Ubuntu 18.04 LTSUbuntu 18.04 LTS is the latest long term support release of Ubuntu. While LTS releases are traditionally fairly conservative, Ubuntu 18.04 LTS represents a major change for the distribution, especially for users who only use LTS releases. Starting with Ubuntu 17.10, the Unity desktop has been replaced with a slightly tweaked version of GNOME. With only one non-LTS release to develop the new GNOME experience, there are reasons to be cautious about such a radical change, but Ubuntu's GNOME desktop, while different from Unity and standard GNOME, provides a functional desktop environment with a few good points and, admittedly, a few minor things that could be improved. Below, I take Ubuntu 18.04 LTS for a trial run and share my thoughts about Ubuntu's GNOME desktop and some of the other new features.
The installation process is largely unchanged from recent Ubuntu releases. Boot from a DVD or flash drive, choose Install, and walk through the various steps. Any user upgrading from either Ubuntu 17.10 or Ubuntu 16.04 LTS by doing a fresh installation of 18.04 LTS should be familiar with the process. However, there are two significant changes worth mentioning - a minimal installation option has been added and the encrypt home folder option has been removed.
I first installed Ubuntu 18.04 LTS when it was still in development and the process was already very smooth. Installing using Ubiquity is always a good experience on my testing machine. I had no issues when I installed the pre-release version, and starting over with a fresh install once the final media came out was also incident free. I made selections when prompted, filled in information when requested, and rebooted my laptop when the process was complete. The process, both times, was completely unexciting.
Overall, there is not much to say about the Ubuntu installation experience. Ubiquity works very well, so there is no reason to make major changes to the process. The minimal installation mode is a welcome addition, but the only change to the installation process is the addition a radio button, so it really does not alter the familiar Ubiquity experience. Granted, the home folder encryption option being removed since the previous LTS is a pretty major change for some users, but full disk encryption is still an option.
Rebooting my system after installation, I logged in and was greeted with a modified GNOME desktop that has an always-visible dock instead of the usual dash. A first-run welcome screen popped up and introduced the new Ubuntu experience. The first screen explained that "Ubuntu 18.04 works differently from older versions." However, the screen only provided a single image highlighting the basics of the new GNOME environment. The image is okay, but it could have provided more details about how things work. The next screen provides an option to enable a new Livepatch feature, which can apply updates that usually require a restart without needing to restart the system, but the feature requires an Ubuntu Single Sign-On account. After that, the user can "help improve Ubuntu" by sending some system information to Canonical. Finally, the welcome screen explains that "Software" can be used to install apps with several applications shown as examples and a button to "Open Software now."
Like most modern Linux distributions, the default software selection includes some of the most common applications. Firefox 59 is the web browser. Thunderbird 52 is the e-mail program. LibreOffice 6.0, except for LibreOffice Base, is installed for editing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. Rhythmbox and Videos serve as the default music and video players respectively. The rest of the default software is mostly the standard GNOME and Ubuntu utilities, plus a few games: AisleRiot Solitaire, Mahjongg, Mines, and Sudoku.
Users of Ubuntu 17.10 should not expect many changes when updating to Ubuntu 18.04 beyond newer versions of applications. Most of the GNOME applications have been updated to their 3.28 releases, but the upgrade to 3.28 bring mostly polish, not major change. However, unlike Ubuntu 17.10, Xorg is the default display software instead of Wayland. Since, Ubuntu 18.04 is an LTS release, it makes sense to be a little more conservative, but a Wayland session is still available for those who prefer it.
At one point there was talk about switching to a new graphical theme, but that did not happen for 18.04 LTS. While this is understandable, even the current, supposedly mature, theme has some problems. The default applications are fine, but there were a few instances of dark text appearing on a dark background and light text appearing on a light background when I installed some other applications. Some apps I had slight problems with were GNOME Boxes and the Enigmail plugin for Thunderbird. Most of these issues were minor, but there were still noticeable. Hopefully, they will get cleaned up before 18.04.1 comes out, if the issues have not already been fixed by the time this review is published.
As someone who typically uses standard GNOME, I found that Ubuntu 18.04's GNOME experience has some nice things and a few annoyances. At first I though I would find the dash annoying because my laptop's screen is only 1366x768, but after using it for some time, I came to like it. It was nice having simple, clear indicators for how many windows I had open for an application, file transfers, and unread messages. It was also nice that the dock was polished enough to always have the "Show applications" button visible. No matter how many applications I had running, I could always click on "Show applications." The other icons scrolled automatically if I moved the cursor over the top or bottom of the dock. I could also scroll though the applications using my touchpad when the cursor was over the dock. However, unlike the Unity dock, there is no trash can. Instead the trash can is on the desktop, which is handled by Files. Because GNOME Files 3.28 removed the code to handle desktop icons, Ubuntu uses GNOME Files 3.26, which means some new features are not available just so Ubuntu can have a trash can on the desktop. While some might dislike the removal of the desktop icon feature from Files 3.28, I found the desktop icons to be so broken that I would rather be required to open Files to handle the trash and mounted media. Every single time I mounted or remove a drive flash drive, I had to right click on the desktop and select "Organize desktop by name" because all the icons would stack on top of each other or not resort themselves to remove blank spaces after a drive was removed. Even worse, if I selected the option to hide the dock in the dock settings panel, the trash can and other icons end up being shifted so they appear half under the dock, which does not count the desktop as a window for hiding purposes.
Software installation in Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is done using Ubuntu Software. While not as "power user" friendly as Synaptic or using apt on the command line, Software is functional. It does a good job of presenting a well organized selection of applications. However, I really dislike how many proprietary applications appear as "Editor's Picks" and "Recommended Applications." Yes, I am more Stallman-esque than most, but I would very much prefer the promotion of applications that are open source over Slack, Skype, and some of the other "Editor's Picks."
The proprietary applications are all snaps, which is fine in itself, but there is no quick and easy way to disable proprietary snaps or stop all snaps from showing up in Ubuntu Software. The Software & Updates application provides a tool for disabling various repositories (in 18.04 LTS it even has a new option for enabling the Livepatch feature), but there is no graphical way to stop snaps from showing up in Software. Removing the gnome-software-plugin-snap package using apt on the command line is an option, but more robust GUI options are really needed. As is, I could disable all package repositories except for "main" and the "security" and "updates" options and end up with a selection of snap applications in Software that would not conform to my desire to not run things that are proprietary or that have legal issues. I am certainly not opposed to the concept of snaps, but it would be nice to have a little more control over what kinds of apps appear as options to install on my computer. The current option is all or none, and none requires using apt to remove a package, which I can do, but is not as new user friendly as a checkbox in Software & Updates.
Ubuntu 18.04 LTS comes with four utilities as snaps: Calculator, Characters, Logs, and System Monitor. These four applications work just fine as snaps, but I found it odd that an LTS release was used as a testing ground for switching that many apps over to snaps. Granted, should a user not want to run these applications as snaps, they are also available as standard packages. I have left the snap versions installed, but I dislike the fact that I have a visible folder named snap in my home directory. Maybe having a visible directory is useful for other applications, but for the four default applications, I have never needed to browse the snap folder.
I also tried a few other snaps and the experience was somewhat mixed. Some applications ran perfectly, but others had some issues. When I tested out the Atom and Visual Studio Code snaps they worked great. The SuperTuxKart snap also worked wonderfully. However, I did have some issues with the ScummVM snap. ScummVM worked for the most part, but I could not set it to use OpenGL graphics. Whenever I tried to set the graphics to OpenGL, ScummVM would crash. The ScummVM snap appears to have the same OpenGL snap permissions as SuperTuxKart, but I could never get it to work right.
One of the other snaps I tried was the communitheme snap, which is a community developed new theme for Ubuntu. While it is still a work in progress, and I fully understand the need to be more conservative with LTS releases, I really like the theme and wish it could have been the default in 18.04 LTS. As I write this, it still has some issues with working with snap applications, but those should be fixed soon enough. The theme provides a very nice look, and it appears as a separate session on the login screen, so be sure to try it out, if you want something a little different.
Before I finish, I want to touch briefly on the new minimal installation option that provides a way to start with a smaller selection of packages. It removes everything from the default installation except for Firefox and the standard utilities. If you are setting up an computer lab where the everything the users do will be based in a browser, the minimal installation is a great way to easily set that up. It also provides a way for users who want different applications to customize their systems without having to take the time to remove a large number of unwanted packages. I find the minimal installation too minimal for my personal tastes (I find the standard installation's software selection to be just about perfect), but I am glad the option was added in and hope other users find it useful.
Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is not perfect, but it is very good. Users who are super conservative about change might want to stick to 16.04 LTS with Unity for now, but 18.04 LTS is a good desktop distribution that provides an excellent selection of default software for doing general tasks like checking e-mail and writing documents, and there is plenty of other software in the repositories for users who want to do more advanced things. There are a few rough edges that may, or may not, get cleaned up by the time 18.04.1 comes out, but none of them are bad enough to make Ubuntu 18.04 LTS unusable. At worst, the issues are minor annoyances. I realize that GNOME may not be for everyone, and may in itself be a reason to look elsewhere, but I do like Ubuntu's implementation of GNOME with the exception of the various issues with handling desktop icons. However, if GNOME is not for you, Ubuntu 18.04 LTS's other flavors provide the same Ubuntu base with other desktop environments, so check out those if GNOME is not to your liking.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a Lenovo Ideapad 100-15IBD laptop with the following specifications: