Ubuntu 17.04: Unity's swan song?Canonical released version 17.04 of the Ubuntu operating system on April 13. This release came just a short time after Canonical announced they would cease developing the Unity desktop and related technologies such as Ubuntu Touch. In comparison to their announcement about the company's change in direction, the launch of Ubuntu 17.04 was a relatively tame event with few major changes. Ubuntu now uses a swap file by default rather than a swap partition on new installs. I will talk about this later, but it is worth noting people can still use swap partitions if they wish.
Despite the announcement that Unity will no longer be developed and the GNOME desktop will be used in future versions of Ubuntu, this release still ships with Unity 7 as the default desktop environment. Unity 8 is included too as an alternative desktop option. This release saw the dropping of 32-bit PowerPC support, though 64-bit PowerPC processors are still supported. Ubuntu is available in a number of editions for different computing environments, including Server and Desktop. For this review I will be focusing on the Desktop edition. The ISO I downloaded for the Desktop edition was 1.5GB in size.
Booting from the live Ubuntu Desktop media brings up a graphical window where we can select our preferred language from a list on the left side of the screen. We then have the option of either trying out the project's live desktop environment or launching straight into the installation process. Taking the live desktop option loads the Unity 7 desktop. The background is decorated with purple and orange wallpaper. A launch bar with a set of popular applications is displayed vertically down the left side of the screen. A button in the upper-left corner opens Unity's Dash where we can search for and open files and applications. Along the top of the screen we find a shared menu bar and the upper-right corner of the display hosts the system tray. On the desktop we find two icons, one for launching the Ubiquity system installer and the other opens the Nautilus file manager.
The Ubiquity system installer is a graphical application which presents us with a fairly simple series of steps for installing Ubuntu. We are asked to select our preferred language from a list and given the option of installing third-party software such as media codecs and Flash. When it comes to partitioning the hard drive, Ubiquity can take over the whole drive, take over an existing partition or we can manually divide up the disk. The manual partitioning screen presents us with a visual representation of the disk and the steps to create or alter partitions are pretty straight forward. If we take the guided partitioning option, Ubiquity will set up a partition for the operating system that uses the ext4 file system. The installer then asks us to select our time zone from a map of the world, gets us to confirm our keyboard's layout and asks us to create a user account for ourselves. On the account creation screen we have the option of encrypting our user's files. When the installer finishes its work we can either return to the live desktop environment or reboot the computer.
Booting into a fresh copy of Ubuntu, we are brought to a graphical login screen. From there we can sign into either the default Unity 7 environment or a Unity 8 session. Unity 8 has a similar desktop layout to version 7, but is designed with mobile devices in mind. There are fewer application icons on the Unity 8 launcher and they are for Ubuntu's mobile-style applications. The settings panel for Unity 8 is also geared toward mobile devices, it uses a higher contrast look and elements are usually spaced further apart to facilitate interaction on a touch screen. I also found the Unity 8 version of the Dash acts more like a drawer that gets pulled out onto the desktop. This drawer lists available applications, organized alphabetically. Unity 8 works well on mobile devices, but it does not yet have a polished look on the desktop.
Ubuntu features a guest account which people can sign into with a password. The guest account acts just like any other account, but its contents are wiped after each use.
Most of the time I was working with Ubuntu I was running the Unity 7 desktop. The environment was fairly responsive, with the exception of the Dash. Searches for applications in the Dash were always a bit slow, as was switching between the Dash's tabs (or "scopes"). Otherwise I found Unity 7 to be fairly quick to perform tasks.
Unity has some interesting characteristics which make the environment stand out. For example, window controls (the minimize, maximize and close buttons) are placed on the left side of windows rather than the right. This took a little re-training on my part for me to be comfortable with it, but the layout worked out in the long run as it meant all my launchers, window controls and most menu items were all in the upper-left corner of the screen. This greatly reduces mouse movement.
Another interesting feature is the HUD. The HUD is activated with the ALT key and allows us to type words to browse through the active application's menu. This means if I am using LibreOffice, instead of clicking the Tools menu, then Macros and then Run Macro, I can tap ALT and type "run macro" to accomplish the same result. The HUD accomplishes two things: it makes searching through an application's menu very quick and this is handy with more complex programs. The HUD also means I can browse menus using just the keyboard, I do not need to touch the mouse or memorize short-cut keys.
Ubuntu 17.04 -- Using the HUD to navigate menus (full image size: 875kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
In the past people complained that Ubuntu's Dash was used to display search results from on-line sources by default. Canonical has changed this and searches are no longer sent out over the Internet by default. People who liked the on-line search results can re-enable the feature in the settings panel under the Security & Privacy module. Ubuntu will periodically send crash reports and information on which programs and resources are being used to Canonical. This feature can also be toggled in the Security & Privacy settings.
One other feature I feel is worth mentioning is that Unity uses a shared application menu at the top of the display, similar to the way macOS's menu panel works. We can change this so each application window contains its own menu by toggling a setting in the Appearance settings module.
I ran Ubuntu 17.04 in two test environments, a desktop computer and a VirtualBox virtual machine. I started with the virtual machine and found the Unity desktop (both versions 7 and 8) were unusually sluggish. Running Unity inside VirtualBox is not really practical, even with 3-D support turned on. In the past there were plans to make it easy to enable a "low graphics mode" which would improve desktop performance in a virtual machine, but this option was not available in my settings panel. Using Ubuntu's Additional Drivers tool, I found new drivers for VirtualBox, but installing these caused Ubuntu to no longer boot and I ended up re-installing the operating system.
On my desktop computer, everything worked. Ubuntu properly set up a network connection, audio worked and the desktop was much more responsive. The distribution also detected my HP printer without any problems. In either environment, Ubuntu used between 650MB and 750MB of RAM when sitting idle at the Unity 7 desktop.
Ubuntu ships with a fairly standard set of open source software. Looking through the Dash we find the Firefox web browser with Flash support. The Thunderbird e-mail client is included along with the Transmission bittorrent software. The LibreOffice suite is installed along with a calendar application, the Evince document viewer and a scanner utility. Ubuntu ships with a few multimedia programs, including the Totem video player, the Rhythmbox audio player and the Cheese web cam manager. We can opt to install media codecs when we set up the operating system, giving us the ability to play most media formats. Ubuntu ships with a text editor, the Shotwell photo manager, a calculator and an archive manager. The Deja Dup backup utility is included along with the Nautilus file manager. Network Manager is available to help us get on-line. The distribution also features the GNU Compiler Collection, the systemd init software (version 232) and version 4.10.0 of the Linux kernel.
When we want to install new software on the operating system we have a few different methods we can use. One approach is to use Ubuntu Software (a re-branded version of GNOME Software). This software manager is divided into three tabs (All, Installed and Updates). The All tab shows categories of programs and features a search bar. We can select a category or type in a program name to see a list of suitable matches. We can click on one of the matches to bring up a full screen information page that shows us a screen shot of the program, a description and user-supplied ratings. We can then click a button to install the program. The Installed tab shows desktop software we have already installed. From the installed tab we can launch applications or remove them from the system. The Updates tab shows us new versions of installed applications.
Ubuntu 17.04 -- Browsing available packages with Ubuntu Software (full image size: 642kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There is also a dedicated desktop application for listing and installing available software updates. This Update Manager application can be launched from the Dash. When I started using Ubuntu 17.04 there were no new software updates available and I did not receive any notification for new packages for the first five days I was running the distribution.
For people who would like to work from the command line, Ubuntu features the APT collection of package management utilities. Ubuntu Software mostly deals with desktop applications and not all packages will show up in searches. The command line APT tools will work with command line tools, games and libraries which do not show up in Ubuntu Software.
One additional way we can manage software is Snap packages. A Snap package is designed to be portable and should work on any Linux distribution that includes the snapd software. Snap support is included by default with Ubuntu 17.04. We can use the snap command line utility to locate and install Snaps. Desktop applications that are bundled as Snaps can also be installed through the Ubuntu Software application. Programs we install as Snaps, even desktop applications, do not show up in the Unity Dash, but can be run from the command line. Desktop Snaps can also be launched from inside Ubuntu Software's Installed tab.
