It's been two years now since Canonical made Unity the default desktop environment in Ubuntu. Since the release of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal the distribution has seen some interesting times, as a backlash against the new desktop led to much dissent in the Linux community. (See Ubuntu 12.10 Quantal Quetzal review.)
Some accused the company of wanting to be too much like Apple, with its heavy-handed control over design and functionality. Others were just mystified at the loss of customisation that previous versions of Ubuntu had made so easy and couldn't understand why Unity, which had been designed for netbooks, was being forced onto their large-screen desktops.
Many users jumped ship, with Ubuntu-based distributions such as Linux Mint (which retained a more familiar GNOME environment) growing in popularity as a result.
One of the main reasons for instigating such a controversial redesign seems to be that of convergence. In the past couple of years Canonical has showcased its vision for smart TVs, tablets, and most recently the upcoming Ubuntu mobile phone OS. These all share a remarkable resemblance to the Unity desktop.
It's obvious now that it had a plan from the start and that we may well see it come to fruition in the months ahead.
Ubuntu Linux: mobile on desktop?
All this is well and good, but as Microsoft may have discovered recently, people don't want mobile phone-fixated operating systems running on their laptops or home desktop machines. Having huge icons that are designed for touch screens, but which you're expected to control with a mouse and keyboard makes for a symphony of frustration. It's good to know then that Ubuntu hasn't entirely followed Windows 8 down the rabbit hole. Instead it can be seen to have come of age.
Ubuntu 13.04 bears the codename Raring Ringtail, named after the ring-tailed cat – which is oddly fitting for the new iteration as it's fast. Raccoon fast.
Whereas previous generations of Unity might be seen as resource heavy, the new addition to the stable is refined and feels more optimised than ever, possibly thanks to the work Canonical has been doing with mobile platforms.
Using the search lens returns results with whiplash speed and now incorporates a few more options such as Social and Photos. These can display content from a number of online sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Flickr once you've authorised the accounts in the settings, which is a nice feature for socialites.
The aesthetics have also been tweaked, with several new icons receiving a nip and tuck. It looks good, although after maintaining many of the design choices from previous generations the rest of the OS is now beginning to show its age.
The menus in many of the packaged applications look cartoonish in comparison to the newer, more elegant designs, and we hope that this will be addressed in subsequent versions.
The software centre, where you'll find new apps to download and install, most free of charge, looks probably the worst of all, especially when compared to the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft. But there are rumours that Canonical will be paying this some attention in the next few releases.
In some ways the software centre is less important than it was in the past, as the search lens has improved its capabilities to find apps by type. Say you enter ‘photo editor', you'll be presented with the available options in the app store and can install them by clicking on the download option. Easy.
We did encounter a few glitches along the way, with Flash crashing several times while we tried to watch a long HD video on YouTube; and the soundcard on our test machine also causing the machine to occasionally revert to a more mute state. Both were easily fixed through a reboot or simply re-launching the program in question. Otherwise it is a very stable and impressive release.
Unity the interface might have made Ubuntu some enemies in the past, but with 13.04 we feel it is now a definite plus for the platform. With the design aesthetic allied to a speedy and robust engine, we're finally seeing what the team at Canonical have been trying to achieve over the past few years. There will be those who still prefer the level of user control that other distros offer, but for the rest of us Ubuntu is as good as it gets.