Ubuntu 14.04 wows through subtlety

Jack Wallen explores the latest Ubuntu release and comes out wow'd by the subtle improvements made to the desktop.

Ubuntu Trusty

It's a rare occasion that a new release of a Linux desktop -- especial a new Long Term Support (LTS) -- can wow with subtlety. Usually, the releasing entity attempts to change the game with major updated features or complete redesigns. That is not the case with Ubuntu 14.04 (Trusty Tahr). This time around, Canonical wows us with a subtle makeover. In some cases, the change is almost imperceptible, but it's there. These subtle changes make Ubuntu 14.04 as polished a distribution as you'll find. It's cleaner, performs better, and is all around improved. Some users may say that this is the most boring release Canonical has unleashed in years, but I believe it to be one of the finest.

Let me explain.

Every modern desktop operating system is in a war to win over users. To do this, distributions must not only be highly useable and reliable, but they also have to look professional. It's one of the issues some of the more fringe Linux desktops have yet to grasp. Users (new users, not those already initiated into the ways of Linux) want to work with a polished and clean desktop that's worthy of their trust. First impressions are crucial. Let me give you an example:

My 19-year-old daughter bought herself a new computer without any of my input. She opted to go with an ASUS running Windows 8. The second she booted up her new machine, her first reaction was "This is not good." The Windows 8 tile interface felt like a toy (even using a touch screen). From that point on, her opinion was jaded, and she wound up returning the laptop.

Her previous laptop ran Ubuntu 13.10.

My point is that it only took her a few seconds to form an opinion about Windows 8. That opinion was based completely on how Windows 8 looked, and she couldn't get beyond it.

One glance at Ubuntu 14.04 (Figure A), and her first reaction was "Wow, that looks great!"

Figure A

Figure A

The default Ubuntu 14.04 desktop.

She's correct. Even to the untrained eye, the Ubuntu 14.04 has a new shine to it. There's something almost imperceptible to the look and feel. To many, the change will go unnoticed. If you know what you're looking for, however, you'll see it right away:

  • Cleaner, anti-aliased window corners (Figure B)
  • Sharper images and borderless windows
  • Live window resizing

Figure B

Figure B
Old corners on the left, improved on the right.

Beyond the immediate impression, you'll find plenty of tiny tweaks that should make Ubuntu users thrilled and new users ready to dive into the open-source platform:

  • Launcher can now be resized to a miniscule 16-pixel size
  • Amazon search results now opt-in
  • Raise your system volume beyond 100%
  • Three possible application menus (Locally integrated, full, or HUD)
  • Unity Spread keyboard filtering (hit [Super]+[W] and then type the name of an open window to bring it in focus -- very helpful when you have a lot of windows open)
  • Unity has its own lockscreen (instead of using the out-of-date looking lockscreen from LightDM)
  • [Super]+[L] lockscreen shortcut
  • Trim enabled by default (for SSDs)
  • Improved graphics support (including NVIDIA Optimus support and HiDPI support)
  • Backported version of OpenSSL (version 1.0.1f-1ubuntu2) which is not vulnerable to Heartbleed

There are also some really cool features that can be added in. One of my favorites is a feature I've been wanting for very long time. You can now enable a click to minimize (from the Launcher). This means that you can click on the application launcher to minimize the application. To add this feature, follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window
  2. Type the command sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager and hit Enter
  3. Enter your sudo password
  4. Hit Enter
  5. Type y and hit enter
  6. Allow the installation to complete

The next step is to open the CompizConfig Settings Manager, and do the following:

  1. From the main window (Figure C) click the Ubuntu Unity Plugin icon
    Figure C
    Figure C
  2. Click on the Launcher tab
  3. Click to enable Minimize Single Window Applications (Figure D)
    Figure D
    Figure D
  4. Close the CompizConfig Settings Manager

Now you can click on a launcher icon to minimize the application. This is a subtle change, but one that makes things a bit easier.

You can download your copy of Ubuntu 14.04 from the official Ubuntu site.

There will always be detractors, but I challenge anyone to give Ubuntu 14.04 a try and not find it to be a massive, yet subtle, improvement over 13.10 (which was already a stellar desktop platform). What do you think, is subtle enough for Ubuntu, or do you need something grander and more "show-stopper" in nature? If the changes in Ubuntu 14.04 aren't enough for you, what is it that you'd like to see appear in the Linux desktop from Canonical? Please share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.