Switch-worthy Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal” out today: Top 5 features

Overnight Canonical released the latest version of its Ubuntu operating system 11.04 (aka “Natty Narwhal”). The most significant departure from former releases is the move to the desktop interface Unity previously featured in Ubuntu’s Netbook Edition. That Edition has now been discontinued (with the exception of an ongoing ARM CPU version) with the regular 11.04 OS now becoming the singular release for consumer desktops notebooks and netbook PCs.

A server edition of 11.04 is also available as of today and Canonical will be providing 18 months’ worth of ongoing maintenance updates for 11.04 through to October next year. For the Ubuntu-curious and those considering dipping their toes here’s our low-down on the Top 5 features of 11.04.

1. Unity: simpler UI for regular folk

Whilst many current Ubuntu users have expressed disappointment at the switch to Unity as the standard shell Canonical is presenting the migration as an important step forward for a contemporary OS describing the new interface as “simpler easier to use and more beautiful than previous editions of Ubuntu. This is the culmination of two years’ design and engineering effort by Canonical and the Ubuntu community. Ubuntu 11.04 stands out from its competitors as a genuine free alternative to Windows…”

Clearly outlining Canonical’s ambition with Unity to reach beyond the traditional enthusiast Linux crowd and toward the audience of mainstream PC users Jane Silber Canonical’s CEO said in a statement: “With this release Ubuntu will recruit an entirely new wave of users to free software. Ubuntu 11.04 is a high watermark for what has been achieved with open-source technologies for the everyday computer user.”

While hardcore Ubuntu users may resent the transition to a (perceived) dumbed-down shell Canonical openly states the new streamlined interface is “inspired by smartphone and tablet design thinking”. It’s sure to remain a divisive change but Unity’s inclusion may well put paid to one of the hallmark barriers to widespread Ubuntu adoption: the charge that the OS has simply never been user-friendly enough.

2. The Launcher: a Dock for Ubuntu

Ubuntu’s new Launcher bar sits on the left-hand side of the display and acts much like Mac OS X’s Dock.

It’s configurable and hideable and is generally designed to make navigating to your most commonly used apps and tools as simple as possible while also showing you what you’ve currently got running on your system.

3. The Dash: web-like search on the desktop

Though hardly a new concept Ubuntu is embracing a universal search bar as a means of getting to your apps and files as quickly as possible. If you click on the Ubuntu logo in the top-left corner of the screen the Dash is revealed. Just type what you’re looking for and the Dash will reveal matches.

As Canonical puts it: “This is a trend that comes to Ubuntu from the Web where users have come to prefer search as the starting point for most journeys.”

4. Workspaces: killing clutter one app at a time

Natty Narwhal includes support for multiple desktop workspaces and selecting the Workspace switcher from the Launcher reveals all your active spaces and applications.

If you find yourself overloaded with running apps and windows Workspaces should help you regain a degree of UI sanity.

5. Global menus: everything’s contextual

In order to cut down on desktop clutter Ubuntu has embraced a global menu bar (for the majority of pre-installed apps) which holds sway along the top edge of the screen. Only the menu for the active app you’re focused on is shown (reminiscent again of Mac OS X) and if no menu is necessary then none will be displayed.

There’s lots more to say about Ubuntu 11.04 – including new apps improved performance touchscreen support the Ubuntu Software Centre and more – so we’re dedicating six pages of in-depth coverage to the new OS in APC Magazine’s upcoming June issue including how to tweak Natty Narwhal and get the most out of it.

And in the meantime you can of course download Ubuntu for free here. Plus coming soon Canonical will be rolling out the ability to “test drive” 11.04 using only your web browser. As the company puts it “All that is required is an Internet connection and an open mind.”