Ubuntu 17.10 - on the GNOME againUbuntu is one of the world's most popular Linux distributions. The distribution is available in several flavours, the two most widely recognized being the Desktop and Server editions. The release of Ubuntu 17.10 introduces a number of important changes, the most visible ones mostly affecting the Desktop edition which I will focus on in this review. As 17.10 is an interim release rather than a long term support release, it will received security updates for just nine months.
One technical change in version 17.10 is the phasing out of 32-bit builds of the Desktop edition, though the Server edition is still available in 32-bit and 64-bit builds for the x86 architecture. Another significant change is the Ubuntu distribution has swapped out its in-house Unity desktop and replaced it with a customized version of the GNOME Shell desktop. Unity is still available in Ubuntu's software repositories if we wish to install it later.
I opted to download the Desktop edition of Ubuntu 17.10. The ISO for this edition is 1.4GB in size and booting from this media brings up a graphical window where we are asked if we would like to try Ubuntu's live desktop mode or launch the system installer. This screen also lets us select the system's language with the default being English.
Ubuntu 17.10 -- The live GNOME desktop (full image size: 218kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
At a glance, Ubuntu's GNOME desktop looks a great deal like the Unity 7 desktop environment. The colours and layout are much the same. A panel which acts as a quick-launch bar and task switcher is displayed down the left side of the display. A panel across the top of the screen displays the time and we find a system tray in the upper-right corner. On the desktop there are icons for opening the Nautilus file manager and launching the Ubiquity system installer. There are a few things which reveal the desktop to be GNOME instead of Unity, despite the default theme. One is the presence of the GNOME Activities button in the upper-left corner of the screen which shows us currently open applications and provides a search bar for running searches and queries. (I will talk about search queries later.) The Activities page essentially replaces Unity's dash. The second feature is another button positioned in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Clicking this button brings up a full-page grid of installed applications.
Ubuntu uses a graphical system installer called Ubiquity. The installer is pleasantly streamlined and quickly walks the user through a minimal number of configuration steps. We are asked if we want to install software updates and media support, we are asked to select our time zone from a map and confirm our keyboard's layout. We are asked if we would like to manually partition our hard drive or have the installer handle partitioning for us. I like Ubiquity's partition manager, it is fairly simple to use, works quickly and supports a wide range of file systems, including ext2/3/4, XFS, JFS, Btrfs and LVM volumes. The final screen gets us to set up a username and password for ourselves and gives us the option of encrypting our user's home directory. The installer worked quickly and successfully in my test environments and concluded by offering to reboot the computer so I could get started with my new operating system.
Ubuntu 17.10 boots to a graphical, mostly purple login screen. By default, two session options are provided. These are labelled "Ubuntu" and "Ubuntu on Xorg". The first one loads the GNOME desktop running on Wayland while the second runs GNOME using the classic Xorg display server. For most of my trial I experimented with the Wayland session, though I did try both to confirm each session would work.
The first time I signed into my account, a window appeared and let me know that since I had encrypted my home folder, I could set up a recovery password. This would allow me to rescue my files in case I was unable to sign into my account at a later date.
One feature I explored early on and appreciated was the large Help button on the launch bar. Clicking this button opens documentation detailing how to use the GNOME desktop. Some of the help pages include videos, demonstrating where to find key features. I think this level of documentation and attention to detail is most welcome and, unfortunately, lacking in many distributions.
Ubuntu 17.10 -- The GNOME application menu (full image size: 1.8MB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
As with the previous versions of Ubuntu featuring the Unity desktop, GNOME allows us to pin open applications to the launch bar for quick access later. GNOME refers to this action as marking a program as a favourite rather than pinning a short-cut, but the result is functionally identical.
Another feature I explored and appreciated is the Activities search bar can do more than find installed applications. We can also search for applications we have not yet installed. Typing the name of an application we have not yet downloaded brings up an option to open the distribution's software manager. We can also enable or turn off other search bar functions in the desktop's settings panel. The search bar can look for documents, find appointments in our calendar and work out simple math problems.
