On April 28th, Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) will be released. 11.04 is slated to be the first Ubuntu release that will use Unity, in place of GNOME, as the default desktop shell.
What is Unity?
Unity is a shell interface for the GNOME desktop environment developed for Ubuntu. Ubuntu 11.04 will still be based on GNOME 3 – the underlying infrastructure, applications, etc will not change; Unity just defines what your desktop looks like (similar to Windows Explorer). Unity was originally designed for netbooks, but over the last few months has shown that it is suitable for desktops as well. Unity puts major emphasis on screen space; every pixel is utilized.
Unity is much more then just a few menu/window tweaks though. Unity is part of a larger project called Ayatana, which adds things like:
Unity in depth
One of the first things you’ll notice is when you click the Ubuntu icon your presented with a list of shortcuts and a search box. This is called the dash; it takes the place of the Applications, Places, and System menus in previous versions of Ubuntu.
The menubar has been moved to the top panel (like it is in OS X). However, unlike OS X, the menu only appears when you hover over the application title.
The launcher is another new addition to Unity which servers a purpose similar to the Dock (OS X) or Taskbar (Windows). It allows you to quickly lunch your most used applications. You can make an app stay in the launcher by right clicking it’s icon and checking “Keep in launcher”. Another feature I love about the launcher is the “Jump List” like menus. If you right click certain launcher items (like the Applications launcher) you will be presented with a menu of handy shortcuts.
Other Notable Changes
OpenOffice has been replaced by LibreOffice 3.3.2 (hopefully this will mean more active development). Also Firefox has been upgraded to version 4, which ushers in plenty of changes and much better performace. This release also includes the 2.6.38-7.39 kernel.
Another feature that has gotten a lot of buzz is the test drive feature. It allows you to try an app before you actually install it. Unfortunately, due to technical reasons this feature is limited to the Top 30 apps in the Software Center. Test Driving is also not included out of the box, but it can be installed simply by opening a terminal and typing:
sudo apt-get install qtnx.
The Ubuntu 11.04 release is set to be one of the most important ever. Ubuntu obviously wants to make their distro the easiest to use, but they have traded some of the customization that comes with GNOME to accomplish it. Switching to the Unity shell is a drastic change, but one that I believe is for the better. I’ve been using Unity for a few weeks now and it feels very intuitive.
Do you like the new Unity shell? Let us know in the comments.