Ubuntu 21.04Like clockwork, every April sees the release of a new version of Ubuntu and all the official variants. This release of Ubuntu, Hirsute Hippo, is noteworthy for its decision to not include the new desktop layout featured in GNOME 40. Instead, Ubuntu 21.04 continues to use version 3.38 of GNOME Shell. This means the desktop experience remains much the same as it has been in recent Ubuntu releases.
While Ubuntu 21.04 is not the most exciting release of a Linux distribution, it does introduce a handful of new features. Are these features enough to differentiate it from Ubuntu 20.10? To find out, I gave Ubuntu 21.04 a try.
To begin, I copied the 2.6GB Ubuntu 21.04 ISO to a flash drive, rebooted my computer, and was quickly greeted by the familiar Try Ubuntu/Install Ubuntu selection screen. I clicked on Install Ubuntu to start the installation process.
Installing Ubuntu 21.04
Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer is an extremely familiar experience. The basic installation workflow is exactly the same as it has been for the last several Ubuntu releases. Configure the keyboard layout, pick between a standard or minimal installation, decide if you want to install updates during installation, decide if you want to install third-party software for drivers and media codecs, choose where to install Ubuntu, select your geographic location, create a user, wait for the installation to complete, and reboot the system.
Despite the extremely familiar installation process, Ubuntu 21.04 does add two nice new features. The first is that the "Encrypt the new Ubuntu installation for security" advanced option on the "Installation type" screen now generates a recovery key file that can be saved somewhere safe and used to gain access to the system if the user forgets their security key. The other is integrated Active Directory support as part of the new user creation process. Neither of these features radically alter the Ubuntu installation workflow, but they are both nice additions.
For the purposes of this review, I selected all the default options when installing. That means no disk encryption, no ZFS, and the software selection included with the standard installation. Selecting other options might lead to a different experience, so keep that in mind when trying out Ubuntu 21.04.
Ubuntu 21.04's GNOME desktop
Ubuntu 21.04 -- Notification area with dark theme (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1920x1080 pixels)
At first glance, Ubuntu 21.04 looks just like Ubuntu 20.10, but there are changes. GNOME Shell now uses a dark theme. This means that the calendar/notification area that is accessed by clicking on the data and time in the top bar and the system menu in the top right are dark instead of light. The default theme for window decorations remains the same; a dark header bar with the rest of the window being light. It is just the GNOME Shell theme that has changed.
A more significant change is the improved support for desktop icons provided by the gnome-shell-extension-desktop-icons-ng package. This improved desktop icon extension allows for dragging files to and from the desktop and other enhancements. Right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Settings from the menu opens a window that contains options for customizing the desktop icons. By default, icons for plugged in removal drives now appear on the right side of the screen instead of on the left, which is something that can be back to the old style using this settings window. For those users who like a traditional desktop with icons, this one extension is reason enough to make upgrade from 20.10 to 21.04.
A more subtle change is the switch to Wayland as the default display server. For my personal workflow, I had absolutely no issues with using Wayland. I know this experience might be different for other users, but I was pleased with the switch to Wayland. The last time Ubuntu tried to make Wayland the default was in Ubuntu 17.10, which did not carry over to the 18.04 LTS release. Maybe this time things will be different.
The only criticism I have of Ubuntu 21.04's desktop is the almost complete lack of desktop wallpapers. Ubuntu 21.04 comes with only four wallpapers: the default orange and purple line art hippo, a grayscale variant of the same image, and two photos of hippos. Very few options and all of the options have the same theme. While it is easy to install the wallpaper packages from all the past Ubuntu versions or acquire wallpapers from other sources, it would have been very nice to see a few more wallpapers included. At the very least, at least one non-hippo themed wallpaper to provide some diversity to the options.
Default software selection
The default software selection in Ubuntu 21.04 is much the same as it has been in all recent Ubuntu releases. In this release that means version 5.11 of the Linux kernel, Firefox 87, Thunderbird 78.8, LibreOffice 7.1, and a selection of GNOME games and utilities. Despite staying on version 3.38 for GNOME Shell, Files, Settings and a few other key components, several of the GNOME applications are the new GNOME 40 versions. These updated applications do not bring changes as massive as the redesigned GNOME Shell, but it is still nice to have the latest versions for many of the GNOME applications.
