Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal Review

It's Natty time...

The latest and greatest version of Ubuntu, 11.04 Natty Narwhal, was released on April 28, 2011. Ubuntu is now the most popular desktop operating system, and with this release, Canonical has made some major changes — both up front, and under the hood. Read on to learn more.

In Natty, Unity is the default desktop atop GNOME; it requires a 3D graphics accelerator, as it uses Compiz Fusion heavily — however, you can switch to GNOME Classic from the login menu, if you don’t have the right hardware. Ubuntu 11.10 will be shipped with a 2D version of Unity, for systems with average graphics cards.

Natty replaces Ubuntu Netbook Edition for all PCs and netbooks. Available in the usual variants — Kubuntu (KDE), Xubuntu (XFCE), Edubuntu and more — the software defaults have also changed. LibreOffice 3.3.2 is now the default office suite; Firefox 4 is the default browser; and Banshee replaces the Rhythmbox music player.

The Ubiquity installer has ‘graduated’

The Ubiquity installer is getting much smarter and understandable with every incremental release. People new to Linux (who fear messing up their existing OS while doing a dual-boot installation), and those who don’t understand what swap space is, or how much they need of it, will like Ubiquity.

Ubiquity installer

Ubiquity installer

This installer is quite impressive; it guides you at every step, letting you know what’s happening, what you might want to do, and how it can be done. It detects whether you are installing on a system with an existing Windows installation, or upgrading from an earlier Ubuntu install, etc. It also has an expert partitioning option for experienced Linux users.

Once you enter the required choices, the installer begins copying files in the background, while you fill in additional information like the time zone, user details and more. The migration assistant, too, works flawlessly, and migrates your documents, pictures, user settings and so on without any hassle. You can also choose to install third-party software like Flash, MP3 codecs, Java, etc.

Install third-party stuff right from the installer

Install third-party stuff right from the installer

Installation is not much speedier. Boot time from a live USB was less than a minute on a Core2Duo laptop, and two minutes on my netbook.

The Unity bar is here to stay

Like it or hate it, the Unity bar is clearly here to stay. It’s had a major face-lift since 10.10, though it still sits atop GDE. It’s not much different once you get past the layout and some basic controls. The new Unity interface is very innovative and neat, and saves screen real estate. It has a dock-style bar on the left with common applications, and a standard panel across the top. It auto-hides when you maximise windows, and comes back when you hover the mouse in the upper-right corner. The Unity bar scrolls icons when you hover the mouse pointer over the icons stacked like a deck of cards in the lower-right corner.

Click app icons to start them. A caret sign appears to the left of the icons for apps that are already running; a caret on the right of the icon shows the currently active app. Shift-clicking an icon launches a new instance of an already-running app; tiny lights show multiple instances. You can drag-and-drop to rearrange icons, and remove an icon by dragging it off the bar. To quit an app, right-click and select Quit from the menu.

The Ubuntu button (top-left corner of the screen) gives you an iPad-like home screen, with high-resolution icons for your favourite destinations. The Workspace Switcher feature, accessed via a sidebar icon, defaults to four virtual desktops.

Workspace switcher

Workspace switcher

Mac-like app menu bar

The Ubuntu 10.10 netbook edition missed the very important unified menu bar. Yes, Natty has made some Apple-like changes — the top bar serves as a universal app menu bar, displaying the application’s menu bar (when they have one) here, instead of in the app window. Natty thus provides users the maximum possible vertical screen space.

Universal menu bar

Universal menu bar

Unity’s keyboard navigation

Another addition with Unity is navigation for keyboard shortcuts, most of which use the Windows key. Holding down the Windows key shows numbers for each dock item; launch one by pressing the corresponding number. Tap the Windows key for a quick-search box from the upper-left corner, which lets you launch applications, search files and folders, and access system settings and utilities. For a wallpaper with a complete keyboard shortcuts listing, visit askubuntu.com.

Quick search bar

Quick search bar

Updated software defaults

The Linux kernel is now the much more stable version 2.6.38.2, so users get improved overall system performance. The open source Banshee 2.0 Music Player, which replaces Rhythmbox, was originally named Sonance, until 2005. It uses the Helix and GStreamer platforms for handling media formats. It supports bookmarks, the Amazon MP3 store, video support, audio books support for libraries, metadata fix-up, integration with the sound menu, and a few more features.

Natty uses LibreOffice 3.3.2, developed by The Document Foundation, which is a fork of the well-known OpenOffice.org. With the same features as OpenOffice.org, it will be easy for users to switch to LibreOffice. Firefox 4 débuts as the default browser in 11.04. With an improved user interface, “door-hanger” notifications, a redesigned extension manager and Firefox Sync, users now have a modern browser.

The updated Software Centre, Ubuntu’s version of an app store, is already well-liked by users since the release of Ubuntu 10.10. The Ubuntu One control panel now supports selective file synchronising, and the synchronisation itself is improved. The launcher icon also displays file sync progress. In the visual improvements department, scrollbars are now “zero-size”, the icons much better, and the overall feel one of an iOS device.

Software Centre

Software Centre

Things to do after installing

First, of course, install all recommended updates using the Update Manager and restart the machine.
For a pleasant Unity experience, hardware drivers must be updated, since Unity demands 3D acceleration. If Unity isn’t working, run the Additional Drivers program and activate the driver. If you have an nVidia graphics card, then you have to install it using a PPA, as follows:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntu-x-swat/x-updates
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install nvidia-current nvidia-current-modaliases nvidia-settings

When you restart your system, you should be greeted with the new Unity interface.

Install Ubuntu Tweak, which enables customising Ubuntu the way you like it, from the Software Centre, or through a PPA, as follows:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:tualatrix/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install ubuntu-tweak

Basic applications you should install

  • GIMP
  • VLC
  • Chromium browser
  • Multiget, a very nice and easy direct-downloads manager for Ubuntu
  • Bleachbit, a system cleaner that cleans out all useless packages, freeing space on the root filesystem for better performance.

If there is something you want that is not available through Software Centre, you can still download it from the Web in .deb format, and open it with /usr/bin/gdebi-gtk (you must have gdebi and gdebi-core installed). A package installer window appears; hit “Install”, and it’s done.

I enjoyed the new improvements a lot. I suggest you take the plunge and see what’s available for you in Ubuntu Linux 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”.

  • Jeff

    I really don’t like the Unity interface.

  • Badri

    If you don’t like Unity, you can always go back to the GNOME Classic desktop (it will be dropped in future releases, but I guess you’ll still be able to install it).
    I had the opposite problem – I liked Unity, but I couldn’t use it on my old computer. To solve that problem, I installed unity-2d, but when I use it with Compiz then it shows double window borders when a window is maximized – one on the unity-2d panel, and the normal one around the window. Hope this will be fixed soon – I don’t think it’ll be very difficult.

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