That's about the end of the new features to expect in the upcoming release of Ubuntu. Yes, there are a few tweaks here and there (but most of those tweaks involve the stock GNOME app stack and have nothing to do with Ubuntu itself).

The story of Ubuntu has been one of boring release after boring release. Under normal circumstances I would say there's not one thing wrong with that...so long as the reason for boring is because the product is already stellar. In the case of Ubuntu and Unity, I want to say that holds true (and for the most part it does). But we all know the reason why Ubuntu Unity hasn't changed much since 2014 is because of Unity 8/Mir/Convergence. Because of that, development on the production-release of Unity has stalled and stagnated. While the likes of GNOME, Elementary OS, Mint (and plenty of others) continue to drive forward, Ubuntu Unity stands still.

All because of an idea whose time has pretty much already come and gone.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Ubuntu Unity. If it weren't for Elementary OS, I'd still be using Ubuntu's desktop without complaint. And even though there hasn't been a wow-inducing release in quite some time, it's still an outstanding desktop operating system and the tiny steps forward made by 17.04 should still be considered improvements.

See also

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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