Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal Review

Short version: it stinks.

Ubuntu is a version of Linux, an open-source and free operating system. I’ve been using various flavors of Unix for the past twenty years, and prefer them over anything that Windows or Apple offers. Ubuntu is not necessarily the best of all the Linux “distros”, but it is easy to install and operate and has, I think, a plurality of Linux users.

New versions of Ubuntu come out about every six months. These are usually improvements over the previous implementations, but not this time. Everything fundamental was changed, and abruptly.

There is a new default interface called Unity, coded by engineers evidently infatuated by both tablets and Apple. For example, for no good reason and after many years, the “Maximize, Minimize, and Close” buttons were moved from the right to the left of all windows (although this was attempted in the release prior to 11.04). I can only guess this is because Apple has theirs this way. Fortunately, these can be moved by fiddling with some code.

The big change is that the Unity graphical interface thinks everybody is a tablet, which only a small minority of users are. It’s slick enough, but not of much use to those who use their computers (not tablets) for work. I.e., those who have multiple open windows, desktops, command lines, etc.

Unity also removed apps from the top bar, which were very handy. Example: I have a dictionary app that I use frequently. In classic Ubuntu, the dictionary app rested on the top bar, and when used would open a window attached to the top bar with a definition and thesaurus. You could then use other programs (such as Firefox, etc.) and have the dictionary app window left open and viewable. No more.

To replace the apps, Unity has the idea of “notifications”, buttons which allow an anemic semi-interaction but which really just announce which software is running. Finding out how to add or remove these notifications is like reading some obscure occult treatise.

The old folder system is also gone, replaced by a bizarre file finding sequence, which does have pretty images, but requires clicking too many things and often lands you in places you don’t want to be. Worse, this system finds files you don’t have on your system, but might like to download. All this might be nice on a tablet, but it is of no use whatsoever to legacy users—who are the majority—and who have all their files in a hierarchy of folders. (And let’s not forget that to Linux, everything is a file.)

11.04 does allow you to log on with Ubuntu Classic, which I now do routinely, and so life continues as it used to. Except for the constant freeze ups, which require hard reboots. This is because of the switch from Open Office to Libre Office and the latter’s inability to talk to the new kernel.

I never use “office” software unless somebody sends me, say, a Word of Excel file. Open Office worked fine with these, although it couldn’t handle some of the more intricate document formatting. This never bothered me since I never use its equivalent of Word to write (I use Latex).

But Libre Office—even with Javascript turned off—causes the Ubuntu screen to freeze. Sometimes the mouse will move, but it won’t click. Typing is impossible. The only thing that can be done is to reboot, losing whatever information that was not saved. This is an extraordinarily annoying bug.

Incidentally, my experience of trying to roll back to Open Office was like trying to conduct open heart surgery on myself. Everything went wrong and I eventually gave up and re-installed Libre Office. I just try not to use it. (Gnumeric can be used to open spreadsheets, but it is a very limited.)

The working version of Firefox is 5.0, which is mostly nice, but it broke with Yahoo’s new version of webmail that came out last week. Since I use Yahoo as a server, this affected me. I had to roll back to version 4, but in doing so I lost some mail in my Inbox (partly my own fault; long story). So if you have emailed me recently but have not received a response, it’s probably because I lost your recent email.

I’m writing this review this morning instead of my usual post, since I suffered both the freeze ups and email lose all this morning, which left me in a mood that is none too nice.

I am now pondering whether a return to straight Debian or Fedora (which I use on servers) would be wise.


  1. I use Fedora which primarily uses Gnome. Fedora 15 came with Gnome 3 which remarkably went the same direction as Unity. Completely broke its functionality for me. I don’t think there’s any need to switch distros if you can get another desktop. Fortunately, Gnome only er, improved the desktop and not the display manager. I was able to switch to xfce which is more like the Gnome2 interface. It still uses the Gnome display manager but it also works with the kde manager (mostly, so I’ve heard) and maybe others.

    The Gnome people are very defensive about this though I’ve run into only a few who favor the change. I get the impression they don’t actually use a computer to do anything beyond web surfing and reading e-mail.

    Switching distros may not be without pain. Directories migrate for one thing. I guess all of this is payment for free software.

  2. Yes, I second Kubuntu. Even my 4 year old son has no problems using it (he’s figured out how to open all of the games).

    KDE4 has matured nicely from 4.0, and I haven’t had any problems with the switch to LibreOffice. I suspect you’ve got something else going on that OpenOffice wouldn’t change. I don’t think the fork has been going on long enough for there to be much of a difference.

    Also, I’ve been using Chrome as my primary browser for some time now. There are still some sites that give it trouble, but it’s, like, 7 whole major versions ahead of Firefox!

