Review: Ubuntu 11.10 Frozen Beta Car Crash

At risk of recycling OMGUbuntu's article from last week, I have the Ubuntu 11.04 Beta upgrade and the results are... mixed.

The 11.10 feature freeze kicks in just in time for the Beta release. Alpha 3 was working just fine in VirtualBox 4. So of course, the feature freeze shovelled in a barrow-load of new features in time for the Beta release and broke the whole thing.

There's so much going on, it's difficult to know where to begin. The upgrades to the Unity desktop are in, we have new icons, transparency, lenses for filtering Dash search results.

Software Center has it's big facelift; so colourful it's now looking like an explosion  in a candy shop (intentional metaphor to match the default application background). If anything it's so colourful it's what I call gaudy. Fortunately there's plenty of white space so you can see what's going on. Unfortunately Software Center crashes practically every time you you touch it, so theres a lot of work going on (almost every bug is reported already).

Of the new-ish features coming through, two things you'll see on the Dash (right) are the Crash reporter and something you need to be running to appreciate, the 'wiggle' animation for alert notifications. The icons give a little dance when it needs attention.

That's the good news. Now for the bad.

The release is still buggy as hell, so expect random crashes about every two minutes. Unity is the main culprit, of course; now the desktop choice is Unity 2D or Unity 3D - 3D doesn't work in Virtualbox, the choice is 2D. So if Unity 2D crashes, that's it, you're stuffed. But then, various settings applications crash, Software Center crashes constantly, Compiz-config crashes, even GEdit crashes...

The main points of controversy are in the user interface changes. The discussion (see OMG's page upon page of vitriol, 358 posts and counting) is like Marmite; people either love it or hate it. By which I mean they HATE it.

I can see what they mean. Window controls and context menus play hide-and-seek every time you move the mouse, but apparently that's fine because there's a warehouse full of new keyboard shortcuts. It's just a shame some of the old standards don't work like ALT+F+S to save a document. Hit the ALT key and the context menu appears in the top bar; it's just that nothing happens when you hit the short code, ALT+f, ALT+v; no menu dropdowns, nothing. In fact, you can no longer use any of the menu short keys to pull up the menus as far as I can make out, so I've now got LESS accessibility in the new interface than I had before and unless I learn every blasted shortcut key combination for every application, I'm MORE mouse dependent than I was before. Genius.

The Alt+` (Alt plus grave) Multi-window Switching doesn't appear to work either, unless you call SINGLE window switching any kind of switching at all.

Canonical's Design Team is being accused of all kinds of heinous crimes from copying Mac OS to throwing Spartan babies off a cliff. True that they have included all kinds of snazzy features you might consider 'cool' but mostly at the expense of consistent UI behaviour as we know it.

I am far too cynical to get involved in the mud slinging. The way I read it:
  • Yes, Canonical has a large design team
  • Yes, Canonical is aiming to produce something distinctive for Ubuntu
  • No, Canonical doesn't give a **** what the established user base thinks; Mark Spaceshuttle (I love that pseudonym) is going for his 200 million new users by next week, none of whom know diddly-squat about UI except for what they have on their smart-phones.

    If you're an old Gnome desktop hack and you don't like Unity, you either get with the programme and dam' well learn to get on with it or **** off and use Fedora, Mint or something else, but stop whingeing because Canonical knows best and besides, it's Mark's ball and he doesn't have to let you play with it...

You get the picture.

The upshot is, most of the expected new user base either knows nothing about computers, so don't know any better, or hop from device to device so have a flexible enough mind to play, experiment and learn the conventions of each new interface.

Sorry, old Linux dinosaurs, you're just not keeping up with the trendy kids. Go sit in your armchairs and twiddle the knobs on your radiogram (look it up) while the hip-cats play with the new toys.

I am still in the unconvinced camp and while familiarity is breeding something, I just don't know if it's resignation or contempt.

It's progress, Jim, but not as we know it. RC