Review: Edubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal"

GNOME Main Screen
Before I get on with the rest of this post, I need to apologize for not having posted anything this week. It turned out to be a good deal busier than I anticipated, and even otherwise, there wasn't a whole lot to write about, at least at the beginning of the week. I did say in the latest "Featured Comments" article that I would review the latest release of Ubuntu — version 11.04 "Natty Narwhal". That is still happening, but for reasons that will become clearer, I will not write reviews of Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Xubuntu/Lubuntu just yet, but will wait a day or maybe a little more.

JAVA Session Welcome Screen
With that aside, I find it interesting that having written this blog for almost 2 years and having reviewed Linux distributions for almost as long, I have never formally tried and reviewed Ubuntu or any of its official other editions (Kubuntu, Edubuntu) or officially-sponsored community derivatives (Xubuntu, and hopefully soon Lubuntu as well). I've reviewed quite a few other derivatives, most notably Linux Mint, but I've never tried straight-up Ubuntu itself. I guess that's because I've always sort of taken Ubuntu for granted; I installed it on the laptop of a member of my family, I've seen people put it on their computers, and I've used it at the Athena clusters here at MIT. Well, that's changing today, with a review of Edubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal".

Why Edubuntu, and not Ubuntu? As mentioned earlier, one reason will become apparent when I publish the review of Ubuntu. The other main reason is that I haven't really seen Edubuntu reviews on the Internet; that could be because of its specific target audience, but in any case, I think it deserves a review, especially given that it is an official Canonical product. For those who don't know, Edubuntu, as you might be able to guess from the name, is a packaging of Ubuntu with lots of education-related software included out-of-the-box.

Thanks to Canonical's efforts in this regard, I was able to test it in two ways: I was able to try it out online from the comfort of my current Linux Mint system, and then I tried it through a live USB made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

To try it online, I went to the Edubuntu website, clicked "try it online" in the first news item on the homepage, created a username and password, and clicked to download the JAVA applet. The applet was downloaded, and I was greeted by a large (though not full-size, because I wanted to be able to access other applications too at the same time) window containing the Edubuntu session surprisingly quickly.

Changing Theme in GNOME
Rather than having to boot up and all that, I was able to jump right into the "WebLive" (as they call it) session with just one click, and that was to set the language preference. After that, I was greeted by the desktop. The desktop, interestingly, is classic GNOME 2.X, as opposed to the Unity shell that is supposed to debut for standard desktops with this latest version of Ubuntu; that said, the Edubuntu website says that Unity is available as an option in the login screen of the live session as well. The desktop essentially looks like a version of Ubuntu from 2010, but with the lighter Radiance theme for the panels as opposed to the darker Ambiance theme; what's weird though is that the titlebars still have the dark Radiance theme, so when windows are open, the desktop has a somewhat mismatched feel to it. Though the default-in-Ubuntu Humanity icon theme is available as well, the default icon theme in Edubuntu appears to be predominantly Oxygen colored orange mixed in with some other themes here and there; I personally found the theme to be a little too glossy and garish, so I changed it, along with the titlebar theme. The wallpaper is a sort of night sky theme reminiscent of the wallpaper in Debian 6 "Squeeze", of which I am not a fan; I suppose it's more appropriate here, as it is being used in schools by kids.

YouTube in Mozilla Firefox in GNOME
Mozilla Firefox 4 is the default browser, and interestingly, in the JAVA session, proprietary codecs seemed to be included out-of-the-box, as I was able to watch YouTube fine, though of course I couldn't hear anything because JAVA couldn't make use of my laptop's sound hardware and the associated software in Linux Mint, which is only to be expected because it's JAVA, not a full-blown virtualization program like VirtualBox. This is also why I didn't try using Cheese Webcam Booth or Skype.

LibreOffice is also included, which is practically required because it's both an Ubuntu variant and a distribution tailored for education. Along with that, there are plenty of other education-related programs, such as the Step physics simulator, the Kalzium periodic table of the elements, and the Kig geometry tool, among many others. I was surprised by the number of KDE applications included, but I guess that's because there aren't really that many GNOME education applications, while there are a whole lot of KDE education applications. Maybe that's also why the default icon theme is an orange version of Oxygen — that would make for a much more integrated look-and-feel.

Step + LibreOffice Writer in GNOME
One thing that bugged me is that the "System" part of the "Applications-Places-System" GNOME main menu is still visible. If this distribution is tailored for schools, shouldn't students not be able to tamper with core system settings? I realize that a lot of those things are secured by requiring the root password, but I still think it would be better if students didn't see those things in the first place; if someone really need to make a change, they could access the program using the command line, provided that they had the root password.
The other small issue was that the JAVA session felt pretty slow overall, but I'm fine with that because, well, it was a JAVA application running on top of other stuff running on my installed system.

At this point, I wanted to try out the Unity interface, so I logged out, intending to log back in with "Unity" selected as the desired interface at the login screen. Unfortunately, when I logged out, the session ended, and the JAVA applet closed entirely. This is when I tried out the live USB.

