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Ubuntu 11.04 beta review – Natty Narwhal’s naughty but nice…

by Dmitri Popov

Ubuntu 11.04 is one of the most controversial and highly anticipated releases of the popular Linux distro. And the first beta of Natty Narwhal gives you a chance to preview many of its innovations – including the brand new Unity interface…

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Ah, spring! Snowdrops and crocuses pop up everywhere, the birds start their usual frantic nesting and mating routines, and Canonical releases the first beta of the next Ubuntu release. By now, you might already have heard about the most significant change in the upcoming Ubuntu 11.04 dubbed Natty Narwhal — the brand new Unity interface designed in-house by Canonical. And since opinions on the new interface seem to be divided (to put it in the mildest way possible), we were eager to give the beta release a try to check out the new interface for ourselves and see what else the Ubuntu 11.04 has to offer.

Ubuntu 11.04 beta review - Natty Narwhal's naughty but nice...
The installer tool features a few subtle but welcome improvements

Let’s start from the very beginning: the installer. While the installation utility remains largely unchanged, it does feature a couple of minor but welcome improvements. For example, the new “Allocate drive space” dialogue simplifies the process of choosing the desired installation option. The time zone selection dialogue has also been tweaked, and you can now type the name of your current city and select the desired location from a list of matching results. Another useful addition is the ability to upgrade the existing Ubuntu 10.10 installation to 11.04 using the installation media (Live CD or USB stick). The installation procedure itself seems to be even faster than before. On our test machine equipped with a solid-state disk, the installer zoomed through the installation process in less than 10 minutes.

At first sight, the Unity interface doesn’t look all that different. The desktop is here, and so is a top panel with the usual assortment of icons. Then there is an Ubuntu icon in the top-left corner and a launcher containing various shortcuts. All of this doesn’t seem to be radically different from a regular desktop environment. But click, for example, on the Ubuntu logo, and you’ll quickly realise that things are not what they seem to be. Instead of a menu, you are presented with a full-screen dashboard, containing shortcuts to often-used actions, such as Browse the Web and View Photos, while the search field at the top of the window lets you quickly find any application installed on your system. The launcher holds shortcuts to default applications which you can launch with a single click. Thanks to the clever accordion-like design the launcher works well with screens of any size. When you expand the stacked up items, you can scroll up and down the launcher using your mouse (right-click and hold the mouse button while scrolling). When you open an application in the full screen mode (or you move the window close to the left border of the screen), the launcher conveniently hides away, and you can evoke it by hovering the mouse over the Ubuntu icon in the top-left corner of the screen. You can also control the launcher using the keyboard: pressing Alt+F1 selects the first item in the launcher, and you can then use the arrow keys to select other shortcuts.

Ubuntu 11.04 beta review - Natty Narwhal's naughty but nice...
All system settings are now available in one central location

That’s all fine and dandy, but the current launcher implementation has a few quirks. While you can remove a shortcut from the launcher by right-clicking on the desired shortcut and disabling the Keep In Launcher option, adding new shortcuts is less intuitive. You can’t just drag the application you want onto the launcher. Instead you have to launch the desired application, then right-click on its icon in the launcher and enable the Keep In Launcher option. This adds the shortcut in the application’s current position. Moving the added shortcut (or any existing shortcut for that matter) to another place in the launcher is a three-step procedure: grab the shortcut with the mouse, move the shortcut from the launcher, move the shortcut to the desired position in the launcher. All of this is not exactly rocket science, but it isn’t intuitive either. However, the biggest issue with the current launcher implementation is that it’s not immediately apparent how to resize it. As it turned out, resizing the launcher is a rather convoluted procedure. First, you need to install and open the CompizConfig Settings Manager tool, then select the Ubuntu Unity plugin, and switch to the Experimental section. Only then you can adjust the launcher size using the appropriate slider.

Continue to: Page 2 – Conclusion

Read our recent interview with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttlework – Mark Shuttleworth talks Narwhals

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    • Pradeep

      No buddy you are wrong. you can just drag any icon to the bottom end of side bar. From there you can drag it anywhere of your liking.

    • Pradeep

      You are right on page two. But frankly this beta is still full of bugs. Google chrome failed to install. Chromium and Opera are hanged frequently. In short I found that any third party software hangs but all the inbuilt software works flawlessly. Firefox never crashed. Libre office works great. Updates are Ok. All in all I like this teaser and am eagerly waiting for the final version.

    • asmiller-ke6seh

      That I can’t add applets to the top panel is a show-stopper for me. I will hang onto 10.10, for now — and wait until I can get 11.04 with Gnome as the interface, or stay where I am until Unity is on par with Gnome 2.x, or look for another Gnome-based distro.

      Unity is fine for my Netbook, but my laptop is my high-power workplace, and I like the customization I have in Gnome.

    • Lance

      Unity is great. No more indicator problems. (having them fail to load, appear twice and moving around).

