Precise Pangolin beta continues to improve

On April 26, Canonical will release the 12.04 version of Ubuntu, a popular user-friendly Linux distribution. The beta release, however, has been available to download for about a month now. The new version, codenamed “Precise Pangolin,” concentrates on cleaning up the features introduced last year in 11.04, focusing most prominently on the desktop environment, Unity. When it first appeared, Unity wasn’t very well received by the community—it was very different from the old panel-based desktop, not to mention buggy and hard to customize.

Now, however, the desktop is snappy and polished. The interface is clean and minimalist, combining the title bar of each application with the status bar at the top of the screen, which is especially helpful on small netbook screens. You can run applications, open files, or even play YouTube videos with a few keystrokes using the Dash. Remember when Google Chrome powered up the browser URL bar by adding search and history functionality? The Unity Dash takes an applications menu and turns it into a launcher for the whole computer.

Another brand new feature in this release is the Head-Up Display for application menus. If you want to sort cells in a spreadsheet program like LibreOffice, you’d normally have to remember whether you need to click on Edit or Table or Tools or Data. Instead, you can just bring up the HUD (by pressing Alt), type in “sort,” and hit enter—the sorting options will pop right up. It’s very convenient, although it’s not yet perfect; sometimes the option you’re looking for doesn’t show up.

The install seemed as quick and smooth as any of the other recent Ubuntu releases. Even dual booting with Windows just requires you to check a box and specify how much disk space you want for each operating system (although that’s nothing new in this version).

Customization is better, but probably still not up to the expectations of long-time Linux gurus. You can set a few options (like how you want the application sidebar to function), but mostly you’re stuck with the defaults in terms of behavior.

For an average user, even one who’s never used Linux before, the new Ubuntu is a better choice than ever before. It runs quicker than Windows, and at this point is arguably easier to use. One example is the “Ubuntu Software Center,” which acts like an App Store for your computer. You can discover and install software from trusted sources all in one place, including programs such as Firefox and Skype.

The beta has its share of bugs, of course. Sometimes little image artifacts show up near the top left corner (they go away if you run “pkill compiz”), and the boot-up screen is sometimes distorted (although it doesn’t affect any functionality). Hopefully these will all be resolved in the final release, which is in a few weeks.

Ubuntu isn’t for everyone, but it is good for a lot of people, from Linux beginners to people who want their computer to just work. Users wanting more configuration should check out other distributions of Linux—there are literally hundreds to choose from.

If you want a hands-on tour of Unity without leaving a web browser, try http://ubuntu.com/tour/.