I think it is worth mentioning that to install Snaps from Ubuntu Software, we need to have an Ubuntu One account. Sometimes, when trying to install Snaps, I would encounter authentication errors with my Ubuntu One account and I found closing Ubuntu Software and then re-opening the software manager and trying to install the Snap again would work around the issue.
I also feel it worth pointing out that Ubuntu's three software managers (Ubuntu Software, Snap and APT) each work with a subset of the available packages. Snaps, for example, cannot be managed using the APT utilities. Likewise, we cannot use Snap to manage traditional Deb packages. The Ubuntu Software application tries to bridge this gap and works with desktop applications provided by both Snaps and Deb packages. However, Ubuntu Software does not work with non-desktop software or some games, requiring a trip to the command line to manage those items. This situation may get better in the future and we may get an all-in-one software manager, but for now we need three different utilities to manage software on Ubuntu and that makes for an awkward situation.
Settings, backups and other observations
The Unity desktop features a settings panel which can be accessed from the desktop's launch bar or from the user/logout menu in the upper-right corner of the display. The settings panel features modules for adjusting the look of the desktop and the behaviour of its components. There are also modules for managing printers, working with user accounts and managing software sources. I also found configuration controls for adjusting my keyboard, mouse and privacy settings. These modules all worked well and I encountered no problems while using the settings modules.
One application I enjoyed using was the calendar program. I believe the desktop calendar is designed to be used on mobile devices more than desktops, but it worked well for me. The calendar has a simple layout and we can set appointments with reminders that will pop-up on the desktop. The only quirk I ran into while using the calendar application was when appointment reminders were shown the notification window had two "OK" buttons.
I also liked working with the Deja Dup backup utility. Deja Dup can be launched from the settings panel or the Dash. Using Deja Dup we can create archives of our files and select a local or remote location where archives should be saved. Backups can be automated on a schedule, making Deja Dup a set-and-forget backup solution. We can restore old archives back to their original location or place restored files in a specific directory to avoid overwriting existing files. When I first ran Deja Dup the application asked me to install some dependencies which means the first person to use Deja Dup needs to have administrator/sudo access so they can install packages. This is a minor inconvenience and otherwise Deja Dup worked very well for me.
Ubuntu 17.04 -- Working with backups and software repositories (full image size: 1.2MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Earlier, I mentioned Ubuntu uses a swap file rather than the traditional swap partition. This approach has two benefits. The first is we do not need to make a swap partition and, if we want more or less swap space later, we do not need to resize our disk partitions. The swap file is located in the root directory and carries the name swapfile. In the past swap partitions could offer better performance than swap files, but these days performance should be equal. The only drawback I have found when using swap files is they can conflict with advanced file systems such as Btrfs. However, for most people, those using ext4 or XFS, a swap file should work just as well as a swap partition and the same command line tools that work with swap partitions also work with swap files.
For the most part, not much has changed on Ubuntu's Desktop edition in the past year. Unity 7 has more or less remained the same while work was progressing on the next version of the desktop, Unity 8. However, now that both desktops are being retired in favour of the GNOME desktop, running Ubuntu 17.04 feels a bit strange. This week I was running software that has probably reached the end of its life and this version of Ubuntu will only be supported for nine months. I could probably get the same desktop experience and most of the same hardware support running Ubuntu 16.04 and get security updates through to 2021 in the bargain. In short, I don't think Ubuntu 17.04 offers users anything significant over last year's 16.04 LTS release and it will be retired sooner.
That being said, I could not help but be a little wistful about using Unity 7 again. Even though it has been about a year since I last used Unity, I quickly fell back into the routine and I was once more reminded how pleasant it can be to use Unity. The desktop is geared almost perfectly to my workflow and the controls are set up in a way that reduces my mouse usage to almost nothing. I find Unity a very comfortable desktop to use, especially when application menus have been moved from the top panel to inside their own windows. While there are some projects trying to carry on development of Unity, this release of Ubuntu feels like Unity's swan song and I have greatly enjoyed using the desktop this week.
While there is not much new in Ubuntu 17.04, the release is pretty solid. Apart from the confusion that may arise from having three different package managers, I found Ubuntu to be capable, fairly newcomer friendly and stable. Everything worked well for me, at least on physical hardware. Unity is a bit slow to use in a virtual machine, but the distribution worked smoothly on my desktop computer.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: