Natty Narwhal’s Still Ubuntu: Still Interesting, Still Linux

Ubuntu Natty Narwhal showing Workspaces

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new version of Ubuntu Linux out:  11.04 Natty Narwhal.  They have such cute animal names.  Natty Narwhal brings a new desktop user interface named Unity and connectivity with the Ubuntu One online service.  For people who are looking for a change in their computing experience, or someone that has a slow chuggy computer without the Windows hookup, is Ubuntu a usable alternative?

The answer is “not really” and it’s also “sure, I guess.”  Linux has come a long way, Ubuntu in particular.  But just getting your computer up and running might be a huge headache, and the system isn’t terribly stable if you push it too hard.  Still, there are a lot of interesting things you can do with your computer with Linux on it – for free – that you’d have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in pro software to do with Windows or Mac.  And it’s always good to have options.


Setup could possibly be a breeze, it might also be a nightmare.  On my HP Pavilion dm4 with Intel HD Graphics, I had to learn a special command to put in during setup in order for the setup program to even load on my computer.  Once I had done that, it informed me that I hadn’t unmounted my NTFS partition cleanly and that I should run chkdsk from Windows.  Chkdsk took several hours during which my computer was unusable, and the problem didn’t go away in Ubuntu setup.  I ended up uninstalling what I had installed thus far, and reinstalling it.  Then I interrupted the boot and put in the command and voila, I finished setup.

For Windows users, it’s well worth noting that the setup process is very good.  Download and run the Windows Ubuntu Installer (wubi).  It will put Ubuntu on your existing hard drive where Windows already lives, and add Ubuntu to your boot menu, so when you boot up, you can pick Windows or Ubuntu.  It smartly leaves the default on Windows.  Uninstallation is therefore very easy.  Wubi will uninstall itself and take off the entry from the boot menu.


If your graphics card supports the features, you’ll be using the Unity interface.  Unity turns the way you use the computer upside down.  If you ever used an Amiga computer, Unity will remind you a tiny bit of that.

Unity has a dock/launcher along the left side of the screen.  This is like the Windows 7 taskbar on its side, with some of the MacOS Dock features thrown in for good measure, and a very interesting full screen “start menu” style experience.

The Ubuntu Unity Start Menu

The biggest change in Unity however is how the application’s main menu bar moves to the top menu bar, like on a Macintosh, only the commands aren’t displayed until you mouse over the menu bar (shades of Amiga there.)  Unity also introduces a new concept called Workspaces which is essentially the same concept as the old virtual desktops.  By default you get four Workspaces.  If you can train yourself to do it, running most apps full screen on individual Workspaces is kind of a nice experience.

Overall, Unity is an interesting new UI that seems targeted to touch form factor devices, which is a smart move.


There are some things you need to do in order to make Ubuntu usable right off the bat.  A whole plethora of plugins and codecs and doo-dads and such don’t come with Ubuntu because they’re “non-free”, which doesn’t mean they cost money, only that they come with legal entanglements of one form or another.

Luckily there are people who know what to do, one of them is Manuel Jose at Tech Drive-in who summed it up with 12 Things I Did After Installing New Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”.  Everything on the list is good advice.

Now What?

It seems strange to be saying this, but the one area where Linux really shines is in the area of multimedia.  Ten years ago, anyone who suggested that Linux would really shine in multimedia would have been laughed off his soapbox, but there it is.

Linux has some fantastic software available for video editing, 3d modeling, audio recording and audio editing.  This stuff is in many cases every bit as good as the commercial counterparts.

OpenShot video editor showing a 3d animated globe title.

OpenShot Video Editor

OpenShot is one of those great Linux stories where a dad, a software developer decides he wants to run Linux as his main OS, and he takes some pictures and videos and he wants to edit them, and he can’t – so he decides to write his own video editor. In Python.

Hardcore, right? This video editor makes 3d titles, including a nifty one that spins a globe from a coordinate you specify to a coordinate you specify. It has multiple layers (meaning you can overlap videos), supports some cropping functionality and also has chroma keying and a variety of transitions and effects.


Blender is another great story. With the latest release, 2.5, this free 3d modeling program, which supports animation, compositing, video editing, and has its own game engine, gets a much improved more modern UI and the ability to model objects in the units of measurement of the real world, metric and imperial. So for free, any would be 3d artist gets a program that can also be used for architectural modeling. Simply amazing.


The main window of Ardour


Ever look at your computer, with its microphone jack and ginormous hard drive and think to yourself, “I should be able to record and edit a crapload of audio with this computer!” Then you go digging around in your programs and you find Sound Recorder… and… well, then you go looking. Ardour will let you do it. It’s free. It has a mixer, an audio editor, and multitrack audio recording support built right in. If you’re excited to go down this road, you’re already a geek – so be informed, it may require some tinkering at the start to get working properly.

Ubuntu Stuff

Here’s a quick rundown on the software that comes with Ubuntu.  The free office suite that comes with Ubuntu is called LibreOffice.  Amusingly during the installation process we learn that LibreOffice “tries its best to work with Microsoft Office” or something to that effect.  If the last time you cared about innovations in productivity software was 1997, LibreOffice will work great for you.  Frankly, there’s a reason good software costs money – a copy of Microsoft Office is well worth it for anyone who ever needs to write, calculate or present.  For those with no budget, Microsoft Office Web Apps make a great alternative to any free office suite you can imagine.

Ubuntu One online file syncing solution

Ubuntu One is interesting. It promises a lot of functionality – for free you get 2 gb of online storage and desktop file synchronization. The signup process is fast and easy and the software for syncing files looks very nice. It also features contact syncing and the ability to stream your music collection to your mobile device. The basic file synchronization does, for its part, work as advertised. Ubuntu One clients are available for Windows (in beta), iPhone and Android devices.

Ubuntu also comes with a media player (Banshee), photo editor & manager (Shotwell) and basic video editor (Pitvi) Banshee also gives you access to the Ubuntu One music store. Shotwell has red eye correction and basic color and contrast enhancement features, and Pitvi has very basic video slicing and dicing and export functionality.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to dabble with some excellent free multimedia tools, or you want to have a different computing experience for a few days, see how it is with free software and get inspired by some interesting UI work (in short, if you’re a geek) – or, if you’re hard up to reinstall the OS on your computer but can’t get a legit copy of Windows and you just need something that does basic computery things, Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal will probably do it for you. If you have a choice, Windows 7 is still head and shoulders above Linux in terms of overall ease of use. For the geeks, it is a fun time exploring some technology and heaping on skills. Make of it what you will.

For those looking to try Blender, it runs great on Windows, too. Ardour also has a MacOS version.

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4 responses to “Natty Narwhal’s Still Ubuntu: Still Interesting, Still Linux”

  1. Kyle Weiss says:

    Well, that was thorough.

  2. James Dilworth says:

    I still need to try out Ubuntu, but I’m not sure what I’d use it for. It does look neat though…

  3. Kyle Weiss says:

    I wonder if they’ll release a Reno-skinned version called “Natty Ice.”

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