Recent Ubuntu releases have introduced major changes, including a new theme, a new application stack and--gasp--a new position for window buttons.  But Karmic and Lucid also included a number of tiny usability enhancements that you might not have noticed, but which are central to making Ubuntu a Linux distribution for human beings.  Here's a look at five of them.

While no operating system is perfectly intuitive, Ubuntu gives its competitors a good run when it comes to usability.  Other Linux distributions, and proprietary operating systems, certainly do some things better than Ubuntu.  But all in all, I'm impressed with the attention to user-friendliness evident in Lucid.

Granted, many of these improvements are the work of upstream developers, and they're not unique to Ubuntu.  But from the end user's perspective, that doesn't matter--and it shouldn't.

Screenshot Utility

Traditionally, the Gnome's screenshot application simply dumped an image of the current screen to a file on the desktop.  If you wanted to do something more complicated, like take the shot after a delay or capture only the current window, you had to call the utility from a terminal with the appropriate command-line arguments.  That's hardly something non-geeks should have to do.

In Karmic and Lucid, different options for taking screenshots are available through a GUI.  This may not be a revolutionary change, but it certainly contributes to usability.

Syntax Highlighting in Nano

Need to edit a text file from the command line, but find yourself afraid of taking sides in the vi vs. emacs debate?  Avoid the issue entirely by using nano, the text editor of champions--or at least of people who, like me, can't remember how to exit an application without having the necessary keystrokes conveniently specified at the bottom of the screen.

I always feel a little embarrassed to admit I'm a nano user.  In Ubuntu 10.04, however, the utility has become more legitimate for serious work by supporting syntax highlighting when editing source code, which goes a long way towards making me feel like I have a clue what I'm doing.  It also makes scripts a lot easier to read.

Archive Mounter

Mounting ISO images as if they're actual CDs in your disk drive can be incredibly useful.  It also used to be fairly difficult, unless you were good at remembering the cryptic arguments that you needed to pass to "mount" in order to create a loopback  device.

In recent versions of Ubuntu, this has become a thing of the past, since ISO images can now be mounted simply by right-clicking on them and selecting "Open With Archive Mounter."  What could be easier?  Maybe a less ambiguous and technical name than "Archive Mounter," but now I'm nitpicking...

RAR Files

Speaking of archives, dealing with files compressed in the RAR format used to be a big hassle.  You'd need to download unrar and run it from the command line (or XArchive, but that gets little press).  Granted, RAR is a proprietary, sketchy, undocumented compression algorithm that no one should ever use, but that doesn't mean no one does.

Refreshingly, Lucid comes with built-in support for extracting RAR archives.  As a bonus, it can all be done through the graphical interface of Gnome's standard Archive Manager, although unrar is still available for those users who prefer the command line.

Better PDF Reader

Evince, the PDF reader that ships with Ubuntu, has always done a good job of fulfilling its mission of being "simply a document viewer" (as opposed to Adobe Reader, which is "simply a huge, bloated waste of resources that takes ten minutes to open."  But I digress).  In Ubuntu 10.04, however, Evince sports a few new features that make it extra-usable, including a side pane containing thumbnails of each page.  You can also now invert colors in a document, just in case you ever feel compelled.

Conclusion

There is, of course, always more work to do on the usability front.  Until my computer can literally read my mind, it won't be as intuitive as I would like.

Despite its lack of psychic acuity, however, Ubuntu 9.10 and 10.04 clearly reflect a commitment to usability.  I look forward to seeing what the next release brings.