For the last few months, on nearly every site I blog for, I have been saying that Ubuntu 11.04 was going to be a big setback for Ubuntu. This “setback” was mostly due to Canonical’s decision to use Unity as the default desktop. This decision sidestepped GNOME and GNOME 3 all together. Well, after using Ubuntu 11.04 beta 1 for a few weeks now, I have to say I was wrong. Although there are a few weak spots in the release, this beta release has gone a long way to showing me that Ubuntu hasn’t fallen off the tracks, jumped the shark, or is about to lose its way. In fact, Ubuntu 11.04 will remain king of Linux for new users as far as I can see.

Ubuntu Unity

After all this time spouting off how Mark Shuttleworth has made a huge mistake (switching to Unity), I am happy to say the mistake was really mine. But how? Why? Huh? Ubuntu Unity is a big leap away from the traditional desktop (See Figure A, left.) My biggest concern was that Unity would not allow the user to configure the desktop in as fine and detailed a way that the Linux user was accustomed to. There was a flaw in my logic. All along, I assumed every user spent as much time configuring their desktop as do I. Wrong! Most users just stick with the standard desktop they are given and maybe change the desktop wallpaper…if that.

Once I made that leap of logic, I decided to just install beta 1 and use it. No more concern with how much I can tweak the desktop or make it do exactly what I wanted it to do. This time around it was all about “just using it, just experiencing it.”

With that intent in mind, the Unity desktop just disappeared. I was shocked to find out the intent of both the GNOME 3 and the Unity desktop worked wonders. The more the desktop “disappeared” the more efficient my work became. No longer was I focused on how the desktop was working, but focusing on how I was working on the desktop.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Not yet. There are small bits and pieces that Unity needs to put in place. One such piece is the “Connect to Server” tool that was so much a part of GNOME. Without this wizard, a user will have to rely on shared network directories (thank you Samba) or will need to know to open up Nautilus and enter smb://ip_address/share in the location bar, instead of just opening the Connect to Server wizard.

Another issue is the OS X-like menu system. Now, when a window is open, the menu for the application is not trapped within the application window, but in the panel at the top of the screen. Although far from a deal-breaker, this will take some getting used to. I really noticed this when using The GIMP. In fact, The GIMP takes this one step further. When this application is opened, the menus seem to be no where in site. It wasn’t until I right-clicked The GIMP’s main window that the menu finally made itself known. A bit of inconsistency, but again — not a deal breaker.

Surprising hits

There are a lot of nice little touches built into Ubuntu 11.04. For example, the Applications search window. This search system is not only linked to the installed applications, but also the Ubuntu Software Center. So if an application is searched and found, but not installed, upon clicking on the search results, the Ubuntu Software Center will open so the application can be installed.

Ubuntu One also benefits from a new control panel (see Figure B.) There is now more second guessing if a system is associated with your Ubuntu One account, or if the system is syncing with the account. In fact, the whole of the Ubuntu One interface has been retooled even to include that one word I detest so much – CLOUD! But I’ll let it slide this one time. And finally, Ubuntu One is better integrated into the notification system of Unity.

Final thoughts

I was taken by surprise at just how much I liked Ubuntu 11.04. Even with a few little glitches and/or changes that seemed counter-intuitive, the Unity desktop is amazingly transparent, so the focus becomes the work, not the desktop. And, with little surprise, the underlying system is one of the fastest and reliable systems I have used to date. And Ubuntu is putting out a beta release that puts many other final releases to shame, so you have to at least give Natty Narwhal a try. Even for skeptics like myself, Ubuntu Unity came a long, long way from it’s last release to now. It works. I’m sold. I bet you will be as well.