Ubuntu 14.04 was released today and I am revising it after couple of years. KDE’s Plasma desktop has become my primary desktop along with Mac OSX which I use on MacBook so I am in the position to compare Ubuntu/Unity with these two most polished and mature desktops.
There are not a lot of new features that we can talk about in Ubuntu 14.04 and there is a reason for it. It’s an LTS release and I don’t think Canonical would like to ‘surprise’ those users who want familiar interface as they upgrade from 12.04 and 14.04 does a great job at taking care of such users. They have many many changes which accommodate such users and return of application menus to windows is one such example. Another reason, as I guess, is that the company is focussing more on its mobile platform so desktop has taken the back seat for now. The company is bringing a lot of cool features from its mobile space to Ubuntu desktop. Overall, it’s a good release though.
It’s a very polished release which has taken care of a lot of things that would help a users – such as showing keyboard shortcuts when you start Ubuntu for the first time. I won’t call it a revolutionary release, I would definitely call it an improvement release. I still find a lot of areas where Canonical can improve even more and most of these issues affect a lot of users.
[section label="Cloud integration"]
No cloud integration
Ubuntu comes with core apps which take care of most of our businesses including a browser, office suite and movie/music player. Since Ubuntu One file sharing has been discontinued there is no fully integrated cloud storage services. While you can install ownCloud or Dropbox it doesn’t offer the same level of integration that Mac OSX does. I would love if Ubuntu collaborates with ownCloud, another open source project, and offer tight integration with it.
Ubuntu offers a feature called “Online Accounts” which allows a user to get some level of integrating with social networks and online services like Google yet it still lacks any cloud integration. You can easily connect online accounts from the System Settings > Online Accounts option.
Animations make Ubuntu 14.04 slow
I must admit that being a Plasma user I did find Ubuntu 14.04 to be a bit sluggish, mostly due to the enabled animations. People wrongly say Plasma Desktop is slow, which is pure false – it’s very fast. Unfortunately, there is no way that you can disable the animations from the default settings the way you can do in Plasma. But, it’s not a dead end – thanks to the great community Ubuntu has build around it. And I will give credit to folks like Jono Bacon so know the art of community building. There is an awesome tool called “Unity Tweak Tool” which allows you to customize your Ubuntu. In order to disable animation go to ‘General Settings’ in ‘Windows Manager’ and disable the animation. Once disabled the Unity desktop is extremely responsive and fast. You would love it after that. I wish Tweak Tool did show a ‘bread-comb’ on top or in title bar so a uses knows where he/she is. Anyway it’s a nice tool which makes Ubuntu a bit more customizable, though it doesn’t come close to the customization of Gnome 3 Shell of Plasma Desktop.
Ubuntu is not known for same kind of customzation that a typical GNU/Linux distro or desktop like Plasma would offer. You can’t customize Ubuntu the way Counting Cars customize cars. Ubuntu is not your Harley Davidson – that’s what Plasma Desktop is.
You can get some flexibility on Ubuntu with 3rd party plugins like Unity Tweak Tools or MyUninty which allow you to do a lot of things such as sizing the launcher icons or . Still there is not a lot you can do such as moving the position of launcher or to disable autohiding of menus. Even Apple allows a user to change the location of dock.
Then it also depends on whether you want to customize or not. Most GNU/Linux users are ‘tinkers’ (that’s why most of these use CM instead of stock Android) so not being able to personalize your system is not cool for them. I am one of them
So I really don’t see myself using an OS where the core components like menus hide. It’s more like driving a car where brake, accelerator and clutch paddles auto hide and you have to look every-time where they are.
Canonical, you have been doing a great job with Unity, can you please stop hiding things. Or give an option so users can disable autohiding the menus.
[section label="Menus are back"]
Return of menus
Ubuntu distanced a lot of user when they imitated Apple’s Mac OS X and moved menus from windows to top panel. Unlike Mac, there the menus would hide leaving a lot of ‘grey space’ on the top bar – such a waste of empty space which could be used to show menus so a user doesn’t have to guess. Though I am not a huge fan of Global menus, but I found Apple’s implementation better. Another visual glitch with Ubuntu menu is that when you take your mouse to menu the menu items over lap the title.
With 14.04 Ubuntu is kind of fixing that problem and bringing the menus back to Windows. Now a user can choose to show menus in Windows. All you have to do is open Appearance from System Settings and chose where you want to show menu from ‘Behaviour’ tab. However the core problem remains as menus are still auto hiding. I really don’t know why Canoniocal is so obsessed with hiding menus. The problem I see it is as counter productive as instead of training your muscles and eyes where to go so it becomes automatic (they way your fingers are trained when you type as they know where the keys are). In case of Unity, the autohiding features require me to ‘focus’ on finding the menu so no muscle memory which takes attention away from what I am doing and have to focus on menu. Even Mac doesn’t have the issue despite using the global menu as the items are always there and I know where to go.
[section label="Great upgrade"]
One of the greatest advantages of Ubuntu, thanks to Debian, is flawless upgrades from one release to another. So if you are recommending GNU/Linux to Windows XP or less savvy user and want her to stay updated all the time I would heavily recommend a ‘buntu’ as it will be very easy for them to upgrade. Though I did the fresh install on my machine to see what’s new, I also tried ‘typical’ distribution upgrade and it worked fine.
There are no thumbnails for videos in Ubuntu and there is no easy way to enable them. This is something that works out of the box in Mac OSX and can be very easily configured in Plasma Desktop. If Canonical is targeting average users I think they should consider what adds value for a users. Another huge issue is lack of inbuilt tools to get more customizations. Tech Savvy users may be able to hunt the web and manage fixes, average users can’t (and I can’t even disable autohiding of menus). So I think System Setting can be improved to add more useful features. One of the most annoying elements of Ubuntu is notification – it just won’t go away. If you are doing some work it will just stick there. Both Mac OSX and Plasma allows a user to take action, I can cancel the notification or open the app right from it. So, Unity leaves a lot of annoyance when compared with both Mac OS X and Plasma – two most polished desktops.
Will I go back to Ubuntu?
I switched away from Ubuntu due to extremely inflexible Unity. I must admit that Uubuntu has come a long way since 11.04 when I moved away to Plasma and openSUSE, however as I mentioned core issues like autohide menu are still there which are huge distraction for someone like me. Still, I am thoroughly enjoying this release and appreciating the fact that Canonical continues to polish its desktop offering even when there is no money in the desktop space.
A very good release
All said and done, Ubuntu 14.04 is really a good release which has been tweaked (return of menus) to make it easier for previous LTS users to upgrade to it. Though Canonical’s focus is moving away from desktop to mobile and we will see more mobile centric UI on desktop with the arrival of Unity 8, I do see Canonical to be opening up to feedback and community and are now seem to be listening to what people want. Though I may not return to Ubuntu as I am kind of addicted to Plasma’s flexibility, but I do see it as a promising operating system for average users.
With Unity 8 one of the biggest complaints of Ubuntu – online search integrations – will go away which will make it more acceptable for privacy concerned users – which should be almost everyone in this NSA age. I think Canonical has done a great job with 14.04 and if you are an Ubuntu user, you will certainly enjoy this release.