Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal and the Unity Desktop

Update: Got Unity working, please see this entry.

Since 1995, with my first install of Debian from 14 (or 16, can't remember) 1.4MB floppy disks, I have used many different Linux distributions.

Knoppix, PCLinuxOS, Dragon Linux where I first used KDE, Phat Linux (which doesn't even have a Wikipedia reference any more), Red Hat, Damned Small, and I can't remember what else. I even took a good look at Linux From Scratch before realizing that I didn't really want to take the time away from my family to deal with that. But who knows what tomorrow brings?

Until now, I've not even tried to use Ubuntu, touted often as The Most Popular Linux Of All Time. It's based upon Debian, a mix of packages from the various Debian builds, and after using Debian itself for nearly 16 years I didn't see a need to "muck things up".

Two things have come together to make me want to try it. First, VirtualBox, which allows me to try these things without having to dedicate an entire system to the effort.

Second, Canonical (Ubuntu's parent company) finally is putting in something that is NOT included in Debian: the Unity Desktop.

So I figured, I just got done with an article all about how Linux is flexible, that the same applications can be presented in ways to suit anyone's preferences with different window managers and desktop environments, so let's check out Unity.


I grabbed the Alpha-2 CD from Ubuntu's CD repository. I chose the x86 install simply because this isn't a hardware test. My friend Steven Rosenberg already did one of those, if you're interested.
Ubuntu comes as a LiveCD. That is, you can run a full Ubuntu system directly from the CD. So you can "try before you buy", and even though loading programs will be slower from the CD than from a fixed disk, it's a great way to see if a default Ubuntu install will give you what you are looking for.

I'll just install it, since the usefulness of LiveCDs is beyond the scope of this article.

I like that, "For best results, please ensure that this computer: plugged in to a power source"

So, Ubuntu, I must ask, if it's not plugged in, how is anyone seeing this, the second install screen?

It makes me wonder what kind of service calls Canonical has received over the years. I've done telephone tech support, and I can tell you there are some very interesting characters out there in the world.

Ok, laptops should be plugged in. Thank you, that does make sense. I guess the humor of the situation didn't come through as clearly as I thought it did.

Aesthetically, Ubuntu uses a pretty installer. The mild rainbow, the use of rounded corners, all those borderless graphics. At some point, I'm going to see if I can get a video card that Ubuntu doesn't support, maybe from my friend Steven above, and see how Ubuntu deals with that. The reason I bring this up is because while there are people who call the generally text-based Debian install "ugly", it ALWAYS works, and allows a system to install without a GUI at all, so that video debugging can continue on from there.

Two things jump out at me, technically, during this install.

First, files are loaded from the CD and downloaded off the 'Net (if you say to do so) as the settings for language, time zone, user name and such are being asked. This is an excellent feature, especially if the person is going to be sitting there the whole time, by minimizing the perceived time required for the install to complete.

I guess it's easy when the distribution is already set up to be a "desktop" install with all the decisions of utilities, programs and GUI already made by the distribution's developers. Chalk one up for "One Size Fits All", right along with "Any color, so long as it's black." In Ubuntu's case, that used to be brown, now it's purple.

Second, the "Who are you?" screen both checks the robustness of the user's password, and allows a simple selection for encrypting the /home directory.

Encryption is a wonderful thing, it creates a barrier to common information thieves. Laptops deserve to be routinely encrypted, and GnuPG and the history of PGP should be understood by everyone who wants to use a computer for more than playing games.

Just a click or two further on, I find myself in unknown territory. Canonical is trying to sell me stuff. I know they're in this as both a profit making venture and because getting quality software into the hands of as many people as possible is good for everyone, but Hey, does that really put the best foot forward to Free, Libre and Open Source Software to the "first time Linux user" for which I've heard Ubuntu is so good?

Anyway, the slide-show continues with OpenOffice (even though Natty Alpha is installing LibreOffice, the lead-in screens still say Ubuntu 10. So it's no surprise that they haven't yet been updated to fit the new software list), GIMP and several other iconic packages of the F/OSS universe, as well as a couple of plugs for buying music and support if needed. Ok, that's fair. It is, after all, their system to build and present as they wish.

One reboot and, there it is. Four virtual desktops, and a trash can. I will say I am impressed. I've seen systems try to overwhelm with activity so many times (cough*windows*cough) that simply getting out of the way is down right refreshing.

