Here's what the official press release won't tell you about Ubuntu 9.04, which formally hit the streets overnight: its designers have polished the hell out of its user interface since the last release in October.
So much so, in fact, that I am starting to prefer using my Ubuntu "Jaunty Jackalope" desktop over the similarly slick Windows 7 beta (which I am currently running full-time on one desktop) and Mac OS X Leopard operating systems, which I also use regularly.
I left Windows Vista, XP, and even Debian lying bruised and battered by the roadside some time ago.
You won't be able to notice the vast improvement in Ubuntu's desktop experience over the past six months by browsing screenshot galleries of 9.04 or looking at new feature lists. What I'm talking about is that elusive slick-and-speedy feel you get from applications launching fast, windows moving around without jerkiness, and everything simply being where it should be in the user interface.
Launching and using Firefox on Ubuntu 8.10 on my 2GHz Core 2 Duo-based machine with 2GB of RAM, a 7200rpm hard disk, and an Nvidia GeForce 8800GTS always seemed to feel like I was going back a few years, to a time when Web browsers were not considered something you always had open to service Web applications like Gmail and Bloglines.
It was the same with Windows Vista.
Now, just like Microsoft has taken the blowtorch to Vista to produce the lightning-quick Windows 7, which so far runs well, even on older hardware, Ubuntu has picked up its own game.
I particularly noticed the Ubuntu difference when I put the operating system to the test by simultaneously launching and using multiple applications, listening to music and more while using my spare CPU cycles in the background to encode high-definition video with Mencoder. Ubuntu still felt very fast--even with traditionally sluggy pieces of software like OpenOffice.org.
It's not just the speed changes, however, that has got me excited about Ubuntu 9.04. It's also the subtle additions to the interface; the logical move of shutdown and reboot options to the far right of the menu; the slick new notifications system; the seamless (finally!) integration of the Nvidia accelerated drivers, and the cleaned-up options and package install systems.
Want Adobe Flash or other proprietary software like multimedia codecs on Ubuntu? Just search for them in the one location, under their own names. No downloading anything from any Web sites. No package management or dependencies. No apt-get. Point and click.
I'm not a Linux novice (in fact, I'm a former Linux and FreeBSD systems administrator), and I've been using Linux on the desktop since the late 1990s. I usually run a combination of Ubuntu and Windows on my PC, and the latest Mac OS X on my laptop.
So I'm in a position to notice step changes in user interface behavior like the one that Ubuntu has brought to the table with 9.04. In short, Ubuntu is now as slick and beautiful as Mac OS X or Windows 7.
As we've noted in earlier articles, Microsoft has also brought its best to the table with Windows 7. However, it's a pity that Apple didn't seem to do so with Leopard. Like some reviewers, I felt that Steve Jobs' latest operating-system opus added a lot of new features, but also some unfortunate erratic behavior that muddied Mac OS X's position as a user interface leader.
As the magazine Macworld has noted, the new Stacks feature in Leopard's Dock is a "mess" and replaced the formerly utilitarian approach to keeping folders in the Dock with a "snazzy but generally less useful pop-up window."
The new "Spaces" feature in Leopard is nothing new; it provides multiple virtual-desktop workspaces, which Unix has had for decades; but I found Apple's implementation erratic.
Then, too, there was the speed price some users paid in Leopard for all the upgrade, though that could just be the older-hardware penalty. On my 1.5GHz G4 laptop with 1280MB of RAM, Leopard runs sluggishly, whereas Tiger runs like a dream. As I don't use any of the new features, the upgrade seemed worthless.
When you consider Microsoft's remarkable rebirth with Windows 7 and the fact that Ubuntu is free, open source, and runs on anything, you would have to wonder what sort of rabbit Steve Jobs will have to pull out of his hat with Snow Leopard to keep growing Mac OS X's share. Sure, there are some apps missing on Linux (say, Photoshop). But the same can be said of Mac OS X in certain areas, and VMware and CrossOver solve a lot of problems.
Looking back to the genesis of Ubuntu 9.04 six months ago, I suspect that its subtle but powerful changes are due to the new user interface team that Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth said at the time he would put in place. If so, that team has already earned its paychecks and even more, and we're looking forward to seeing what another six months of development will produce.
In the meantime, kudos to Ubuntu 9.04: you got game.
Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.