Ubuntu 12.04 LTS: Like it or not, this Linux grows on you
Happiness is HUD+Unity
Review Ubuntu 12.04, the fourth major Long Term Support (LTS) release for Ubuntu, is serious stuff. LTS editions of Ubuntu are delivered every two years and have extended support from Canonical. They also set the look of the coming years' releases. And this LTS, codenamed Precise Pangolin, has had its support extended from three to five years by Canonical.
Why does all this matter? Because Ubuntu 12.04 will be the first time many of Ubuntu's more conservative customers – especially those in business – will face the controversial Unity interface that replaced the conventional GNOME. It re-oriented the interface for more touch and introduced a more 3D look and feel.
Also in the PC edition of this LTS is HUD: Head Up Display. The idea of the HUD interface is to dispense with the tried-and-tested drop-down menus setup, and instead to allow users to access features and invoke commands using search and natural-language autocomplete.
HUD, HUD, HUD: Ubuntu's menu of the future in 12.04 LTS
Canonical has also introduced a "remix" dubbed Ubuntu Business Desktop Remix. Business Remix is aimed squarely at the corporate market and strips out features such as the Rhythmbox music player and the various games, all normally included in a standard Ubuntu package. Instead, Business Remix users will get VMWare View (which means there's an EULA), OpenJDK 6 and other business workflow software.
Naturally, the Business Remix isn't meant for the everyday Ubuntu user. And when he announced the remix, Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth was careful to say that Ubuntu isn't creating its own version of the RHEL/Fedora arrangement. Instead he emphasised that the Business Remix was just another example of Canonical doing more for its actual customers, presumably without also harming the community of users around it.
The emphasis on long-term stability, business-oriented remixes and corporate users doesn't mean there isn't anything new and interesting in Ubuntu 12.04 or that all the new features target the suits. Rank-and-file Ubuntu users itching for some more Unity pop do also have HUD, too.
Canonical calls HUD the "menu of the future". How does it rate?
Unlike the Unity interface, which, despite improving with every release, still doesn't quite feel as powerful as the GNOME 2.x interface that it replaced, the HUD is immediately useful and works just the way you'd expect it to. HUD is especially helpful in applications with menu items that go several layers deep, for instance, GIMP. Instead of mousing to the Filters menu, then selecting Sharpen, and then selecting Unsharp Mask, you can simply hit the alt key and type "uns" and the top hit is Unsharp Mask. Just hit return and the item opens.
HUD's the best
Of course GIMP is an app that lends itself to the mouse so switching to the keyboard to use the HUD isn't always faster. Where the HUD might really shine is in text-oriented apps like various parts of the LibreOffice suite. Sadly, as of Ubuntu 12.04, the HUD doesn't yet work with LibreOffice, though you might think it does. It's somewhat confusing because the HUD is a global menu. Hit alt anywhere in Ubuntu 12.04 and the menu will pop up and you can indeed search. However, you'll never see any results for LibreOffice menu items.
Despite that interface quirk – which will be less of a problem when there's more supported applications – HUD may well be the best part of Ubuntu 12.04 and the best idea to come out of Canonical's effort to rethink the user interface. Not only is it useful today, the HUD helps make Unity feel more (wait for it) unified. It moves searching to the top tier since it is no longer just something you do in the Unity Dashboard, but rather the go-to way to find anything on your PC.
The matching power of HUD's fuzzy search is also impressive; it rarely takes more than a few letters to find the menu item you're looking for and the results window has very little lag, even in a virtual machine.
If only Unity's Dashboard search features worked so well, but sadly the terrible search I complained about in the beta review remains unchanged for the final release: the Unity Dashboard is still incapable of finding the application GVim from the search string "vim."
In fact most of the Unity Dashboard remains largely unchanged from previous releases, though there is a new video search lens. The video lens will pull search results from the metadata of any movies in your Videos folder, as well as search online services like the BBC's iPlayer and YouTube movies.
There still aren't too many options to customise the Unity desktop without resorting to third-party software or hacks, but this release does finally add an option to at least hide the launcher if you'd like to save some screen real estate.
Privacy controls restrict the information logged in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS
Also worth checking out is the new Privacy option in the System Settings panel. The Privacy feature lets you control what the system and even individual apps are allowed to log. You can also shut off history logging altogether or tell the system to automatically remove logged items after a period of time.
Apparently many people were unclear about what was happening when a new application installed, so now whenever you install something from the Ubuntu Software Center the icon jumps out of the Software Center and lands in the launcher. There's also a new progress bar on top of the application icon that shows the app downloading. It's a nice touch for newcomers, but note that it only works for software installed through the Ubuntu Software Center.
The Ubuntu Software Center has been tweaked slightly with the addition of some small but nice features such as an opt-in "Recommendations" feature for custom-tailored app suggestions: it's based on what you download after you turn it on. When you install a new application through the Ubuntu Software Center, the corresponding language support packages – things like translations and spell-check modules – are now installed automatically as well.
As with any new Ubuntu release, the default applications have been updated to the latest versions. This round you'll find the LibreOffice 3.5 and Firefox 11, as well as the latest versions of Rhythmbox, Empathy, Totem and more.
Under the hood Ubuntu 12.04 offers an updated Linux kernel and some new hardware support for ClickPads – button-less trackpads where you simply press down on the trackpad surface to "click" – which is handy for those running Ubuntu on Apple laptops or laptops with Synaptics ClickPads.
It's also worth noting that, for all its emphasis on stability, my testing on the daily build – two days prior to the official release – still found many of the default apps feeling a bit less than solid. Both the Ubuntu Software Center and Ubuntu One crashed, the latter several times, as did, ironically, the crash reporter app.
As someone who started off disliking Unity I'll admit I've come around. Somewhat. I'm still disappointed with the Dashboard's search capabilities, but with addition of HUD Canonical's overall vision is starting to make more sense.
Or perhaps it just suddenly seems less jarring when stacked up next to what Microsoft is planning for Windows 8. And that, along with the improvements in this LTS release, may well become a huge selling point for Canonical's corporate customers going forward. ®