Sound, email, instant messaging and network configuration all right there where people can find them. It's clear that Canonical's working with focus groups is not going to waste. These are, I agree, the things a new user wants to be able to find right away, especially if they are coming to Linux from a Mac or Windows environment.

This is good.

The list of applications is also impressive, including FireFox 4 and LibreOffice.

Under "Ubuntu Software Center" we find the Ubuntu repositories. The variety is excellent, and I find many familiar packages that I use and enjoy, like Celestia and Kalzium, demonstrating the agnosticism of the Linux Desktop here as well, with KDE, GNOME and other applications working in harmony.

Attaching a DVD ISO image didn't instantly load, but as I said this is through Virtual Box. But this is also Linux, and I can see if the kernel saw me attach the removable "media"... No, it didn't. So this is not Ubuntu's fault.

But here at the command prompt, I decided to try running xine and then look for the DVD, and what happened? Ubuntu politely informs me that xine is not installed, but can be, "and here's how". That is a NEAT feature.

$ sudo apt-get install xine-ui

...and there it is.

My first disappointment. Knowing that an unencrypted DVD image is not a good test, I put a real DVD in a real drive, just to make sure. Automount and auto-launch worked, but the library to decode encrypted disks was not installed by default.

I didn't find anything named "libdvdcss2" in the Ubuntu Software Center, so I'm going to try VLC, this time installed from the GUI. Easy to find, install looks like it's going to "just work".

Ok, VLC installed through the GUI without trouble. VLC wanted to use /dev/dvd but that was not where it was mounted, I  had to browse for /media/The_Eagle_Has_Landed but it will not load. It seems that VLC isn't going to cooperate either, so much for the advice I saw once that VLC doesn't use the restricted libdvdcss libraries. I've always known to get them right away when building a system, so this is my first foray into how people who don't know what to look for have to deal with.

Back to the command line, and "apt-get install libdvdcss2"

But no, libdvdcss2 is not available.

Let's try Ubuntu Help! Well, after a bit of searching, I did find an answer: The Command Line.

No kidding, playing an encrypted DVD is possible, but only after opening the dreaded Command Line and typing, 

$ sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/

Yes, it worked, but it demonstrates that there is still work to be done. It is a terrible commentary on the state of the law in the US, and elsewhere I am told, that playing a previously cracked (for personal backup purposes, thank you, I have two kids who scratch DVDs like crazy) DVD ISO image can be played easily and quickly, but it takes a reasonable amount of work and a willingness to go that extra mile in terms of using the command line, even in a distribution renowned for its usability for people who aren't Linux savvy, just to play a legally purchased physical disk.

However, this so far has been the GNOME desktop environment, not Unity. I bopped over to Ubuntu Software to do a search for "Unity", and it says it's installed.

You'll have to forgive me for not recognizing GNOME from Unity, the customization done on the desktop interface, or not, is one of the ways different distributions distinguish themselves. It is possible, with enough work, to make GNOME look like almost anything, and the greatly rumored simplicity and usability of Unity seemed, to me, to be right there in front of me already. I recall a line from M*A*S*H that I think fits this, "That's Ok, I am Buddhist person."

The session manager at the login-screen does not use the word "Unity", but "Ubuntu Desktop Edition". Ok, I would have known that already if it had worked any of the times that I tried it, but no matter what I selected yesterday what had come up was the "Classic".

I installed the KDE session manager, KDM, and tried again after the suggestion that the "Desktop Edition" is Unity, and for whatever reason what didn't work yesterday worked today. UNITY! at last.

The file management functions are the only functions in the Unity environment. Note that there is no clock, no network configuration, no email, just file manipulation. Even the option to close the session is unselectable. 

Which is fine, this environment is for file manipulation and, it seems, nothing else.

Everything works, the applications are still installed even if they are not listed anywhere, but I think the population of the Templates directory is going to be a prime focus of Unity deployment, to "prime the pump" with starting points for various applications. Maybe each application installed should put a file template, if it uses files, into Templates directory so that the user of the Unity Desktop will have a starting point for using that application. LibreOffice will get several templates, of course, one for each element of the office suite.