    • Ante

      You can add shortcuts by drag and dropl just drop it bellow all other shortcuts. You’ve forgot to mention META/META-Shift keyboard shortcuts and right click on Applications/Files and Folders ;)

    • MacLone

      To be honest unity is probably better for the small lcd gadgets but for a full size monitor is another story. I have tested enough ubuntu 11.04 b1 and my conclusion is that is worst this way than the classic gnome.
      One more thing… take that left side dock and put it down on your monitor view and what you get? a very common mac like interfase like that one u get using Docky, awn or cairo dock… so what all this work was about Mr. Shuttleworth? If this is all you can do maybe Ubuntu is counting its days as the prefered distro.

    • Java

      First, about adding icons to the launcher. I can drag an icon directly from the list of installed programs onto the launcher and it adds it just fine. As long as you’re using standard Unity, and not Unity 2D, you can drag icons onto the launcher just fine.

      As for the people wanting to use normal Gnome with 11.04, you don’t have to wait for a special version of 11.04 because normal Gnome is included in the installation. On the login screen, after clicking your username, at the bottom of the screen where it lists “Unity” as the interface, just click that drop-down menu and select “Ubuntu Classic” instead and it’ll give you the standard Gnome interface.

    • W

      Am I the only one who thinks the icons on unity’s left panel look ugly and dated?

    • Denis

      It is probably the worst desktop environment i ever saw. Just try to open 4 times the same application and you will realize why… Also it’s very bad for newcomers.

    • Willy Wantmore

      After reading most of this opinions here… I can say the old adage, “… an opinion is like a bellybutton, everybody has one.” is very very true.

    • Watcheroftheskies

      @W: Nope, same here. I’ve been eager to see both Unity and Gnome3 in action. I’ve installed both (Gnome in the Fedora 15 beta) and I must say, the Gnome people have made a much more attractive and intuitive interface. Unity just looks ‘shoddy’, I’m sorry to say. I would advise Canonical to join forces with Gnome again. But, don’t get me wrong, I stlll love the Ubuntu base.

    • What I would like to say here about a new feature of unity i.e, changing desktop background without right clicking on Desktop. The scope of such a task was that users had to find out the ‘Appearance’ dialog. For that, first press the Super Key(Windows Key) to launch the ‘Dash’ and then search for Appearance. You just need to type in the first few letters.
      To know more visit:

    • Mo PInto

      Ubuntu 11.04 sucks ! Try live CD before you update to the new version…
      Lack of creativity, they just copied Windows 7 features. If I want something looking like windows, then I will go back to windows. This new development team is out of touch… Get real, and get creative! Just do not try to reverse engineering things! Try you own ideas, losers!

    • I hate UNITY!
      The top bar is weird and changes with the window selected.
      Where does a window go when it is minimised?
      Impossible to install a hardware driver for NVIDIA, so no fancy effects.
      I love COMPIZ. Finished up with a blank desktop and no menus.
      Recovery is good, much improved.
      OK change desktop to GNOME. Much Better and easier to understand – Applications, Places and System.
      Too scared to try COMPIZ again.
      I love UBUNTU but what are you trying to do and where are you going?

    • R Backus

      I have just upgraded from 10.10 and am disappointed.
      1. It opens programs much slower than previous versions
      2. The side bar launcher is like a phone and is as annoying as my phone and makes it more work to find where my programs are. If I wanted to work as if my screen was phone-sized than I’ll work on my phone. I have a nice big screen and find it annoying searching for where my windows are instead of going to the bottom of the screen and clicking as I did on previous Ubuntu systems.
      3 It doesn’t work with Audacity well at all, of the 3 Days since using Ubuntu 11.04 I’ve lost my work 2 of those days with Ubuntu freezing. This OS works as if I paid $100+ for it and it was called Windows.

      To make matters worse, upon istallation, Ubuntu has completely screwed up my system that I cannot go back and use the previous version installed on my computer. I see where the option is, but when I click it nothing happens. I have become spoiled this last year + that I have been using Ubuntu versions. I have had ZERO complaints and have enjoyed the chance to dump Window’s products with this and other open source products. Unfortunately, this roll-out has been a disappoint for me.

    • Simon

      I hate 11.04! You have to search for apps by name, what if you dont know what apps you have and are just browsing. Also the tabs at the bottom which help you chose between apps are gone which is infuriating. Have now downgraded (which meant clean install) to 10.04 and have no intention of going back.

    • Hugh

      New to Ubuntu and was very happy with 10.10, recently “upgraded” to 11.04 and what a mistake that was, the desktop is a nightmare. Also, have lots of problems with Atheros wireless, not connecting, dropping connection and generally not available on boot. Fine with 10.10 !

      Backed up with Deja Dup and flattened the laptop and re-installed a fresh copy of 10.10, restored /home and am happy again.

      If this is a view of the future I’m seriously considering an alternative to Ubuntu.

