Peek at the Pangolin

I INSTALLED the first beta version of Ubuntu 12.04 – otherwise known as Precise Pangolin – to check out some of the new features the upcoming release would have.

Among the most eagerly anticipated features, the heads-up display, makes its debut in Precise. The HUD is supposed to eventually replace the traditional menu system by guessing the command you want to issue based on the first few letters you type into a search box. In the beta version, you can call up the HUD by hitting the Alt key.

In his blog, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth describes HUD as a revolutionary change in the way people will interact with their computers, but the version that comes with the 12.04 beta is a long way from that vision.

For example, HUD is supposed to be able to search through the available application and system (indicator) menu commands and offer these as you type, but the HUD isn’t as smart as it should be. To adjust the volume settings on your computer, for instance, you ought to be able to type “volume” into the search box, but doing so produces no result whatsoever. To get to that command, you need to type the less intuitive “sound” instead and choose from four options. How this is more efficient than merely clicking on the speaker icon and adjusting the volume on a slider is beyond me.

Performance was even quirkier when I tried to use the HUD to find commands in an application. It worked to a limited degree with the image-editing program Gimp, but the search itself seemed slow. To save a file, I typed “save” and the HUD went through 15 options before offering me “File > Save As” whereas I could easily have saved time by using the keyboard shortcut, CTRL-S.

Problematic as this might sound, the HUD was completely useless with LibreOffice, recognizing none of the commands in the program’s menus. Ubuntu developers say that over time, the system will learn from your previous choices to make the search more and more accurate, but how can it learn if the correct choice isn’t in the initial menu of suggestions?

The lack of consistency is another problem. Sometimes, the HUD would prompt me for an application command, while at others, it would perform a search through the system menus instead. Occasionally, pressing the Alt key did nothing at all.

Given these problems, it’s a good thing the traditional menus are still around. With the exception of keyboard shortcuts, they are still the fastest way to issue a command.

A more useful new feature in Ubuntu 12.04 is the ability to access privacy controls from the System Settings. These controls enable you to tell Ubuntu to forget your application history for a user-specified time, say, in the last hour, day or week. You can also tell Ubuntu to stop recording activities in files associated with instant messaging, e-mail, browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, and turn off logging for specified applications.

Ubuntu users who want to use the latest version of LibreOffice (3.5) will find it already installed. This will save you the trouble of manually installing the update, which is what you would have to do with earlier versions of Ubuntu. Rhythmbox has also replaced Banshee as the default music application in Ubuntu 12.04. It also comes with the new Nautilus file manager (3.3.5) and Firefox 11.

The new beta version also includes the latest Ubuntu kernel based on version 3.2.6 of the Linux kernel.

Those who choose to stick to Ubuntu’s Unity interface now have the added convenience of being able to configure it from the System Setting panel. The interface itself has been improved, with Quicklists added to the Dash home and the Home Folder. To get the Quicklist, simply right-click on the appropriate icon in the launch panel. The new Ubuntu also comes with a video lens that helps you search for movies and TV shows online or on your local hard disk.

Ubuntu 12.04 is supposed to add improved energy saving for notebook users, but alas, I observed no significant improvement in the battery life of my Acer Aspire One netbook.

The final version of 12.04 isn’t expected out until April, but the beta gives us an interesting peek into what the next release holds in store. Although the changes are not all that dramatic, they are significant enough to warrant an upgrade – especially once the kinks that are still in the beta get ironed out.

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