I downloaded the new CD ISO image for the 32 bit version of Ubuntu 12.04 and burned it to disk, then booted from the live disk and created a USB startup 'disk' for the netbook. I installed a brand new 500GByte hard disk drive on the laptop. This means that I could roll back to the old (perfectly working) system within minutes or go back to retrieve some critical file that I later need. You see - I don't trust myself to complete a backup of all my preferences and I didn't want to lose the ability to use the laptop if everything went wrong. Yes - I have to have a spare HDD 'in stock' but I feel that the cost is worth it!
Installing the system on both the netbook and laptop simultaneously, everything went as well as could be hoped. Ubuntu installations are a breeze these days - much easier than installing Windows. Basically everything just works and then there is an hour or so of tedious work to personalise everything to the way I like it, connect to the cloud to synchronise some files, install those favorite packages that are not there by default and get Firefox to synchronise bookmarks and favorites between the machines.
Now all of that would normally be easy. I've done it often enough that I have a sort of checklist - one that has gradually got shorter as Ubuntu has improved. Each time I cross out things that they have fixed. Even personalising the installation is getting easier if you trust cloud computing to some extent.
But this time I was faced with Ubuntu's new default desktop environment, called Unity. Some love it, but I and many others absolutely detest it. I've honestly tried to like it but I just can't. Not only can I not find things that ought to be there, but I actually believe that those things are not there any longer. The whole thing seems to me to have been designed for the 'hard of thinking' with horrible big icons (even at their smallest setting) and a strong discouragement to use your desktop as a workspace. Irritations include:
- It is continuously difficult to find things that you know must be there. e.g. the option to handle Users and Groups - which is actually not there until you install it!
- No top panel or bottom panel, but the (too wide) side panel instead – why can't I choose?
- The side panel is intrusively large, even when setting the buttons to the smallest available (and I find the auto-hide option very irritating).
- Switching workspaces is possible, but not the usual simple alt-ctrl-left and right. You have to go up and down too because it is in a grid, not just a row and can't seem to change this. It is not easy to tell which applications are on which space without using the mouse. This is normally one of the best features of Linux systems, when it works!
- Can't see in the bottom panel (because there isn't one) which applications are open. You have to blunder round with Alt-tab to try to find what you want, with only tiny clues on the icons on the left panel to tantalise you.
- Power settings have been changed. Can't set the laptop to suspend when pressing the power button as I would prefer but now have to do it from a menu which takes longer. Why mess with the basics like this?
- There is now no option for Restart on the shutdown menu, and it doesn't help to say that you don't need one because it is so stable and good - because it isn't quite that good yet and there are times when a restart is the simplest option. (It makes a restart button after installing updates that it thinks require a restart. Well, thank you!)
So - after a few days of frustration I decided to ditch Unity on the laptop and go over to the GNOME3 interface. GNOME 2 was good. I could find everything and do anything I wanted to. This new upgrade must be similar mustn't it?
A bit of Googling revealed that the easiest solution is to type in a terminal:
sudo apt-get install gnome-panel
Some things really ARE easier in a terminal than they would be using a graphical interface! After a restart, not using the restart button because there isn't one (did I mention?), the login screen now gives various options as well as two versions of Unity.
Obviously you would choose Gnome wouldn't you? Wrong - as you can see on this rather thorough and fair assassination of GNOME3 from Tom's Hardware. He covers all the things that I find so irritating, and a couple more that I hadn't yet noticed. He starts with:
No desktop, no taskbar, no Ubuntu, no Mint. Panned by critics, shunned by users, Linus calls it an “unholy mess.” Saying there are a number of things wrong with GNOME 3 is an understatement. But how the hell did it go so sideways?
So, GNOME3 is not popular. However, the other option at the login screen, 'Gnome Classic (no effects)', brings things almost back to normal. A few things have moved and it takes a little while to find them, but it is nothing that is beyond the wit of man.
After 4 weeks I reached a decision. I can't cope with Unity. I had continued to run it on the netbook and found myself wanting to throw it at things on a regular basis, so it is now also running Gnome Classic (no effects). Everything is working on the laptop, and now I have 'upgraded' the desktop machine too. I have three machines working to my satisfaction, mutually compatible, synchronising nicely through 'the cloud' and Ubuntu has survived for a little longer.
12.04 seems quite fast. It starts up and shuts down quickly, and the option to suspend the system makes this even better - even on the desktop machine. The Ubuntu One cloud computing service works pretty well too. Almost the only thing I would want from it is stability.
However, I should say that Ubuntu is very much 'on notice'. My acceptance of 12.04 is very much in spite of the direction that Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) seems to want to take the product and I fear that the future is bleak. The net result is that I took a little time to install a copy of Fedora 16 in parallel to Ubuntu as a dual boot system. At present it is only on the desktop machine not on the portables. On the advice of a friend who was visiting from New Zealand last week, I also plan to try out a distro called Mint. (Mint comes in several flavours, it seems! The recommended version is a direct fork from Debian, making it a sibling of Ubuntu, but there is another that is based on Ubuntu, making it a daughter. When I tried that before it was good, but it defeats the object of moving away from Ubuntu doesn't it.)
I know for sure that the Ubuntu community is being fragmented by the changes that have been introduced. Canonical might claim not to care, but by writing this you can see that at least one long term Ubuntu 'fan' doesn't need much more of a push before he jumps to another ship.
**Sadly Fedora 16 also ships with Gnome3. I don't want to learn KDE, and xfce is pretty basic.