On the surface, new versions of Ubuntu aren’t as big as they used to be. Like in the days before Canonical created its own Unity interface, the Ubuntu experience is now functionally similar to what you get in alternatives such as Fedora and openSUSE.
But there are a few big reasons to be eager for what Ubuntu 19.04 “Disco Dingo” has to offer, with some additions demonstrating just how nice it is to have Ubuntu desktop developers spending more time working directly on GNOME.
1. Less Consistent App Icons (That’s a Good Thing)
Ubuntu 18.10 was all about a new look. That release introduced a new desktop theme and a new set of icons. This was the most striking visual update to Ubuntu’s themes in over half a decade.
Ubuntu’s new icon set drew inspiration from those that appeared on Ubuntu Phones and in Unity 8. This brought the desktop a distinct look that didn’t feel complete. The icon theme used a “squircle” shape for icons, but all third-party icons kept their original shapes.
This was out of respect to app makers, whose app icons contribute to their brand and user experience. But this left a substantial contrast between most of Ubuntu’s default software and the apps you install yourself.
In 19.04, the “Yaru” theme’s icons come in different forms. Some retain a square squircle, with others are either vertical or horizontal rectangles. Some are circles. Others, like Ubuntu Software, retain their own unique shape. This variation makes themed icons fit in better alongside apps like Firefox and LibreOffice.
Can you still easily tell which apps are third-party? Yes, but the situation is better than it was.
Note: You can install the Yaru theme on the Ubuntu 18.04 long-term support release with the following command:
sudo snap install communitheme
You can then switch your theme on the login screen.
2. Fractional Scaling for HiDPI Displays
The GNOME desktop environment has supported HiDPI scaling for a number of releases, but the default options are limited. You can choose between 100% and 200% scaling. On many displays, that means your choice is either “too small” or “too big.”
In GNOME 3.32, more experimental options have worked their way in, but you will have to jump through a few hoops.
- Switch to Wayland. Ubuntu still uses the older X window display server by default. GNOME’s fractional scaling works on the newer Wayland display server. Fortunately Wayland comes pre-installed, and you can make the switch on Ubuntu’s login screen.
- Enable the experimental feature. This involves adding
scale-monitor-framebufferto the gsettings key
org.gnome.mutter.experimental-features. You can do so by entering this command into a terminal:
gsettings set org.gnome.mutter experimental-features "['scale-monitor-framebuffer']"
After you have taken these steps, go to Settings > Display. In addition to the options listed above, you will also see 125%, 150%, and 175%.
While this Disco Dingo feature is part of GNOME 3.32 and available on other Linux-based desktops, it wouldn’t yet exist without the work Ubuntu desktop developers put in.
3. New Desktop Icons Extension
Ubuntu uses the GNOME desktop environment, but it does make some adjustments. Take the dock that’s always visible by default on the left-hand side. In regular GNOME, that dock only appears when you enter the Activities Overview.
Before 18.10, GNOME decided to drop support for desktop icons. Weirdly enough, the feature was part of the file manager, known as Nautilus. In order to keep desktop icons, Ubuntu chose to use an older version of Nautilus that hadn’t yet removed support. That meant users missed out on tweaks and features that were in the newer version.
In Ubuntu 19.04, the developers have finished an extension that provides desktop icons. That means Ubuntu can provide the latest version of Nautilus. Since the code is separate, you can now change the size of your icons in the file browser without impacting the icons on your desktop.
But this new Ubuntu 19.04 feature does come with some regressions. You can no longer drag a file from your desktop onto an app window, for example.
4. Restructured App Menus
Have you ever noticed the menu tucked underneath the name of the app you’re using at the top of the screen? If you haven’t, you’ve probably missed out on some key functionality. Official GNOME apps often use that area as your way of accessing app preferences.
The idea was for options that impact the entire app to go there, while options that impact only the current window appear in the window.
It was a nice theory, but few third-party apps made the effort. That meant for the overwhelming majority of apps, the only option that appeared under the app menu was “Quit.”
As part of GNOME 3.32, which comes in Ubuntu 19.04, the old way of doing things is gone. Apps have now shifted all of their options inside the window, the way apps work on every other popular desktop (or mobile) interface. When you click the menu button in an app’s HeaderBar, you will now see all of the available options.
But that doesn’t mean the menu in the top panel has disappeared. Now when you click it, you see the same options that appear when you right-click the app’s icon on your dock. This means even if an app doesn’t actively support GNOME’s special menu, you will still see the names of open windows and the option to open the current app’s page in GNOME Software.
5. Ubuntu 19.04 Performance Improvements
I know, this doesn’t sound particularly exciting. The phrase “performance improvements” is vague and can appear in just about any app update. Oftentimes we don’t even notice a difference.
But with GNOME 3.32, the performance improvements are what some consider the headline feature. The developers have worked on key components of the GNOME interface, such as GNOME Shell and Mutter, to speed up the experience.
As a result, windows now respond more quickly to clicks. You are less likely to experience stuttering when opening and closing the Activities Overview, launching the app drawer, manipulating windows, or interacting with virtual desktops. Menus appear and disappear with less lag.
So if speed has been the primary issue keeping you from using GNOME Shell, give this release a try. It might change your mind.
Are There More New Features in Ubuntu 19.04?
These are only some big highlights. Ubuntu 19.04 also comes with a few changes you already expect, such as a new desktop wallpaper and an updated Linux kernel.
In this case, the kernel is making the leap to version 5.0. Though as good as that sounds, there’s nothing special about the number. Linux kernel numbers change when release numbers start getting too high (the previous version was 4.20).
For the bulk of what’s new in Ubuntu 19.04, check out the GNOME 3.32 release notes. All in all, there’s little reason to stay behind on 18.10. But if you prefer to stick with LTS versions like 18.04, thanks to snap packages, you can still get along pretty well even if it does mean missing out on the latest GNOME enhancements.