Ubuntu 12.04 is almost here (April 26, 2012). Canonical has some serious plans for its flagship platform, and Precise Pangolin has both some big changes and some minor changes that will make a huge difference in how people feel about Unity and the Linux desktop in general. Although some of the major changes won't be immediately apparent, some of the minor ones will be quickly evident and worth examining.
Let's take a look at 10 of the features and changes I believe will make a big impact on the way users view Ubuntu.
The Head-Up Display, to me, is a big one simply because it integrates application menus into the desktop UI. With an application open, hit the Alt key to bring up the HUD. When the HUD is open, you can search your application menus based on keywords. For example, if you have LibreOffice open, you can open the HUD, do a search for Format, and all menu entries relating to Format will appear in a list for you to select from. This means no more bouncing back and forth from keyboard to mouse to poke through application menus.
2: New privacy tool
Because the new iteration of Unity records all your recent history, the addition of a privacy tool was necessary. With this tool you can determine exactly what Unity records and what it doesn't. You can turn recording off to completely disable the feature or you can specify what files and applications it can record.
A few nice touches to the Launchbar make a difference. The first is that the Launchbar can now be set to auto-hide. When enabled, this gives Unity a bit more of a GNOME 3 look and feel. Another addition is the ability to resize icons. No more dealing with the oversize icons that make the Launchbar look like a child's toy. And finally, the Launchbar is no longer set with the dodge window behavior. This caused a lot of issues when interacting with certain applications. The default behavior now is always on top.
4: Change to Unity Dash
The Unity Dash's default home screen has changed the order in which things appear. This is not a huge change, but it will go a long way toward making Unity more efficient. Now, the Dash shows Recent Apps first, Recent Files next, and finally, Recent Downloads.
Although Quicklists aren't new, additional lists will be available. What is a Quicklist? Simple. Quicklists allow you to right-click an icon in the Launcher and select from options. For example, in the Google Chrome Quicklist, you can right-click the icon and immediately open an incognito instance of Chrome. The new Quicklists for Unity are the Dash Quicklist and the Home Folder Quicklist. The Dash Quicklist includes Dash Home, Applications, Files and Folders, Music, and Videos. The Home Folder Quicklist includes Documents, Downloads, Music, Video, Open In New Window, Home Folder, and Unlock From Launcher.
6: Video Lens
Unity Lenses enable you to easily organize items in the Unity Dash. If you open the Video Lens, you can select and play videos from a variety of sources, such as those from your local collection, YouTube movies, BBC iPlayer, and TED Talks. Open the Lens, do a search, and click on the video you want to view. Simple. Efficient.
7: Rhythmbox default
Banshee has become plagued with problems. Because of this, Ubuntu is returning to Rhythmbox as the default music player. Although there is a bigger issue (at least from the perspective of Canonical), causing the removal of Banshee (more on that in a bit), many users will be happy to use the less crash-prone Rhythmbox for their music pleasure.
Ubuntu Unity will finally include a configuration tool for the desktop. This application was developed to provide full customization of Unity features, including the Unity Launcher, Dash, Panel, Desk, and Font. This tool was available for 11.04 and 11.10, but had to be installed from the Software Center. Now, MyUnity will be installed and ready for configuration by default.
It's been a battle cry for some time now, but much of the Linux crowd will be pleased to know that with the removal of Tomboy and Banshee, Ubuntu is now Mono-free. Why is this important? Microsoft Patent Extortion. A patent deal was made between Microsoft and Novell that involved Mono. Because of this, many in the Linux community see Mono as proprietary software that should be relegated to the non-free repositories. But it goes deeper than that. If you dig into the verbiage of the agreement, you find that the only "safe" users of any Mono-dependent software are Novell customers.
10: Trackpad support
This one has been a long time coming. Owners of trackpads whose clickable button is built into the surface can now enjoy support for their device. Most new Synaptics trackpads are supported, as are Apple Macbook trackpads. Ubuntu 12.10 should also include support for Apple's Magic Trackpads.
Better and better
The improvements just keep on coming for Ubuntu. I can honestly say I haven't been this excited for a release of a distribution in a while. The HUD alone will be worth the price of admission with Ubuntu 12.04 (although there is no price). Canonical and Ubuntu are doing some incredible things with the Linux desktop. Even if you're a naysayer, give Precise Pangolin a go and see if it doesn't change your mind.
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.