Ooooh yes, it's that time of the year again, folks. It's time for the world to partition hard drives, create new virtual boxes, burn hundreds of CDs, format USB sticks and pillage every Windows OS they pass by. I've always loved the .04 Ubuntu releases more, not necessarily because they were better, but because they came with the spring, and I tend to like things more when it's warm outside.
2012 is a special year: the Precise Pangolin release will be supported for 5 years, on both desktops and servers, so if your business considered switching to Ubuntu, now is a great time to take that step. Also, it's cockchaffer year, a reason for massively increased joy levels and overall ADD manifestations in my cat. Obviously, I'm a tad more excited of the former event.
As you may have guessed from previous articles, I am not what you can call an Unity enthusiast. I actually hated that stupid huge bar, with its huge buttons, that kept hiding from me and making me wait precious milliseconds to come back and show its stupid face. But, the past is in the past. I can now make the bar really really thin and it stays put on the screen like it's supposed to. Me = happy.
But let's begin from the top. If you visit www.ubuntu.com, you'll be able to demo Ubuntu 12.04 right from the browser. Sure, it's not the full experience, but it does amount to a fairly accurate representation of what one can expect from the distro. Well done, Canonical, well done.
If you decide to download Ubuntu, but still are afraid of what might happen to your Windows partition and data, there is an officially supported “Windows Installer” that will install the latest release of Ubuntu like a typical Windows program, thus making it just as easy to remove if you so desire.
The team managed to maintain the CD size for yet another release, but I would still recommend using an USB thumb, as it is much, much faster and a 1 or 2 GB device costs nearly nothing these days. Of course, you can go the official way and support Ubuntu by purchasing a ~$23 8 GB drive pre-loaded with the latest INSTALLED release, so you can run a fully featured operating system straight from that small thingy and it will even retain all your settings and files you may happen to need. Moreover, you can use the same drive to install Ubuntu to the HDD. Nice!
Booting the live environment took just a little while and offered no unpleasant surprises. I reached for the Install button and went through the easy steps. I still miss the option to automatically replace existing GNU/Linux partitions, a feature so well implemented in Fedora, for example. Eh, manually configuring the HDD is just a tad harder, so no problem there. Plus, many new users will choose to install Ubuntu alongside Windows, which requires no effort, provided there's enough free space.
If you are connected to the Internet, Ubuntu will auto-detect your location and set the timezone accordingly. Gone are the days when you would have to go pixel hunting for your city. As with the previous release, Ubuntu 12.04 also sets the keymap to the official language of the country you're in. I used to have a “jerk reflex” when seeing this, but only because the way Windows handles the Romanian keymap, changing the position of many special signs. For example, “ă” would replace the square bracket, “ș”, the colon/semi-colon, etc... Ubuntu takes a different approach, by using the right-alt (or AltGr) key in combination with the letter that is most similar to what is needed to type. This ensures a consistent layout across both languages. The only character that wouldn't fit on the regular keys is the “â” which was placed on the “Q” key. If you want to find out where your characters are placed, go to “keyboard layout”, select your language and press the little keyboard icon at the bottom of the window.
After the partitioning step is complete, Ubuntu will begin copying needed files in order to save as much time possible. So, while it is installing, you can take your time and add your account details – username, password – and take a fabulous picture to associate to your profile, if you have a webcam connected. This last feature worked a bit better than the last time, but the picture still ends up too dark, even though the preview shows it bright and shiny. I suspect there is some color auto-correction done once the image is taken. Be careful though, the image you take will also end up as the avatar on any IM-ing service you plan on using.
This time around, I didn't bring my stopwatch along to see how long it takes to install Ubuntu 12.04 from USB, but I can approximate to around 15-20 minutes. There were some hiccups along the way, some steps that needed to be skipped, but I won't go deeper into it, as I had a flaky network connection at that time, which, most likely, was the culprit. Oh, how I hate you flaky network connections out there... Almost forgot! For the first time in Ubuntu's history (don't quote me on that :D), I had to manually activate my network connection for it to be available during the installation process. And yes, it's a basic ethernet cable coming into my computer from the router. Nothing special that needs to be configured. And I was able to reproduce the issue after my connection became stable again. The lack of Internet access during installation leads to the lack of MP3 and Flash support out of the box. You will have to manually install them, but no worries, Ubuntu will bring up helpful dialogs that are easy to follow.
Booting the Precise Pangolin for the first time took precisely 53 seconds aka an eternity. But, fortunately, those 53 seconds flipped their numbers around and became 35ish seconds during following boot trials. A decent and sufficient performance for me, but far from the advertised 10-second record. Before moving on, let's go a bit under the hood and tell you that Ubuntu 12.04 uses the 3.2.0 Linux kernel and comes with both 32- and 64-bit versions.
The default wallpaper received, as always, just a few modifications, and is now about half orange, half purple. But who would stick with the default, when there are 15 gorgeous ones waiting to be admired once you right click the desktop and select “Change Desktop Background”. In that same window, you can also change the size of the otherwise obese Unity bar. I moved that slider to the leftest left I could and I am now happy. And, as I said in the beginning, the bar is no longer on auto-hide mode, which is a blessing for me. Sure, if you liked that feature, you can revert back to it by going to the “Behavior” tab inside the window mentioned above.
The bar has learned a trick from the marvelous chameleon: it now changes its color to match the applied wallpaper. +1 from me. There are still only two themes available: the darker “Ambiance” and the lighter “Radiance”.
