Ubuntu 11.10 Beta 2 is hot off the presses. We are reaching the stage in the development cycle of Ubuntu were things are pretty much in order. So, it is a good time to take a look at what the next release of many Linux users distro of choice is going to look like.
Lately, it seems all the talk with Ubuntu has been the desktop, more specifically Unity. It seems everyone is looking to redefine the desktop. GNOME 3/GNOME-Shell, Windows 8, and of course Ubuntu's in house shell for GNOME, Unity. Unity was introduced on the desktop in Ubuntu 11.04, it had been used in previous netbook editions of Ubuntu also. Unity's introduction to the desktop was met with scepticism to say the least. The general opinion seemed to be that people either loved Unity or hated it, not a lot of middle ground.
Before we get to Unity, however, there have been a few minor changes to the applications that come with Ubuntu. Light DM has replaced GDM as the login manager. Nothing huge here, but I must say it looks very nice. Thunderbird has replaced Evolution as the default email client. Again, nothing huge. I'm not for sure how big of a deal email clients are for the average home user any more with many using web based email. It is however something to note for those in a corporate environment. PiTiVi (video editor) is out as is the Computer Janitor (thankfully!).
The big changes are to Unity. The first thing you will notice if you used Ubuntu 11.04 is a much more refined look compared to 11.04's version of Unity.
The next thing that caught my eye was some changes to the menu. The power button has now become a one stop place for most of the things you will need to do concerning set up of your machine.
This is a very nice touch. One of the complaints of many power users with 11.04 was that it took too many mouse clicks to get to where they wanted to go. This really helps a lot and also I think shows that the developers at Ubuntu may be listening to users at least some. You can access the system settings, manage your monitors, start up applications, updates and also hardware from one centralized place. You can also, of course, log out and shut down your machine.
The Dash in Unity has seen a great deal of upgrading. While it is following along the same principles as it did in Ubuntu 11.04 something has changed. The Dash actually works. I found the Dash in 11.04 to be nothing more than a pain. The look of the Dash has certainly been refined also.
The "glass" look is excellent. I think it rivals any fancy graphics of Windows or OS X. The dash just looks nice. You can refine your search also to include categories similar to the GNOME 2.x days.
The Dash with its "lenses" is a central part of the Unity experience. It is not perfect, but I think it is very usable. It is also a very attractive looking way to access your files and applications.
The Launcher has also seen refinements and improvements. A slight face lift has occurred, but most importantly functionality has been improved. Adding applications to the dash is improved, along with the general behavior it just works better.
The Ubuntu Software Center has also seen a huge amount of work.
The Software Center no longer looks like a frontend for a package manager. It looks like an app store. I think this is going to be a huge improvement for new users. Many new users are going to have no clue and not really care about package management, but they are going to be very familiar with the app store concept. I think the Software Center nails this. There is really no need for further details, it works, it is extremely user friendly and requires no hand holding even for new users.
While I have been gushing about the improvements and there are many, there are still many issues. Unity still has some problems. I experienced several crashes with Compiz, but to its credit everything recovered and started back. However, this is not acceptable to users and I'm sure (hope) it will be fixed before final release. The interface itself is still a little unhandy for me, but that could just very well be I have not used it enough. I look forward to putting Unity in front of some average computer users and seeing what they have to say.
There is also inconsistency in the look and feel of things. LibreOffice does not use the global menus that have been pushed so hard by the Ubuntu team. The scroll bar is also not the disappearing scroll bar.
Firefox also suffers from the scroll bar ailment. These of course aren't huge issues but they do make a difference in what the user thinks about their experience.
Ubuntu 11.10 Beta 2 is a huge improvement over 11.04. It is not perfect. Considering the condition of 11.04 I do think the developers have made a huge step and certainly shed some hope and promise on the upcoming Long Term Support release. I just hope there was not so much damage done with 11.04 that people will not try 11.10. If you were put off by Unity, give 11.10 a try I think you will be pleasantly surprised.