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26 April 2012, 13:51

What's new in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS

by Fabian A. Scherschel

The latest version of Ubuntu brings significant improvements to the stability and speed of the Unity interface. On the server side of things, the developers have clearly concentrated on trying to make Ubuntu a serious contender in the cloud computing space.

With Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, code-named "Precise Pangolin", the Ubuntu developers have released the latest version of the popular Linux distribution to their users. The six-monthly Ubuntu release cycle is organised so that every two years, a version is labelled as a Long Term Support release and 12.04 is the latest of these. LTS versions were historically supported for three years on the desktop and five years on the server side, but with Precise, this has been changed to five years of support for both editions. The character of an LTS release implies a focus on stability and polish, as it has to be supported for a long time, and with five years of planned support for the desktop version, the Ubuntu developer community has set itself a big task to fulfil. This is reflected in the changes that have been included in the newest version: new features are mostly concerned with polishing the user interface and making the underlying technologies more stable.

A familiar installer

When installing Ubuntu, nothing much has changed. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS comes in the usual formats of a live CD and a bigger DVD image. Both of these versions are delivered as hybrid images that can be both burned to a CD or copied onto a USB stick using the dd command on Linux or a graphical application such as the popular UNetbootin (which also works on Windows and Mac OS X).

Zoom The Ubuntu installer now shows tweets

Ubuntu uses its own Ubiquity installer which will be familiar to anyone who has installed Ubuntu in the past. The application asks the user a few questions about the system configuration and desired installation method and then begins installing the system while the user fills in additional information such as time zone, user name and password. A new addition to the installer is present at the very end of the installation process: the application now shows tweets from various Ubuntu sources on a screen which also points users to further resources should they require help with using the distribution.

Unity improvements

Zoom Notifications change colour based on the colour scheme of the desktop background

Ubuntu's Unity desktop has seen significant performance improvements across the board and early tests with the beta version of 12.04 LTS have shown that it is also a lot more stable. The visual effects such as the blurring of the underlying desktop when users toggle the Dash menu are now instantaneous, even on systems with lower-powered integrated graphics. To improve usability with multi-monitor setups, Unity's launcher can now be configured to always show on a certain display. The look of the notification bubbles has also been improved. Much like the Dash, notifications now adapt their background colour based on the user's desktop wallpaper. By using the most dominant colour from the current wallpaper, notifications are more visually appealing and blend in much better with the overall look of the desktop.

The Dash menu has received two new "Lenses" – which are, in essence, customised search filters that are available when users click on the big Ubuntu logo at the top of the launcher. The Home Lens shows recently used applications and files and the Video Lens enables users to search video files on their desktop and even on the web. The web search feature ties into such sources as YouTube, Vimeo, Bing Video, and recorded talks from TED conferences, but also offers local video services depending on the user's location. Clicking on choices from the web opens the default browser, usually Firefox, and starts playing the selected video.

The launcher has also gained a new feature called "quicklists". These are available when right clicking on icons of programs that support the feature and expose application-specific functionality right from the launcher. This lets users start and stop tracks in Rhythmbox, the build-in music player, or access their file manager bookmarks right from the launcher, for example. Other improvements in Unity include resizeable icons in the launcher and many other small tweaks and bug fixes. To make it easier for users to discover keyboard-based interaction with Unity, the developers have added a list that shows all keyboard shortcuts. This gets displayed when the user holds down the Super key.

Those users who prefer other desktop environments have a choice of installing GNOME 3.4.1, KDE SC 4.8.2, Xfce 4.8.1 or various other window managers in the Ubuntu repository.


Zoom The HUD being invoked in Firefox

The biggest single new feature in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS that end users will notice is Unity's new head-up display feature. The HUD is a combined search box and application launcher that provides similar functionality to GNOME Do or Spotlight on Mac OS X. When the user presses the Alt key, a search box pops up from the Unity launcher and presents different actions, based on the input, as the user types. Using fuzzy matching, the system tries to present different options based on the actual search term, installed applications, and the system's statistics regarding recently used applications and documents. The goal is to give the user access to the commands he or she is most likely to use with as little keyboard input as possible. The HUD is also application aware and, when it is toggled while a particular program is being used, it modifies the presented options accordingly.

While Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has stated that the HUD should eventually replace menus in Ubuntu for Unity-specific applications, the system is not quite there yet. The HUD currently tends to produce rather vague suggestions in some situations; however, since this functionality is tied into the Zeitgeist logging framework that Ubuntu is using in the background, suggestions should get more accurate the more the system is used. Results, and thus satisfaction with the feature, also tend to vary widely from user to user, depending on their specific usage patterns and level of sophistication.

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