Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Ubuntu Natty thoughts (11.04)

So, after a month or so of using it, here are my thoughts on Natty:


I'm using this on my netbook and not on my main laptop. It's got some good ideas, but I really think it needs polishing, and shouldn't have been released as the default desktop.

Criticially, it still doesn't feel like there's a natural flow to using it. For all of its faults, the "classic" desktop model is something that's fairly intuitive, even if it sometimes takes a large number of steps to do basic things.

The Ubuntu menu thing (that brings up a search for applications panel) is awful, and needs to be completely replaced. Nothing about it is right. It doesn't bring up what you expect it to, instead bringing up some alphabetically sorted apps, with no categorization by default. The entire point of that panel is to bring up applications that aren't in the dock.

The dock is OK although I tend to hate stuff that keeps moving on screen, but as far as a "hidden/unhides itself" item it's the best implementation I've seen of that. My personal view on how it could be improved?
  • Reduce the width of the dock especially on smaller screens like those of Netbooks. That'd also solve the problem that it very quickly fills up
  • Make it a permanent fixture save for things like full screen movie playback.
  • Given what it essentially replaces, and the fact that users expect to see something there, maybe it should be moved to the bottom of the screen by default, with an option to move it to the side of necessary? Think about why Ubuntu's devs are insistent it must hide itself when an app is maximized. Could it be the dock's position?
Regular readers will know that a fitts-menu implementation has been something I've wanted in Ubuntu since before I switched to it, and I'm glad that something resembling one has finally made it into Natty, but it needs more work.
  • Hiding the menu labels until you get close to them doesn't help in terms of trying to hit them when your mouse is on the other side of the screen. You have nothing to aim at!
  • It all kinda looks silly right now, with the window title fighting the menu for visibility.
My view of how this could be fixed?
  • If you're going to do the hiding thing, go the Amiga route and have a menu "button" on the mouse. Holding down the right mouse button can cause both a contextual menu to appear, if relevant, where the mouse pointer is, together with unhiding the menu at the top of the screen.
  • Otherwise, have the menu appear permanently.
  • Shove most of the non-application specific stuff into the dock. That makes the dock the one stop shop for control over the desktop, while turning the menu bar into the application controller.

Banshee vs Rhythmbox

Natty replaces the Rhythmbox iTunes-like music manager software with Banshee. Banshee's certainly interesting, and has some interesting features (plus it's easier to spell) but have to admit I switched back to Rhythmbox, because the latter doesn't suck up all of memory and CPU on my Netbook. I'm not sure why Banshee was such a resource hog, but Rhythmbox seems generally to be more efficient, cleaner, and lacking in playback glitches in a way Banshee wasn't. I'm not sure what's going on there, although in fairness Banshee is fighting Compiz which also seemed to be dragging down the performance of the machine.

The scrollbar

I liked the concept behind the new, thin, scrollbar in Natty, but I ended up being fairly glad that only one or two applications actually have it. For those who haven't seen it, the scroll "bar" is replaced by a small nub you drag up or down, that only appears when you place the mouse near the side of the window, and when it appears, you also see a line within a long box stretching the entire length of the window, that does roughly what the scroll bar did in terms of showing you where you are in your document, except it's much thinner.

The reasoning seems to be "Well, it takes up less space so you can see more stuff". I like the fact they've thought about it, but at the same time I miss being able to scroll up and down a page at a time by clicking above or below the nub. Also the scroll panel thing doesn't always appear, and when it does it frequently does only for a split second - the problem being that the system doesn't always know why you moved the cursor, and if you move from one window to another it overlaps or is just very close to, it doesn't always know what to do. Fighting to the system to get a user interface element to appear is one of my pet hates.

Scrollbars are not that big, and have never been a major issue in terms of taking up screen real estate. I'd rather we keep them as is.

General Reliability

For the most part, I'd put this between 10.04 (which is awful) and 10.10 (which is good) for general reliability, but I'm not sure I'd blame Canonical for this - this time. At least, not everything.
  • On my Thinkpad, I needed to tweak certain settings to get it to reliably work with my ATI video system. There's nothing worse than that whole "Oh my God, I just upgraded and nothing friggin works." thing. Hey, Canonical, could you PLEASE implement a "rollback" feature so that if an operating system upgrade doesn't go smoothly, we can safely return to a previous version?
  • Likewise, the system came with a bug ridden Atheos Wifi driver that virtually everyone's complaining about. To fix it required installing a patched kernel. Not Canonical's fault, the fact is Linux has some crappy quality control going on these days, but still.
  • Firefox. OMG. What happened to it? What's with the out of control memory consumption? And no, "We have to so the browser is fast" excuse doesn't cut it with me - Firefox is already fast. If you need to cache more stuff, stick it in files like everyone else does. Put it in /tmp if you don't want to upset people with SDDs.
There's one change that apparently Canonical considered but didn't go with, and that was to switch to Chrome as the default browser. Assuming they meant Chromium, I have no objection whatsoever to that. Chromium has its downsides, but it's a quality product, and Firefox right now isn't. I'm actually tempted to suggest it's time for another fork in the Mozilla world.

Yeah, another one. You remember the history of Firefox? Essentially, the Mozilla team were concentrating on, what was then called, "Mozilla", a nice browser that kept growing with functionality that really didn't belong in the system, with no-one ever putting their hand up and saying "Wait a moment, what about efficiency?" Firefox started a kinda fork (I guess if it's an official project it probably doesn't count as a fork, but, whatever) by the minority horrified with what was going on, who concentrated on putting together a minimal browser that had all of Mozilla's greatness, but would load quickly and play nice with others.

Firefox needs the same treatment.


I think Natty needs some work, but I'd also say all of the problems are fixable. If I were in charge of the project, these are the changes I'd make for 11.10:
  • Reduce the size of the dock buttons by about a third
  • Move it by default to the bottom of the screen
  • Move most of the top bar functions to the dock, with the exception of the application menus. Maybe the time and date can stay up there too.
  • Either repurpose the right mouse button as I described (show all menus), or move the window title/menus around so one is right justified and the other left justified. I don't mind which, actually I think having the menus right justified would look pretty nice.
  • Change the way in which users select applications that aren't in the dock. Again, smaller icons would help here, and showing the application categories would also be a good idea.
  • Do some serious quality control on the Linux kernel. Here's a radical proposal: test with both a recent kernel and a slightly older version, and install the latter by default, only installing the more recent kernel if certain features of it are absolutely necessary for the hardware it's being installed upon.
  • Do some serious quality control with X.
  • Bear in mind that many of us have had to install workarounds before to get certain things to work, that might not be appropriate. Things like xorg.conf and modprobe.d/* should be backed-up and replaced to ensure that things that have been fixed aren't broken by settings designed for when they weren't.
  • If the user has enough disk space, have Ubuntu back up the current version of the operating system before upgrading, and provide a tool allowing the user to back out of the upgrade if it doesn't work well - the tool being available from GRUB.
  • Monitor the performance and state of certain third party tools, like Firefox and Banshee, you bundle with the operating system. If these aren't right, either install older versions that are, or consider switching to a more stable alternative like Chromium or Rhythmbox.
That's what I would do. What do you think?

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