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Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot – beautiful, but deadly

by Russell Barnes

Canonical’s reshaping of Ubuntu is complete, but does 11.10 live up to the hype? Russell Barnes takes a look at the 15th iteration, Oneiric Ocelot, probably the only distro to be loved and loathed in near equal measure…

In Linux User issue 105’s beta review, we talked about how 11.10 appeared to be working hard to make good on plans laid out in the previous release. Where 11.04 was rough around the edges, with what was clearly a work-in-progress Launcher and Dash among other things, much more elegant solutions could be found.

It’s no secret that elegance and form are all very important factors for Canonical’s design team, but 11.04’s implementation smacked so heavily of form over function (a complaint arguably true of both ‘next-generation’ desktop experiences including GNOME Shell and Canonical’s Unity) that a positive reception would have been hard to wish for.

The ‘new’ Dash in 11.10 is strikingly beautiful with highly refined frosted glass effects and hi-res icons, but has made significant strides to address as many of 11.04’s misgivings as possible in the time allowed – it seems function finally got a look in. This is largely thanks to Lenses, which can be used to pivot the content you’re looking for within Dash, and Filters, which dynamically change depending on the type of content you’re looking for.

Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot - beautiful, but deadly
The new Dash offers a new Music Lens and Filters

The Dash itself is much more useful as a result, but (as is the case when you abandon drop-down menus as Canonical has done here) there’s still a fundamental flaw no measure of tweaking and iteration can truly remedy: it’s still too difficult and time consuming to find what you’re looking for (especially if you don’t know what it’s called).

The core problem with this kind of icon-led design is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t cater for a brief bout of forgetfulness that stress or tiredness can so easily induce. This being the case, the simple act of finding your preferred ISO burner, for example, can be an annoying chore that requires more key presses and brainwork than should ever be necessary. You could type ‘ISO’ or ‘DVD” into the dash and might get the result you’re looking for. There’s also a good chance you wont.

That’s not to say Ubuntu’s developers weren’t mindful of these difficulties – Lenses and Filters can resolve differences in programs, files and folders down to the megabyte. More tellingly perhaps, they’ve also added a System Settings launcher shortcut which is otherwise completely buried in the application window.

Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot - beautiful, but deadly
Finding apps is easier, but (by design) it's not 'one click' easy

The problem is that, while these are usable fixes to Ubuntu 11.04’s myriad issues, they’re not really solutions to the greater problem. We just can’t help but think that Unity, as a desktop environment, still has much evolution to endure before it can be considered any kind of revolution in desktop computing. Is it right to block legacy legacy desktop experiences in this way? Not to our mind.

For us the inability to use the desktop (to say, drag a terminal onto the desktop itself) is also something of a deal-breaker. We’re certainly not adverse to development, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense or courtesy to the user.

Though there are many other updates and changes to Ubuntu 11.10 like vastly improved indicator applets, updated packages and the fast-acting and fashionable LightDM, Canonical’s design team have wisely focused much of their attention on a trinity of features unique to Ubuntu and that neatly encapsulate the key selling points of the distro. If there’s one thing Ubuntu does well it’s marketing, after all.

Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot - beautiful, but deadly
The Software Center, now firmly part of the App Store generation

Besides the Dash, Ubuntu One and the Software Center make up this trinity, and have been on the receiving end of a good majority of the development work that’s taken place over the last six months.

Though many of the updates to the Software Center are purely aesthetic, it is arguably easier to find popular and specialised software alike. This is the age of the App Store, so its only fitting that the Software Center gets a makeover to incorporate app reviews and proprietary pay options.

The real story about the Software Center facelift, though, is that Synaptic Package Manager, which has been a mainstay of Ubuntu for some years now, is no longer installed by default in Ubuntu 11.10. It joins PiTiVi and Evolution as another package to fall off the defaults list, but will surely be missed more than the video editor and email client, which have been overshadowed by OpenShot and Thunderbird respectively over the last year. How you feel about these changes will ultimately boil down to your usage habits, but suffice it to say they each remain available in Ubuntu’s repositories.

Ubuntu 11.10 review. Oneiric Ocelot - beautiful, but deadly
The Ubuntu One service has grown dramatically in the last six months

Ubuntu One, as you may be aware, is Canonical’s cloud storage solution that syncs files and folders across multiple distro installs. The functionality of this service has grown recently to include music purchases (via the Ubuntu One Music store) and streaming services to iPhone and Android smartphones. Canonical has added another much-vaunted feather to its cap with the introduction of a Windows client too, which should go some way to tempt users of Dropbox and its many competitors, not least since the free storage quota has been raised to 5GB (more than double of some of its contemporaries) and it’s now possible to sync installed applications between desktops too.

In terms of design Ubuntu is really challenging Apple. In terms of compatibility and reach it’s certainly got Microsoft’s attention and where the open source ecosystem is concerned, it’s the most recognised brand alongside Tux himself. Does Canonical play entirely by the rules? No, and this is a very important problem for the project and there are many reasons why open source enthusiasts could (and perhaps should) steer well clear. But – and it’s a very big but – there’s no escaping the fact that Ubuntu is the most highly developed and refined open source operating system in the world today. The conflicts here make scoring pretty much moot – either you’re already enjoying it, or you’ve sworn never to grace Canonical’s mirrors again.

Read our interview with Canonical’s Gerry Carr about the launch of Ubuntu 11.10

Check out the latest posts from Linux User & Developer

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    • pJ

      I’ve stuck to 10.10. Giving Ubuntu one more release to fix Unity. Dropbox works fine, so does all the hardware (Asus Eeepc 1000).

      Perhaps I’ve become the Linux equivalent of the XP user and Unity is like Vista?

