Review: Edubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot"

Main Screen
Well, it's that time of year again: it's October, so another edition of Ubuntu has been released. This includes its official derivatives, like Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, and Edubuntu. Today I'll be testing Edubuntu because I feel like it doesn't get reviewed enough, yet it provides the same experience and support as standard Ubuntu, aside from having a whole bunch of educational applications included in the live session (hence the name).

So what's new with Edubuntu? Version 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" came with Unity for the first time, and I reviewed Edubuntu then; I found that while I didn't encounter any stability issues, I couldn't use the interface very easily and it didn't seem that polished. Since then, version 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot" has seen a few new features and revisions to the interface, along with the replacement of GNOME 2 by GNOME 3, but most of the work has gone into fixing bugs and making the experience much more stable and polished. One other thing is that the GDM login screen has been replaced by the lighter yet more polished LightDM; as the live session has automatic login, I wasn't able to see that.

The live ISO file is 2.6 GB, which is a pretty hefty download, but that can be explained by the large number of extra educational programs included. I tested Edubuntu using a live USB made with UnetBootin. I did not test the installation, but fear not, because I will test the installation procedure with either Kubuntu or Xubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot", and I hope to review those soon. Follow the jump to see what the latest version of Edubuntu is like.

After getting past the boot menu, I was greeted by a blank screen for a boot splash. I was afraid it would just hang there, but thankfully it took not more than 15 seconds for the cursor and then the rest of the desktop to appear.

The desktop is the Unity shell running under GNOME 3; what this means is that while GNOME 3 tools and improvements and the GTK+ 3 toolkit are used, the interface is Unity, rather than GNOME 3 Shell. The wallpaper looks pretty nice and far better than the bland purple wallpaper that has become standard. All of the fonts are now the default Ubuntu fonts, which is pretty good in terms of being a more complete desktop.
There's a panel on top with the name of the active window (or "Desktop" if no windows are open) to the extreme left-hand side, and hovering the cursor anywhere to the left of the indicator applets on the panel's right-hand side brings up the global menu. The global menu starts from a specific position independent of the length of the window title, such that the menu never gets chopped off due to an excessively long window title. This means that when the global menu appears, the window title fades out and disappears after about 6 characters of text. This makes sense because there's no need to see the full name of the window when the menu is being used. Maximizing a window makes the titlebar merge with the panel, and hovering over the panel not only brings up the global menu but also window buttons where the window title used to be in the panel.
Ubuntu Software Center (+ Weird Error)
The indicator applets present are messaging, networking, volume, clock, and system tools. The networking and clock applets are essentially unchanged from GNOME 2. The messaging applet has integration with the Empathy instant messaging program, the Gwibber microblogging program, the Liferea feed reader, the Mozilla Thunderbird email program, and the Ubuntu One cloud service. The volume applet has integration with Banshee, which is the default music management program. The system tools applet has options for setting different system settings, updating the system, getting additional drivers and software for peripherals, and shutting down. The side dock has shortcuts to the Unity Dash, a bunch of favorite applications, and removable media. The icons in the side dock, and the icons in general, look a lot nicer than before.
The GTK+ and Compiz themes are Ambiance, and the GTK+ theme has been improved in that to compensate for the new global menu bar, the icon-only toolbars are now black to match the Compiz titlebar theme as well, which is really nice. The icon theme is Humanity as before with a bunch of improvements. The only issue is that the official GNOME extensions like the GNOME Tweak Tool are not provided by default, and I'd like to see them provided in the future. Overall, the desktop certainly looks as if it was created by a design company. It's clear that Canonical takes design seriously, and that's a great thing for a newbie-friendly distribution like Edubuntu.

Mozilla Firefox
Mozilla Firefox is the default browser at version 7. No codecs were included by default, and unfortunately Mozilla Firefox failed to find them or point me to the right program when trying to find them, which isn't very helpful. I knew to look in the Ubuntu Software Center anyway (and I will discuss that more shortly), and after installing codecs, I was able to watch YouTube and Hulu without any troubles at all. In addition, now that Mozilla Firefox plays well with the global menu, its own local "Firefox" menu button is gone, which is great for integration with Unity.

LibreOffice, a bunch of educational applications, and some other customization tools were also included, along with the standard repertoire of GNOME applications. There were few applications, like the Debian GNOME 2 Menu Editor, the Edubuntu Menu Editor, and a few others, that were either deprecated or didn't fit in, so I don't know why they were included.
LibreOffice is currently the only application without global menu integration, so it has its own local menu. There is a plugin that can be installed from the repositories that brings that functionality and integration, but it wasn't considered ready enough for default inclusion during this release cycle; while I appreciate this concern for a stable experience, I'm sure at least a few users would notice and possibly be turned off by it, so I'd like to see some sort of symbolic link (possibly titled "Fix LibreOffice Menu Appearance") on the desktop to download and install that if the user so wishes.