    • Dennis

      I agree with all the complaints about Unity, I really dislike it. Gnome is so easy and usable. I only need one or two mouse clicks to get what I need, now I have to search for Apps. If Gnome is not an option in future Ubuntu builds, I will switch to another distro, maybe basic Debian where I can choose whatever I want. Ubuntu 10.04 and 10.10 where breakthrough releases that made me give up Windows forever but 11.04 is a huge step back. I tried Mint but am not a big fan but I don’t mind Zorin too much but I really am I huge fan of Ubuntu with the Gnome 2.3.2 desktop. PLEASE Mr Shuttleworth come to your senses and give the people what they want, this is the philosophy that made Ubuntu what it is today.

    • Jim

      I won’t be using Unity or Ubuntu unless they revert it back to Gnome. One thing I dislike about Windoze is the continual changing of the GUI. I like Gnomes stable menus and locations. I don’t want my PC to look like an iPod. That is nothing more than gratuitous, blind, slavish behavior. I’ll be moving to a different distro if this isn’t fixed.

    • birkopf

      I hate it. Installed, keeps crashing, problems with graphic. Fixed. Next day all windows lost top bar. Another day problem with stability…. went to bin. Unity or the task-bar on the left… rubbish!!! On Maverick or Mint – Install DOCKY, add “Bookmarks” tick hiding and position on left side of screen… No headache!

    • shaji

      Works well for me, but during startup it sometime boots in partial screen, a very annoying problem. Otherwise great and no prolem getting drivers for various hardware.

    • Alis

      I agree with every complaint.

      You see, I use Ubuntu on an old machine, just 1Gb memo. Can you imagine what nightmare it is? Unity is slow, keeps crashing, screens freezes out of the blue. I never used my reset button so much as I`m using now after upgrading.

      I`m deeply disappointed. I miss my customizable system tray (and yeah you can change that but on my computer it ended up striping my desktop of theme which is annoying), liked to use applets on the top bar. Moreover it bothers me to no end that I can`t see which programs are open. Have any of you tried to minimize aMSN to tray? The main window just disappears! Annoying annoying annoying!

      I hope that the development team changes this stuff or Ubuntu will really loses it pole position as preferred distro of lots of users

      (Sorry if I made bad grammar mistakes, I`m not a native English speaker and although I can read fairly well I still have some trouble while writing)

    • Hoser

      I have been using Ubuntu 10.10 since it came out and found it nice and simple to use and customize did not take me very long to figure it out.
      I wish I could say the same for 11.04 , what a mess , for me I find it not user friendly at all and as someone else put it “If I wanted to work as if my screen was phone-sized then I’ll work on my phone”
      Reminds me of the total crap that is KDE4 PLEASE don’t go that route.
      I hate 11.04…..
      Just my 2 cents

    • Yifang

      I HATE 11.04 too!

      I did not have any hesitation to upgrade my Ubuntu 10.4 to 11.0, but after I reboot it I realized I made big mistake. Natty Narwhal is so messy and not user-friendly at all as Hoser said. The simplest example is the panel on the left side which is NOT movable and the Ubuntu team said that is the way you need to get used to it! What a stubborn and stupid idea! Another example is to open more than one Terminal or any other application like Firefox, Editor etc, you cannot just do it by double clicking the icon on the left panel even it is there. Can’t understand what idea they have in their mind. I started to doubt if I should stick to Ubuntu from now on because of the new version.

      Maybe I should say I hate the “Unity of Ubuntu11.04” instead of Ubuntu 11.04.

    • Richard

      Downloaded Natty but having looked at screenshots – ugh ugly – and read so many negative user comments on this site and others, mainly of Unity, decided not to install it.

      Have been using Ubuntu for several years now and very happy with 10.04 and on netbook and desktop with Gnome. Rarely use Windows now.

      Agree with the comments that Canonical have taken a wrong turning with Unity. Hope they revert to Gnome as default and fix other issues mentioned as would like to stick to Ubuntu if possible.

      By the way, I had bad experience using the “Upgrade ” option some years ago – screwed up my system and now always do separate fresh install and run in parallel with existing system for a while.

    • Matt

      IMHO Canonical have lost the plot. Moving the minimise/maximise/close buttons from right to left in Lucid was annoying, but this new Unity interface appears to be horrible. I say appears to be as so far I’ve only run Natty under Virtual Box and both the Unity interface and the Classic interface are completely disfunctional. All I get is the Ubuntu sign in the top left that behaves much like the Windows ‘start’ button only up the screen a lot. As for the ribbon or whatever across the top… it picks up entries when some applications launch but doesn’t lose them when the applications close.

      I’m seriously looking at alternatives to find something that is not being wrecked by its developers. Having a very different look-and-feel is not in itself a bad thing (I use Mac / Windows / SUZE / RHEL / Ubuntu / etc ) but a look-and-feel that is counter-intuitive and broken, with a distro that seems to have lost the plot… I’ve used Ubuntu since 5.x and I’m close to calling it a day with the interface in 11.04.

    • Nikolay

      Finally they didi something nice and smart! I loved the mac way of menus and they implemendet it. Sorry to say to you guys, but you are old fashioned. Great interface, smart enough, and lots of space for the programs window.