  3. I’ve stuck with 10.10. I downloaded 11.04 and it is exactly as you say – push button idiocy. I suppose all this flashy graphics stuff is driven by the Ipad/Ipod crowd who i suspect don’t write much. Lap it up Eloi, the Morelocks are licking their lips.

    The HP notebook I bought recently came with 7 installed. I’d read that it was well thought of in comparison to vista, and so tried it long enough to hate it – more bells and klaxons, and they’d screwed up media-manager so that I couldn’t look at lists of recordings as a product of a search.

    HP maintains a volunteer web site which explained in necessary detail the method for reverting to XP. I had the system disk, and I did that. I have it set up as a dual boot machine now and it runs ubuntu 10.10 for everything except serious (?) writing which I continue to do in Word, hence the persistence of XP.

    Amarok has a newly released version which runs well (for the first time) on my machines and will now be the management software for my month of music. Current releases of the appropriate software play DVD’s as well as back-up movie DVD’s. I don’t do much of the latter because there are few movies we would want to watch again such that there is any threat of destruction of the original DVD, except for some reason “Cousin Vinny” and “Being There.”

    FWIW, a good test of a word processor is to scroll to the end of a very long document, say 120 pages, then back to the beginning. My earlier installations of Open Office word processor would lock up. Word does too, but only very rarely.

    Return of Byte Magazine reminds me of Jerry Pournelle’s observations on writing software back in CP/M days – 1983-84. IIRC he used something called “Write.” It had very low formatting overhead which made it fast and simple to use.

  4. To be fair the 6 monthly Ubuntu releases were only ever meant as test/beta platforms. If you want stability stick with the LTS versions.

    That being said, personally I dislike intensely the way Ubuntu is headed. I could cope with everything up to the detached menu bar that sits at the top of the screen. Just as Unity seems optimised for tablets, the detached menu bar seems oriented to small screens. On large or multi screen setups the menu is just too far away from it’s application window for comfort.

    Try Linux Mint. Although based on Ubuntu it takes a more conservative approach to the UI and has much of the polish that a user oriented distro should have.


  5. Aside from price, what are the advantages of Linux over Mac OS X on the desktop? Wikipedia tells us:

    “Mac OS X … is a Unix-based graphical operating system, built on technologies developed at NeXT between the second half of the 1980s and Apple’s purchase of the company in late 1996. From its sixth release, Mac OS X v10.5 “Leopard” and onward, every release of Mac OS X gained UNIX 03 certification while running on Intel processors.

    This is a serious question.

  6. I have had no problems with Ubuntu 11.04 except they made it really difficult to use. There is absolutely no improvement, just piss-offs like the window re-sizing tools being moved to the upper left from the upper right. There is no logical reason for this.

    Where are my menus? I can still find the program or utility I want, but it is like a treasure hunt.

    Fedora has never been in my sample space, but I might try Kubuntu, or even a lesser known distribution. In the past I have used Vector Linux, Puppy Linux, MEPIS Linux, and a couple of others. I settled on Ubuntu thinking that it had a large enough user base that I could expect only good things to happen.

    Natty is the worst idea since New Coke.

  7. Actually I also got tired of Ubuntu’s many and frequent changes and I tried Linux Mint. It is really really good. In fact I’m using Linux Mint Debian Edition (I find it better to use a non-profit elaboration of a non-profit operating system, instead of a non-profit elaboration of a commercial elaboration of a non-profit operating system, which is the Ubuntu-based Linux Mint). I’ve had absolutely no problems with LMDE so far, despite the fact that it’s a rolling distribution, but I’ve been using it only for two months.

    However, the freezes you get are a strange bug. LibreOffice shouldn’t be able to freeze the system. It’s more likely a driver or hardware issue (graphics driver, most likely) which happens to be triggered by LibreOffice. If I were you I’d try to turn special effects off.

  8. @Speed: I use MacOS and have for a very long time, even thought my undergraduate and graduate education, and most of my jobs have been in computer science and artificial intelligence. Since the advent of MacOS X, it’s been the best of both worlds for me.

    I run R, ADMB, JAGS, gretl, X-12, Octave, Virtualbox (and thus Windows/Linux if needed), Libre Office, and a whole host of other open source programs with no problems. (OK, ADMB was a bit of a problem until the latest release, which just compiles.) Obviously, you can’t customize the system’s user interface in the same way as you can with Linux, but I’ve been there and done that with various incarnations of X-windows over the years, and it gets tiring. (Not to mention the horrible design sensibilities of most open source software.)

    I think this thread illustrates that open source, while great in many ways, is not necessarily more adaptable than proprietary software. In theory, yes, you just fork off your own copies of the appropriate programs and customize them. In practice, people who simply work with the tools don’t have the time or skillset required.

    Given that MacOS X now costs $30 via electronic download, the biggest remaining issue is that Linux can run on almost any hardware you decide you want, while MacOS X requires a Mac. (Though the ability to run MacOS under Virtualbox, etc, is opening up I believe.) On the other hand, you can get commercial software (MS Office, etc) for the Mac that you must jump through hoops to get to work under Linux.

    If MacOS X disappeared from the planet tomorrow, I’d move to Linux rather than Windows, but until that day comes…

  9. Oops…


    For one thing, with MacOS, you’re limited to Apple hardware. I’ve repurposed cast off hardware for my kids. They can play their flash games online, plus whatever else they need to do. There are plenty of games in the distro repos that they love.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the Mac Way, especially the single menu bar and the dock. YMMV.

    And Linux distros are still cheaper than $30.

  10. Kubuntu is at v.11.04, with a narwhal silhouetted at the top of the page. Sounds dangerously current with Ubuntu. Does it manage to avoid the irritations of the Natty Narwhal, or does it simply cover them with KDE?

  11. Speed,
    It isn’t the cost of the mac software, its the cost of the hardware. I’m writing this on an HP G-42 notebook which with the windows 7 that I rejected for XP, cost about $415. A similar Mac with same size screen would have cost 3 times $415. It’s true that a Mac is a much nicer machine and MAC software includes a lot of really neat stuff, but still.

    I handwrite with a cheap ballpoint, not a MontBlanc.

    This business with Ubuntu 11.04 is really serious to me, though. I’ll try to run 10.10 as long as possible and if the Ubuntu people to come to their senses, move to something else.

    If money were no object, I’d have a Mac. and figure out how to be root on it.

  12. Try Linux Mint. I use it for a long time now, I’m absolutely pleased with it.
    First I tried Mint 11, but it inherited the instability of Natty so I stick with Mint 10 (Ubuntu 10.10) and use ubuntuupdates, launchpad and other various ppa-s to keep my selected software packages like FF and Thunderbird, AWN and others fresh. (It has OOo 3.2 though and it’s enough for me.)

    I really like it, Mint is nice (I love the green style) and it’s out of my way when it’s about productivity.

  13. What happened to Ubuntu is the inevitable kind of crap which ANY distro will run into when it becomes dependent on a corporation run by a bunch of ‘suits’, marketing ‘specialists’ and other folks who do care about money, not software freedom and the end-user (rather than his/her wallet).

    I learned my lessons now, and I switched back to Debian (which I never should have left in the first place). I know run Debian stable (the ultimate distro!) on one machine and Debian testing on another (I enjoy bug-hunting & reporting).

    I have never been happier. Thanks to Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and the rest of Ubuntu for making me move away from “corporate linux” 😉

  14. I’m going to have to move against the grain here and say that unity is the best thing Ubuntu could have done. I love the look and feel, and cant wait to see where this ends up. For the first time ever I have windows friends taking note. And no I dont only surf the web and check emals. My entire business is run on ubuntu

    I have run into some minor bugs, nothing serious, but thats to be expected, they should be sorted out by 11.10. Its only going to get better from here.

    Isn’t that the great thing about linux- there is something for everyone.

  15. Peregrine John:

    Kubuntu is always in step with Ubuntu (see also, Xubuntu, Edubuntu…probably others). It’s essentially the same thing, except that by default, only KDE is installed (i.e., not Gnome, Xfce, etc). The Unity thing was what Ubuntu implemented on top of Gnome, which is the default for vanilla Ubuntu.

    But otherwise, you end up using the exact same repositories. In fact, with Ubuntu, you can still install and use KDE, although IME, it’s better to start with Kubuntu in the first place since you don’t get Gnome artifacts hanging around.

  16. Yeah, like those goofy hats.

    Just kidding. Thank you for the insight! I’m about to set up a Linux server for my house, but with some popular interface so I can learn it properly. Lots to find out.

  17. Ubuntu 11.04 became more functional for me when I learned you can log in using the classic gnome interface rather than Unity. When you log in, click the option at the bottom of the screen to deselect Unity.

    See commentary and next-to-last screen image here:

    I’m still not happy with all the changes in 11.04, but at least I can now find my apps without having to learn a completely new interface.

  18. Go to Debian, but also stop using Gnome. Or KDE for that matter, they are both out of control monsters. When you have Debian installed, add Fluxbox and its configuration add ons. That’s all you need. You could also try Openbox, but I find the way it does virtual desktops less convenient than Fluxbox.

    If you really must have bells and whistles, though you’ll rapidly get used to not having them, get xfce. Its fairly Gnome like, but bearable. You’ll need a decent file manager. Thunar is not bad, but really a two or three pane FM is better, and gnome commander is acceptable. PCManFM is also nice, fast and minimalist.

    Fluxbox you will need to edit the menu text file by hand to make them fit what you do, but its not difficult.

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