Ubuntu's Saucy Salamander is a Slick but Spiritless Upgrade
Ubuntu's latest desktop OS release, Ubuntu 13.10, is more of a plain-Jane release than its "Saucy Salamander" nickname might otherwise suggest. This release comes six months after the Raring Ringtail release, which was also a bit of a yawner in terms of offering any must-have-the-upgrade enthusiasm. Like the last release, Ubuntu 13.10 also does not deliver much "wow." It is a nine-month support release and serves mostly as a tune-up version until the next long-term support upgrade is released next April as Ubuntu 14.04.
Yet Ubuntu's driving force, Canonical, has brought the Linux desktop to a place where few other Linux distros have gone. Ubuntu's previous change of direction with its default Unity desktop environment is setting the stage for a common interface among desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones much as Microsoft is doing with its Windows 8 tiled interface.
The significant changes in Ubuntu 13.10 are mostly under the hood. Saucy Salamander fires up on the Linux 3.11 kernel released in September. This brings some performance boosts and power consumption improvements.
A change in how Saucy Salamander handles memory is also a worthy improvement. Now Ubuntu compresses and decompresses some of its data using CPU cycles and keeps it in RAM rather than fully swapping to and from the hard drive. It also supports dynamic power management for AMD's open source Linux graphics driver.
This latest version shines with a new version of Unity -- version 7 -- as well as Python 3 and GNOME 3.8. Ubuntu 13.10 has some nice improvements, but overall it is a light update you can easily miss.
I was an avid Ubuntu user in the distro's formative years. When Ubuntu's head honcho, Mark Shuttleworth, took Ubuntu down the Unity path, I started liking Ubuntu less. Still, the more I revisit it, the more comfortable I am with it.
With Saucy Salamander on one of my two main office machines over the last few weeks, I am getting used to Ubuntu's more radical desktop features and find them less jarring at this point.
One new thing visually is the face on the log-in screen. It makes logging in as a primary user or guest more appealing. Also, selecting the desired desktop environment is more efficient with the new design.
Once you see the desktop screen, you notice a text switcher button in the upper right corner. This gives you instant access to language and character map settings. It also includes a keyboard layout chart and text entry settings so you don't have to wade through the system settings panels.
I always preferred Ubuntu's ability to upgrade versions via the Software Updater application, but I have also come to expect a bumpy road with each new reincarnation of the Ubuntu installation. Saucy Salamander did not disappoint in this regard this time around.
It took one failed upgrade attempt from 13.04 and two recovery rounds doing a DVD re-installation to get Ubuntu working again. Similar snags involved hardware on which I always run Ubuntu.
As much as I dislike having to do a clean installation on every new release of Ubuntu's cousin OS, Linux Mint, take my advice and do a clean installation of Ubuntu. It is the only sure way to get all the crud out -- you know, things like aging dependencies, applications you no longer use, conflicting settings and such.
Maybe it resulted from the installation lock-up, but my first landing on the desktop when Saucy Salamander successfully loaded was not the default Unity. I did not select a change and expected the default setting on first run to be Unity.
Instead, I was looking at the Ubuntu GNOME desktop. I then had to log in anew and select the Unity option.
Ubuntu 13.10 gives you more desktop options in the one DVD installation. Users get several more choices, including the latest GNOME integration as its own desktop in an easy-to-switch menu option at log-in. The options besides Unity are GNOME, GNOME Classic, GNOME Flashback, GNOME Flashback with no effects and the KDE Plasma Workspace.
Other downloads let you run the Lubuntu, Xubuntu and Kubuntu interfaces. You also can try the multimedia-centered OS desktop called Ubuntu Studio 13.10.
If you are not a fan of Unity but otherwise like the Ubuntu distro philosophy, try the tweaked GNOME desktop version. It is nicely integrated into the Ubuntu design.
What's New With Unity?
Unity 7 uses Smart(er) Scopes to expand the reach of the Dash. Dash is Unity's shell environment for searching near and far for applications, personal content and multimedia files. What Canonical used to call Lenses are now dubbed "Scopes." They are what give you custom views in your search results.
To accomplish this, Canonical hosts a remote back-end service. This lets you get things like recommended music from the Ubuntu One Music Store and products from Canonical revenue affiliate Amazon.
This new Scopes feature is fed by heuristics to offer matches to your accumulated browsing and search requests gleaned from Github, reddit, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google News, The Weather Channel and Yelp. I find this level of search invasion too intrusive.
If I wanted that approach to marketing, I would just bypass Ubuntu completely and grab a Kindle or rely more fully on the Google search engine. I did not find the results to be very helpful.
The rambling, helter skelter approach to the cramped display space was anything but enticing, but as a local search device, the Dash remains a better system tool than the content search feature in other distros.
Fortunately, you can turn off the Internet reach of this Scopes feature. If you balk at Canonical's potential for personal information snatching, go into the Security and Privacy panel of the Settings menu and turn off the option to include online search results when you use the Dash.
Waiting for Mir
Canonical is still working on Mir, its replacement for the classic Xorg input and display system that all Linux desktop systems now use. Mir was planned for this release, but Canonical had to delay its debut.
The plan to go with Mir has ruffled some feathers in Linuxland. Canonical's deviation from the existing plan to replace the X11 protocol with the Wayland protocol may make another point of separation for traditional Ubuntu users.
Ubuntu 14.04 and the Unity Next interface, which will support desktop, TV, tablet and smartphone form factors, are dependent on Canonical's new display server, Mir. So far, Intel has announced that it will not fully support XMir patches.
I consider easy access to virtual workspaces as one of the crowning glories of any Linux distro. This is an area in which Ubuntu falls considerably short. Using the Workspace Switcher button on the Unity bar is less convenient than the panel applets, for instance, used by some other desktops.
For example, in Unity you cannot drag windows from one workspace to another. This is also the case in GNOME 3.
Yet Unity 7 has better integration of hot keys to help this shortfall. You still have to activate the Show Desktop and Workspace Switcher buttons in System Settings, however.
Nautilus has a mostly cosmetic change. For example, its drop-down menus are tweaked to reflect the style of the desktop theme. Previously versions had these drop-down menus display with a bland white background.
Ubuntu still installs with Firefox as the default browser. Earlier indications suggested that Chromium would replace that default browser slot.
Saucy Salamander also includes version 24.0 of the Thunderbird email client and the LibreOffice 184.108.40.206 office productivity suite. Add to that list Shotwell 0.15.0 for photo management, Brasero 3.8.0 for optical disk burning and Rhythmbox 2.99.1 as the default music player.
The installed software is a minor issue in distros like Ubuntu that are not designed to run from a USB installation or entirely in RAM. You can always add and remove software to suit your needs.
If Canonical would offer a Cinnamon desktop option as well, Ubuntu might become my main distro of choice. Even settling for the Unity interface, however, Saucy Salamander is slick, slithery and better-tuned than the previous version.
If you are more of a GNOME desktop user, Ubuntu 13.10 has a nicely integrated version. Either way, if you want a solid distro and can work with Unity or GNOME 3 variations, Saucy Salamander might just be worth your while until its replacement arrives.
Want to Suggest a Linux Application for Review?
Is there a Linux software application you'd like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?
Please send your ideas to me at email@example.com, and I'll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.
And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!