I experimented with running Ubuntu 17.10 in a VirtualBox virtual machine and on a laptop computer. In both environments, the distribution worked well. Ubuntu automatically integrates with VirtualBox and could use my host computer's full screen resolution. When running on my laptop computer, Ubuntu detected and properly used all my hardware. In either environment, the distribution tended to use about 790MB to 830MB of RAM and a fresh install took up about 4.6GB of hard drive space.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did the GNOME on Wayland desktop session work, but it tended to be more responsive than the Unity desktop was on the same hardware. In the past I have had poor experiences with Wayland sessions. Fedora's Wayland session typically fails when I try to login and the RebeccaBlackOS Wayland sessions work, but tend to be unpolished. Ubuntu's Wayland session not only worked, it was usually hard to tell whether I was using the Wayland session or the Xorg session. I only noticed two differences when switching between the Wayland session and the classic Xorg session. The Wayland session usually worked better, especially when run inside VirtualBox. Windows would respond quicker and animations were smoother. However, I could not get the Totem media player to display video when running in a Wayland session. Totem did work properly when run from the Xorg session.
Ubuntu 17.10 -- Trying to play a video in Totem and VLC (full image size: 486, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Ubuntu ships with a fairly small selection of popular open source software. The Firefox web browser and LibreOffice are included along with the Thunderbird e-mail client. Shotwell is present for working with photos and the Transmission bittorrent application is included. Ubuntu ships with the Cheese web cam utility, the Totem video player and the Rhythmbox audio player. We are also given a calendar application, a text editor and the Nautilus file manager. Network Manager is present to help us get on-line. In the background we find the systemd init software and version 4.13 of the Linux kernel.
The default applications generally worked well for me and I didn't run into many surprises. One of the few exceptions was my aforementioned trouble with the Totem video player not being able to play videos when run in the Wayland session. I could get around this limitation by installing the VLC multimedia player or switching to the GNOME on Xorg session.
One application I feel is worth highlighting is the calendar. The calendar by itself is a nice, simple calendar tool, but what makes it stand out is the ability to sync the calendar with on-line accounts. The default calendar can be synchronized with, for example, a Google or Nextcloud account. I successfully synced my desktop calendar with my Ubuntu Phone calendar for convenience and quite liked the result. As the calendar also links to the Activities search bar, this allows me to find appointments I previously made on my phone through my laptop's search feature.
However, I also ran into a bug when using calendar. Once, right after I signed into my account, a notification appeared saying the calendar application had crashed. The crash report tool offered to automatically submit a bug, which I agreed to do. Then the Firefox web browser opened and asked me to sign into an Ubuntu One account. This was probably to help the crash reporter submit a bug, but this connection was not made clear and I think a new user would see Firefox asking for credentials on an unfamiliar website as being entirely a different (and scary) process from the crash reporter sending a bug. Ideally, I don't feel the user should need to sign into any account to file an automated bug report.
I found when applications had notifications they wanted to share a small dot would appear next to the clock on the panel at the top of the screen. At first this notification reminder was so subtle I failed to notice it. On the one hand it is nice GNOME does not distract the user, but something a little more noticeable than a small, white dot might be useful. Clicking the dot shows us recent notifications.
Earlier I mentioned we can use the Activities search box to find applications, even ones we have not installed yet. The Ubuntu terminal does something similar where if we type the name of a program into the shell we have not yet installed, the terminal will provide the command we need to enter to install the missing software.
Ubuntu uses the GNOME Software Centre to handle finding, installing, removing and updating software packages. The Software Centre begins by showing us a list of software categories and some featured items. Clicking on a category brings up a list of sub-categories we can explore on the left side of the window and specific applications on the right. Clicking a program's entry brings up a full screen display with information on the selected program.
When we are on the first screen, browsing categories, there is a search button in the window's title bar we can click to search for packages by name. The search option disappears while we are browsing categories, which I found inconvenient as it meant I had to return to the initial page to perform a search. Searches tended to be slow and I sometimes saw error messages reporting not all results could be shown as the search query had timed out.
Ubuntu 17.10 -- The Software Centre (full image size: 217kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The Software Centre handles working with traditional Deb packages and Snap packages. Unfortunately it can be hard to tell the two apart at a glance. Some searches, such as one for the Chromium browser, would return two options, the Deb package and the Snap, but they are not clearly marked. I found I could usually identify the Snap because it would not have a rating next to its name, while Deb packages typically had a rating out of five stars. Clicking on a package to bring up its information screen will also list the package's origin and Snaps list their origin as being from the Snap Store.
