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.

As with the Netbook Remix edition of Ubuntu before it, Ubuntu 11.04’s Unity interface aims to make the most of the entire screen by starting programs in full-screen mode. Fire up Firefox, for example, and the browser stretches from edge to edge, and even the Launcher recedes from sight. Hover the cursor to the left and it slides up again.

It was the last version of Ubuntu that saw the Close, Minimise and Maximise buttons moved from the top-right Windows position to the Mac’s top-left position. You can still use the Maximise button to change a full-screen app into windowed mode.

In the Firefox example, the interface’s cleanliness extends to an absence of the usual File, Edit, View, History and Bookmarks drop-down menus. These appear in the top menu strip only when you hover the cursor over that area.

If you move a floating window to the screen’s edge, Unity will maximise that window to half-screen, Windows 7-style. Drag the window to the screen top to maximise the pane.

Confusingly, other apps, such as those from the newly instated LibreOffice productivity suite, maintain their File, Edit et al menus in a document’s floating window.

More apps in store

There’s a link in the Launcher to find your other apps – confusingly shaped like a search shortcut with its magnifying glass icon. Clicking this brings up another full-screen dark overlay, this time with three rows of icons: Most Frequently Used, Installed and Apps Available for Download.

When apps are viewed in a windowed rather than full-screen mode, we’re glad to report that a particularly annoying bug in previous versions of Ubuntu has been fixed: it’s easy to resize windows from any corner, now that the active area has been increased from just a few pixels.

And with the other hand, Canonical has taken away. Some, but not all, interface windows have lost the traditional scroll arrows at top and bottom, and instead received a sliding blob.

A protruding double-arrowed device appears as you hover the cursor over a window’s right edge; this must be grabbed or very carefully clicked to slide the content up and down. We found it tricky to use, as you can't grab the scroll bar itself to move up or down.

And it's not helped by the inconsistency of its appearance on certain windows only. The Ubuntu Control Center is one place you’ll find this oddity.

Ubuntu 11.04 Control Centre

Ubuntu 11.04: Control Center is one of a few places you'll see the new scroll widget protruding from the right of the window

Using the Launcher isn’t without issues. While it’s quicker to find often-used apps here, once a few programs are running their dock tiles start to overlap each other and their icons tend to get pushed out of sight. Rather than shrink the tile size to accommodate more open apps, you must take your cursor to a screen corner and slowly rifle through those out of view.

Unix and Linux systems have long had the benefit of virtual desktops, allowing you to place different running programs and their windows on two, four or more desktop spaces. Mac OS X Leopard expanded on this with its Spaces functionality, which made it simple to move between virtual desktops with a hot screen corner or keyboard shortcut, giving you an overview of the current layout and the chance to drag running apps from one screen to the next.

Unity's Workspace Switcher gives near-identical virtual-desktop functionality to Spaces, albeit without quite the same ease of use.

Ubuntu 11.04 Workspace Switcher

Ubuntu 11.04: Workspace Switcher is Unity's Mac-like implementation of virtual desktops, complete with subtle reflections

Some handy keyboard shortcuts are included, though. For example, press and hold the Windows key, and you can see numbers superimpose over any app in the Launcher. Tap a number to launch that app.

The Unity interface is in its infancy at the moment, and bugs and inconsistencies abound. The pre-Unity GNOME interface is still easy to access, though.

Just select Ubuntu Classic at the login window, and the PC will boot into the traditional environment thereafter. And here we found Ubuntu 11.04 at its most stable and predictable yet.

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal: Specs

  • Intel or AMD processor
  • 384MB RAM
  • 1024 x 600 or greater display
  • Intel or AMD processor
  • 384MB RAM
  • 1024 x 600 or greater display

OUR VERDICT

While it’s still largely a work in progress, the Unity interface has its attractions, and provides a more animated way to work with your computer. And even if you find the changes to drastic or the interface too buggy, the classic Ubuntu is readily accessible and more polished than ever.

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