Pressing the Ubuntu logo brings up the dash with three “zones”: Recent Apps, Recent Files and Downloads. As you start typing, these will change to accommodate the results found in the system, be they applications, music, videos or just files & folders. Overall, I found it to be very, very fast, but not as accurate as it should be, especially for applications. Instead of only searching through program names, it should also search through descriptions, in order to aid new users in finding an app for a certain task.
The truly new functionality that was introduced with this release is HUD – acronym for Heads Up Display – which helps you find menu items in applications. So instead of searching for the Gaussian blur filter in GIMP using the mouse, you can simply press the ALT key, start typing Gauss... and there it is. It's certainly a helpful feature but I sure hope they don't plan on making it the only way to reach the menu; sometimes you can't remember the name of the resource you want to access and simply go wandering through the menus, hoping you will remember once you see it. Also, the HUD doesn't seem to work for the LibreOffice suite. Then again, not even the globalmenu works for LibreOffice, so I can't say I was really surprised. (UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, there is a package that needs to be installed in order for both these features to work: open up a terminal and type sudo apt-get install lo-menubar . Thanks WebUpd8!) Oh, it's nice that if there are no applications active, the HUD will allow you to access the notification area icons, for changing keyboard layouts, turning bluetooth on and off, altering your IM presence settings, etc. I was even able to check sunrise and sunset times in the Weather Indicator, which, by the way, should definitely be installed by default in Ubuntu. Previous Ubuntu releases had weather capabilities inside the time/date applet.
So far so good – HUD appeals to me, the Unity bar is now prettier and actually usable... Good stuff. But to fully benefit from this interface, you need to learn some keyboard shortcuts that will make your life so much easier. And now, it's easier than ever to do so. Simply hold the “Super” key (the windows logo) for a few seconds and a purple overlay will display all keyboard shortcuts. For me, the most useful one is “Super + W”, which spreads all open windows so you can quickly find the one you need – the old “Scale” plugin from Compiz.
The window “snap” functionality is also maintained, so you can easily place two windows next to each other. It works OK, but there is a small bug getting in the way. When removing a window from its snap position, the window will go lower than expected and the cursor will remain somewhere suspended above, but still “holding” that window. So you have to release the mouse button, reach the window title bar again and drag it back up in view. You'd think that using the ALT key + click will help solve the issue, because of its ability to grab the window from anywhere inside it? Nope, it makes it even worse. It makes the window disappear from sight and into the dark pit of troubled souls and evil spirits... well, not actually, it goes to the workspace below. You know what? Here's a video showing both behaviors.
And if we're still in the complaint department, sometimes Firefox (version 12.0) will return as a blank window from its minimized state, so you'll have to restart it. Oh and just now, Pidgin lost its titlebar. It was actually there, but mouse clicks would go through it, onto the application underneath it. “This is bad, this is very, very bad”, said Babu during the 12.04 release party inside his Linux-friendly Pakistani restaurant.
Despite its CD size, Ubuntu 12.04 still manages to ship with an office suite, a photo manager, an e-mail client, instant messaging app, and other important software like a web browser. The Ubuntu Software Center is not the only gateway to thousands of others programs, as the Dash also offers recommendations, some of which are pretty interesting. Like “PornView”, of which I had no idea existed. Don't worry, it's only an image viewer (and not a very good one either), but its icon and name are very suggestive... This might offend some parents, me thinks.
The awesome Nautilus file manager is now at version 3.4.1 and is loaded with awesome features, like tabbed browsing, “extra pane” for quick transfer between folders and a few innovative ways of handling mouse buttons. For example, middle clicking a folder will open it in another tab. Middle clicking a file will open it, thus acting like a double left-click. It's too bad tabs can't be closed with the same button, as is the case with Firefox.
A very good news for me is the return of Rhythmbox as the default audio player. Another change is Thunderbird replacing Evolution as the default e-mail client. The only bad thing about this switch is the lack of an integrated calendaring system, which was pretty nifty in previous releases, allowing you to see appointments straight from the time/date applet.
The Ubuntu One cloud storage service is still an important part of Ubuntu, handing out 5 Gbs of syncable space. As there are now clients available for Windows and Android, it's an offer you can't refuse.
All of the system settings have gathered under one page: System Settings. The most prominent one is “Privacy”, which allows you to delete all traces of your various activities inside Ubuntu and even prevent certain applications, files (or files within specific folders) to gather such data.
Empathy, the default IM app, failed miserably at connecting to my Yahoo account. A big “meh” from me, Pidgin is still better, and I would've installed it regardless.
My Canon Pixma MP250 multi-functional was easily detected and the proper drivers were installed. But, while the print quality is decent, the speed is horrendous. I think I might need to search for a different .ppd file... Webcam, USBmicrophone, digitalcamera, bluetooth dongle – all work as expected.
Canonical barely managed to mature the Unity interface enough for this LTS release, but I'm still not a big fan. Even so, Ubuntu 12.04 is a great all-round OS that is welcoming for users wandering away from proprietary platforms. Some might say that the whole UI is a bit too confusing, especially for those new users, but the great “Help” window (just type it in the dash) provides a well-written guide for boosting them up the Ubuntu learning curve.
Aaaand it's a wrap! Hey, there's a horse in front of my window. Check it out!
Thanks for reading, bye bye! ENJOY THE SUMMER! It will, as always, end too soon.
Go download Ubuntu, use it and come back here, in the comments section and share your thoughts!