Ubuntu 11.10: Fast And Friendly

A change under the hood seems to have made all the difference in the world.

When Ubuntu 11.04 met the world earlier this year, it provided a new “Unity” interface that looked cleaner and friendlier but many complained that it acted clunky and slow at times. Developers of the Linux distro then jumped into action like the pit crew on a NASCAR team; they swapped out the Gnome Desktop Manager (GDM) with a newer, lighter LightDM. From what we've seen, what that did was, essentially, remove legacy code with code that was built to be less complex and faster.

It worked.

What we got in the alpha version of Ubuntu 11.10 was an operating system that booted up much faster, allowed for snappier switching between applications and tasks, and an operating system that, overall, feels faster.

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While we tend to hesitate to review even beta software, let alone alpha, we were curious about the work going on behind the scenes; Mark Shuttleworth, the leader of Canonical, which oversees Ubuntu development, went on record earlier this year saying the goal is to have 200 million users of Ubuntu worldwide by 2015. That would be a lofty goal for software that, of late, was considered clunky and slow by some.

It’s clear, though, that the Ubuntu development community quickly adjusted to the recent feedback. Here's what we saw in Ubuntu 11.10 Alpha 2:

• After installing the OS onto a PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 at 3.00 GHz and a hard disk drive, we stop-watched boot-up time at 12 seconds -- more than three seconds faster than the previous best time we’ve measured. Since 10 seconds is considered the threshold for “instant-on” status, Ubuntu 11.10 is very close to a historic breakthrough;

• With LightDM under the hood, the Unity interface now provides true, two-click access to any application on the PC;

• The Ubuntu Software Center is undergoing just enough of a facelift to provide a major improvement. In very snappy fashion, you can now quickly navigate between software provided by Ubuntu, software provided by Canonical partners or software for purchase through, essentially, an Ubuntu app store. This was a little buggy in the alpha software (it kept shutting down on us unexpectedly) but once the kinks are worked out this could become a pretty big deal. The days of installing software onto Ubuntu desktops through line commands could soon be nothing but a distant memory.

Even the workspaces feature of Ubuntu -- which provides for multiple “desktops” within the desktop, allowing a user to switch back and forth depending on specific tasks -- appears improved for quicker navigation and efficiency.

Over the past two years, Ubuntu has made great strides but has had challenges keeping up with Mac OS X and even Windows 7. In fact, its two rivals for the OS desktop have each made strides (Apple more than Microsoft) in aligning the desktop with mobile devices.

Ubuntu developers have not, though with the speed at which they have improved performance from version 11.04 to version 11.10, it’s possible to conceive they could pick up some lost ground quickly if that area became a priority.