First Look At Ubuntu Linux 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' Beta

Most Ubuntu Linux releases change a few things here and there, upgrade the default software packages, and perhaps upgrade the look of your desktop a bit. Not Ubuntu 11.04, code-named "Natty Narwhal".In its beta release, Natty has a new desktop and app launching scheme, a fast search, some big default app changes, and something of a new mission. Take a look.

First off, I'll agree with what I've read elsewhere in the tech community: Ubuntu 11.04 beta is very, well, beta. The brand-new Unity interface is missing many features, options and small refinements, and occasionally just refuses to launch an app. From the log-in screen (assuming you aren't set up to automatically log in), you can revert to the more familiar, GNOME-based look by selecting "Ubuntu Classic", and you can get even more simple (and power/process-efficient) with "Ubuntu Classic (No Effects)". But Ubuntu 11.04 beta on the whole has given me more crash reports, odd quirks, and a general sense of a work-in-progress. The ship date is April 28, and while improvements can certainly be made, users who had a workflow down with previous Ubuntu desktops may find themselves switching to Classic.

On to the particularly new stuff. Click the images below for a larger view.

A Much More Understandable Installer

If you didn't know what a partition was, or what exactly "swap" space did, previous versions of Ubuntu's installer didn't leave you entirely sure what was happening, or whether you were really protecting your perfectly fine Windows installation. Ubuntu's latest installer is quite impressive — it tells you exactly what's happening, what you might want to do, and how it will work. It starts installing almost immediately, and lets you do some standard Q&A stuff (time zone, keyboard, username) while it's working in the background. From the get-go, too, you can choose to have Ubuntu install third-party stuff like MP3s, Flash and other goodies that make the real web go 'round.

The Unity Bar

There's always been a certain percentage of Windows and Mac users who see putting their Taskbar or Dock on the side of the desktop as more efficient, especially on a monitor with widescreen dimensions. Ubuntu has made that side-loaded launch centre the default in their new Unity interface; quite a default, too, as there's no real way to move it. You launch apps, folders and file searches from this spot, and apps you've launched show up here. You can right-click an app to keep it in the launcher, and you can move the buttons around by clicking, holding, then draggging. Shift-clicking brings up a new instance of a launched app, tiny lights show multiple instances, and, well, that's about it. It feels like there's a lot more to come with Unity's dock/bar, especially in the way of customisation. For now, it's intended to create a kind of netbook or iOS experience on the desktop: when you maximise a windows, the dock drops out of sight, brought back by hovering your mouse to the upper-right corner, onto the tiny Ubuntu icon.

Mac-Style Menu Bars

If you thought Ubuntu had made some Apple-like decisions here, you're headed in the right direction. The top-most desktop bar now serves as the universal app menu bar, filling in with File, Edit and so on when an app offers them. The Natty release has taken strides to give users as much space as possible on the desktop, and in that regard, at least, it seems to have succeeded.

Universal Keyboard Navigation

If trying to customise and work Unity with a mouse or trackpad isn't the most rewarding experience, Ubuntu has at least given keyboard aficionados quite a bit to work with. The entire interface is navigable by keyboard shortcuts, many utilising the Windows/"Super" key on Windows-based PCs. Hold down Windows to show the numbers linked to each dock item, and launch them by pressing Windows+1, Windows+2, and so on. That's pretty handy, but Ubuntu took the Super key a step farther.

Quick Search Box

Tapping the Windows key (or another key you designate in the Keyboard settings) now brings up a universal search box from the upper-left corner, where you can launch apps, find files, and get access to settings and system utilities. It's my favourite feature in Ubuntu 11.04, if not exactly new to the desktop scene. The search is fairly generous to humans, too; I searched for what I thought were "Display" settings, and "Monitors" came up as the appropriate item.

Workspace Switching

Embedded into the Unity dock is a workspace switcher that's quick and smooth, with keyboard accessibility and good-sized thumbnails of your workspaces. I'm not a multi-workspace enthusiast, but this seems generally up to snuff with the Mac offering (though that may ring as a back-handed compliment).

New Software Defaults

Banshee has replaced Rhythmbox as the default music app, though it also seems to have been styled to be nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor. LibreOffice has replaced OpenOffice, and it works, well, just the same. The Software Center, Ubuntu's version of an app "store", now makes recommendations for software, based on what you've installed. Firefox 4 is the default browser that ships with the desktop, and many more packages have received updates along the way.

So that's Ubuntu 11.04, and its somewhat bold step forward, and somewhat away from other distributions. What do you think of it, in looks alone or after using the beta a bit? Give us your take in the comments.


