Making the Evolutionary Leap from Meerkat to Narwhal

If you're using Maverick Meerkat (Ubuntu 10.10) or an older distribution, Natty Narwhat is a whole new animal.

I’m very happy with Ubuntu as a desktop operating system. I’ve used it for years with no significant issues. In fact, Ubuntu excels where other disributions fail. Even Linux arch rival Windows, is often left in the last century compared to the innovations perpetrated by the Canonical group. But what about Natty Narwhal? Is the hype worth the effort? I’d have to say, “Yes.” Although, I’m not 100 percent sold on Unity, I’m impressed with its boot speed, shutdown speed, and snappy performance. Oh, and there’s that little matter of The Launcher.

This article describes my personal experiences with upgrading Ubuntu 10.10 to Ubuntu 11.04 via the Ubuntu automatic notification and online update method.

The Upgrade Process

Last week, upon logging into my faithful workstation, I found what I thought was the standard applications upgrade screen. Thanks to this column, I have dozens more applications on my workstation than the normal Linux geek and therefore see, on what seems like a daily basis, notifications that one or more applications need an upgrade. And, of course, I comply with no complaint*.

But, this day was different. This time the prompt read, “Welcome to Ubuntu 11.04 ‘Natty Narwhal.’ See Figure 1. I have never seen this type of notification before that notified me of a possible version upgrade**.

Figure 1: The Natty Narwhal Upgrade Announcement
Figure 1: The Natty Narwhal Upgrade Announcement

I cheerfully clicked, Yes, Upgrade Now***. What have I got to lose for such an upgrade? A full-time job, a book project, several regular writing gigs–sure, I have plenty of time to reinstall Ubuntu 10.10, all my applications, restore my data, and catch up on everything, including sleep. I digress.

Figure 2 shows the next screen in the upgrade process. It’s tempting to click Install Updates, since it’s highlighted by default, but don’t. Instead, click the Upgrade button above to continue.

Figure 2: The Natty Narwhal Upgrade Screen
Figure 2: The Natty Narwhal Upgrade Screen

In very Windoows-like fashion, yet another screen prompts you to confirm that you want to upgrade to 11.04. If you’re paranoid, like me, you’re getting a little nervous and maybe a little annoyed at this point. Click Upgrade to continue as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Informative Details about the Natty Narwhal Upgrade.
Figure 3: Informative Details about the Natty Narwhal Upgrade.

Figure 4 displays a screen that you’ll see for some time during the upgrade process. Note the message that the upgrade process is “Calculating the changes” to your system. This part of the process compares your currently installed packages to versions available in Ubuntu 11.04 and calculates the number and sizes of packages needed to complete the upgrade.

Figure 4: Ubuntu 11.04 Upgrade Preparation.
Figure 4: Ubuntu 11.04 Upgrade Preparation.

Once the calculation phase completes, you’re presented with the screen shown in Figure 5. Depending on your currrent Ubuntu version, number of installed packages, and Internet connection speed, your messages may vary. When you’re satisfied with what’s going to happen, confirm again that you want to continue the upgrade process by clicking Start Upgrade. Note the message that “Fetching and installing the upgrade can take several hours.” It will.

Figure 5: Last Chance to Abort the Natty Narwhal Upgrade.
Figure 5: Last Chance to Abort the Natty Narwhal Upgrade.

Figure 6 is the long stretch in the upgrade process. Ignore the estimates that you see in the progress bar; it changes every few minutes. Walk away and check the upgrade progress on your system every 30 minutes or so.

Figure 6: Natty Narwhal Upgrade is Underway.
Figure 6: Natty Narwhal Upgrade is Underway.

The installation process takes a very long time to complete and it varies widely based on your connection speed, amount of traffic to upgrade sites, and your local system’s speed. Mine took a very long time (About six hours) because I was upgrading over a wireless connection.

Figure 7 shows the next screen in the process: 11.04 Package Installation.

Figure 7: Watching the Package Installation.
Figure 7: Watching the Package Installation.

Stay close to your system during this part of the upgrade process, because you’ll see several prompts, as shown in Figure 8, asking you to make a decision about replacing or keeping your current package configuration files.

Figure 8: Modfy or Not to Modify the Configuration File.
Figure 8: Modfy or Not to Modify the Configuration File.

During the cleanup phase, Figure 9 appears prompting you to remove obsolete packages from your system. I chose to remove them and continue the upgrade process.

Figure 9: Ubuntu 11.04 Cleanup Phase.
Figure 9: Ubuntu 11.04 Cleanup Phase.

At the end of the upgrade process, you might see the message shown in Figure 10. This message means that something has gone wrong in the upgrade process that prevents you from using the new Unity desktop.

Figure 10: Do You Have Unity or Don't You Have Unity?
Figure 10: Do You Have Unity or Don’t You Have Unity?

However, as it was in my case, the message was incorrect. After a reboot, the Unity desktop is ready to use. See Figure 11.

Figure 11: Ubuntu 11.04 Unity Achieved.
Figure 11: Ubuntu 11.04 Unity Achieved.

Initial Reaction

My initial reaction to Natty is ‘cool’ but on closer inspection, it can be a little difficult to navigate until you get used to the new Launcher. And, I’m not totally convinced (yet) that this Launcher makes accessing my programs more efficient. Sure, you have icons in the Launcher for Firefox, your Home folder, Office apps, Terminal, etc., but I can do that with icons. The Launcher groups all applications into a single Applications icon, which makes locating an icon a but cumbersome for me. See Figure 12.

Figure 12: Inside Unity's Application Launcher.
Figure 12: Inside Unity’s Application Launcher.

That said, I love the speed of Natty. My system boots in seconds after the initial POST. It’s so fast that I actually thought something was wrong or that I’d had a time lapse while looking at the screen. I rebooted several more times just to be sure. Additionally, shutdown is fast too.

Resulting collateral damage from the upgrade to Natty is minimal. Other than visual effects, and Launcher angst, I’ve found no major problems or complaints with Natty. Frankly, I’d rather have Natty than any other system although I realize that it has its flaws and limitations but I expect Canonical will solve these very soon. All said, Natty Narwhal is a must-have upgrade for Ubuntu users. And, if you’ve held off of switching to Ubuntu from Windows or some other Linux distribution, give Natty a try, it’s a whale of a good time.

* If you know me, you know that I complain about it.

** I’m not saying that such notifications never existed but I update long before I see such a notification.

*** “Cheerfully” might be overstating my actual reaction.

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