Unity Main Screen
The boot splash is typical Plymouth, but the appearance of the black "Edubuntu" text and dots and the red-orange logo on the white background is quite elegant and in my opinion much more so than that of Ubuntu with its white text on a dark-purple background. The boot process itself was quite fast, and I was quickly put into the desktop, which was exactly the same as the JAVA session except for two things: the live USB session was of course much faster, but somewhat more strangely, the live USB session lacked the proprietary codecs that the JAVA session included. I suppose that's because the JAVA session is supposed to more closely mimic an installed/configured system, whereas the live session clearly hasn't been installed yet, and it is Canonical's policy not to include such proprietary codecs out-of-the-box in Ubuntu.

Unity Dash Main Screen
As the desktop was otherwise identical to that of the JAVA session, I logged out and logged into the much talked-about Unity. Aside from some theme differences, the Unity session looked identical to that which I had seen in so many screenshots on various websites over the past few weeks. On top, there is a panel which contains, from the left, an Edubuntu icon that presumably leads to a menu of some sort, an application menu à la Apple's Mac OS X, and a series of indicator applets (though technically the application menu is itself an indicator applet) on the right. On the left side, there is a dock-like vertical launcher bar with shortcuts to different applications as well as icons for mounted drives. The launcher bar also allows access to currently-opened windows, even if the application itself is not pinned as a shortcut to the launcher bar. It all seemed fairly easy to navigate.

Searching in Unity Dash
Digging deeper, clicking on the Edubuntu icon showed the Dash, which is the way to launch applications not pinned to the launcher bar. There are big icons that show different broad categories of applications when clicked, along with shortcuts to favorite applications. Above that is a search box to search for files, installed applications, or available applications. This search feature worked quite well. To the side is a drop-down menu for different application categories akin to the standard GNOME 2.X main menu; however, this only becomes available when searching for an application, and it is not visible in the main Dash screen. There is one problem I have with the menu, though: clearly the buttons are big so that users on touchscreen devices can properly use them, yet the menu is not big enough to be usable on touchscreens. That needs to be fixed, pronto.

Mozilla Firefox Menu in Unity
There are some other UI changes as well. As mentioned earlier, the application menus are now part of the panel. Furthermore, they are only visible when the mouse hovers over that part of the panel; this makes sense in that the menu doesn't need to be visible all the time, but I'm not sure how easy it will be for new users to figure out that they must hover the cursor a little left to the middle of the top panel to access an application menu.
Maximized windows have their window controls and titlebars integrated with the panel, which is great for saving space especially on touchscreen devices where having as much screen real estate usable as possible is paramount. However, when a window is maximized and the application menu is accessed, the menu covers up any part of the window title that goes beyond the application menu on the panel; this makes sense because it isn't necessary to see the full window title when accessing the menu, and because having the menu in a fixed horizontal position on the panel ensures that a long window title won't push the application menu way to the right where it might become unusable. Speaking of which, there were some applications where there were more submenus in the application menu than could fit on the panel, and there was no apparent way to access these rightmost submenus; that needs to be fixed as well. Finally, Mozilla Firefox 4 works with the indicator application menu (yay!), but LibreOffice does not, so it displays its own menubar (boo!).
Scrollbars are modified as well; now, the scrollbars are very thin orange lines, but hovering the cursor over those lines brings up miniature traditional scrollbars. It's good in that it saves space, and I don't think it's that unintuitive for new users either. That said, unfortunately, the scrollbar tricks only work for GTK+ applications, so Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice, and the KDE applications retain their traditional scrollbars.
Finally, I tried out Unity 2D, and I could not make out any difference between it and standard Unity; even the animations in the side launcher bar were retained.

These are my initial impressions of Unity. Admittedly, I haven't used it much, but it certainly seems a lot more stable than how it was being described in many online articles. Furthermore, as open windows can be managed and new windows can be opened using the launcher bar, Unity seems a bit more usable than GNOME 3; it doesn't make any excuses about "keeping the focus on the task at hand" or anything like that. I'll need to use it more to form a more solid opinion, but right now, while I would still stick with GNOME 2.X, I would prefer Unity to GNOME 3.

Well, that's basically all I have to say about Edubuntu. So why should you use Edubuntu if it's really just Ubuntu with some education-related packages included? I mean, even the Edubuntu website gives instructions on which packages to install if you don't feel like downloading Edubuntu itself. Well, for one, Edubuntu's default desktop is classic GNOME 2.X. Although it'll probably switch to Unity as the default option for version 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot", for people who want to use Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" and all the latest programs but without Unity for whatever reason, Edubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" is an excellent choice. Plus, it's an official Canonical project, along with Ubuntu and Kubuntu, so if this is important, it is possible to purchase professional support for Edubuntu. And finally, though this is not specific to Edubuntu but applies to it as well as Ubuntu and Kubuntu, I wish more distribution developers could release these online trials of distributions; it really goes a long way in terms of improving user-friendliness, because there are probably plenty of people who would like to try Linux but are put off by having to download a large file and follow complicated directions to make a live medium or download and use a probably also complicated virtualization program to try out the system, so this will be a boon for those people who can just try it with two simple clicks. In short, if you want the new applications of the latest release of Ubuntu but want the familiarity of GNOME 2.X, you can't go wrong with Edubuntu. You can download it here.