Ubuntu 12.04 is coming in April, but eager users can check out the beta version today. "Precise Pangolin" includes a new quick search feature called the HUD, some new privacy settings and a few tweaks to the Unity interface.
This release will be another "Long Term Support" release, meaning Canonical will support it for longer than other versions (two years, to be exact). LTS releases usually mean lots of new features, but this time around polishing the interface seems to be the main goal. That said, the HUD alone is reason enough to upgrade. Here's a look at everything that's new.
The HUD Makes Finding Menu Items Super Easy
Have you ever been in a situation where you're using a program, and want to do something specific that you know is in the menus, but you just don't know where? The new HUD solves that problem. Just hit Alt, and a search bar will pop up in the upper left-hand corner of your screen. From there you can type in what you're looking for, and it will return any menu items that match your query. If you've ever used a Mac, it's almost exactly like the Spotlight bar you get under the "Help" menu of individual applications, and it is a lifesaver.
New Privacy Options Keep Your Information To Yourself
One great thing about Unity's Dash is that you can search for recently used files, folders and programs easily. However, if you'd rather some of your activity not be logged, Precise has a new set of Privacy options to let you tweak that. By going to System Settings > Privacy, you can now ignore certain types of files, ignore activity in certain folders, or ignore activity with certain applications. You can even turn activity recording off entirely if you'd rather not have the feature at all. In an age where everyone is having privacy gaffes left and right, it's nice that Canonical has added this easily-accessible preference pane for anyone to tweak.
Miscellaneous Improvements In The Unity Interface
Love it or hate it, Unity is here to stay, and the newest version has a few tweaks that make it a bit more appetising to those of us on the fence. At the top of the list is a new Video lens in the Dash (remember lenses?), which searches not only videos on your computer but videos online. That means you no longer need to head to Amazon, Vimeo or TED Talks in your browser to start searching for videos -- just hit the Super key, click on the video lens, and start typing. Sadly, it doesn't search all of YouTube yet (only YouTube Movies and YouTube Shows are covered, which is less than helpful outside the US). Hopefully this will change (or someone will create an add-on) in the future.
You'll also find that Nautilus now has a pretty beefy right-click menu in the Unity dock, which is nice, plus some nice color-matching effects if you have a powerful enough machine. The "Appearance" settings pane also has a few Unity-specific preferences, like auto-hiding the launcher.
Touchpads With Built-In Buttons Work A Tiny Bit Better
For a long time, Ubuntu has had trouble with ClickPad devices, where the touchpad itself is the mouse button (like those found on MacBook laptops). In Precise, ClickPad devices are now fully supported. Finally, you can click the button, but still move the cursor around with a second finger on the trackpad. Previous versions of Ubuntu had trouble recognising the second finger.
Unfortunately, trackpad support still really isn't there, at least at this point in the beta. While clicking and dragging mostly works, Canonical seems to have completely ignored regular mouse movement. If you have your thumb on the bottom of the trackpad, you can't move the mouse with a second finger. The whole thing still feels unnatural and unfinished. Here's hoping this will improve soon -- at least we know they're now looking at it. Photo by Ryan Bailey.
Rhythmbox Is the Default Music Player Again
We really dug Banshee as the default music player in Ubuntu, but version 12.04 has defaulted back to the stable, popular Rhythmbox. The biggest change here is that the Ubuntu One Music Store is once again available in Rhythmbox, so Ubuntu One users are the only ones really affected -- everyone else can continue using whatever music player they want.
Ubuntu One Has A Few More Options
Lastly, Ubuntu One users will also find that the Ubuntu One client interface has changed a bit, and is now more similar to its Windows counterpart. You also have the option to choose which folders you want synced to your machine, which is nice.
Despite its being an LTS release, there aren't tons of huge changes in Ubuntu 12.04. Check out Canonical's changelog for the full list of changes, or just download the beta now and try it out for yourself. If you stumble on any new features you love, be sure to let us know about them in the comments.