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.
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.