Canonical has announced Ubuntu 11.04 (codenamed Natty Narwhal). The company says the new version "continues Ubuntu's proud tradition of integrating the latest and greatest open source technologies into a high-quality, easy-to-use Linux distribution." You can download Ubuntu 11.04 directly in three flavors: Ubuntu 32-bit, Ubuntu 64-bit, and Ubuntu Server.

Ubuntu 11.04 introduces a new desktop shell called Unity, which is the culmination of two years' design and engineering effort by Canonical and the Ubuntu community. For PC users, Ubuntu 11.04 supports laptops, desktops, and netbooks, superseding Ubuntu Netbook Edition for all PC netbooks. Ubuntu Server 11.04 makes it easier to provision servers and reduce power consumption while Ubuntu Server 11.04 for UEC and EC2 has a new kernel and improved initialization and configuration options.

Ubuntu 11.04 takes advantage of modern graphics to provide a visually rich interface for the PC. On older computers, Ubuntu will automatically determine if the graphics card supports Unity and will provide a classic experience when Unity will not work. The classic desktop experience is still an option for those who want familiarity or in large desktop deployments where not all can move to Unity immediately.

Ubuntu 11.04 features a configurable launcher on the left-hand side of the screen (regardless if you're on a laptop, desktop, or netbook), allowing the user to choose which applications they want. The new version also moves away from traditional interfaces, embracing search as the best way to find applications and files, which is hosted in the dash. The dash makes files, applications, music, and video all searchable through the same bar.

When searching for applications (by name or by category), users will see the most recently used or installed ones as well as suggestions to download through the Ubuntu Software Centre, which include user reviews and ratings. An open application will be highlighted in the launcher while active, can be locked to the launcher, or will remove itself from the launcher when closed. When searching for files (by file name or by type), the most recent files, downloads, and favorites will be presented. This marks a shift from the traditional "files and folders" approach to organizing files and introduces the search method that Canonical hopes users will find much faster and more efficient (although files and folders can still be accessed in the traditional way).

Here are a few other enhancements: a global menu for most pre-installed apps at the top of the screen, menus are shown only when needed, easier to switch between multiple screens, dozens of handy keyboard shortcuts to navigate quickly through screens and applications, as well as a volume indicator that can adjust the volume, queue, play, switch, and stop music. Last but not least, touch screens are fully supported in Ubuntu 11.04, as are gestures for trigger actions like scrolling, workspace-switching, as well as expanding and contracting screens.

"This release breaks new ground for Ubuntu by offering users a PC experience that is stylish and efficient," Jane Silber, CEO of Canonical, said in a statement. "With this release Ubuntu will recruit an entirely new wave of users to free software. Ubuntu 11.04 is a high watermark for what has been achieved with open-source technologies for the everyday computer user."