Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Playing With The Pangolin: Upgrading To Ubuntu 12.04

Last night, I took the plunge and upgraded my Samsung NC10 netbook to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, the "Precise Pangolin". Technically, this was a fresh install over the top of the pre-existing Ubuntu 11.04, rather than an upgrade of that older version, but I digress...

As is generally the case these days with Ubuntu, installation itself was a largely painless affair. The only wrinkle happened part-way through the initial sequence of dialogs that sets everything up for installation, where the netbook's trackpad was suddenly and mysteriously disabled. Fortunately, plugging in a USB mouse proved to be a suitable workaround, and the trackpad came back to life following the post-installation reboot. One cute addition to the installation procedure is the inclusion of a Twitter feed of happy customers tweeting their thanks to the Ubuntu devs (sadly - but perhaps understandably, given the potential for abuse - not a live feed).

So what's it like?

Overall, I'm impressed. It feels slicker and more polished than the 11.04 that I'm used to, as you would expect given the 12 months of work that the upgrade represents. Unity is maturing nicely (bar the issue discussed below) and lenses are becoming much more useful. The HUD, a last minute addition that allows keyboard-driven searching of menu options for the in-focus application, looks like it could be extremely handy for power users, who often favour the keyboard over the mouse. So far, I've encountered only one bug: a regression in the code for setting screen brightness. In 11.04 I could use key presses to increase or decrease brightness over a number of discrete steps, but now I get only maximum brightness or the two lowest settings. There's a PPA with a samsung-backlight package that might solve this.

There is one fly in the ointment, though. In 11.04, the launcher would hide automatically and then slide into view when the pointer neared the left edge of screen. However, testing with novice users has revealed that this behaviour is confusing, so in 12.04 it has been removed entirely. Yes, that's right: removed entirely. Not made an option, with 'always visible' as the default, but removed entirely.

I find this really disappointing. I'm not a Unity hater - quite the opposite, in fact. And I'm not one of those people who dislikes change: when the buttons infamously moved from the top-right corner of windows to the top-left, I wasn't bothered in the slightest. And I take the point that Unity should not be confusing for newcomers; I'm all for simplicity. But this feature was very useful for those of us who own netbooks, where screen real-estate is a precious commodity. I've benefited from auto-hide for the past 12 months, but now find that I can no longer take advantage of it. My experience has degraded so that the experience of another category of user can improve.

It would be simple to solve this: just provide auto-hide as an option. Bury it deeply if you like, so that inexperienced users are unlikely to find it and enable the feature accidentally, but provide the option so that those of us who want it can have it.

I'm hoping there might be a change of heart on this, or that a suitable setting might find its way into one of the Unity tweaking apps that are out there. I don't really want to start messing around with a forked Unity if I can help it.

In the meantime, I'll shrink the launcher a little - not too much, or it will become difficult to see the various notifications associated with the buttons. And I'll run applications in Full Screen mode if they have that ability.


  1. Actually, the Unity launcher can be made to autohide - see the new "Behaviour" tab in the "Appearance" settings. The launcher appears either when you move the mouse to the left edge, or when it needs to wiggle an icon at you.

    However, I don't think there's any support for the "dodge" hiding. It's now either visible or hidden.

    1. D'oh! How did I miss that?

      A fair bit happier now - but I'll still like the option to enable the full behaviour, including the 'dodge'.