Well, it has finally arrived. Probably the single most controversial Linux release to date. Ubuntu 11.04 — Natty Narwhal. The distribution that dared to buck the trends and go with it's very own desktop that everyone said would fail. Rumor has it that even as near as a month prior to release, the Ubuntu developers wanted to can Unity and go back to standard GNOME — but the board voted them down.
"Controversy," as Prince sang.
I had plenty of testing under my belt with the alpha and beta releases and decided Natty should be labeled (to that point) a huge success. There was so much to love about the new desktop. The whole idea behind Unity was to unify the desktop so that everything was seamless and made every aspect about simplicity. And Unity succeeded in doing just that. But how did the transition from beta to full release turn out? If the state of the beta was any indicator as to how well the full release would perform, the Ubuntu audience was in for a real treat. Did it deliver?
There's your answer. In its simplest form. But why? How could something go from doing so well in beta form to not doing so well in the full release? In a word — installation.
I had planned on migrating from Ubuntu 10.10 to 11.04 on my primary desktop. I was all prepared. Everything was backed up to an external drive, I had the standard list of applications that had to be installed immediately (GnuCash, OpenShot Video Editor, The GIMP, Chromium Browser, Claws Mail, Lucky Backup, and guvcview). I was ready. So I downloaded the ISO, burned it onto disc, and rebooted my machine.
Generally, I run the Live version of the distribution and then install from there. For Ubuntu you can choose to try it out (run the Live CD) or just immediately install the distribution. I decided to go my usual route and clicked the Try It Out button.
The initial screen just sat there, doing nothing. I thought that odd, so I rebooted (thinking it was just a fluke). When the initial screen popped up again, I clicked the Try It Out button and, once again, was greeted with a big squadoosh. Thinking maybe it was a bum disc or ISO, I downloaded a second copy, burned it again...
And had the same results.
So, I tried it on another machine (both machines are Shuttle PCs. The main machine is beefier, with a better NVidia graphics chipset.) with the same results. This is interesting seeing as how my secondary machine was already running Kubuntu 11.04 flawlessly. But I am never one to give up. I rebooted the secondary machine one more time and, instead of pressing the Try It Out button, I clicked the Install button. That worked fine and moved on to the next step. But I (being of the curious nature) wanted to find out something. Instead of clicking the Forward button, I clicked the Back button, which returned me to the original screen. This time I clicked the Try It Out button and, can you imagine my surprise when, it worked! The Live CD booted up and Ubuntu 11.04 was running.
I decided to try the same thing with the main machine. It worked...but...when the desktop booted, it booted to the standard GNOME. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get Unity to run. I know, with 100% certainty, the main machine has the hardware to run Unity 3D (It runs Compiz perfectly), so it wasn't a hardware issue. But try as a might, Unity would not run on the primary machine (at least not with full installation.)
Now, here's why I say Ubuntu 11.04 doesn't deliver. Most users who want to try Ubuntu or Linux for the first time aren't going to jump through the hoops that I did to get it running. In fact, if a new-to-Linux user had the experience I had, they might well have already run back to Windows or OS X. I realize this might well just be an NVidia issue, since I have Ubuntu 11.04 running fine on an Intel-based laptop. But NVidia is a fairly common chipset, so a lot of users are going to have these same issues. Imagine if all NVidia users run into the same issue as I had...will they even bother?
Another tiny issue (which won't affect that many users) is the encrypted home directory. I really like this feature, but after adding it to the installation the request to enter the encryption key is far from obvious. In fact, it's quite easy to over look this. Forget to create an encryption key and things are going to get dicey.
Once the installation was complete, things went back to the normal, smooth Ubuntu experience. But up until that point, things simply weren't what I had expected. I have to admit, I have done my fair share of waffling on the whole Ubuntu Unity issue, but that is not where my problem is for the final release of Ubuntu 11.04. Once running, Ubuntu Unity is a really great desktop. But if these installation issues aren't ironed out, Ubuntu is going to find itself losing ground.
Also, for anyone expecting to configure any desktop effects, you're going to have to install some software. It was said that Unity would be using Compiz as a compositor, but by default there is no way to configure Compiz. To do this, the Compiz Configuration Settings Manager (ccsm) package must be installed. Also, don't expect to run the Compiz Cube, as it can not be loaded so long as the Unity plug-in is running.
Other than that (and the that being an incredibly minor issue), once the desktop is up and running it is quite good. So for those that do make it through the installation woes, the final result is well worth the trouble. Ubuntu 11.04 is an outstanding platform for all levels of user. For a first "official" release, Ubuntu Unity might well be the only desktop worthy of production desktop at such an early age. Unity makes you feel like you're using a GNOME-like desktop, with the speed of a much lighter-weight environment (like Fluxbox or Enlightenment.)
At this point however, I would make the case that the overall experience with Kubuntu 11.04 has been far and away better. So, if you're looking for a new release that is easy to install, and offers an amazing desktop experience, go with Kubuntu 11.04. If you're looking for something a bit different, that might well be the future of the PC desktop (as well as the most likely candidate for Linux tablet interface) go with Ubuntu 11.04. Either way you can't lose (unless you can't get beyond the Try It Out button of course.)
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.