Ubuntu has tried to be the friendly face of Linux since it launched seven years ago. Maker Canonical has steered the operating system (OS) toward becoming one you can use on a daily basis, without recourse to typing text commands into a command-line console.

In our tests with a few laptops – always the most difficult PCs to support because of driver issues – Ubuntu 11.04 has largely succeeded. But Canonical has set itself another goal: to create a modern interface to control the existing functions of this popular Linux OS.

GUI goes Unity

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were first developed in the 1970s, but the paradigm of a desktop with drag-and-drop files and folders on the PC can be traced back to the Macintosh of 1984.

Back then, Microsoft tried to copy Apple's windows-based interface; it called its version ‘Windows’. When the GUI came to Linux in the early 90s it was based on the X Windows system of UNIX, before evolving into something closer to the Windows look and feel.

Two popular interface options have been available to desktop Linux in recent times. Most distros are based on either KDE, which imitates the Windows Start Menu and Taskbar, and the more Mac-like GNOME, which is often seen with a top menu bar.

Canonical has traditionally leaned toward the GNOME interface in Ubuntu 11.04 (while still offering a KDE-based Kubuntu build), but was less satisfied with the development of GNOME 3. It went on to develop its own GUI, based on one first pioneered in Ubuntu for netbooks.

In the process, it’s taken Ubuntu 11.04 another step closer to the appearance and layout of Apple's Mac OS X.

Install stage

The principal version of Ubuntu 11.04 is simply named Desktop 32-bit, with a 64-bit version also available. Both are free to download from ubuntu.com, and weigh in at 718MB and 732MB respectively.

We thought we’d chance our arm first with the 64-bit version. All went smoothly on a Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 11 laptop, until we tried to install Skype. Canonical offers plenty of software in its own Software Center, although it hosts only the 32-bit version of Skype.

Following an easy installation of the OS, the system reboots into Ubuntu’s new Unity environment. In place of the usual top menu with drop-down links to Applications, Places and Preferences, you’ll find a plain top bar with icon shortcuts to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings, speaker volume, Evolution mail, the current time, and the shut down/log out options.

At the top left of the screen is the Ubuntu logo. Clicking this brings up a full-screen search app, with oversized icons for common tasks such as Browse the Web, View Photos and Check Email. You can also invoke this screen with a dab of the Super key (usually the one with the Windows logo).

Ubuntu 11.04 Dash

Ubuntu 11.04: The Dash is a quick way to find files or installed apps

But the most arresting sight from the Ubuntu 11.04 desktop is the Launcher, which is attached to the left edge of the screen. In common with OS X‘s Dock, it’s an icon-based app launcher and switcher, and populated with useful shortcuts. Unlike Apple's Dock, though, there doesn't appear to be any way to move it to a different screen edge other than the left side.

If you want to keep an open application here for ready access, you simply right-click its icon and select the ‘Keep in Launcher’ icon.

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