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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Fri, 18 Nov 2011

Ubuntu 11.10 live from USB -- first impressions

Since I spent some time running Fedora 16 with GNOME 3/GNOME Shell via a live image, and I judged it as working well but not as polished in the design department as Ubuntu 11.04/11.10 with Unity, I figured I should give Ubuntu 11.10 a try with its live image and see what I thought.

So I grabbed a 64-bit Ubuntu 11.10 ISO. Since I was already in Debian Squeeze, and Debian and Ubuntu ISO images these days are "hybrid" images that can be burned to CD the usual way, or easily (very easily!) dropped onto a USB thumb drive, I found the 4 GB drive I used for my Ubuntu 11.04 test and put 11.10 on it.

It's this easy (use the filename of the ISO you downloaded and the filesystem location of your USB drive):

# cat ubuntu-11.10-desktop-amd64.iso > /dev/sdb
# sync

It's that easy. You don't need any application to help you do this, just the Linux (or BSD) command line.

I had a bootable Ubuntu ISO on the USB thumb drive in a matter of minutes. I shut down Debian and booted into Ubuntu 11.10.

I don't know if these two methods are comparable, but I can tell you that booting into Ubuntu 11.10 from the USB flash drive is orders of magnitude quicker than booting Fedora 16 from a CD-R disc. I'll have to figure out how to get Fedora on a USB drive to see if this is a function of the media or the distros themselves. Update: I finally put the Fedora 16 ISO on its own USB flash drive, and now F16 boots as quickly as Ubuntu 11.10 on my system).

In any case, I was in Ubuntu 11.10's Unity desktop rather quickly.

I will stretch this review out in the near future, but my immediate impressions, comparing Ubuntu 11.10's Unity to Fedora 16's GNOME 3/Shell:

-- Ubuntu's desktop does look better. The colors. The fonts, the windows, the layout. The notifications. The icons. It all looks better in Ubuntu.

-- I'm not anywhere near as crazy about Unity as I am about GNOME 3/Shell. GNOME Shell is more polished and, in the limited time I've spent in it thus far, way more usable.

-- The alt-tab app switcher in Ubuntu is a thing of beauty. No denying that. Looks good, works good.

-- Unity's way of managing workspaces/app windows is ham-fisted when compared to GNOME Shell's. In this case I think GNOME Shell in Fedora both works and looks better.

-- Both Ubuntu and Fedora have a way of displaying apps, folders and other system resources. I don't like Ubuntu's Dash. It just doesn't look or work as well as GNOME Shell in this regard.

-- While Fedora's GNOME Shell puts the name of the app you're using in the upper panel, it also puts the apps' menus up there. It's Mac-like, except that in the Mac the menus don't cover up the app name. I don't know if this is how Ubuntu wants this to look, but I don't like it. And I prefer GNOME Shell/Fedora's way of keeping an app's menu in the upper panel of the app's own window.

-- In Ubuntu there is a column of app icons on the left side of the screen. These persist, unlike in Fedora, where this column of apps tends to disappear when you don't need it. I don't know how I feel about this at present.

-- I don't know how to clear the desktop in Ubuntu. The Workplace Switcher divides the desktop into four (I assume standard GNOME-ish virtual) desktops, from which you can select one by double-clicking it. I'm divided on this feature in comparison with GNOME Shell's method of individual app windows becoming minimized on a single desktop. This could work better in Ubuntu when you want two apps or Windows on a single screen at the same time. I'll have to look more closely at this in both distributions.

-- While the alt-tab switcher is nothing short of great, I initially couldnt' figure out how to switch between apps on the Ubuntu desktop with the mouse. Now I see that they grow a little triangle-pointy thing next to their icons on the left side of the screen. Click the appropriate icon and your app is back.

-- Honestly, Gwibber is still crap. I couldn't figure out how to get more than eight tweets to show up in the window.

-- If you run a Lenovo G555 laptop like I do, you know that the touchpad is crap. In this machine's Windows 7 OS, the pointer jumps all over the place, randomly selects type and deletes it. It's a deal-breaker. The only thing to do is use the function keys to turn off the touchpad and use a USB mouse. In Debian I turn off tap-to-click in GNOME, and that does the trick. But here in Ubuntu 11.10, tap to click is on by default and there are no problems whatsoever with the touchpad. It works better here in Ubuntu 11.10 than it has (for me anyway) in Windows 7 or any Linux distribution. During the time I ran Fedora 16, tap-to-click was turned off (or non-functional), and I didn't take the time to test it. But this is a huge win for Ubuntu (or Linux in general if this is a kernel or xorg feature).

-- I know I've said this, but I really don't like an app's menus appearing in the desktop's upper panel -- and then only appearing when you mouse over that upper panel. If I want to see what my menu choices are in Ubuntu 11.10, I need to mouse over the upper panel. That's wrong.

What I'm thinking right at this moment: If the Ubuntu team could/would hack at GNOME 3/Shell and make it look better rather than go their own way with Unity, I think everybody would be better off. Right now I'd really consider running a Ubuntu-based distribution with GNOME 3/Shell instead of vanilla Ubuntu with Unity.

Ubuntu 11.10 looks great, but I feel myself fighting Unity while GNOME 3/Shell seemed more intuitive. This could change with time, and I'm going on first impressions. Ubuntu's way-faster boot (from USB) was as impressive as Fedora's way-slower (from CD-R) boot process. More testing is in order.

Getting back to Ubuntu/Fedora GNOME 3/Unity, we have Xubuntu (Xfce), Lubuntu (LXDE) and Kubuntu (KDE). Why not an official Ubuntu distribution featuring GNOME 3/Shell? Maybe for the 12.04 LTS?