    • Dave

      Used the old Ubuntu as a dual boot on Vista machine.

      Loved it.

      The new desk top confused me a bunch

      Used Wubi to down load the new version and have just had all sorts of issues.

      Took Ubuntu off and am back to Vista.

      Maybe the Ubuntu 12.xx versions will work for me and I will go back to Ubuntu as my primary setup.

    • I have a MacBook Pro with Ubuntu 10.10 working perfectly.
      I updated to Ubuntu 11.10… worse decision ever!
      First, I had to get a mouse. My touchpad was disabled. After a few command lines, It works again.
      My wireless card stop working too… not surprise here. Again, after searching and searching… fixed.
      Now I am working on the applets which I was using. They are all gone and the panel applets doesn’t show, even when I try to combine using the ALT + Click, ALT + Logo + Click, etc.
      I wish in the future these updates have some consideration with the users.
      I don’t find right to be ‘touching’ places in the configuration and mess things up like this.

    • james t

      I’ve used Ubuntu for years and years (especially the portable version for troubleshooting on various computers), but the aggravation of having to search for programs in buried menus has ended this long-term relationship. I will try Mint, if that’s equally aggravating, then back to Debian. The eye-candy is pointless if you can’t easily get stuff done.

    • UBUNTU in NM

      I am new to Ubuntu 11.10 but I have used version 8.x and 9.x. The addition of the unity bar is nice; however, I also agree that the dash or search options need to be much smaller. I have found a solution that will work nicely to resolve this.

      After loading a fresh copy of Ubuntu and performing the necessary updates follow these steps and you can replace unity in about 30 minutes with one to restarts and that problem will go away.

      1) Update
      2) Install Compiz Configuration Settings Manager (CCSM)
      3) Configure Unity to autohide
      4) Install GLX Cairo
      5) Place Cairo in the startup menus via the cairo configuration option
      6) Reboot
      7) Drag icons to Cairo bar
      8) Customize Cairo
      9) Continue customizing or adding additional menu’s to cairo
      10) When done adding menu’s in cairo, set them to autohide

      Okay so it sounds easy right? It is, but it can make your life easier and renove the frustration of Unity/Dash search.

      I have configured 5 desktops in about 5 hours to remedy the unsightly unity dash bar. Both 32 and 64 bit editions will work with Cairo

      Now for Gnome 3 – I haven’t taken that route yet but I will soon and who knows I might like gnome 3 better.

      Nonetheless replacing unity is not that hard to perform.

      Note that I am also running 12.04 Beta 1 64 Bit edition on a Dell Latitude D620 and I am not having any further problems now that I have installed and configured the Broadcom Wireless Adapter without any network connection whatsoever. Yes it can be done, but it is challenging and I am always up for a challenge :)

      Goodbye Microsnot

      The best solution for fixing the large Icon issue is to install another GUI like Cairo with Open GL or Gnome 3 – Cairo is one of the easiest items to configure and works out of the box with 11.10 and 12.04. In addition when logging in click on the gear icon and either choose Unity (if you like the dash) or Cairo. In addition make sure that Compiz Configuration Settings Manager (CCSM) is installed as this will allow you to “Hide” the unity panel dash bar if you are booting with Unity. Either way you have quicj access to menu’s much like Windows or MAC OS X.

    • DenjinJ

      I’ve experimented with Linux since about Redhat 6.4. Every year or so I’ll grab a handful of recent top distros and take them for a spin, but I’ve never been what you’d call a Linux user – I always hit an insurmountable wall, where all available fixes don’t work or the only solution I find is hundreds of people asking for a solution.

      I’ve been warming to Ubuntu for years – it seems like the easiest distribution, with basic operations like installing, uninstalling and updating actually easy enough to expect an end-user to complete. I recently grabbed a copy of 11.10 to run some software from a flashdrive… It was alien, but I was determined to stick with it. I poked around. I looked for guides. I had a simple task any OS should be able to do: repartition a disk. I had just done it in 11.04 with GNOME without looking it up or asking anything. It was as easy as it should be.

      After about 15 minutes in Unity… I managed to find a way to open the terminal! I didn’t FIND the terminal, but I found a place where I could ask for one and get it… whew! I found some guides to switch back to GNOME and tried them. No. 1 failed. No. 2 failed. No. 3 failed. Ok, so I’m stuck in here… and how do I repartition? Another 20 minutes go by and I’m locked into this Fisher-Price tech demo that makes an OLPC look feature-rich. Well… I can write a letter! Oh, and there’s Firefox! Not helping.

      In the end, I did find a solution for my problem however: Linux Mint. It’s clear Ubuntu has gone from reaching out to users with easy to use software, and become an abstract, high-concept playground for radical UI redesigns. Great… if you’re in a lab, fiddling with new concepts. In the real world where there’s work to be done, it’s a complete roadblock. Seeya, Canonical. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.

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    • barry

      unity….not a fan. having the BACK button just a mere pixels away from the slideout menu bar is annoying! and ocelot oneiric keeps locking up my browser over and over.

    • David

      Yes, it has been a rough ride during the transition. During this period I used Xubuntu.

      HOWEVER, after installing and using Raring Ringtail (13.04) for a couple of days with everything I need, I’m impressed. Raring is a home run. Fast, beautiful, quiet and cool (on my notebook) and still didn’t crash or had apps misbehaving. At all.

      I don’t mind Unity. There are a few nuisances, like all the trouble of adding a custom app/script to the Unity bar (it involves creating a .desktop shortcut and putting it under ./.local/share/applications), but fortunately that’s a one time job. There is also the lack of “Open terminal here” shortcuts in the Files program.

      But overall it’s great. I’m very satisfied.