One thing that I find very strange is that I could find no way to get OUT of the Unity Desktop, except to use VirtualBox to send it a "reset" signal. Then the usual, or at least not an unusual, logout screen came up and everything proceeded as normal.

A reminder, maybe, that this is in fact an Alpha release of Ubuntu. I admit to being rather spoiled by the various Linux distributions and software releases over the years, in that they always seem to work pretty well regardless of the version numbers that are attached to them. Of course, the reverse is true as well, that if there is a package that doesn't work out the way I want it to, or maybe that should be that I don't work the way IT wants to, version numbers don't mean anything then either. It may become more evolved and stable, but the application and I just never work out, exactly like it may be possible to get along to some extent with someone without ever liking them.

This seems to me to be a good way to end this preview of the Unity Destkop and review of Ubuntu 11.04, Natty Narwhal. There is no need to go through individual applications, because those applications are standard across all Linux systems. LibreOffice works the same way on all the different operating systems it's built for, as just one example.

With Ubuntu, I see an excellent choice for the new computer user or someone who is new to Linux. Installation of the system is direct and simple without being simplistic, applications are easy to find and quick and efficient to install. I saw only one instance where an experienced Linux user would be a good idea to have around, and that only because of the regulatory environment that effects the world, not just Linux or Ubuntu.

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the tour.

Update: Finally got Unity installed and working, please see this post.


  1. Good review, but there are a couple things I would like to say.
    (1) The installer says "Please ensure the computer is plugged in" in case you have a laptop/netbook i.e. the installer doesn't want your computer to be running solely on battery power in the event that the battery dies during installation. It's not just a frivolous warning.
    (2) I don't think you actually tried Unity; I think what you tried is the "classic" Ubuntu desktop. Unity does away with the bottom panel and puts in its stead a side dock-like thing akin to GNOME 3.
    In any case, thanks for the review!
    a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

  2. As for playing DVDs (encrypted), the libraries are not included by default because they are not free.


  3. Michael, the libraries themselves are free. There's just legal restrictions covering what it is those libraries do.

    PV, thanks, I'll dive back in and see what I can find. "If this isn't Unity, what is?" etc.

  4. I, too, have a smile every time I see the "Make sure the desktop is plugged to power source" screen (wich appears on every Ubuntu-based distros. And I got to admit it took me a few seconds to get it the first time I saw it.

    Also: I got to agree with PV - from your screenshots, it is the standard Ubuntu Desktop, not Unity. Maybe you can try to log out and select "Unity" or "Ubuntu Netbook Edition" in the session manager

  5. First of all, to select Unity, selecting "Ubuntu Desktop Edition" does enable it. In the Natty Narwhal, that is. What you're logging into is the "Ubuntu Classic Desktop" session.

    And if it doesn't work, pressing Alt+F2 and typing 'unity' should launch the Unity Desktop. Of course, if you have any proprietary drivers to install, install them.

  6. Kenny, you are a magician. As you can see in one of the screen captures above, I was selecting "Desktop Edition", over and over, and getting the Classic.

    Yes, the KDM capture below it says "Classic", I picked that for the picture.

    However, this time, after your mystical comment magically percolated through the ether, this time it worked.

    I thank you for your powers of effecting the universe. Can you focus on a certain stock for me? No, never mind, the SEC hates market manipulation.

    Now, for some actual shots of Unity! Hooray!

  7. Well, I learned the Alt+F2 trick back when I ran older versions of Ubuntu. I also have tested Natty since before Alpha 1, via the daily build images [], and I also know that there is a 'unity' command at the shell (which is really a shell script that enables the Unity plugin for Compiz). So, I figured that pressing Alt+F2 and typing 'unity' at the prompt probably would work.

    And it's more science than magic in this case, pure experience with Natty that allowed me to work around bugs like this. But enough said, it's time to show off Unity!

    What is interesting about this version of Unity is that the Unity Dash doesn't take up the whole screen like it did in 10.10 Netbook Edition.

  8. Kenny,

    I _tried_ Alt-F2. Alt-F1 works, Alt-F4 does nothing, that's the one I expected to work, Alt-F10 activates one of the menus, but that's all.

    The ctrl-w at the bottom of the File menu that would normally close Nautilus would seem a good clue, but that didn't work either.

    I guess your magic didn't fix everything in my system, I'll try that Alt-F2 again just to be sure, but all in all I think that completes this round. I'll do another when it's released for real, and see what has changed.