Except for Ubuntu Software, all the GUI applications installed are standard Deb packages. While I have no objections to Snaps per se, I found that installing the GNOME Software Deb and purging snapd entirely saved about 1GB of disk space. The default Ubuntu 21.04 install was approximately 8GB and the same installation with snapd removed and GNOME Software installed was approximately 7GB. Most of that gigabyte comes from Snaps like core18 and gnome-3-34-1804 that contain things that would be shared with other applications, so it is not Ubuntu Software itself taking up that entire gigabyte, but someone who is against Snaps entirely might bemoan the waste of disk space.
Installing additional software
Ubuntu's default software selection is near perfect for general computing tasks like web browsing, email, playing music and movies, and creating and editing various types of documents. However, there is plenty of software out there for more advanced or more specialized purposes. A wide variety of these software packages are available though the Ubuntu Software application.
Ubuntu Software is basically a re-branded version of GNOME Software that provides a graphical way to install additional packages. Ubuntu Software lists the GUI applications available in the Ubuntu Deb repositories and all the Snaps available on Snapcraft.io. When a package is available from both sources, Ubuntu Software favors the Snap version, but the Deb version can be selection from a drop down menu in the header bar.
On the command line, Deb packages can be installed from the Ubuntu repositories using apt and Snaps can be installed using snap. Local deb packages can be installed using dpkg.
I ended up using a mixture of Deb packages and Snaps to configure my system to my liking. I installed Foliate, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, Inkscape, and Visual Studio Code as Snaps, but most of my other packages were installed from Deb packages. (I also compiled ScummVM from source, but that is just because I always want the latest development version to try out some of the upcoming features; normally, the Deb or Snap version would be fine.)
One minor annoyance I had was with some of the Snaps listed on Snapcraft.io not being kept up to date. For example, I wanted to try out the Julia programming language, but found that Snapcraft.io listed 1.0.4 as the latest version. The latest LTS version of Julia is 1.0.5, which came out a few months after the published date listed on the Julia 1.0.4 Snap. Both the version 1.0.4 Snap and the 1.0.5 release came out in 2019, so I am not simply being impatient. The difference between 1.0.4 and 1.0.5 is probably not huge, but the point of Snaps is to keep things up to date. Julia is far from the only example of this, which is disappointing.
Ubuntu 21.04 is a very solid release. Users of new releases of other GNOME-based distributions might be experiencing the new GNOME 40 interface, but Ubuntu 21.04's GNOME 3.38 desktop environment is functional and familiar. I do look forward to seeing how Ubuntu might tweak GNOME Shell 40 (or whatever the current post-40 GNOME version is at the time) in the future, but can find no fault with the decision to stick with 3.38 for now. The few issues I had with release are so minor they are barely worth repeating, but it would have been nice to see some non-hippo wallpapers.
Overall, I would recommend Ubuntu 21.04 to anyone who is okay with the short 9 month support window. If you are already a user of non-LTS Ubuntu releases, the upgrade from 20.10 to 21.04 is something you should feel comfortable doing as soon as possible. The new features, while not massive, are very nice quality of life improvements. Distro hoppers might be slightly more interested in distributions that feature GNOME 40, but I would still recommend they at least try out Ubuntu 21.04 to see what it has to offer.
After Ubuntu 21.04 was released a problem was discovered which can cause the operating system to no longer boot on computers with older EFI implementations. Due to this issue Canonical has disabled upgrades from previous versions of Ubuntu until the issue can be corrected. Brian Murray explains: "In case you missed it in the release notes and hear people asking about it, I wanted to let you know that users of Ubuntu 20.10 are not being prompted to upgrade to Ubuntu 21.04. Subsequently, upgrading to Ubuntu 21.04 still requires running do-release-upgrade with the '-d' switch. This is due to a bug with the current version of shim in Ubuntu 21.04 which can cause systems with an early version of EFI to fail to boot after the upgrade. Due to the severity of the issue we shouldn't be encouraging people to upgrade at this point in time. After we have a new version of shim signed will make it available in Ubuntu 21.04 and then enable upgrades."
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was an ASUS VivoBook E406MA laptop with the following specifications: