For the last several years, the end of April has meant another release of Ubuntu (the world’s most popular GNU/Linux distribution), and 2011 is no exception.
Yesterday, Canonical – which sponsors the development of Ubuntu – announced the release of Version 11.04, codenamed “Natty Narwhal”. Natty succeeds Maverick Meerkat, which was released back in October 2010, and brings a host of changes across Ubuntu’s many editions and derivatives.
The change that most people are talking about is the advent of Unity, which is now the default shell in the regular edition of Ubuntu. Unity is not a replacement for Gnome, which has provided Ubuntu’s desktop environment for years; rather, it is a replacement for a part of Gnome. Unity was originally developed as a shell interface for netbooks. Now it’s in the standard flavor of Ubuntu.
Reaction to Canonical’s decision to make Unity a critical component of Ubuntu has been mixed. There are those who love the change, and those who don’t like it at all. And there are a few folks in between. I’m one of them, because I don’t actually use the standard “flavor” of Ubuntu. Instead, I use Kubuntu.
That “K” prefix stands for KDE, a powerful free software compilation that has undergone a long evolution since its creation in 1996.
KDE is actually more than just a desktop environment, which is why the community that develops has begun calling it a software compilation.
Since KDE comes with its own beautiful, feature-rich graphical shell called Plasma Workspaces, Kubuntu has no need for Unity.
(Unity is technically incompatible with the rest of KDE in any case, so even if Kubuntu’s developers wanted to replace Plasma with it, they couldn’t).
Kubuntu users are thus unaffected by the changeover to Unity. But that doesn’t mean that Kubuntu 11.04 is devoid of new features. To the contrary! Kubuntu 11.04 includes KDE 4.6, the most polished incarnation of KDE 4 yet, along with Firefox 4, LibreOffice 3.3.2, and updated versions of every major KDE application (like Amarok, the music player, or KRDC, the remote desktop client).
There are a great many subtle enhancements, from the cleaner and more intuitive task manager to the improved search functions in Dolphin (the file manager). Applications using the GTK toolkit (Firefox, Inkscape) now look much nicer on Kubuntu because they make use of KDE’s Oxygen artwork.
A considerable number of bugs have also been identified and fixed.
Changes common to all Ubuntu flavors include a newer version of the Linux kernel, a newer version of the X.org Server, support for Intel’s Intelligent Power Sharing, and improvements to many major filesystems that Ubuntu supports, including ext4.
“Ubuntu 11.04 offers exciting opportunities for businesses to improve the reliability, security and manageability of desktop, cloud and server deployments, challenging the traditional license or subscription fee model and embracing open-source technology,” said Canonical CEO Jane Silber in a statement.
In my view, Natty is very much a worthwhile upgrade. Although there was some doubt as to whether the Ubuntu developers could get Unity working well by release day, the late reviews of the standard flavor have been generally positive.
And Kubuntu Natty? Well, it rocks! It’s faster, more reliable, more powerful… an upgrade in every sense. If you’re an Ubuntu user and you find that you don’t like Unity, consider making the jump to Kubuntu. Try out Plasma Desktop. Discover its many strengths for yourself.