Updated: October 29, 2011
If you're even remotely aware of Linux, you will know that the news channels are flooded with Ubuntu talk these days. Yes, it's the autumn hunting season, and the first to hit the wires is the latest Ubuntu release, ahead of Fedora and openSUSE. This one has a funny name, probably the funniest of them all, and you might need a dictionary to figure out what the poet was trying to say.
After having your eyes bombarded with so many Unity photons, you might be disinclined to read this review, so I promise to keep it funny and interesting. I will have Ocelot tested twice, once on a high-end machine with an Nvidia graphics card and once on a low-end machine with something old and battered. We'll try to snuggle Ubuntu alongside other operating systems into complex multi-boot configurations, and then have a go at all those things that normal people need, from pretty fonts to 3D effects and lastly some real usability.
I must admit Unity has improved a lot in the last year. This could be actual hard work by the developers, this could be a marketing pitch by making early releases suck so that progress can be that much more felt. Regardless, the initial versions were slow, buggy and crashed often, making your hardware limp like a limpy limpet. Nowadays, Unity boots without protest. There's no more Gnome 2 fallback. If you feel like having a classic desktop, look elsewhere. You can choose between Unity 3D and Unity 2D, where the latter is supposed to take care of your weaker machines with incompatible hardware.
But before we turn philosophical, let's examine Ocelot's behavior on our two test boxen. I will try to check everything, including network connectivity, multimedia playback, music stores, a complex installation setup, look & feel, system settings, new options, Ubuntu Software Center changes, Ubuntu One, Deja Dup backup, webcam, functionality behind a proxy, virtual machine perks, battery life, stability, suspend & resume, and quite a lot more really.
This is my latest laptop and it currently boots Lucid and Windows 7 in a dual-boot configuration. It has 4 bushels of memory and an Nvidia 320M GT card. OK, let's stop talking and start testing. Live CD session first.
Ocelot booted without a hitch into the 3D environment, using the Nouveau driver for high-definition splash graphics and acceleration. I had Wireless from the start, which is progress compared to Lucid, although the Broadcom proprietary drivers were offered for download and installation. When I say download, this means they were bundled with the CD image, as you can install them before you have an actual Internet connection. The Nvidia driver was not offered at this stage.
The word restricted drivers (as in crippled for normal people) is almost gone, save for the notification popup, which still reads the cursed word. And it is still positioned one whole block of notifications below the top panel.
Visually, the desktop is little changed from Natty, with some highly sought polish thrown in. For example, screenshots no longer have an annoying 2-3px wide see-through border that adds unnecessary background elements into the image. The fonts seems a little sharper and crisper, and the top panel looks dandier.
Nautilus has also been tweaked, having a more Windows-like categories in the side panel. For example, your bookmarks now show separately of system folders. The one annoying thing are the overlay scrolls, but you can remove these.
The styling is not perfect. LibreOffice still retains the older looks and does not integrate well into the top panel. This creates a jarring visual effect.
The system quick-menu, activated by the cogwheel icon on the far right of the top panel reveals a simple and a highly useful menu, with quick access to your attached devices, webcams and printers, displays, and system settings. It also lets you know whether your machine is up to date. This is a very sensible change. You gain situational awareness from a single view. Clear and practical.
In an attempt to appeal to Windows users, the Ubuntu team has binded the menu to the Super key, also known as the Windows key. This pops a rather annoying semi-transparent menu that lets you search for your stuff. It works ok, but it's far from being complete. For example, most of your searches will be limited to top level results. Therefore, if you're looking for settings buried deeper into the sub-menus, you won't easily find them. You must also be rather accurate. For example, if you need to configure a proxy, you need to know where to look.
You can also use intelligent, pre-set filters for music and documents. The emphasis is on big buttons and looking pretty, not necessarily being most efficient. To conserve space, the menu hides some of the apps, but it does so in the alphabetic order. So you may see Remote Desktop Viewer under Internet Apps, but not Thunderbird, which is more important and meaningful to most users. Going back is also not intuitive, as you need to click the little home-like icon at the bottom. Backspace does not work, nor there is a browser-like back button or arrow.
