8 New Features in Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin

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Ubuntu 12.04 is upon us. Aside from the usual assortment of bug fixes and updated software, Ubuntu’s Unity desktop environment has been polished and offers new features and more configurability.

Precise Pangolin doesn’t include any dramatic changes, but it offers polish and refinement — while filling gaps in Unity. As an LTS (long-term service) release, it will be supported for five years on both desktops and servers.

The HUD

Ubuntu’s new heads-up display is probably the most interesting and groundbreaking feature in Precise Pangolin. This is the missing piece of the Unity puzzle — Ubuntu’s global menu bar and automatically hiding menus now make sense. The HUD is Ubuntu’s vision of a text-based interface that replaces graphical menus — don’t worry, the menus are still present. Any application that supports Ubuntu’s global menu bar will support the HUD.

To pull up the HUD, press the Alt key in any application — or even at the desktop. Start typing and you’ll see menu items that match your search phrase.

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Selecting a menu item with the mouse — or by pressing the arrow keys and the Enter button — is the same as clicking it in the menu. The search-based interface helps avoid digging through menus when you don’t know where an option is.

Privacy

The Zeitgeist engine has been integrated in Ubuntu since 11.04. It’s also known as the activity log — it logs things you do on your computer, including files you open, websites you visit, and people you have conversations with. These logs are stored locally and offered to other desktop applications, which can use them to customize your experience.

Responding to privacy concerns, Ubuntu now includes a Privacy panel for managing this behavior. You’ll find it in Ubuntu’s System Settings window.

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The Privacy panel includes quite a few options for managing this behavior. In addition to disabling activity recording entirely, you can disable it for certain types of files, folders, or applications. You can also manually delete the activity history — either all of it, or just the history for a recent time period.

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Unity Appearance Settings

Ubuntu now finally offers some configuration options for Unity out-of-the-box. You’ll find these options in the Appearance panel in the System Settings window.

On the Look tab, the size of the application icons on Unity’s launcher are now configurable — you can make them smaller or larger.

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On the Behavior tab, you can customize when Unity automatically hides itself. It no longer automatically hides by default, but you can enable the auto-hide feature and tweak its sensitivity, if you like.

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Only a few options are exposed here for configuring Unity at the moment – hopefully Ubuntu will add more in future releases.

Quicklists

Many more applications now support Unity’s “quicklists” feature, including the Nautilus file manager and Rhythmbox music player. Right-click an application icon on the Unity launcher and you’ll find shortcuts to frequently used options. For example, the Nautilus file manager displays your bookmarked locations, while the Rythmbox music player offers playback options.

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Video Lens

Lenses allow you to perform different types of searches directly from Unity’s dash, and Precise Pangolin introduces a new lens for searching videos. Select the video icon at the bottom of the dash screen and you can search for videos stored locally or in a variety of online locations, including YouTube, Vimeo, and TED Talks. Use the Filter Results option to search for videos from a specific location.

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Software Recommendations

The Ubuntu Software Center now offers personalized software recommendations. Click the Turn On Recommendations button at the bottom of the Ubuntu Software Center to enable them. You’ll have to log in with your Ubuntu Software Center account — this is the same as your Ubuntu One or Launchpad account.

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When you enable recommendations, your list of installed software will be periodically sent to Canonical’s servers. Recommendations will appear in the Ubuntu Software Center.

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No Mono By Default

Ubuntu 12.04 drops Banshee from the default installation, switching back to Rhythmbox as the music player. Tomboy, the only other default Mono application, was also removed from the default installation – so Mono isn’t present by default at all. Both applications are still available in the Ubuntu Software Center. The Ubuntu Software Center also includes Gnote, a C++ port of Tomboy installed by default on Fedora.

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Ubuntu One Redesign

Ubuntu One, Ubuntu’s cloud storage service, has a redesigned interface in Precise Pangolin. Interestingly enough, the new interface uses the QT toolkit (used in KDE). The QT-based interface replaces the old one, which used the same GTK+ toolkit used in GNOME, Unity, and elsewhere on the Ubuntu desktop.

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Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.