Ubuntu 10.10, due for release this Sunday, isn't a major overhaul of the popular Linux desktop, but it is packed with lot of nice changes. Here are the most useful and impressive new and improved features in Maverick Meerkat.
The last Ubuntu release, 10.04 "Lucid Lynx", was a "Long Term Support" release. That means it will be supported as a more stable and steady version for further into the future than other releases and also brings in more new features. This release, 10.10, is more about iterative improvements to the core apps, like the GNOME desktop, the default Firefox browser, and other odds and ends.
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Then again, in an era where you can do 90 per cent of your work through a browser window, Ubuntu needs polish, usability, compatibility and a likable look and feel more than anything. With Windows 7, Microsoft's dominant OS is no longer the big, obvious heavy it once was, at least from the software design standpoint. The best reason for the average user to make the effort to install Ubuntu, either as a dual-boot option or your primary workspace, is that it can be a fast-booting, web-friendly, compatible system that's free, both in price and licensing terms.
In 10.10, Ubuntu's getting ever closer to that goal. Here are the most notable updates in this release:
Note: These impressions and screenshots were drawn from a release candidate release of Ubuntu 10.10. Some small details may change between now and the release date (October 10), but likely nothing big.
Installing Ubuntu Is Easier than Ever
If you're going to provide an alternative OS to commercial-friendly offerings like Windows and OS X, it had better be easy and painless to install. Ubuntu's inching ever closer to this goal with every release, and 10.10 has the best installer yet. It offers options for installing third-party drivers and support for MP3s and the like. Once you get the basics of where and how to install the system out of the way, the new Ubuntu starts cranking right away. Fill out the time zone, username and other details while it continues installing in the background.
The Software Center Is Actually Really Good
There are plenty of ways to install software in Ubuntu — terminal commands, repository additions, DEB file downloading or the very utilitarian Synaptic Package Manager, to name a few — but few of them were all that friendly to new users. Ubuntu's Software Center is now pretty close to one of our dream features for Ubuntu. It handles the installation of both downloaded packages and software available for free through Ubuntu's channels, and now it does a much better job of accepting and adding third-party channels, like Google's Chrome repository and the official Dropbox offerings. There's smarter categorisation and search, "New" and "Featured" apps and other extras. A little more polish is needed, but it's come a long way.
Ubuntu One and Its Streaming Music
Ubuntu One, the desktop file syncing service that we, uh, kinda initially mocked for being just a one-OS Dropbox has matured and added a few worthwhile use cases into the mix. If you buy any DRM-free music from the surprisingly well-stocked Ubuntu One Music Store, your purchase is instantly backed up to your Ubuntu One space and available for later download on any Ubuntu system or through the web. If you stash your contacts and other business data in Evolution and Ubuntu, those get backed up too. But best of all, and new to this version, you can stream all of your music to your Android or iPhone through apps that should be available soon. I've been using a beta of the Android app, and it works as advertised — queue up tracks, hit play and listen to the music you bought wherever you go.
The Ubuntu Font
It's not quite a default yet, but a new custom font built for Ubuntu and focused on screen readability is available in Ubuntu 10.10. Designed by renowned type foundry Dalton Maag, the Ubuntu Font is, at least to our unsophisticated eyes, a good bit easier on the eyes than the standard sans styles of yesterday.
Ubuntu Font is also a whole typeset family, so it works across different widths, styles, and applications. You can read up on the font, its genesis, and its goals in a detailed post by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.
Unity Interface for Netbooks
If you've got a small screen, be it a notebook or an ultra-portable laptop, Ubuntu's Unity interface is the way to go. It's Mac-like and super-fast, and it's getting good reviews and intrigued looks elsewhere all over the web. You can try it out on your standard Ubuntu installation without a re-install, by adding the Ubuntu Netbook Edition PPA to your system.
Better Notifications and System Tray
Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth said in 2008 that the overarching goal for Ubuntu should be to surpass Apple in the desktop looks department. That's not quite where Ubuntu is at, but it's starting to show some flash in the little things that make a desktop usable. The system tray, in particular, is a lot more useful. You can control your primary Rhythmbox music player from the volume meter, see recent social network messages from the "Me" menu, and set your chat status in most IM clients from your username menu. Plus, the left-side window controls are probably a bit more familiar to Ubuntu users, and the better system font goes a long way toward likability.
Shotwell Is Better with Photos, But Not the Best
Shotwell is better at importing and organising photos than its predecessor, F-Spot, but only by a little. It's much easier on the eyes and better at recognising cameras and storage devices, but if you're particular about how you organise your photos, you'll likely bump heads with Shotwell's designers. Our recommendation, and that of many commenters? Install gThumb instead.
If you've been trying out Ubuntu and have your own notes, or need to say what else Ubuntu needs to accomplish, we're eager to hear them in the comments.