Music and video playback - MP3 and Flash were out of the question in the live session, but as you have seen numerous times in previous versions, you can easily get this even during the installation itself. We will talk about this more later.
All right, enough talking, let's install. On this host, I chose a very complex, unusual setup. Oneiric Ocelot is going to be installed to an external USB disk that already boots multiple Linux distributions. It has its own bootloader and whatnot.
So we have Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx and Windows 7 on the internal 500GB disk and we have Natty, openSUSE 11.4 and now Ocelot booting from the external 640GB disk, all 64-bit instances.
I decided not to use the distro's bootloader as the primary loader, so I had it installed to the root device, in this case /dev/sdb6. It is really annoying that in newer versions of Ubuntu, it is impossible not to install the bootloader.
A new detail in Ubuntu 11.10 is the user picture setup. You can use one of the existing icons or take your own picture with the web camera. This is a nice addition that will appeal to most people.
One thing that surprised me was the fact the import wizard found no accounts to import, when there are at least three Linux users and one Windows users readily available on the host.
And then, there's the standard slideshow. Overall, it worked well. The installation was reasonably fast. The dual-boot configuration required booting once into the primary distribution controlling the GRUB bootloader set in the MBR of the external device and chainloading the Ocelot bootloader. This is a somewhat advanced task, but you have the dedicated tutorial for that.
The system installed as it should. And I was quite pleased with several findings. One, both Broadcom and Nvidia drivers were installed on the fly during the installation, similar to what I observed with Kubuntu on my latest desktop. Nouveau was gone. And there was no Nvidia driver bug message any more. Wireless settings were remembered and the keyring did not pop and bug me on saving the password.
The system menu now shows my name and the cute picture I chose, which adds fuzzy warmth to your desktop. But I still hate the overall chat and mail integration, no matter how practical it may be.
As I've mentioned before, the system menu has the updates function built in.
The Center has been redesigned again. It looks simpler, easier to use, and more refined, and more appealing to common users. For the first time, there's an inclusion of payware programs and games, and there's also a big horizontal ad-like banner supposed to catch your eye. Click to access and purchase the stuff. From my experience, Braid, one of the games included in the second Humble Bundle offering, is always the one title shown in the banner, and there's no rotation to other products, which somewhat misses the point. This might change in the future.
From the aesthetic perspective, I found the non-symmetric banner position annoying. You get the left and top margins, but there's none on the right and bottom. Most people probably would not notice, but I do.
You can browse the software by categories and rating, list only Ubuntu software, programs provided by partners or for-purchase items. Some programs are available in additional software sources, which you can enable on the fly, and then tweak and control through the Settings menu. An interesting addition is the pre-release channel, which lets you install software before it reaches the official repositories. This is a useful feature for starved beta junkies who feels Ubuntu is not bleeding edge.
If you decide you want to pay for some of the stuff, you will be taken to a Single Sing-On page, where you can create your Ubuntu Launchpad account. This is yet another attempt at establishing the Ubuntu brand, but it is an important step.
The installation animation has also been improved and made rather inviting. The Launcher icon will display both the number of available updates and the progress, reflecting that in the Update Manager. And when you're installing software, the USC will do the same with a cute orange notification.
However, Ubuntu Software Center still lacks parallelism. It will always download in a single thread, so your second and third installation choice will have to wait a little.
Ubuntu packs a very simple bundle of programs, sufficient for most needs, although us geeks will bear an eternal grudge. Synaptic is gone, and in this case, it makes sense in the overall scheme. It joins a long range of useful programs that are no longer there, but some of the weird and unpopular choices have also been ditched, which is good. Janitor is gone, PiTiVi is kaput and several other programs. Evolution has been replaced with Thunderbird, finally.
Firefox is at version 7, so this will please the browser version loving crowds. You also have LibreOffice and Shotwell. Other than that, a few other utilities, but nothing drastic. But it's not a bad collection. You will have to work your Internet connection a little.
After the installation, you will have what you need. But Ubuntu is not only about playing music. Like the distro itself, it's trying to transform itself into a service. On one hand, you have the apps and games, and on the other, you have music and videos for purchase. This can done through one of several online media stores, available inside Banshee. The emphasis is on Ubuntu One Music Store.
If you choose not to install the MP3 plugins, Banshee, the music player of choice in this distro, will politely tell you that you need them to play previews and purchased music, so you can't avoid proprietary, it seems.
The media player has been revamped and looks quite stylish. But the offerings are still not as good as you may imagine. Searching for Rush, Tom Sawyer and The Pogues, Wild Cats of Kilkenny turned nothing. Similarly, Night On Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky came out blank as well. So there's room for improvement.
Banshee eventually played MP3 well, but then it got stuck and started using 400% CPU and had to be force-killed. This happened only once, but while it hogged the system, it also monopolized sounds from other applications. Once dead, things resumed normally.
You get Flash 11, 64-bit if you're on a 64-bit machine, which is rather neat. But there's also Flash 10 in the repositories, including a 32-bit version that is incompatible with your system in this case, plus it will list as a confusing double in the software sources. But the plugin worked well.
This one worked during the installation, so I guess things ought to be ok. But after I installed Cheese, which always seems to have worked perfectly, I was not able to get any picture, just some random noise. So there must be something broken with the utility itself in the current release. Like in Natty, you can add apps to the Launcher during the installation.
Similar to MandrivaSync we tested a week back, Ubuntu One lets you store your data online by continuously syncing files between your local directory and the cloud storage. You get 5GB for free, which starts to sound like a decent number. The service worked well and it even remembered my other machines, joined with the same account. This allows you to sync your data across several hosts, which is rather neat. Finally, you can install the desktopcouch package to allow enable additional sync services.
However, when active, the service would popup a super annoying message about some stupid doc file being download to my computer every few minutes. Thank you, I heard you, now go away.
Deja Dup is featured as the backup tool and has a very handy interface. By default, it will try to save your data to the Ubuntu One account, excluding downloads and trash. You can also configure local and network backups. I find this rather useful. In fact, I must admit the implementation is superior to anything else in other distros and even Windows.
I touched this briefly when we discussed the live session experience, but after using the system for a while, you start noticing things. One of the most visibly felt changes is the significant reduction in clutter. Ocelot aims for smooth, simple, clean menus, almost to the point of neutering, but never quite crossing that line. Still, as a power user, I still find the lack of desktop icons or the ability to minimize everything rather unproductive. The need to go to a big menu that takes control of the entire screen is distracting.
But the simplification is not all bad. The system settings menu aims to replace the hundred places you could go wandering about even in the rather options-free Gnome 2 and unify everything in a single window.
But this list is incomplete, and you might need to download several tools to get full control back. Finally, the polish is only skin-deep in some cases. But it's getting better and the direction is clear. The good part is that you can pretty much access everything from the top right corner of the panel, just by clicking on the cog wheel icon.
Suspend & resume worked well. The system was fast, but that's no brainer on a machine of this caliber. Finally, the memory consumption was huge, with 700MB used, which is a drastic change from previous versions.
There's a lovely login menu, where you can choose either the standard 3D environment or the 2D alternative. Visually, there's little difference, but people who are unable to run the full Unity will love the simpler, lighter desktop.
And now, we try the older machine.
The ATI card happens to be a FireGL, so it's on the forgotten end of the ignored stick. The machine has two whole sacks of memory and an older Core Duo processor. It offers decent results with most distros, but the 3D support is flagging. So let's see how this one behaved.
First of all, I must say I'm rather impressed. Again, there were no problems whatsoever. Everything worked smoothly and without errors, including a fancy dual-boot configuration with Windows 8 in tandem.
This time, the install wizard did offer to import user settings from the Windows partition, which I decided to try, just to see whether it really works as expected. Now, it reads the partition label incorrectly, since sda1 is the recovery partition, but no matter. However, this emphasizes the strength of Linux as the second operating system, with GRUB here allow you to boot directly into the Windows recovery environment, without fussing with boot options and panicky F8 keyboard strokes.
Indeed, after the installation, the import worked, just fine, including the wallpaper, documents and browser settings. Quite nice, although that Windows 8 background is a bit of an abomination here.
Finally, the system was extremely responsive, during the installation and afterwards. Despite modest hardware capabilities, Ocelot ran fast, giving no impression it was struggling on ancient plastic and metal.
The memory usage on idle on the installed 32-bit system with the FireGL card and no additional drivers offered is at around 330MB, which is similar to what has always been the case with Ubuntu and Gnome desktops. Suspend & resume worked just fine.
But you gain an extra perk, if you will. In addition to being response, both in the 3D and 2D environments, Ocelot manages the power quite efficiently. In fact, it seems to offer most juice from the battery than any other distro. I've heard a lot of talk about power regressions in the latest kernel, but not for me. Ocelot offers 4 hours of battery time when most competition ranges between 2 and 3.5 hours, so this is quite an achievement.
And one final screenshot:
There were not any. The live session was rock solid. The installed system behaves impeccably, despite its somewhat unorthodox configuration. No clash between Nouveau and Nvidia. No 2D or 3D acceleration problem all the way. Oneiric Ocelot seems quite robust and well packaged and smells like quality assurance.
Some find this kind of information important, but you get kernel 3.0. There you go. Now you know the little numbers. The terminal fonts are quite lovely, though.
I was surprised by the relatively poor level of information accuracy displayed by the System info utility. It showed only minimal data, and in some cases, it looked like a retarded guess. I mean how can the graphics driver be unknown? The distro itself offered and installed it. This is one thing that looks completely neglected.
One thing that may stand out, especially to more experienced users is the default choice of extra software available in the Software Center, which seems to be rather randomly offered. For example, what are WinFF or Tower Toppler? And why the icons look so bad?
If you need to configure it, you will have to manually input all four fields. Furthermore, most of the stuff in the distribution will not work well behind one, most notably the Software Center.
If you install Oneiric Ocelot as a virtual machine, both VMware and VirtualBox drivers will be offered as additional drivers. This is a very neat feature. But you can still install them manually if you wish. No screenshot here, but you get the idea.
Simple and efficient as before. Not a brainer. Just input your hostname or the IP address into the relevant field and let the utility search for network printers. It will find them, and in most cases, no extra configurations will be needed.
If you're not in the mood to download the whole ISO file and test at home, the official website offers an interactive tour. Just visit the page and start playing with the interface. It will respond like an ordinary desktop. This is a great way for less technical people to get their first feel of what Ubuntu is all about.
I told you before, do not do this. But if you happen to feel brave, getting a warm, reassuring 404 page in the Update Manager on a Natty host is a sure way to tell you that you should not be attempting this ever. Notice the extra pixels border that does not exist on the latest release any more.
Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot has a silly name, but it is a very decent and polished product. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to work with the one-dimension interface, dominated by the menu-launcher combo and no desktop interaction, but I am capable of seeing through my own subjective zeal and limitations and beyond. What I see is a handy operating system that offers a simple and clean interface and a decent experience laced with stability and quality and charm, all for free. For the first time in Ubuntu's history, this feels like a proper commercial brand.
Indeed, if Canonical is aiming at establishing a household brand, it is slowly succeeding. Ubuntu Ocelot has the necessary touch to be perceived as classy and expensive. The combination of desktop use with payware services like music and games plus cloud-based backup and sharing covers a really broad spectrum of needs for most users. Most importantly, the presentation layer is quite lovely.
From the purely technical perspective, Ubuntu 11.10 works. I'd love to hate it, so to speak, and so would everyone, but there's really no reason. Some things need improving, like better search, better sorting of programs in the menu, better proxy support, less intrusive notifications, and a few other items, but they are not cardinal. On the plus side, there were no bugs or glitches or crashes, Unity 3D behaves spectacularly on all tested hardware, including old and new graphics cards. The performance is quite good, the responsiveness is great, and you even get reduced power consumption.
On the whole, Oneiric Ocelot delivers a complete package to desktop users, for free. You have all you need to enjoy yourself and work, without compromising on stability and quality. Let's just hope that all future versions remain true to the current design, so that we do not undergo yet another cultural shock in six months. With games and music available for purchase, the next step is to ensure backward compatibility. Even so, Ocelot really deserves it, 9.9/10, even if I'm not the intended audience. Extremely well done.