Updated: June 10, 2011
I'm not quick to change operating systems. In fact, I've been running pretty much the same distributions since ever, with only the version numbers growing. Ubuntu, SUSE, that's pretty much that. A bit of Gnome, a bit of KDE. KDE, you say? Well, way back then in days of old, I started with Kubuntu, switched to Ubuntu, and now there's Unity. Natty was not the sore disappointment I expected, but it sure isn't going to be my next desktop.
On the other hand, I did love openSUSE 11.4, with KDE4 finally managing to win my hard appreciation. With Gnome 3 making its unholy noise and Unity toying about like a sweet retard, the prospect of a future KDE desktop is becoming more relevant by the minute. There's only Mint that could make the difference, but if you want to stay with Ubuntu family, sans cousins, then you should take a look at Kubuntu, that is, Ubuntu with KDE.
Live session - Simple and inviting
Kubuntu comes with a few nifty tricks. The boot menu knows whether you're booting from CD or USB, and you can also configure persistence, which is cool. The live system is well laid out, polished and elegant, with a predominantly blue and gray theme that is similar to previous versions, and yet unique and fresh.
Wireless, Bluetooth and Samba sharing works. Desktop effects are not enabled by default, but you can start them manually. The experience is snappy, without lag, even on the elderly T60 machine with a fairly weak ATI card. But we will talk more about desktop effects a little later. Now, let's install Kubuntu 11.04 on the machine.
Installation - Elegant and hassle free
Kubuntu installation starts in a separate virtual desktop of its own, maximized, to reduce distractions. This is a nice touch. You also have the wizard steps listed on the left side, so you know what lays ahead of you. The one tiny discrepancy is the aspect ratio of the background image, which is scrunched to fit on the normal desktop, but it's untouched during the installation. Notice the big blue bubble on the right.
Like regular Ubuntu, it lets you update the system and grab proprietary software, so you end up with a system fully patched before you start using it. The installation begins as soon as you configure the partition table. You get lovely transition effects and a professional slide show, which feels even more complete than the original.
Kubuntu ships with GRUB 2 at version number 1.99ubuntu3, which features tiny fonts and a blue background in the menu. Not bad, but the fonts are too tiny to see. The dual-boot setup went without any problems.
Using Kubuntu Natty - Exceptionally smooth
Real fun begins after the installation. With no codecs in the live session, Kubuntu is much like Ubuntu and openSUSE, functional yet frugal. However, since you can install codecs and updates during the installation, you hit off immediately with a good and sensible experience.
Look & feel
In the installed system, desktop effects are enabled. The default theme is Oxygen. The bottom panel comes with a smart system tray area that works a tad better than other KDE distros. It's the small details that make all the difference.
A delightful experience. Truly amazing. Tons of great plugins, just waiting for you to fiddle and play. Cube, Sphere, Snowfall, Expo, raised windows, cube caps, wobbly windows, explosions, Aladdin lamp, you name it. And not a hitch on an old laptop.
The default arsenal is decent. GwenView, LibreOffice, Okular, K3b, Amarok, and a handful more. No GIMP and no Marble. The selection is not the most exciting in the world, but it packs a decent bunch of professional, high-quality applications. We'll see some of these programs in action soon enough.
Firefox is not installed, but you can easily add it to your collection.
Instead, you get rekonq, which is the new version of Konqueror as the primary browser. While I'm really fond of Firefox, I truly suggest you give rekonq a try. It's slick and modern and fast. It's based on Webkit and it ranks 100/100 on Acid test. There's also a handful of extensions built-in, like the ad blocker. But then, it's your choice.
rekonq is well integrated into the system. You'll get tiny notifications in the system area, which will inform you of possible upgrades for the browser. For example, extra plugins. The same applies to Amarok, Firefox and other software, though.
No worries. Flash's there, playing smoothly. MP3 support is there, too. Amarok really behaved well. You get Wikipedia info for artists, lyrics, album covers, and you have plugins for online podcasts and streaming services.
System resources, performance, battery life optimization
Despite being KDE, despite eating a handsome 500MB of RAM on a 32-bit machine, Kubuntu is snappy and responsive. This is a great surprise. With each new release, KDE4 behaves better, and Kubuntu 11.04 is no exception. In fact, despite its default performance mode, the aggressive settings do not harm the battery life. My initial tests shown an improvement compared to older versions, so we're now talking a most handsome four to five hours where previously I'd get three to three and a half on the same hardware.
