Late last month, I posted a note here about the release of Ubuntu Linux 12.04, “Precise Pangolin”. Ars Technica now has a review article that covers changes in this release in considerably more detail. (Note that this covers the base Ubuntu distribution released by Canonical Ltd, and does not necessarily apply to other variants, such as Kubuntu or Xubuntu.)
The review concentrates on the desktop and user interface portions of the system, which is sensible, since they provide the major differentiating factors between versions. (Because the architecture of the Linux OS and desktop is much more modular than that of, say, Microsoft Windows, it is generally possible to run almost any Linux application on any contemporary Linux system.) Since 2010, the Ubuntu project has been working on a new desktop environment, called Unity, that attempts to deliver a more consistent user interface across applications and devices, including mobile devices.
The review is, I think, well done, and the author, Paul Ryan, has done a good job of explaining how the Unity interface differs from some more familiar interfaces. Having had a couple of weeks to try the new release, I agree with his basic conclusion that the interface is significantly improved from earlier versions, but still has a few rough edges. This release of Unity has a new feature, called Heads Up Display [HUD], which is intended to save time for users who prefer to keep their hands on the keyboard.
Let’s suppose that I am running Firefox on Ubuntu (as, in fact, I am at the moment), and I want to see the HTML source for the page I am looking at. The conventional way to do this, as of Firefox 12.0, is to pull down the “Tools” menu, then select “Web Developer”, and then “Page Source”. If HUD in enabled, I can just start typing “page source”, and HUD will show me all the menu items that match. A nice side benefit of this is that I don’t have to remember which sub-menu contains the function I want.
The new version also includes a new privacy management framework called Zeitgeist, which allows you to control the extent to which the Unity system tracks your usage of applications, files, and so on. Although the initial implementation is not perfect, it is a step forward. It regulates the information gathered by Unity itself, but does not affect any logging or other data capture done by individual applications.
The whole review article is worth a read if you use or are interested in Ubuntu, or even if you’re just interested in interface design.