What's new in Ubuntu 11.10
by Andrea Müller
For the new version of Ubuntu, code-named Oneiric Ocelot, the developers have put particular effort into revising the applications area, improving the usability of the Software Centre and enhancing Ubuntu's Unity interface.
In their six-monthly releases, the Ubuntu developers mainly focus on integrating new functions and applications that later form the basis of the Long Term Support (LTS) versions. Ubuntu 11.10, which has now been released under the code name of "Oneiric Ocelot", will be followed by the next LTS version in six months' time; the current version already provides a fairly accurate picture of what's in store for next April – the developers don't introduce any major technical changes when releasing LTS versions, as the primary focus for these versions is stability.
As usual, the Ubuntu 11.10 distribution is available as an installable LiveCD and as a DVD image. The ISO files are now hybrid images that can either be burnt to CD or written directly to a USB flash drive using dd to create a bootable medium. Those who want to add an Ubuntu image to a USB flash drive under Windows can use the graphical UNetbootin tool, whose "disk image" option will create a 1:1 copy on the USB drive in the same way as dd does under Linux.
For the installation routine, Ubuntu has retained the tried and tested installer of the previous version. After displaying an info screen with a list of the installation requirements, Ubiquity will ask where to install Ubuntu and will then begin to copy the system. During installation, it will collect further user information such as country settings, keyboard layout, username and password.
Revamped user interface
A lot of work has gone into Ubuntu's custom Unity UI. For example, the developers have completed the 2D variant of the program, which will automatically be launched if there is no 3D hardware acceleration – this is now rarely the case once installation is complete: the hardware acceleration features of most Intel and AMD chips are accessible via the free drivers that are included in the distribution. However, recent NVIDIA chips still require the vendor's proprietary drivers to be installed manually. Ubuntu informs users about the availability of such drivers with an icon in the panel at the top of the screen.
The 2D variant of Unity has been modeled more closely on the 3D version, but still doesn't offer the same functionality. Unity 2D doesn't allow users to sort the Launcher icons on the left-hand side of the screen by drag & drop; icons can only be sorted using the dconf editor in this variant. The dconf editor isn't installed on the hard disk by default and must be retrieved manually from the Ubuntu repositories.
Unity itself has also been substantially modified: the button for opening the Dash has been moved from the top left-hand side of the panel into the top part of the Launcher. Ubuntu creator Marc Shuttleworth said that the developers decided to make this change because usability tests have shown that users intuitively tend to click in the Launcher. The filter options for finding programs on the Dash have been redesigned. Instead of a drop-down menu, clicking on "Filter results" opens a column with various filter options. These options include "categories" when searching for applications, and "file type" and "file size" when searching for files.
Like when searching for programs in Ubuntu 11.04, the Dash will not only display the user's installed applications, but will also suggest applications that match the search criteria in the repositories. The developers say that they have improved this suggestion feature, but when tested, the suggestions included already installed programs. A new Dash component is the music lens, which finds local audio files and will also send the search criteria to the Ubuntu Music Store that is integrated in Banshee. When clicking on one of these search results, users are given the option to buy the track or album after they have logged into their Ubuntu One account – payment options include PayPal.
Those who don't like Unity can use GNOME 3.2, KDE 4.7.1, Xfce 4.8 or one of the various simple window managers that are available as alternatives. Ubuntu no longer comes with version 2 of GNOME. The GNOME Display Manager (GDM) is still included, but is no longer part of Ubuntu's default installation – in Ubuntu 11.10, tasks are handled by the leaner LightDM.