Comments

    I think Ill be dropping unity in favor of the old GNOME desktop. Global menus i could get used to, but when you get multiple monitors, it just doesn't make sense to me having the menu drawer of the window separated from the window it is related to.

    It is also great to see they added a quick launch by default. GNOME Do has been indispensable to me since i installed it, and once you get used to the key that invokes it and the few keystokes to get to whatever you want, you can nearly do away with the entire application menu.

    Not so sure about the Mac-style menu bars... Could just be that I've grown up on Windows but I can see myself getting confused with which window I'm accessing the menus of.

      This is something I've always seen as one of the main usability benefits of Mac OS - you *always* know where your application menu bar is. And it's the menu bar of whichever app is currently in use.

      In Windows, it could be anywhere on the screen.

        But in Windows it is attached to the window it belongs to. Quite easy to tell which menu is for which application, and it's always at the top of the window. All over the screen doesn't really matter, it's like saying the close button is bad because it moves all over the screen.
        However with a menu bar that is always at the same place, you can only have one app's menus showing at a time. I do actually jump straight from menu to menu and have multiple windows at a time. Having one menu bar makes it less obvious which app it belongs to.

    Despite all its little wrinkles and many bugs (fglrx anyone?), I think this may be a good way for a free linux distro to sneak into the mainstream a little more. Huge potential...then again I here the newest KDE is looking pretty hot too.

    I like it! I've always thought that Ubuntu needed to separate itself from the other distros. I thought that the 10.04 UNR was cool and tried to use that as a default desktop. It had too many issues so I abandoned it for Linux Mint. When Ubuntu announced it would use Unity as the default I didn't think much about it as I've tried 10.10 UNR on my desktop but it was much too slow.

    But this works great! Yes there are bugs but I'm sure they'll be fixed. I can't wait for the finished product to be released!

    Mercifully Ubuntu has a fallback for users wanting a little more stability- 10.04 LTS/Lucid. I'm not touching Unity or GNOME Shell for the next 1-1.5 years. With Lucid, I'm all set for the foreseeable future :)

      Seconded, but I'm not sure I can handle that long a wait without major updates. I love unity on a netbook, but gnome 2.x is far more suited to my multi-screen desktop than unity or gnome shell at present. I've never been a big kde fan, so I might have to jump ship to enlightenment or xfce.

      Agreed. 9.10 was the best Ubuntu ever. 100 paper-cuts was such a great idea. All fonts looked very neat too - I did want to read from the screen instead of printing papers out. Now it's all gone completely wrong. Depressing dark colors by default, plenty of UI effects that ruin the stability and performance, mac-style close/expand buttons in the left corner, and this bloody Unity nobody will use anyways. They really should switch the priorities to stability and performance rather then decoration.

        I think you couldn't be more wrong ... because you're not thinking in Ubuntu terms which are togetherness, unity, humanity, achieving common goals, etc. It's what Ubuntu stands for and strives to accomplish. I've been using Ubuntu for almost 3 years now and I've been waiting since day 1 for *the* one version that might promise to be the break-through version of Linux for everyone ... everyone meaning exactly that, to include senior citizens, computer newbies, mildly handicapped people, and still all of us "super users" too. So in my opinion the new Ubuntu is a perfect step in the right direction by finally enabling more people to make the switch a lot easier ... and by providing a new, much easier OS for those who are just starting out. If us "super users" don't like it, we can always switch over to Debian, Fedora, Suse, Mint, and numerous other distros out there. Ubuntu rocks !!!

          I couldn't disagree more, I really dislike the mac focused changes they have made in the last two releases, and with this unity stuff it takes twice as long to get to the program I want. Now I can see that it would be useful on a tablet, but it just doesn't work for me on a desktop, and don't get me started about the multiple monitors.

    I'm considering switching to another distribution. It's nasty how much Ubuntu has become like Mac in some aspects, and Windows in others. I started using Ubuntu when it was version 9.10, so I'm by no means an expert, but it has lost the unique appeal that it had to me when I switched from Windows. Stability, which basically went out of the door with 10.04, A clean customisable GUI for things that are done more efficiently in a GUI like browsing files, especially images (thumbnails). And a good solid shell for the important work. The new GUI is just way over the top, and I feel that stability has lost to eye candy in the newer Ubuntu releases.
    My Ubuntu 10.10 still randomly freezes three to four times a week, and no fix has been found for that problem. Okay, given the randomness finding the cause is incredibly hard, still I'd like to see at least some mention of work on this issue.

      Is not Ubuntu based on the development tree of Debian rather than the stable? Surely if stability is required choose one of the longer term distro choices that are available out there.

      K
      :)

      Wise words, Sir, that I wish to make my own: if linux is NOT stable, what else?
      I have had it with ubuntu, and natty's freezing overnight for no reason (some blame the screensaver).

    The ubuntu icon appears to be in the upper left corner, not upper right?

    Im going to wait until i can get a hands-on experience for ub11, though i am predicting i will stay with the classic gnome.

    On the side note, even if i do not like the direction it is going if it pushes linux abit further into the population i will be happy.

    I think Ubuntu is definitely going in the right direction, I started using Ubuntu @ version 10.4 and was frustrated by the 3 top menus and lack of quicksearch. I had to added those features with customizations but its good to see that out of the box ubuntu is addressing those issues.

    One of my favourite new features is the "System Settings/Control Center". The lack of a control panel was glaring in older versions.

    There are a few usability issues with the Unity bar, its still not as useful as the Win 7 taskbar but its going in the right direction. I'd like to see a show desktop button added as well as a Mac-like show all windows button!

    Horrible! Horrible! Horrible! MacOS is so difficult and anti-intuitive to use that, whenever I had the misfortune of having to use a Mac, I spent most of my time sitting in-front of it, swearing loudly. I got in trouble with my boss on more than one occasion for this.

    Microsoft used to have a good UI, but then they invented the "ribbon" and you just knew things were going to go downhill from there.

    Ubuntu, I thought, was my last point of refuge, but now, they too are messing up a system that has worked for 30 years! Already they've made subtle changes, like moving the window control buttons, now this. Are Canonical a secret sect run by Steve Jobs? Why are they trying to persuade, manipulate, and manoeuvre people towards a Mac interface?

    Ubuntu: "No longer for human beings, now for Mac users instead!"

      Dude, choice is good. Use mint or check out elementary OS. Or even Gnome3 Shell will work (I think) with Ubuntu 11.04.
      Nothing here strikes me as "Horrible! Horrible! Horrible."

    At first when I heard about it I was hesitant because of all the things I'd gotten used to using that would be changing. I also worried that Ubuntu seemed to be going the way of Mac and Windows, where you lose a lot of control of your system. But on trying the beta out, honestly I think it's great. Finally a Linux distro that's willing to take some bold steps at redefining desktop computing. It's definitely time to move beyond the minor, and often sloppy, tweaking of the old stuff. No more just being a highly customizable windows clone. I believe that the whole concept of personal computing is changing, and Linux (and BSD) is far better suited to flourish in this new virtual ecosystem than Windows, because it's much more easily adaptable. I think Ubuntu's heading in the right direction. Unity is a perfect name, because the current Linux desktop is characterized by lots of great features that often interact in a messy way. There's always going to be a trade off between user control and overall usability. You'll never be completely satisfied unless you build your own system from the ground up. I'd switched over to Mint because I that Ubuntu seemed kind of disjointed, but I'll probably be switching back now once they get the bugs ironed out. Two features I'd like to see, though, are mouse-over window previews and a more customizable dock.

    hi everyone

    I upgraded overnight and have just had my first hour with 11.04. I lasted all of 10 minutes with unity, do you know why? I knew Skype was running cos people were logging on and the notifications were coming up but I couldn't find a way to open the Skype window and secondly none of my panel located applications were available to me except in the dock. I then read about how to 'revert to gnome' and that's exactly what I did by logging on to 'ubuntu classic' at the login screen. So now I have the best of all worlds, the latest upgrade and a familiar UI. "If it aint broke, dont fix it", is my motto. So thanks Mark and Canonical for giving me the choice I need.

      I never do OS upgrades. I always clean install. Not even with Windows. I don't feel like spending a couple weeks trying to figure out weird bugs, only to do a clean install in the end. Especially with such a dramatic change in the UI, it's probably not a good idea.

      I installed the final release on my laptop the day it came out and I think it's great. There's some bugs, as expected, but I see huge potential in it for the near future. I expect to see more OEM's shipping Ubuntu in the next few years. That's the great thing about Linux, though, is if you don't like the changes there are always options.

    Unity is the same type of garbage that Microshaft's Vista did to Windows 2000/XP users. I tried to get Unity to work, but what is the point of changing things just to make them crippled or non-existent. I have a feeling that the "unity" group is sabotaging Ubuntu to stop it's growing poplularity. Any chance the developers of "unity" are actually being paid by Microshaft to mess up Ubuntu? I think "unity" is so bad that it has to be deliberate! Also, little things I used to depend on are now disabled in the Natty Narwhal version, like Firefox 5.0 does not have the bookmark folders highlighted, which makes navigating your bookmarks very difficult. This stuff was deliberately messed up, and the team that did it should not be trusted!!!

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