Ubuntu 11.04: The Best Linux Desktop Yet, But With The Worst Timing

Ubuntu 11.04 is the most ambitious Linux desktop version ever, with what may be a ground-breaking user interface and major changes from previous versions that come together nicely.

Ubuntu 11.04 is a great example of elegance and new thinking for the desktop. This is apparent with its side-panel application launcher -- known as the Unity interface first deployed on low-performance netbooks -- the new inclusion of Libre Office rather than OpenOffice.org for office productivity, and nice integration with its Ubuntu One cloud file system.

Since we first looked at an Alpha version of Ubuntu 11.04 several months ago, developers have fixed a number of issues and glitches that had made it difficult to install and use as intended. We experienced no technical issues or bugs upon installing the production version of this OS, and it is now a very likable piece of software.

But Ubuntu 11.04's major advances take place at a time that sees monumental challenges to the open-source operating system -- namely a groundswell of adoption of competing operating systems Windows 7 from Microsoft and Mac OS X from Apple -- as well as a historic shift to mobile devices throughout consumer and commercial IT.

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Ubuntu 11.04, which its parent organization, Canonical, released to the public on Thursday, is clearly the best and most compelling Linux desktop we've ever seen, but it may just be coming at the worst possible time. It does not integrate seamlessly with Apple's iOS devices, the iPhone and iPad (it doesn't support Apple's requisite iTunes for synchronization).

However, the OS does recognize the iPhone. For example, during our use, we were able to plug an iPhone 4 into a PC running Ubuntu 11.04, import photos, and see files and folders on the device. With music, we were able to play songs downloaded from iTunes to the iPhone that were purchased with play-anywhere rights -- though songs with only rights for iTunes-authorized devices and PCs didn't work. (We didn't expect them to, but it was worth a shot.)

However, despite several tries, we couldn't get Ubuntu 11.04 to sync with an Android device -- in this case, a Droid X. While it recognized the smart phone as a Motorola device, it would not communicate with any of the files on the device. Since both Android and Ubuntu are open-source operating systems, that was disappointing.

Next: What We Really Liked In Ubuntu 11.04

But here is what we really liked about Ubuntu 11.04:

-- It's easily installed on a PC, and took us about 10 minutes on a desktop built with an Intel Core 2 Quad and 4 GB of RAM;

-- Immediately after it booted, the Unity interface was in front of us. Instead of having to strain to view this GUI on a small, netbook screen, we were able to fully appreciate Unity on a 30-inch display connected to a higher-performing desktop PC. With the larger presentation, it's possible to fully take advantage of the interface and how simple it makes navigating the PC;

-- Unity allows Ubuntu to provide arguably the most natural and intuitive file structure and organization of any PC available, including even Mac OS X;

-- With a few tweaks, Ubuntu developers have integrated the Ubuntu One cloud service into the PC experience as good as or even better than Apple has with its MobileMe cloud service or Microsoft has with its Live service. In this version of Ubuntu with Ubuntu One, cloud and desktop really do work together as one system;

-- The new "Workspaces" feature in Ubuntu 11.04 is similar to the "Spaces" feature in Mac OS X -- it allows for tailoring different screens for different activities, like word processing or spreadsheets, web browsing, video rendering, etc. Except that it's easier and more powerful than Mac OS X's Spaces.

And, unlike previous versions of Ubuntu and Firefox browser, it was a snap to start working in a Microsoft Office environment online by using Microsoft's Office Live service.

Ubuntu 11.04's user interface and desktop-cloud integration are friendlier and easier than either Windows 7 or Mac OS X. But it is far behind in mobile device integration.

When Microsoft was still pumping Windows Vista, and before the most recent Mac OS X version, and launch of iOS and Android devices, Ubuntu was an operating system that needed strong consideration. It has simply not made a graceful transition yet to the mobile IT universe while Windows 7 and Mac OS X have only improved.

For now, Ubuntu 11.04 is a very nice OS that should be considered for secondary or tertiary PCs, and it's a must-upgrade for PCs that currently run older versions of Ubuntu. But we'll need to see more mobile device integration before it can compete with proprietary operating systems like it did in the mid-2000s.