    Thanks for the help, I do appreciate it.

  9. You don't _just_ press Alt+F2. You also have to type 'unity' at the prompt. If it doesn't work, try creating a Unity shortcut on your desktop:

    Right-click the desktop, and select "New launcher" as usual. Type 'Unity' in the title box, and, in the Command box, type 'unity' (all lower-case). It should launch Unity.

    If that still doesn't work, you need to install proprietary video drivers. Open a terminal window and type 'jockey-gtk'. Then, install the proprietary drivers it prompts you with by clicking on them. Then, try launching Unity again.

    If there are no proprietary drivers to install, your video card may not be supported and you may be out of luck.

  10. And here's another tip: You can also install CompizConfig Settings Manager and use it to enable the Unity plugin. Just install it from the Software Center and use it to enable the Unity plugin.

    If Unity doesn't run at all, try running 'unity' in a terminal to see any error messages that might be the problem.

  11. I appreciate the idea of running Unity as a plug-in. Hopefully, someone will benefit from that advice.

    Good sir, I was RUNNING UNITY when I tried Alt-F2, along with every other Alt- in order to try to log out. I'm sorry I wasn't more clear.

  12. Anonymous13/2/11 18:41

    want to switch from unity to the desktop, logout, pick your login name, do not put in password yet, look at the bottom of the screen for unr unity gnome or whatever you are using, select it a popup menu will appear pick the gui/window manager you want. in case of unity it should show unity netbook remix; unr safe mode; gnome, maybe fluxbox, or another one.

  13. Anonymous13/2/11 19:13

    If you want to test unity, do it with real hardware as it doesn't run correctly in a vm.

  14. > as it doesn't run correctly in a vm.

    That explains quite a bit. Thank you.

  15. Good job on this review. I don't run any virtual machines, so my look at 11.04 Alpha 2 was in the live environment only. Not much worked.

    It looks like with what you installed, you can pretty much run standard GNOME and have a usable system.

    I have no idea how Canonical/Ubuntu is going to deliver Unity by April - even late April.

  16. Anonymous14/2/11 03:47


    Interesting review. Unity is still in an early stage and crashes quite often. Your experience will certainly change during the next months. And you can install and use Unity in Virtualbox if you use VB in a version from 4.0.X. For multimedia purposes use Medibuntu, it's the best source for libdvdcss and other stuff.

  17. Anonymous14/2/11 05:17

    Canonicle is putting in a unity QT version which should run on older slower computers and probably VM's, try it agaian when they do.

  18. Anonymous14/2/11 21:41

    I used to run OS tests in a "virtual" machine, gave up on that long ago. It's too easy to collect old junk computers and make them work again. Donations from friends, and sometimes free from the trash. Run a computer with no sides and several hard drives, just reach in and swap the cables from one drive to another, you can really explore Linux that way. I find that some distributions will not install on certain computers.....but run very well on another one. Sometimes your hardware may not be compatible with the OS that you are trying to install.

  19. Many thanks for all the advice. Yes indeed, I keep up with the latest VirtualBox, and if I can get into a position of having a spare machine to reconfigure I certainly will.

    The convenience of screen-capturing a VM has spoiled me very badly, I'm afraid.

  20. you said you have been using linux along time, from your review it sure does not seem like it

  21. Anonymous14/2/11 23:33

    To really try Unity, you will need have 3d enabled. That's why that is not Unity.

  22. Anonymous15/2/11 05:58

    what a faggoty review

  23. Unity requires compiz running. Compiz requires the correct accelerated video hardware. This means in VirtualBox if you have checked off "3d acceleration" AND have installed the VirtualBox GuestAdditions, you might get the 3d acceleration you need to run Unity in VirtualBox. Otherwise you will need to install on actual hardware instead of a virtual machine.

    Since you have not tried Ubuntu before, I will venture you have not tried Mint. Mint will play DVDs and Flash right out of the box with no extra hassle. You really should try it in a virtual machine. It is amazing how much Ubuntu has done for Linux, and with Mint, just a little more polish really makes a difference to the average user.

  24. Thank y'all for coming. If you didn't find what you wanted, you can browse the other articles, maybe find something more to your liking.

