Ubuntu 21.10Ubuntu 21.10 (code name Impish Indri) and its many variant flavors were released on October 14. This release is a non-Long Term Support release, meaning it will be supported for nine months. Like all new releases of Ubuntu, Ubuntu 21.10 comes with numerous updates and enhancements. The most notable of these changes are the customized GNOME 40 desktop and Firefox being a Snap instead of a Deb package. Both of these changes are explored in depth in this review.
Installing Ubuntu 21.10
I began by downloading the 2.9GB ISO and copying it to a flash drive. Booting the computer from the flash drive resulted in an extremely familiar experience. Unfortunately, the new installer currently being worked on did not make it into this release, so Ubuntu 21.10 still provides the same installation experience as all the recent releases of Ubuntu.
The Ubiquity installer starts by providing a choice between trying and installing Ubuntu. The try option exits the installer and brings up a live desktop environment. The install option, as one would expect, begins the installation process. I knew I was going to explore Ubuntu in depth after installing, so I skipped the live desktop experience and went right to installation.
The installation was the usual process of selecting a language and keyboard layout, picking between a minimal and standard install, deciding to install Ubuntu using the entire disk or some other partition scheme, setting time zone location, and creating a new user. The process was exactly like one would expect when installing most Linux distributions. Even if the new installer had been included, I doubt the process would have changed significantly. Basically, Ubuntu's installation process is well thought out set of steps that makes installing Ubuntu pretty straightforward.
Ubuntu 21.10 comes with a customized version of GNOME 40 as its desktop environment. A small subset of the GNOME applications are from GNOME 41. This is similar to what happened with the previous Ubuntu release, which used GNOME 3.38 with some GNOME 40 applications. Some other distributions offer a full GNOME 41 experience, so hopefully Ubuntu being one GNOME release behind does not become a permanent trend. Shipping GNOME 40 instead of 41 does not impact the desktop experience too much, but it would have been nice to have all the nice new features.
Ubuntu's customized GNOME experience adopts many of GNOME 40's workflow changes, but continues to use a permanent dock on the left side of the screen. This dock has been upgraded from the previous Ubuntu release and now features a Trash icon on the dock and a line that separates the pinned favorite applications from other applications that are running. Removable media also shows up in the dock in the section below the line separator.
Ubuntu 21.10 -- The application list (full image size: 243kB, resolution: 1920x1080 pixels)
Overall, the new GNOME 40-based desktop is very nice. The three finger swipe touchpad gestures to bring up the Activities overview, applications list, and switch between virtual desktops is handy. However, there are some drawbacks that I find frustrating. The keyboard command for bringing up the Activities overview is the Super key, but the keyboard command for bring up the applications list is a quick double press of the Super key. Having a quick double press of a keyboard key as a shortcut just seems odd to me. I get the double tap timing right at least 90% of the time, but every so often my double tap is just not quick enough. Pressing Super once inside the Activities overview brings the desktop back to the original state instead of going another layer into the "desktop -> Activities overview -> application list" workflow, so getting the timing right on the double tap is crucial to get to the right place on the first try. There are other ways to get the application list, but this still strikes me as a workflow that would frustrate people. The touchpad swipe method of accessing the same screens is much clearer.
There are also a couple major frustrations with the way the applications list works. The first is fact that any application pinned to the dock does not appear in the full list of applications. My personal selection of favorites includes a subset of the LibreOffice applications, but not all of them. If I change my mind about what I want to work on (e.g., I decide I want to type an outline in LibreOffice Writer instead of making a presentation in LibreOffice Impress), the relevant icons are in two different spots. Under earlier GNOME releases, if I was using the full application list to get to the application I wanted, I would find every single one of them in alphabetical order, even if they were also in the dock. Now some of my applications are missing. Thankfully, they all show up when searching, but I do not understand how making favorite applications not appear in the full list is an improvement. This also leads me to one other issue: the applications are no longer in alphabetical order, even after using gsettings to reset the app-picker-layout. The first row of applications in the overview starts with Videos, Text Editor, Settings, the Utilities group, and Cheese, before it starts listing applications in alphabetical order. Even worse, this is not always consistent. I have seen Videos appear between Inkscape and Jupyter Notebook, Settings between LibreOffice and LibreOffice Base, and so forth. Even within the same login session, I will see both the Videos-first layout and the alternate order. Nothing I can do, short of manually dragging everything into alphabetical order, will correctly sort my applications list.