LibreOffice Writer + Desktop Wall
Skype and Google Talk both worked fine. Skype is available in the repositories, while Google Talk must be downloaded as a DEB file; Ubuntu and Edubuntu don't have GDebi to install DEB files anymore, so now all manually-downloaded package installations are done in the Ubuntu Software Center. While I appreciate how the Ubuntu Software Center is put front-and-center (no pun intended) when it comes to installing and managing software, I think GDebi would be better for these sorts of tasks because it is far more lightweight and much faster to open and start working than the Ubuntu Software Center.

Having mentioned the Ubuntu Software Center so much already, I think it's time to discuss it more. It now looks way more professional than ever before. It starts out with a page showing top-rated applications as well as the different categories of applications. It also has buttons to show installed applications and history, and it can update and remove applications too. Even the installed applications are sorted into categories and presented in a clean, simple way. There were just two problems I had with it. The first was that when I wanted to install Adobe Flash, it needed to enable a previously-disabled repository, but even after that happened, the error message "No such package found" continued to show; strangely, this remained true even after I installed the package until I returned to the starting page of the Ubuntu Software Center. The second is that after a few runs, it would just refuse to start properly; I mean, a window would show up, but it would just hang there without loading anything. That's not so great, but I'm going to blame that on the fact that this is the live session and performance can be compromised compared to an installed system. I finally figured out that this was because there was a zombie instance of it running, so I had to use the GNOME System Monitor to kill it. Thankfully, that was the last time that happened, and it opened and closed smoothly after that.

Nautilus + Unity Dash
The other big improvement to Unity is the Unity Dash. Now, it can be either fully maximized or take up a part (still a large part, though) of the screen using window controls on the panel similar to those that appear when a window is maximized. It is now divided into shortcuts, applications, places, and music, which are all fairly self-explanatory. The Unity Dash itself now has a blue translucent background with a thick gray translucent border, which makes it look very much like it belongs on a smartphone, but I guess it's nice. The applications can be filtered not just by category but also by rating, if available, which is also cool. Of course, it is possible at any time to search for applications by typing into the input bar. The places and documents can also be filtered by time modified, type, and size. Overall, though the Unity Dash still opens with a very slight lag, it works a lot better than before.

Nautilus is similar to what is found in standard GNOME 3. Thankfully, here, Nautilus comes with breadcrumbs enabled. Furthermore, Nautilus even seems to have integration with Ubuntu One, which is great.
Compiz is fundamental to the base of Unity, yet it turns out that trying to enable other plugins like the desktop cube makes Compiz want to disable Unity altogether, which is certainly not desired. It was disappointing that I couldn't really customize Compiz without breaking Unity.
With just Gedit open, Edubuntu used 550 MB of RAM. This is unfortunately quite a lot, even for GNOME 3; I think this is because Compiz uses a lot of RAM at idle, and some other processes (e.g. the Ubuntu Software Center) don't always close when the user clicks the button to close them. Plus, there doesn't appear to be a way to fully close Banshee due to the integration with the volume applet. Granted, Compiz does have a lot of plugins to create the whole Unity experience, but 550 MB of RAM at what is essentially idle is just too much.
One other nice thing that I found was that when Edubuntu started to idle, the screen actually turned off rather than simply trying to display black. I don't know if it's bad for my screen if that happens a lot, but I don't think so because my laptop's backlight is composed of LEDs rather than traditional lights. In any case, I would prefer that in order to save power, so it's good that this is the way it is. I tried suspending, and the fact that the screen gradually dimmed and the light on my flash drive turned off looked promising, but it was not to be; I won't blame Edubuntu for that.

Overall, Edubuntu works really well. There were no stability issues, it was generally fairly responsive, and Unity seems like it's ready for primetime. I may need to spend a little more time with it just to be sure, but I honestly prefer a more traditional workspace setup (e.g. GNOME in Linux Mint, KDE) and I don't think I could personally use Unity on a daily basis. It isn't customizable enough, and it takes too many more clicks to do simple things. Plus, it's quite a resource hog. That said, that's just my personal preference, and nothing really bad happened during my time with Edubuntu, so I see no reason not to recommend it to newbies. Try it; you'll be glad you did.
You can get Edubuntu here.