Ubuntu 11.04: Is Natty Narwhal the best Linux desktop ever?

If not the best, then certainly the most different

By , ITworld |  Operating Systems, Canonical, Linux

I said months ago that Ubuntu 11.04 wouldn't be the same old Ubuntu, and boy was I right. With its new Unity interface, Ubuntu doesn't look or act like any other desktop Linux you've ever seen. And, since I've seen almost all of them, I know what I'm talking about!

The basics are the same as you'll find in many Linux distributions. It's still based on Debian Linux; it uses the 2.6.38 Linux kernel; it still uses most of the same familiar applications; and its desktop is built on top of GNOME 2.32.1, but with the Unity desktop I couldn't blame you if you didn't recognize anything but the apps.

[ For screenshots of the new interface, see the Ubuntu 11.04 image gallery ]


The Unity desktop

You see, with Unity, everything is different. When you first see Unity, whether you've ever used Linux or not, you're not going to recognize it. It looks more like a smartphone or tablet interface than it does a PC desktop.

Instead of a top or bottom menu bar, Unity has a task dock on the left-hand side of the screen and a panel at the top with an embedded global menu. Whatever application you happen to be running at the moment will have its menu on that top, global menu. There's also a screen overlay that pops out of the top panel that gives you access to what Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company calls "lenses." Currently these include an application launcher lens; a file management lens and a search lens that can double for either of the others.

You see, the Unity interface brings a new way to access programs and files. While you can track down a file or a program through folders or look for its icon, Unity's universal search enables you to search your way to whatever it is you need. You can, of course, still go back to your usual way of finding applications or files but I found this new search method to be remarkably fast and easy.

That's by design. As Canonical marketing manager Gerry Carr recently told me, while you can still use folders and files for organization, you don't have to. "Search has become essential to how we organize Ubuntu. You no longer have to remember where you put files. Unity will take care of finding them for you."

He's right, and better still, it really works. I had expected Unity to be slow with this kind of work going on in the background. I was wrong. It's remarkably fast. It was even reasonably fast on that 2.8GHz Pentium IV box with its 1 GB of RAM, albeit on that machine Unity only worked in its Gnome 2.x mode rather than its full Unity desktop.

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