My First Look at Natty Narwhal

It was a dog walking Saturday morning and I decided to do a little multi-tasking.  While enjoying the park with the dog who was long overdue for a good run with the weather we’ve been having, I set my computer to do an upgrade to Natty Narwhal, Ubuntu 11.04.  With my internet provider, I know that the upgrade could take hours and hours so I elected to start the process when nobody else in the house would need our very little bandwidth.

I wasn’t terribly excited going into 11.04, I must admit.  The inclusion of Unity replacing Gnome had me a little tentative.  Unity was part of Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition.  It looked great and worked like the doc from OSX – kind of – it just wouldn’t hide itself.  On a Netbook, that meant taking up valuable pixels.  With the smaller screen on my Dell Netbook (1024×576), I needed every pixel that I could get.  Scrolling or shrinking the screen size just didn’t seem to be much of a comfortable computer experience for me.  But, before I upgraded my Netbook, I decided to upgrade the installation on my Sony Vaio.  At 1600×900, I have pixels to burn.  Plus the promise of a 3D and multi-touch interface was just too much to ignore.

So, I started the upgrade and left.  Upon return, we were still downloading so it was time to do some yardwork and then return just in time to bounce between 15 seconds and 60 minutes estimated time remaining.  Eventually, all was here, installation done and rebooted to the new version.  I was impressed at the boot speed.  Could it be even faster than 10.10?  At times, I wish that I could do these things in a lab setting for true machine to machine experiences.  But, a log in and I’m good to go – or so I thought.  Ubuntu tells me that the video card that I’m using won’t support Unity.  Could it be?

Sony uses Nvidia cards in this model so I had to do the unthinkable and install protected drivers.  I was a little concerned about this as well.  With 10.10, I could install the drivers but they wouldn’t give me the full screen resolution.  Could the same happen again?  Surely, this was addressed; I know that there were many of us who had asked for a solution with 10.10.  I downloaded the drivers, rebooted, success!  I have the sweet look of Unity sitting on the desktop.  With the i7 processor in this machine, it screamed.  I’m up and running!

I really like the improvement to its functionality.  The developers have been listening.  When there’s nothing running, the launcher appears.  The moment that you launch an application, the application seizes control of the screen and the launcher goes away.  You can configure it to respond to a cursor and so mine now works like my OSX doc.  Move the cursor to the left of the screen and I’m good.  And, of course, you can pin applications to the launcher so that frequently used applications are easily accessible.

So, two swings at success.  I am very happy that the nVidia drivers work to the point that Unity is happily doing its thing.  Onward…

What I like about Ubuntu is that the complete install gives you everything that you need to have in a fully functional computer.  Plus things that were installed previously are upgraded and carried forward.  So, I’m seeing Libre Office, BloGTK, Banshee Media Player, Celestia, Shotwell, and so much more.  Of course, Google Chrome is my browser of choice (a separate download) and it synchronizes with my other instances so it’s just like home.  Interestingly, Firefox comes as the default browser.

In this day of “stores”, Ubuntu remains ahead of the crowd.  The Ubuntu Software Centre has always been just a click away to grab new titles.  However, the new search incorporated in this release brings it all together.  Clicking the Ubuntu button or pressing the Windows key opens search in a transparent window they’re calling The Dash.  Start typing or you can browse your way to the desired application.  If it’s not there, the Software Centre is integrated right into the search.  Just go ahead and download the application if needed.

How much more user friendly can you get than that?

Given the success with having the nVidia driver issue resolved, I wonder about the other nagging thing.  I installed Ubuntu on this computer in Windows using the WUBI installer.  In retrospect, I could kick myself.  Although WUBI warns that its installation may be slower than a pure install, I’ve never noticed it.  The problem that I experience was the fact that WUBI doesn’t support sleep or hibernate.  Could it be that this issue has been addressed.  I closed the lid and walked away for a bit, admiring the glowing orange sleep button that’s trademark Sony.  Alas, when I opened the lid, the machine may have been asleep but it didn’t want to restore my Ubuntu session.  It’s not an earthshattering issue, I just have to remember to shut down.  With Ubuntu, shutdown and startup speeds are quite fast so it doesn’t really hurt me.

As I kick the tires and put Ubuntu through its paces, I have complete satisfaction with what I’m seeing.  Ubuntu is fast.  Unity has matured to the point of getting it right.  As an aside, I still find the mixture of open applications and shortcuts in the launcher/doc a little bizarre but I’m at a loss to come up with a better suggestion.  The screen is so easy to read; the Ubuntu fonts are clean, clear, and crisp.  I use a slightly customized version of the Ambiance theme and it really is easy on the eyes.  So many of the actual applications that I use these days are web-based anyway so having Chrome all configured and synchronized is a bonus.  Unlike Windows or MacOS where I use the Seesmic Desktop, there is no Ubuntu version.  But, the Seesmic Web does a nice job and changing the colour scheme to black makes it mesh nicely into the Ambience theme.

In addition to the video card issue, I’m sure that there are all kinds of other features and bugs swatted in this release.  I’m anxiously waiting to see what they look like.  You can’t do an operating system review justice after just one day and I don’t pretend to do that here either.  The two biggest things that most people will notice are The Launcher and The Dash.  They do seem to make the whole experience nicely functional.

In the beginning, I do admit that I was tentative going in.  I didn’t know about Unity but I’m really glad that I did.  It very quickly became second nature and an effective way to navigate.  If you’ve got a spare computer in need of a refresh or your have a Windows machine that you don’t mind dual booting, I would encourage you to download and give this a shot.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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