Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is a huge change from Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. This is the first long-term support (LTS) release after the massive changes of Ubuntu 17.10, which saw the end of the Unity desktop, Ubuntu Phone, and Ubuntu’s convergence plans.

If you were already using Ubuntu 17.10, you won’t notice any big changes. Ubuntu 18.04 focuses on polishing the changes made in Ubuntu 17.10. However, while Ubuntu 17.10 used the Wayland display server by default, Ubuntu 18.04 switches back to the tried-and-true Xorg display server.

Update: After a small delay, the final Ubuntu 18.04 LTS images are now available for download.

GNOME Shell Replaces the Unity Desktop

For Ubuntu 16.04 LTS users, the biggest shock will be the change of desktop environment. Ubuntu has ended development on Unity—both the classic Unity 7 desktop used in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, and the Unity 8 environment that was supposed to one day replace it.

Ubuntu now uses GNOME Shell as its default desktop environment. Some of Unity’s stranger decisions have been abandoned, too. For example, the window management buttons (minimize, maximize, and close) are back to the top right corner of each window instead of the top left corner. The heads-up display (HUD) is gone, too. Here’s what you need to know about using GNOME Shell if you’re used to Unity.

RELATED: What Unity Users Need to Know About Ubuntu 17.10's GNOME Shell

Although the GNOME desktop environment still has a dock (launcher) pinned to the left side of the screen by default, you can now easily move it to the bottom or right side of the screen, if you like.

The GNOME Shell environment is fairly slick and easy to use, and Unity users should have little trouble getting used to it. Ubuntu’s LightDM login manager has been swapped out for GNOME’s GDM login manager, which means the login screen looks a little different, too.

Despite the axing of Unity, Ubuntu’s desktop software remains largely the same. Ubuntu still includes Firefox, Thunderbird, and LibreOffice. The default file manager is the same Nautilus file manager it’s always been. You still install software via the GNOME Software application. The Settings app has a new interface, but it’s simple to use and its convenient search button should make it easy to find the settings you need.

Ubuntu Still Uses Xorg By Default

Ubuntu 17.10 switched to the modern Wayland display server by default, although the traditional Xorg display server was still available as an option. But Ubuntu’s developers have backed off, for now. In Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, the default display server is still Xorg. That’s the same display server used on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS.

Wayland is widely regarded as the future, and you can still switch to it by clicking the gear icon on the sign-in screen and selecting “Ubuntu on Wayland” instead of the default “Ubuntu” session, which uses Xorg. However, Wayland has some compatibility issues. For example, if you want to use NVIDIA’s closed-source drivers for maximum 3D performance, you’ll need Xorg. NVIDIA’s drivers don’t support Wayland.

Canonical’s Will Cooke provides some other reasons why Xorg is still the default. Screen sharing tools like Google Hangouts and Skype work well with Xorg, and so do Remote Desktop utilities like RDP and VNC. Xorg is also better at recovering from underlying shell crashes without losing your graphical session. Work is ongoing to improve Wayland for these cases, but Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is sticking with the tried and tested Xorg for the next few years

Wayland will likely be the default display server in Ubuntu 20.04 LTS. The version included with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS is a “technical preview.”

Ubuntu Now Supports Color Emoji

The Ubuntu desktop now ships with a full set of color emoji. Previously, emoji support was inconsistent and emojis appeared as black-and-white in some applications. Ubuntu is actually using Google’s Noto Color Emoji font, which is used by default on Android devices like Google’s Pixel line of smartphones.

You can press Ctrl+. or Ctrl+; to view the emoji panel in most apps, allowing you to easily insert emoji. You can uninstall the emoji package from your system, if you don’t like seeing them.

Ubuntu Collects and Uploads More Data About Your PC

Ubuntu is now collecting more data about your PC. After you install Ubuntu, you’ll be prompted to send “system info” to Canonical. This includes information like the version of Ubuntu you have installed, your computer’s manufacturer and CPU model, which desktop environment you installed, and your time zone. Canonical won’t keep enough information to tie this information back to your computer. All this information will be publicly available, so people can see how many Ubuntu users there are and view statistics about their hardware and software.

Ubuntu is also now configured to automatically send bug reports with Apport and share which packages you have installed with the “popularity contest” tool. You can disable these data collection features, if you like.

RELATED: How to Stop Ubuntu From Collecting Data About Your PC

Live Patching Allows Kernel Patching Without Rebooting

Ubuntu 18.04 includes a new feature named “Canonical Livepatch.” When this feature is enabled, you can install Linux kernel updates without rebooting your system. This is particularly important on Linux servers, where you don’t want any downtime. But Livepatch is supported on desktop PCs and can be enabled graphically.

This feature requires you sign in with an Ubuntu One account. You can enable Livepatch on up to three PCs with the same Ubuntu One account, but that’s it. Canonical wants to sell this service to businesses.

You’ll see an option for setting up Livepatch in the welcome wizard after installing Ubuntu. You can also open the Software & Updates window, click the “Updates” tab, and then click the “Sign In” button next to “To use Livepatch you need to sign in.”

A Minimal Installation Option

While installing Ubuntu, you’ll see a new “Minimal” installation option. This installs a smaller Ubuntu environment with just a web browser and basic utilities. Ubuntu normally includes LibreOffice, some simple games, and a few media players, but those aren’t installed if you choose a minimal installation.

Of course, even if you choose a minimal installation instead of a normal installation, you can still install whatever you want after installing Ubuntu. Phoronix found only about 400 MB of space saved by using the minimal installation. This option gives you a simple, uncluttered desktop, but it really doesn’t save you a lot of storage space.

32-bit Ubuntu ISOs Are Gone

Ubuntu 18.04 LTS no longer offers 32-bit Ubuntu ISO images. These 32-bit installation images were left behind in Ubuntu 17.10. If your computer was made in the last decade, it almost certainly has a 64-bit CPU and can run a 64-bit operating system.

This isn’t the end of the line for 32-bit systems. Ubuntu still has 32-bit software available, but the developers felt that the 32-bit Ubuntu desktop images weren’t seeing much testing. The 64-bit version is now just better supported, and everyone should be using it—if possible.

If your PC does require a 32-bit operating system, you can install Xubuntu 18.04 or Ubuntu MATE 18.04. These are alternate “flavors” of Ubuntu that pair different desktop environments with the same underlying software, and they both offer 32-bit installation images. Xubuntu uses the Xfce desktop and Ubuntu MATE uses the MATE desktop.

These are lightweight desktop environments that should perform more quickly on the older PCs where you’d need to use a 32-bit operating system, too.

The Usual Software Changes and Upgrades

As usual with a new release of Ubuntu—or any other Linux distribution—much of the included software has been upgraded, from system software like the Linux kernel to desktop applications like LibreOffice. These upgrades aren’t always full of shiny new features, but they should make every area of the system a little bit better.

Ubuntu 18.04 LTS includes Linux kernel version 4.15, GNOME 3.28, and LibreOffice 6.0. The gcc compiler has been configured to compile applications as position independent executables (PIE), which helps protect against some types of exploits. There are also mitigations to protect against Spectre and Meltdown attacks.

Many other changes have been made. The To Do app is now installed by default, the new Characters app replaces the old Character Map, and the Calendar app now supports weather forecasts. By default, computers will automatically suspend after 20 minutes of inactivity while running on battery power to save energy. Driverless printing support is now available, which should make it easier to print to a variety of printers with less configuration.

See the full Ubuntu 18.04 LTS release notes for more information.

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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