Official website for Linux User & Developer

Ubuntu 12.04 review – precisely what we feared

by Russell Barnes

Ubuntu 12.04 ‘Precise Pangolin’, Canonical’s biggest ever LTS has arrived, but can the latest round of improvements win over its critics? Linux User’s editor, Russell Barnes, takes a look at the broader view…

Over the last 18 months Ubuntu, the Linux world’s most widely recognised distribution, has undergone the most intense period of development of its eight-year existence. This period of transition hasn’t been easy for Canonical, which has taken on the monumental task of reinventing Ubuntu’s GUI in the face of vocal opposition from a sizeable portion of its user base.

When we recently interviewed Canonical CEO, Jane Silber, she spoke quite candidly about the run up to Unity, not to mention the perception of arrogance to their approach. Encapsulated within just a few sentences she also managed to touch on what some consider being the company’s biggest triumph, and others its most fundamental flaw.

On the plus side, Unity proves that open source software development and UI design don’t have to be disparate or incompatible disciplines. “If you go back three years nobody was talking about design, nobody was doing user research,” said Silber. “It is actually something we have had great influence on, by calling attention to it and putting our efforts there.”

Ubuntu 12.04 review – precisely what we feared
The Dash has a video lens that incorporates online sources

There’s no doubt that design, ergonomics and usability are pillars of modern software design and key areas in which open source has lacked any real focus in the past. As Unity’s many critics might argue, however, focus is exactly what Unity lacks. And this is all but confirmed in Jane Silber’s next sentence:

“I think, whether you like Unity or not, its existence has helped raise the bar across a number of projects.”

Silber is, of course, referring to the recently announced Ubuntu TV and Ubuntu for Android projects, probably not to mention an unannounced tablet offering among other plans. This is where the real focus of Unity lies, not the product we’re evaluating today.

For these particular projects Unity makes perfect sense and we’re excited about what Unity can offer in touch-screen, TV and small form factor scenarios – it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, but this long-term promise comes at the cost of their flagship desktop offering.

Ubuntu 12.04 review – precisely what we feared
Ubuntu One can now sync applications across several installations of Ubuntu

Having already weighed up the core features of Ubuntu 12.04 from both positive and negative perspectives, we’ll save you from the already heavily publicised minutiae. Speaking in broad strokes Unity does little to improve usability; conversely, it’s actually quite detrimental in some areas. While it is no doubt a marvellous test bed, most desktop users aren’t reaping any kind of reward for this. Ubuntu has lost its focus.

Unity is almost as relevant to Ubuntu 12.04 as ASIMO is to Honda’s latest hatchback. It’s a technical exploration of a future problem – a concept destined for products still some years away from mainstream availability.

Ubuntu 12.04 review – precisely what we feared
Paid options adds a new dimension to the Software Centre

When you boil Unity down to its most basic premise, one core complaint that existed in 11.04 still exists today and is summarised quite nicely in a passage from Linux User’s Ubuntu 11.10 review:

“There’s a fundamental flaw no measure of tweaking and iteration can truly remedy: it’s too difficult and time consuming to find what you’re looking for.”

Ultimately Ubuntu12.04 is not a pleasant experience for home office or professional users requiring either more mouse clicks or time away from the mouse typing searches.

It puts us in mind of Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5 personal electric vehicle. It was a product arguably 30 years ahead of its time, but Sinclair’s quintessentially British electric three-wheeler, with its canopy permanently open to the elements, simply wasn’t compatible with the quintessentially British weather. Once off the production line no amount of iteration could have saved it – it was never going to work.

Related Ubuntu articles

Ubuntu 12.04 – Canonical CEO Jane Silber talks Unity, community and ‘continuous computing’

5 reasons to be excited about Ubuntu 12.04

5 problems with Ubuntu 12.04

  • Tell a Friend
  • Follow our Twitter to find out about all the latest Linux news, reviews, previews, interviews, features and a whole more.
    • Confucius

      If you want to talk about operating systems and usability on a personal level with all the benefits of a totally open system can we please leave out the politically correct bullsh*t.

      Nelson Mandela is a pawn of the communist movement, really. I will leave it at that.

      Have a nice day…

    • Copperblade

      Hi. I didn’t read your giant block of text. Do you think you could make your point in 2 or 3 sentences? Brevity is the soul of wit.

    • Haralambos Kudunas

      I tested the 12.04 Unity and then I installed the “Gnome Classic” desktop via a terminal command, so I had the chance to choose during the login process. Unity looks very good as an appearence, but for an advanced user is neither functional or productive. Many functions are hidden. “Gnome Classic” is better, but not as productive as I wanted. Just compare it with Linux Mint MATE Gnome desktop, where everything is in the correct place, you can change anything you want, you have full control of the desktop and full info of the system. My conclusions are: If you are an advanced user, and Gnome liker, move to Linux Mint MATE immediately. If you are a simple home user, you can stay with Unity or the so called Gnome Classic in Ubuntu, but still I wonder of how a technician would fix a hardware problem through such an environment. Even Hardware info is missing, and the Control Center is so minimalistic.

    • Haralambos Kudunas

      Maybe Ubuntu’s motto “Linux for human beings” is true, I mean Unity is good for mom, or dad, or for Mac users migrated to Linux. But still a technician’s and advanced user’s nightmare. This applies to Gnome 3 as well. I understand the reason why many Gnomers 2.x got panic with Unity or Gnome 3.x :-) For me Linux Mint MATE (Ubuntu based) is just a far more better Ubuntu for the advanced user. :-)

    • civilwest .

      NSA has screwed everything up! Cyborg police are watching everything and F-ing with everybody! Including Ubuntu! Don’t believe me? Go listen to “” Alex has a good handle on everything!

    • Rob Holman

      Did you make a point at all? Learn to read.

    • Copperblade

      I think my comment is relatively straightforward and to the point. If you enjoy reading so much that you don’t discriminate, good luck–the amount of media and information is only going to grow.

    • Jer Pickett

      The fact that nobody “liked” your post (except me) just proves that people like visuals more than words and text. I’m guessing that they skipped it altogether. In my opinion it was worth the read. Jim, your review was spot on. I agree 100% with you. I used to love Ubuntu back when gnome 2.* was used and add/remove was the package installer. It did seem like conanical had a “mac attack” and tried to fix something that wasn’t broken. It seems as if the torch was passed to developers who were just trying to add some “flare” to their portfolio’s instead of continuing an OS that the users they already had would enjoy. I now enoy Linux Mint. Thank you for the post kind sir!

    • mickrussom

      We use this stuff at work. LTS 12.0.4. Pure utter undocumented buggy garbage. This stuff is so bad that we had to abandon Ubuntu entirely. Junk. No docs. Rude community. We are currently on RHEL/CENTOS 6.x, and will move to RHEL/CENTOS 7 and stay on that train for a long, long time. Canonical is really a loser company with a bunch of cowboys hacking things to pieces and starting over every 6 months and rehacking hacked up stuff. Pathetic.

    • mickrussom

      Unity sucks hard. Defending it indicates a severe lack of intelligence. Everything in the new idiot UIs is some magical keystroke. Magic this magic that meta magic alt control magic. Android is doing it, iOS, now ubuntu? The old days of menus had the bloody shortcuts printed in them. No guessing. While not ” intuitive ” it was self documenting.

    • mickrussom

      You must do one thing all day – like browse from a single browser window?

    • mickrussom

      TL,DR, and RTFM. Typical. So intelligent. So helpful.

    • chrisleonard

      You know what really indicates a lack of intelligence? How about “insulting people you disagree with?”

    • Frank

      You are simply wrong! Critics like you just don’ t understand and this ignorance becomes the basis of their unfounded critique.

    • DanielKnightForChrist

      i feel insulted by your comment!

    • DanielKnightForChrist

      “This is one of the strangest things I have ever seen. A complete Os
      is given for free and it’s possible to configure it as much as you

      You must not have lived long if you think it’s strange for people to
      complain about something they are given for free, like, oh: life? Blind.

      “But people are complaining about it the same way as people are
      complaining about Microsoft and Windows 8.”

      Because, illogical Jim, merely being free doesn’t magically mean it’s
      not something that should be complained about. Parents give their kids
      free food, but does that mean kids should make no complaints about what given, or give advice? Is that your same attitude towards jail food?
      You’d be a harsh corrections officer.


      Poopel? Popel? What?

      “are only complaining about Unity.”

      What’s your point? Is it a criticism of the title? If they are only complaining about Unity what is your complaint?

      “H ell Im not a fan but I just
      install Cinnamon and get on with my life.”

      H ell do you always promote your personal preference using a
      contradictory nag over the complaints of others? And what you can do is
      not easy to everyone else.

      “I tried 4 Distros in one day in Vm and found three of them to have serious bugs. But Ubuntu just worked.”

      Well aren’t you special Mr. Nerdinino, let’s all worship you now.

      “Gee people get a life….”

      So just tell everyone who says they don’t like Unity they have no
      life, after complaining that you don’t like complaints about free things
      which you aren’t the one giving away even, you’re an insulting mor0n
      with no life. Stop being a petty bully you hypocrite and telling who
      knows how many decent or righteous people they are nothings over this
      small thing.

      “Don’T like it? Change it or use a other Distro….”

      Yes because everyone has the same options as Mr. Smart Warden. You
      sound like a thug saying, “don’t like this country, leave and move to
      another,” “don’t like my house my kid, get out and find another parent,”
      “don’t like this government switch it for a new one,” ok, Mr. Simpleton
      whining about me saying I was sick of his over cooked free steaks. What
      a blind arrogant hypocrite.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘Windows 8 Ultimate’

    • chrisleonard

      You are correct – thanks for the correction. I use Windows 8 (now 8.1) Professional.

    • Vlad Lenin

      Did they hire someone from m$

    • eric clifford

      Jim, you think it’s only about unity but it’s not. along with stripping away a perfect desktop interface you could customize all day long, many other things changed as well to dumb it down in effort to make a new phone / tablet / desktop interface ( that renders your desktop a dreadful experience to use ) rather than the helpful companion we had with 9.10 with which we could get stuff done. FAST. those many many tools that got pitched, Lot’s of hard work by many contributors to linux. which made it great. Try to add a custom launcher to the dash menu under accessories or development menu. pop a widget on the menu bar, or anything else, to show you disk space or system performance that shows you a live status in a one by two centimeter chunk of space . you cant do it anymore. Really, you cant’ customize menus like we’ve been able to do since you were like 1 yr old. If you don’t see the short comings, then you haven’t used the good stuff and don’t know what you are talking about and surely wouldn’t miss them.

    • eric clifford

      Don, Bradley, You guys just don’t get it. It’s not just unity that is changing in ubuntu. It’s gradual reduction in flexibility provided by many many contributors, in order to have a single platform to run on any device. Jim said it well, I don’t want to touch my desktop screen, period, and all the stuff taken away, to dumb down the interface to that end,,,, I want it back. Especially if I’m a programmer who put a good tool out there that was used in ubuntu 9.10 but is now unavailable. BTW, I just installed the latest 12.04 and Gnome desktop is no longer a choice, now we have only two, unity or unity 2D, that’s it. case in point. Ubuntu is being dumbed down to usless status for me. It’s been a stable OS for years, now, with the last update, I lost all nvidia graphics functionality and i’m going to either Mint, Kubuntu or Suse. Canonical should be spending time on core funtionallity I guess. I wouldn’t even call Ubuntu Linux pretty soon. Linux is synonymous with flexibility. Ubuntu is not anymore. I hope they get back to what they did very well soon, like they did with 9.10.

    • Misi Eedyot

      I just think it’s a bit silly to be devoting so much energy to a new (it is new) GUI when we have KDE (with all its suffering), XFCE, GNOME, and even the new clean XVWM (go take a look, it’s really fast).
      The developers would be better off looking into other matters, there is plenty of work to go round.

    • Misi Eedyot

      Exactamundo! Or KDE (install the Kubuntu package since Ubuntu are intellectually disabled and have removed the included KDE packages)

    • Jeremy List

      The crippled version of gnome shell you get by doing that is worse than Unity. If you want the old interface back then the 2 options are to install MATE or Cinnamon.

    • Lucretius

      Seriously, I have installed Ubuntu on two computers last week. I have had nothing but problems since then. Open source — It’s a great idea, but it is simply retarded to actually install this on your system and expect it to work right. I haven’t had a day off since I installed these; I am constantly “fixing” them. If you have brains, pirate a real O.S. and your life will be much simpler. Stay away from wannabe OS’s and learn to pirate ones you have to pay for, because they work.

    • Zero

      I have to say as well, it was worth the read, it poses an interesting counterpoint to unity lovers. I’m curious of if and how your opinion has changed by 14.04.

    • Knuckles Mutatis

      Looking back, this was truly where they blew it. Ubuntu was fairly OK up to before this, and they just HAD to go and create this horribly ugly, ergonomically senseless, and utterly slow atrocity. This was all the proof anyone ever needed that computer geeks have zero sense of taste, and need to be kept away from UI design.