The final Ubuntu 21.04 release draws closer, but first: a fresh bout of testing is required – enter the Ubuntu 21.04 beta!

Developers and non-developers alike can download the Ubuntu 21.04 beta release to help test out the many changes that make up the “Hirsute Hippo”.

This is the only beta release planned, and anyone who installs the distro using this image can upgrade to the final Ubuntu 21.04 release once it arrives later this month. How? By installing all updates as they arrive. Simple!

And in case anyone missed the memo: the final stable release of Ubuntu 21.04 is due on April 22, 2021.

Intro out of the way, let’s take a look at what’s new!

Ubuntu 21.04 Beta: New Features

Ubuntu 21.04 runs Linux 5.11

Anyone following our coverage of Hirsute as-it-happened will know that Ubuntu 21.04 is not a feature-packed release. While there is some new stuff to gawk at most of the changes are of the ‘spit and polish’ variety and thus not super exciting.

The headline change? Ubuntu 21.04 uses Wayland by default. Yes, that is a sense of deja vu you’re experiencing as Ubuntu 17.10 used Wayland by default but devs reverted to Xorg in the follow-up release.

Has Ubuntu’s Wayland support improved since 2017?

On my AMD hardware the Ubuntu Wayland session runs without few (if any) glaring issues. Your Wayland experience will vary depending on your hardware, the software you use, and the tasks you’re trying to accomplish. I don’t game; I don’t stream; I don’t kick the tyres in quite the same way as others.

Ubuntu 21.04 uses Linux kernel 5.11. This update carries a varied crop of improvements, including better hardware support, new device drivers, bug fixes, faster filesystem performance and, notably, significantly improved performance Radeon RX 6800 series graphics cards.

Dark Theme By Default

From ‘invisible’ changes to one you can’t fail to miss: Ubuntu 21.04 now uses a dark theme by default . Don’t panic, this is only for the GNOME Shell UI, including top bar menus, dock quick lists, notifications, calendar/notification tray, and modal Shell dialogs.

Ubuntu 21.04 dark theme

As well as theme tweaks Hirsute also ships with a handful of new icons which the more keen-eyed Ubuntu fan may be interested to spot. This include new icons for Transmission and the individual programmes in the LibreOffice suite:

The new LibreOffice icons mix fewer colours

Talking of GNOME Shell this release is based on GNOME Shell 3.38.4. This is a few revisions higher than the version available in Ubuntu 20.10, released last October but doesn’t add any new features just lots and lots of bug fixes.

Ubuntu devs felt GNOME 40 made too many changes for them to include in this cycle. The plan is for Ubuntu to get GNOME 40 (or GNOME 41) in Ubuntu 21.10.

A better desktop icons extension with full drag and drop support, better sizing and spacing, and a plethora of additional settings to configure and fine-tune its behaviour is included by default. We wrote about it recently (and suffice to say we’re pleased).


Updated core apps

Updated versions of many open source apps are present including Mozilla Firefox 87, Thunderbird 78.8, and the latest LibreOffice 7.1 point release.

No major surprise there; Ubuntu always carries the latest stable versions.

What is a surprise is seeing that a handful of the latest GNOME 40 apps are included by default! This includes updated versions of the System Monitor (which has new tab icons), the Characters app (now responsive), and Disk Usage Analyser.

A selection of the latest GNOME apps

The latest releases of Weather and Epiphany and a few other core GNOME apps are also available the repos, the former sporting a information-loaded redesign and the latter coming with hugely improved tabs.

Sadly Software, Nautilus, To-Do and Evince are the 3.38 builds.

Finally, there is a new default wallpaper to gawk at, and a handful of new photo wallpapers (all of hippos, naturally) to switch between.


Ubuntu 21.04 isn’t front-loaded with new features (and thus unlikely to win the distro any new fans with this release specifically) but the update as a whole delivers enough improvement to please Ubuntu’s existing user base, as well as those looking to test some of the latest open source tech.

So while it’s Hirsute by name it’s not by nature; there’s nothing hair-raising about Ubuntu 21.04. Some changes, like the switch to a ‘dark’ shell theme, feel more like a course correction than a leading move (after all, upstream GNOME has had a dark shell for several years), while others, like the switch back to Wayland, show that the devs behind the distro are keen to push the technological envelope further.

Download Ubuntu 21.04 Beta

You can download Ubuntu 21.04 from the Ubuntu release server by clicking the big orange button. This will snag the latest beta .iso (weighing in at a hippo-sized 2.6 GB)

Download Ubuntu 21.04 Beta (64-bit .iso)

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