Stability, suspend & resume
Putting the laptop to a gentle and recoverable sleep worked well. The system was quite stable save for a few almost religiously customary application crashes. Pardus remains the champ, with zero, unbeaten so far. More about that later.
Blazing fast, you get the full power of APT under the hood, true and reliable. Getting new software is extremely easy. Similar to what openSUSE does, and yet even smoother and faster. You can also set automatic updates. Comparing to Ubuntu Software Center, less fun in a way, but more aloof and professional.
Lots of the stuff you see in Kubuntu is not unique to this distro. And yet, lots of the stuff is tweaked ever so slightly to be simpler and friendlier than in other KDE4 systems. There are many examples, including TouchPad configuration, notifications, clipboard history, helper plugins for various programs, and more.
Smart desktop actions are there, and have been for a long time. For example, moving the active window against the right desktop wall will maximize it on the right half side. This has recently been embraced by Ubuntu, too. And you have widgets, if you fancy them.
Font installations are also quite simple and intuitive. New wallpapers can be installed without walking the perilous streets of the Internet. Right click on your desktop and search for new images, sorted by age, rating, downloads, or perhaps size.
System information is also presented in a manner that speaks to normal people. Again, this is small and seemingly unimportant thing, but when you're hunting for those missing drivers, you will appreciate the convenience. There's nothing magical about the data, but it's shown in a way less skilled users can relate. This is a very mature direction.
For Windows users, a transition to Kubuntu, or rather, KDE 4.6, will feel quite natural, as much of the stuff in Windows 7 has some KDE4 origins, so don't be fooled about what came first, the chicken or the egg, just enjoy the good work.
On the same note, when things go wrong, they go wrong universally. Like openSUSE, Kubuntu suffers from the same Marble crash; try zooming in on a satellite view and the program dies. This is unfortunate, but BugZilla says it ought to be fixed soon. There was another instance of a crash, that of KSnapShot no less.
So Kubuntu has approx. the same level of trouble like its relatives. Printing isn't very simple, either. Fonts are decent, but openSUSE does it better; the default size is a bit too small for comfort. However, the rendering is quite good.
And just before we depart, a couple of lovely desktops:
Contemplating the future
You must be asking: What's best? What should you choose? openSUSE with KDE4? Mainstream Ubuntu with Unity? Perhaps Fedora with Gnome 3? Something else wearing Gnome 3 skin? Linux Mint Katya, with Gnome 2? Of course, Kubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal, how good is it, overall?
I still have not tested Linux Mint spring release, so I can't say for sure. However, considering the fact Julia was the best distro of 2010 and the Debian edition was surprisingly good, I'm most likely to be pleased. Then, openSUSE 11.4 KDE was a damn fine system and a marvelous surprise, too. Ubuntu Natty is neither here nor there, but surely not something power users will love. Gnome 3 is even worse. So if you ask me, if I had to choose right here, right now, Kubuntu is definitely one of the top choices on the Linux desktop market.
It's just as good as openSUSE 11.4 KDE, perhaps even a little better, plus you enjoy all of the benefits of the large Ubuntu user base. It's way better than Natty with Unity, that's for sure, and it outpaces any Gnome 3 system by seven and a half parsecs. Enthusiasm is all nice and good, but I believe I'm being cool-headed, objective and non-fanboyish when I say that Kubuntu is going to be one of my next desktops. There's only Katya left to check and try to see what it can do. But hey, the way I see it, it's going to be another good desktop and another great choice.
But let's focus on Kubuntu itself. Version 11.04 Natty Narwhal is fast, smart, elegant, polished, with a very decent performance, blazing desktop effects, good stability, and only a tiny bunch of bugs and issues. KDE4 crashes need to be resolved. Bigger default fonts would be nice too. Simpler printing, perhaps. But overall, it's almost perfect. There's a system anyone can use, from noobs to anti-noobs.
If you like Ubuntu but worry about Unity, worry no more. Here's the solution to all your woes. Kubuntu gets a splendid 9.9/10, and so I come a full circle since Dapper.