Default software selection
Nothing has really changed with the software selection in this release of Ubuntu. It features the newest versions of the standard applications that Ubuntu has shipped in all recent releases. The Linux kernel is version 5.13. The various GNOME applications and utilities are a mixture of GNOME 40 and 41 versions. LibreOffice is version 7.2. Thunderbird is version 91. Firefox is version 93, but is packaged as a Snap.
Firefox as a Snap
Switching Firefox to being a Snap is a change that attracted a lot of attention. Snaps have a reputation of being slow to start and not always playing well with other applications. Both of those problems are very real and cause for genuine concern, so how bad is Firefox as a Snap? Honestly, it is not nearly as bad as I expected. The startup time is a little slow, but most of the issues I had with Firefox were minor.
The negative issues with Firefox were mostly small annoyances. Ubuntu 21.10 switched to using an all dark or all light application theme, but Firefox (along with Ubuntu Software and a few other Snap applications I installed) still uses the dark header with light window theme that was used in the previous version of Ubuntu. Other annoyances include having a firefox.tmp folder in ~/Downloads that does not get deleted even when empty and the fact that the Download Files dialog box lists "System Handler" instead of the name of the actual application under the Open option. Everything opens with the correct application, but there is no way of knowing what that application will be until it launches. PDFs open in Document Viewer and LibreOffice documents open in the correct application (in read-only mode), but it would be nice to know what application would be launched before it starts up.
Ubuntu 21.10 -- Opening a link in Visual Studio Code (full image size: 125kB, resolution: 1920x1080 pixels)
Other than the issues listed above, Firefox integrated nicely with the system. I could open links from most applications and have them open in a new tab in an already running Firefox instance. If Firefox was not already running, clicking a link in an application would launch Firefox with my default profile, not a generic one. With one exception, I could open links correctly in Deb-based applications, Snaps, and Flatpaks. That one exception was the Visual Studio Code Snap, which would result in an error message that "Firefox is already running, but is not responding." I had to close Firefox entirely before clicking on any link in Visual Studio Code. This let Visual Studio Code open Firefox using my default profile, but having to constantly exit Firefox to open links was a pain. The Deb version of Visual Studio Code does not have this same problem, nor does any other Snap I tried, that includes both Snaps in Classic mode (which is what Visual Studio Code uses) and more confined Snaps.
Installing additional software
If the default selection of software is not enough, there are plenty of other applications available in Ubuntu's repositories and via Snaps. The graphical application for installing additional software is Ubuntu Software, a tweaked version of GNOME Software. Ubuntu Software favors Snaps over Deb packages and is a Snap itself. (Despite the preference for Snaps, Firefox and Ubuntu Software are the only two Snap applications installed by default.) From the command line, the apt and dpkg commands are available for installing additional Deb packages, and the snap command is there to install additional Snaps. While not pre-installed, Ubuntu 21.10 works just fine with Flatpak, so installing flatpak using apt and adding the flathub.org repository makes even more applications available.
While not perfect, Ubuntu 21.10 is another solid Ubuntu release. Users who only use the Long Term Support releases will not miss much by waiting another six months for Ubuntu 22.04, but I have been very happy with each of the short term support releases that have come out since Ubuntu 20.04. This release was no exception. There are some issues that I noted above, but Ubuntu 21.10 does everything well enough. Ubuntu remains a great distribution for users who want something straightforward and relatively easy to use. Ubuntu might not be the distribution of choice for power users who fiddle with their systems constantly because that is what they enjoy doing, but for users who just want their computer to run so they can do things, Ubuntu remains one of the best choices out there. So if the nine month support window of a short term release works for you, try out Ubuntu 21.10.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was an ASUS VivoBook E406MA laptop with the following specifications: