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Ubuntu's Oneiric Ocelot: Nice, but necessary?

Behind Unity's polish

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Review Oneiric Ocelot, or Ubuntu 11.10 as it is known, has been delivered and refines the core of the Unity environment Canonical built at the expense of GNOME.

If you made the leap to Canonical's signature Unity Desktop when it arrived in Spring's Natty Narwhal edition of Ubuntu, version number 11.04, then October's update will be welcome news.

The Ocelot improves on the Unity Desktop, fixing a number of annoying bugs and adding some more power to previously limited features, such as Unity's Dash and search tools. Dash is the tool that provides short cuts to your favorite applications and programs.

Ubuntu 11.10's Unity Dash has a slightly more refined look, with some transparency effects reminiscent of Windows 7. It's not going to make Unity any more useful, but it does makes the transition into the Dash a bit less jarring. Ubuntu's designers have also rounded off the corners and edges giving the Dash a smoother, softer feel.

Ubuntu 11.10 lenses

The best bit: 'Lenses' in Dash make searches easier

Visual changes are always subjective of course, but if you found the Unity Dash of 11.04 jarring on the eyeballs you might want to have another look at it in 11.10.

Those accustomed to Unity in 11.04 may be slightly thrown to learn that the Dash button has been moved from the top panel down into the Unity launcher. It'll cause a bit of muscle memory failure for a couple of days, but once you adjust to it, the new placement looks much better and makes more sense.

Once you're actually in the Dash there are quite a few improvements that make Unity feel less like a smartphone operating system that took over your laptop and more like something that might be useful one day.

The best news is that the Dash's search features have been subdivided to make it a bit easier to find what you need. It's worth noting that Ubuntu is now referring to these content subdivisions not as "Places," the term GNOME uses, but as "Lenses".

So the bottom of the Dash now features four "Lenses": for Home, Applications, Files and Music. The newest of these is the music lens, which not only searches your music but also hooks into Ubuntu's default media player, Banshee, to play songs right from the Dash. It only offers the basics, but when you just want to hear a song it's faster than opening up Banshee.

The Dash's search features have also gained some new filtering tools to quickly narrow your searches. For example, instead of searching for "Internet" to find applications that connect to the web, now you can just click the "Internet" filter to get a list of applications. Similarly there are filters to refine your file searches by date, type and file size, and you can filter music searches by genre or decade.

Incomplete Dash

While the Dash's search features are still nowhere near as easy to use or powerful as what you'll find in specialty apps like GNOME-Do, this release is a huge improvement over the primitive search capabilities found in the previous version of Unity.

In fact, while it's still got plenty of curious design decisions and rough edges, Unity is clearly making progress, albeit slower than many would like. The good news is that this release is considerably faster than the sluggish version of Unity that shipped with Ubuntu 11.04.

The speed is even apparent in places where the visuals have been improved – and would, presumably, make for an even greater drain on your graphics card. For example the new alt-tab switcher now displays window previews, even for minimized windows. There's no noticeable lag with the new previews and they make for a small upgrade that both looks better and makes it easier to find what you're looking for when you switch windows.

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