    Elder, I did indeed check the 3D options, but I'll chalk this one up to the fact that even Canonical is calling this an "alpha" release. As things get closer, I'll keep tracking progress and put together a follow-up. As someone mentioned above, there is a Qt version in the works, and I know how well graphics can work even in VB. I guess the ball is in Canonical's court, let's see how they work with it.

  25. @Curt

    I know the guy above me said this, but I'm something like 99.99% sure you didnt' get Unity because of VirtualBox. As someone who's done lots of Linux reviews in VB, I know it doesn't handle 3D accel correctly. The best test - try to run Gnome 3 in VB on the same system.

  26. I'd also like to point out that the Software Center automatically hides "technical" packages that most users won't need to see. If you searched for libdvdcss2 in Software Center, perhaps you could have clicked the little link at the bottom of the search results that says "Show xx Technical Packages" and maybe it would have been there. The link is easy to miss, they seem to have intentionally designed it to not pop out and distract normal users.

  27. Curt, I totally agree.

    The ball is in Ubuntu's court. Ubuntu is making a decision here to do something new, that would give it a chance to be out in front of Apple instead of just making the Linux desktop a wannabe of what Microsoft and Apple are doing.

    As an aside, virtual desktops have always been an area where Linux has been ahead of the game. Hopefully Activities will pan out as well, right now they just seem to be Virtual Desktop plus (a small plus).

    It is a bold move. To move to gnome 3, provide their own desktop interface that requires 3d graphics and compiz to run. Then to develop a 2d desktop that mimics the 3d desktop using QT so that both obsolete hardware AND underpowered smartphones/tablets will be able to use it as well.

    I am waiting to see if moving the buttons to the left hand side to make room for something to happen on right hand side was a good idea. As well as moving a programs menu from the program to their main desktop indicator. Have they just turbocharged the desktop so they can look like Apple? Or are they really going someplace beyond? Will it really improve my workflow AND be pretty? Again, I am waiting to see. (and want it to pay off no matter HOW much I have disliked any particular feature to this point)

  28. Anonymous21/2/11 14:05

    Hey, try installing this package:


    Then restart, and try again.

  29. Anonymous22/2/11 16:12

    codecs etc. including dvd
    "sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras"

  30. Anonymous8/4/11 15:53

    Installing Ubuntu restricted extras (for extra codecs, including DVD) would help you with the DVD problem, which is available right from the ubuntu software center. No commandline needed for several versions of ubuntu now for that.

  31. Anonymous18/4/11 16:18

    Hardly a competent review. That would include testing what matters most to laptop users. Lid down and up, does the backlight turn on? Attach external VGA, suspend, remove VGA, resume, does it all gum up? Does rfkill and display switching work out of the box via Fn keys? Does backlight brighness go up or down inexplicably? Do docking and undocking get the laptop's knickers in a twist? Attach VGA, lid down, does the external VGA also stupidly blank out? Can Intel graphics chips even boot? Do they get acceleration for video overlays? All the above have been regressions from Jaunty to Maverick as Ubuntu seems to do slow-motion hara kiri while reviews like this only talk about eye candy. Disappointing.

  32. It would seem that Anon never realized that the Unity Desktop is all about eye candy, not the basic functionality of Ubuntu, which has been covered so well elsewhere.

    Also, and hardly to be explained, I didn't use a laptop. Maybe Anon wants to try it himself on his laptop?

  33. Anonymous16/5/11 02:21

    Unity will run under VirtualBox. Took me some time to figure it out, but the VirtualBox Guest Additions don't help squat (using the standard VB install). If you enable 3D acceleration and increase the video memory to at least 32MB, then start the virtual machine and log in. Most likely, you will end up with the standard GNOME desktop. Open a terminal window:
    $ sudu apt-get install virtualbox-ose-guest-x11
    Now, reboot the virtual machine and it should allow you to boot into Unity. (It worked for me, at least.)

  34. Anonymous17/7/11 14:59

    I gave unity a good try and do not like, I installed Linux Mint 11 with Gnome 3 on this laptop. I tried unity on my quad core 9500nprocessor with 8 gig of ram and a 1 gig nVidia vedio card desktop,not any nicer than the dual core laptop, so I am using gnome till the new version of ubuntu comes out, I will give it a try then and if it is still the same, Linux Mint will be on it too.. Ed