Saturday, October 22, 2011

At Work with Linux: Ubuntu 11.10

I finally downloaded and installed Ubuntu 11.10 on a VMware virtual machine. The virtual machine is installed on Windows 2008R2.

Installing a virtual machine with VMware is dead simple. Simply follow VMware's GUI directions for creating a new virtual machine, pointing the CD-ROM virtual drive towards the downloaded ISO. When the virtual machine boots it will boot into Ubuntu, at which point you follow the on-screen installation instructions for Ubuntu just like you would if you were installing Ubuntu on bare metal.

The installation of this latest version was very simple, perhaps too simple. I wanted to stop and tailor specific packages to install but didn't see where I could do that. As a consequence I wound up uninstalling unwanted applications after first boot (more about that later). What I did find, surprisingly, was the ability to easily set up networking directly on the installation desktop during installation. Simply clicking on the network icon dropped down a menu, which allowed me to configure the network. I was able to quickly set up a static IP address, primary and secondary DNS, and other bits necessary for proper network configuration for the lab. This is the easiest its ever been for any OS, including Windows.

First Boot

I was presented with the Unity desktop. It took no more than 20 or so minutes of trying various features out before I became quite comfortable with Unity. While it will take more time for me to dig in to its various capabilities and discover any flaws, at first blush the Unity desktop is easy to use, powerful, fluid, and above all polished. If I had to make a judgement, I would have to say that Unity is a better desktop than either Gnome or KDE.

The launcher on the left edge is quite powerful and almost intuitive to use. It combines the best of all the DEs I've dealt with to date. If I had to categorise it I would say that it's a better Dock than OS X's doc. A sweet feature is the launcher's autohide; if an application fills the screen it will move out of the way. Yes, I know all about the same features on all other desktops, but in all other desktops you have to find the feature and turn it on.

Animation and translucency are very smooth. My first taste of translucency is, somewhat ironically, in that hoary old tool the Gnome terminal. As a quick test I configured the terminal background as just barely transparent, then opened a second terminal and laid one over the other. I could see everything behind the terminals as if they were very smokey glass, and when I moved the terminals around there was absolutely no delay or tearing of the desktop. All of this in a VM. I would be interested to see how it would work on bare metal, such as my Dell D630 notebook.

My one biggest complaint is with the software management tool. As I mentioned earlier I couldn't tailor what software was installed, so I waited to remove it after first boot. The software management tool is an absolute failure in this regard. I wanted to remove all the LibreOffice suite (we have no need for it), and attempted to just remove one of the office tools (the spreadsheet). After selecting the app and all its dependencies to uninstall, the software management tool just sat there, and sat there, until I killed it. In the end I opened up a terminal and used apt-get to quickly remove all the bits I didn't want on that VM. Thank goodness for apt-get.


This version of Ubuntu with the Unity desktop is quite good. When 11.10 was first released all I read were the complaints of the haters about how Unity wasn't Gnome, and how That Was Bad. Well, here's a news item to the haters and the complainers: Unity is a better DE/UI than Gnome ever was, especially on portable devices. If you can't make the transition from Gnome or KDE to Unity, then the problem is with you, not with Unity. I'm going to finish cleaning up the current VM install, then create a few clones for the rest of the lab crew to play with. But this version of Ubuntu is a strong keeper.

Our group has been getting heavily into Android development, both handset (2.3.4) and tablet (3.2.1). With the release of Android 4, and now the release of Ubuntu 11.10 with Unity, we have two strong Linux-based environments that are surprisingly close for the kinds of devices our sponsors are interested in. We've also been looking at Windows 8 with its Metro-like UI for use on portable devices, something which we will also be working with when it's officially released.

Ubuntu has turned the corner with regards to Unity. I now consider it a quite powerful and quite useful computing environment, capable of standing sholder-to-sholder with every other DE/UI out there, including OS X and iOS. The developers of this version of Ubuntu, along with Unity, are to be commended for the quality product they've produced.

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