Ubuntu Linux 21.04 arrives with Wayland graphics, updated system theme, and more

Ubuntu Linux 21.04 arrives with Wayland graphics, updated system theme, and more

Ubuntu is one of the most popular desktop Linux distributions, and it serves as the base for countless other desktop operating systems, like Linux Mint and Elementary OS. There are two major releases of Ubuntu each year, and right on schedule, Ubuntu 21.04 ‘Hirsute Hippo’ has just been released.

Ubuntu 21.04 is not a Long-Term Support (LTS) release, so it will only be updated for the next nine months. If you don’t want to upgrade regularly or prefer stability over new features, Ubuntu 20.04 is the current LTS release and will receive updates until April 2025. Some changes in this new update, like improved enterprise performance, have been backported to 20.04.

Ubuntu desktop

First, Ubuntu 21.04 includes Linux kernel 5.11, which has a few interesting software features and support for newer hardware. AMD implemented better support for its Vangogh, Green Sardine, and Dimgrey Cavefish APUs, and Intel’s DG1 desktop graphics card now works without extra drivers or patches. Performance with BTRFS and NFS file systems have been improved, and there’s also support for Intel SGX, a feature on some Intel CPUs that provides secure zones for application data.

This release also marks the long-awaited switch to the Wayland compositor, replacing the X desktop server that has been a core component of most Linux environments for decades. Wayland usually has faster performance and smoother graphical effects than X, as well as better compatibility with advanced display features like fractional scaling. “Firefox, OBS Studio and many applications built with Electron and Flutter take advantage of Wayland automatically, for smoother graphics and better fractional scaling,” Canonical said in the announcement.

Some other distributions (like Fedora) have been using Wayland for a while now, but Ubuntu has been hesitant to switch — though it was tried one other time in 2017. If you’re using an NVIDIA graphics card, the OS will still default to X11.

Ubuntu 21.04 also has an updated theme, Yaru, which switches some desktop elements to a dark theme while keeping the rest of the operating system light. Ubuntu has had the option of light and dark themes for over a decade, but now the default look is a mix of both styles.

Sadly, Ubuntu 21.04 doesn’t ship with the latest GNOME 40 desktop environment, which has a redesigned Activities screen, settings improvements, and updated default apps. Ubuntu adds a few extra extensions on top of the vanilla GNOME desktop, so Canonical likely needs more time to update them before they can move to GNOME 40. That also means GTK 4.0 is missing, at least for now.

Ubuntu flavors

There are several official ‘flavors’ of the main Ubuntu OS, which swap out the GNOME desktop environment and some applications for alternatives. Most of the flavors also received a 21.04 update (or will in the coming days) with their own sets of new features.

Kubuntu 21.04

Kubuntu 21.04, which uses the KDE desktop environment and applications, has been updated to use KDE Plasma 5.21 and KDE Frameworks 5.80. That version of Plasma includes a new application launcher, theme improvements, a new ‘Breeze Twilight’ theme that combines dark and light elements (similar to the updated theme on regular Ubuntu 21.04), a new system monitor, and much more. Plasma 5.21 also has improved support for Wayland, though as of the most recent beta, Wayland was not enabled by default like it is on regular Ubuntu 21.04. You still have the option of selecting Wayland at the login screen.

Lubuntu 21.04 is now available, based on the lightweight LXQt 0.16.0 desktop environment. It also ships with Qt 5.15.2, a new Update Notifier, Discover Software Center 5.21, and other updated applications and frameworks. There’s also Ubuntu MATE 21.04, based on the MATE desktop (a continuation of GNOME 2.x), which has a new system theme and updated indicators.

The other flavors that have received updates include Ubuntu Budgie, Ubuntu Studio, and Xubuntu. Other non-official derivatives will likely receive updates soon or will continue to use Ubuntu 20.04 LTS as their core.

Ubuntu 21.04 is available for download for free from Canonical for 64-bit x86 PCs. There are also system images for the Raspberry Pi.

About author

Corbin Davenport
Corbin Davenport

Corbin is a tech journalist and software developer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He's also the host of the Tech Tales podcast, which explores the history of the technology industry. Follow him on Twitter at @corbindavenport.