With the release of Ubuntu 11.04 (codenamed “Natty Narwhal” in the alphabetical adjective-animal convention of Ubuntu releases) there is no longer a distinction between the desktop and netbook editions since now both editions now using the new Unity interface.
So what’s new in Ubuntu? (Again, Unity for the most part…)
Yes, Unity again is the key point in the 11.04 release as it was in the 10.10 Netbook release, but this isn’t your… umm… Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook user’s Unity… It’s far, far more polished.
Unity’s dock has been greatly improved from the 10.10 Netbook version. In 10.10, the dock was always visible at the left side of the screen, and application windows would open up alongside it. In 11.04, the dock now hides itself in a completely natural fashion. It essentially gets “pushed aside” whenever the space it takes up is needed (e. g. when you maximize a window, or simply drag a window into the area where the dock resides). The dock will reappear when you move your mouse to the extreme left of the screen. It’s a different experience from “auto-hiding” a dock in other UI systems. Unity’s dock just conveniently gets out of the way.
Drag-and-drop reordering of icons in the dock, and simply scrolling up and down the list of icons is also far less twitchy than it was in 10.10. The animations in the dock, such as “folding over” the icons when there isn’t enough space for them, have been made a great deal more smooth.
Probably one of the nicest additions to the dock is a “Home Folder” icon which brings up the general File Manager window so you can browse files the old fashioned way (not using what Unity calls a “Lens” which I’ll get to later).
You also get a bundled install of LibreOffice ready to go in the dock. (In fact, I’m using LibreOffice Writer to draft this article.)
It’s generally a nice tool in the UI, and only gripe I would personally bring up about the new dock is that when you click on an icon to start an application, you get a small, subtle flashing animation. It’s not as obvious as it should be that you’ve successfully clicked on the icon (i.e. no Mac OS X style bouncing about).
File/Application Searches (“Lenses”)
Lenses were available in 10.10 (so, this technically isn’t new, and I’ll admit I previously didn’t know the official term for these). A lens is more-or-less a way to search for items in the OS or elsewhere using some sort of meta-data search. It’s somewhat similar to “Libraries” in Windows 7 or a “Smart Folder” in Snow Leopard, combined with a “Spotlight” style search.
Lenses in 11.04 have been smoothed out a bit. Different categories of items you can search for have been more intelligently placed in a dropdown menu (before they were listed out horizontally and tended to stick off of the edge of the interface a bit).
You get two default lenses, one for searching for applications, and another for searching your files and folders (these were in 10.10 as well). What’s interesting, however, is that the lens concept in Unity has the ability to search for content outside of your computer (beyond just applications you may want from the Ubuntu Software Center). For instance, there is a Google Book lens that will allow you to search the entire Google Books repository. New lenses will probably start cropping up over time as developers take advantage of this feature.
One little thing…
One little thing of note, is that you can actually put things on the desktop. I figure this is worth mentioning since the previous netbook versions had a “Desktop” folder, but putting things in it really didn’t do anything in the UI. It was just a sort of vestigial folder from the full desktop version. Now you will actually be able to see and click on things on your netbook desktop!
That’s about it…
Well, I’ll have to say that’s really not about it… What I’ve written above are the general things that any basic user will notice right away. Although the general direction in the UI design seems to be veering away from dropdown application selection menus and file management windows and moving into new ways to discover and manage content on and off of your computer.
Of course, the best way to learn about Ubuntu’s features is to try it yourself. If you have a netbook my previous installation instructions should still work. Although since this isn’t specifically a netbook edition anymore, you may want to give it a shot on a desktop or laptop (perhaps using Wubi?).