Ubuntu 16.04: A desktop for Linux diehards

Striking a balance between LTS stability and nice features, Ubuntu's Xenial Xerus is special

Ubuntu 16.04: A desktop for Linux diehards
blumblaum via Flickr/Creative Commons

Every two years a release of Ubuntu is designated Long-Term Support (LTS). Ubuntu 16.04, code-named Xenial Xerus, is the latest in that line. LTS releases are supported for five years instead of the usual nine months, but they also have less obvious implications. LTS releases are usually geared toward the enterprise, which means they generally include fewer new features and more testing. Both qualities are attractive to risk-averse companies running production software on Ubuntu servers, but provide comparatively little to the desktop user.

However, Xenial Xerus bucks this trend with a handful of new features and some welcome improvements. With the new app store, the stand-alone calendar, and the movable Launcher, Xenial might be one of the more feature-rich releases in a few years. In this review, I’ll start by walking through these new pieces and improvements, and end with a look at how Ubuntu stacks up -- in terms of installation, ease, features, and so on -- against other desktop operating systems you might be familiar with.

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GNOME Software Center

Not so long ago, the Ubuntu story for software installations was far from clear. If you wanted a GUI to install new software, you could choose from one of at least seven options that came by default. If you think that’s a lot, you’re right.

Ubuntu engineers recognized this was a problem and began rolling out Ubuntu Software Center in late 2009. New features and improvements were incrementally released, but active development started to lose steam. As a result, a flavor of Ubuntu called Ubuntu MATE (as in "yerba mate," the plant) dropped Ubuntu Software Center from its release late last year. This brought up questions of what would happen to Ubuntu Software Center upstream. Soon after, it was announced that Ubuntu Software Center would be dropped from Ubuntu in favor of GNOME Software Center.

gnome software center

GNOME Software Center replaces Ubuntu Software Center in Xenial Xerus.

GNOME Software Center has a relatively clean UI and certainly gets the job done. A landing page offers featured software, browsing by category, and a search bar. When viewing an app, you can see ratings and reviews, but you’re not able to sort reviews at all and the default ordering isn’t clear. There also isn’t any persistent navigation other than a Back button, which means there’s no “going home,” only “going back.” If you’ve clicked around a bit and want to get back to the landing page, there isn’t a reliable, one-click path.

Still, if you choose to run Linux on your desktop machine, there’s a good chance you’ll spend a considerable amount of time installing software from the terminal. The drawbacks of the GNOME Software Center might even go unnoticed.

Dash “spyware” off by default

For years, Ubuntu’s Launcher has included Dash, a search tool. Dash has been controversial since 2012 because, in addition to searching locally and in the software center, it would also bring up search results from Amazon and other retailers. This spurred a lot of debate in the community because it effectively armed third parties with any search terms you typed when using Dash. All search terms were anonymized by proxying through Canonical’s servers. Nevertheless, the feature was dubbed “spyware” by Richard Stallman, and many community members remained concerned.

In Xenial, this controversial feature is still available but is off by default. If you want to be able to get results from Amazon and other third parties in your Dash search, simply open System Settings and click on Security & Privacy. You’ll see the option to enable online search results in the search tab.

ubuntu dash

Reference material and shopping suggestions aren’t always welcome, but I’ll certainly be picking up that Kenny Burrell collaboration. Thanks, Dash!

Movable Launcher

Historically, Ubuntu’s Launcher has been presented as a vertical bar on the left of the screen. After years of requests, the Launcher can finally be moved to the bottom of the screen, à la OS X and Windows. This might seem like a basic feature -- it is. But it's also a big deal, considering the request has been an open issue for more than five years.

Unfortunately, relocating the Launcher currently isn’t configurable from the System Settings GUI. Instead, you’ll have to jump into the terminal or download software like dconf Editor to change the setting. Lack of GUI-level support is also evident if you use the autohide feature of the Launcher. The only options are still the left side of the screen and the upper-left corner.

ubuntu launcher

Want the Launcher at the bottom of the screen? Terminal or dconf Editor can make it happen. Either way you’re diving a littler deeper into the OS than you should have to.

Native calendar

While a calendar application has been included in Ubuntu as a part of other apps (such as the Evolution mail client), Xenial marks the first release that ships with a stand-alone calendar. The decision was made in part because so many users rely on Web-based mail and don’t need an integrated solution like Evolution.

Ubuntu chose gnome-calendar, which is a Spartan application with minimal functionality. The application has only month and year views, but not the hour view common to many other calendar apps. Due to this coarse granularity, adding new events requires a user to explicitly type in times, as opposed to selecting a time-range in a day and adding a name to it.

ubuntu calendar

Xenial Xerus introduces a native Ubuntu calendar based on gnome-calendar. It’s light on features but can pull info from external calendars.

On the other hand, you can connect external calendars, like your Google calendar, into gnome-calendar. This by itself isn’t groundbreaking, but when you pair it with the integration into the Unity top panel, it gets interesting. The Unity top panel is where program menus exist, as well as the time, networking, and other system-level menus. When you click on the time, a drop-down appears with a condensed calendar view and a list of upcoming events. I can easily imagine using the gnome-calendar as a predominantly read-only application almost exclusively from the top panel.

My only qualm is that (as of the final beta version I’ve been test-driving) the Google integration doesn’t work. The UI for adding an online account still references Evolution, the all-in-one mail app that used to ship with Ubuntu but isn’t present in Xenial. This may be resolved by the time Xenial becomes generally available, or we may be waiting for a patch release.

With the new features covered and out of the way, let’s take a look at Xenial holistically.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (25%)
Features (25%)
Manageability (15%)
Security (15%)
Compatibility (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
Ubuntu 16.04 Desktop (Xenial Xerus) 7 6 7 9 7 8 7.2
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