For most purposes it might not matter where a package comes from, or if it is bundled as a Deb or Snap, but Snaps are a lot larger. Some Snap packages could be anywhere from 4 to 40 times larger than their equivalent Deb package.
When searching for desktop applications I found that not all desktop software would show up in searches from the Software Centre. I could switch to a command line and use the APT tools to locate and install these packages which did not show up in Software Centre.
Software Centre features three tabs, one for finding new software, one for displaying installed applications and one for managing software updates. I found that if I went into the Installed tab, there were some applications I could remove and others I could not. For example, I could not remove Totem from within Software Centre, but another default application, Cheese, could be removed.
I tried installing a few Snap applications and found they mostly worked like traditional Deb packages in the way they installed and ran. However, sometimes when installing a new Snap the software manager would report the installation failed. However, if I tried to re-install the Snap, another error would be displayed reporting the Snap was already on my system. I found that closing and restarting the Software Centre would not fix this, but logging out of my account and signing back in would take the Snap out of package limbo and allow me to complete the installation.
The GNOME settings panel has changed since the last time I used the desktop environment. Now, rather than having a panel with a grid of icons which open new screens of settings, the settings window is split into two panes. On the left are categories of settings such as Wi-fi, Notifications and Privacy while on the right we see the settings in that category. The new panel is perhaps less colourful and the layout of the specific settings (and their spacing) make me think touch screens may have been a motivation behind the new design.
I generally found the new settings panel worked well. It took me little time to get used to the new layout. Something I appreciated about the two-pane style was I did not need to go back "up" a level to get an overview of available options. Categories are simply listed down the side which I think makes quickly browsing for an option faster. One of the few things I did not like about the new panel was that some settings categories are hidden under others. For example, to manage user accounts or adjust the system's clock, we need to know to look under the Details category, which brings up a new screen of categories, including Users and Date & Time.
Version 17.10 is a big change for the Ubuntu distribution. Apart from the desktop switching to GNOME from Unity, more effort appears to have been made to integrate Snaps into software management. The introduction of Wayland is also new as, previously, the next iteration of Unity was going to use the Mir display software.
On the surface, just looking at the desktop and the way things are presented, I feel the developers did a very good job at making GNOME look like Unity. In that respect, existing Ubuntu users should feel more or less at home. I was especially impressed with Wayland. I have never had a truly positive experience with Wayland desktop sessions before, but Ubuntu not only got GNOME on Wayland working, the Wayland session generally worked better and faster than the Xorg session. The Totem application did not work well with Wayland, but VLC did making it an easy issue to work around. I think GNOME on Wayland is more responsive than Unity which is another nice point in this release's favour.
However, I did run into some frustrations with the transition to the GNOME desktop. GNOME does not have Unity's HUD, or the option to disable the global menu bar and searches in the Activities screen were slower than Unity's scope searches. These missing (or less polished) features might not be noticed by new users, but existing Ubuntu users are likely to feel let down. I also noticed that some applications use the global menu bar while others do not. The file manager uses the menu bar at the top of the screen, but the LibreOffice suite does not and it makes for an inconsistent experience.
I do like the new settings panel. It feels more open, more transparent in a way. And I was able to perform fewer clicks to find what I wanted, so I feel the new system settings panel is a step in the right direction.
My big complaint this time around was with the software manager. Software Centre was slow, it did not always find items I wanted and knew were in the repositories, and searches for Snaps often timed out. I sometimes ran into glitches where I could not install a package, or a package would install while claiming it had not. The Software Centre also would not allow me to remove some programs. These limitations led me to use the APT command line tools in place of the Software Centre. I realize the developers are trying to mix Deb packages and Snap packages together under one unified umbrella and I sympathize because that must be difficult. Unfortunately, the result right now is that many things mostly work, but nothing in the Software Centre really works perfectly.
On the whole the transition from Unity to GNOME (and Xorg to Wayland) went much better than I thought it would. Ubuntu 17.10 was quick and easy to navigate and worked smoothly for the most part. There are some minor rough patches here and there, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised with the performance of this release. I was sceptical about Ubuntu dropping Unity for GNOME, but I think the transition is going well. I do hope some features, like the HUD and disabling the global menu bar, come back in time for Ubuntu 18.04. If not, the Unity 7 desktop is still available in the distribution's repositories.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast