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Monday, 18 April 2011

Ubuntu's Unity in 11.04 - Not All That Bad

With all the upheaval around Unity and Gnome Shell and not having used Ubuntu since 'Breezy Badger' (that was 5.10) I thought I take a fresh look at the upcoming version and the new desktop. Well, it's not that bad, and at least to me seems more accessible than the new Gnome because it works in a more traditional manner.

Also, Unity actually got up and running where Gnome 3 via the Fedora live CD just dropped me into fallback mode every time, with barely functional panels and no right click shell menu. I only got ATI cards here, but it is a huge blunder to get such an impression right from the start. I can only assess Gnome Shell from what I've seen in desktop recordings, but Unity for me has already won here.

It doesn't take long to get used to either. In Mac-like fashion we get the applications menu now in the top panel. Not exactly new as you could already set up KDE 3 this way. It also doubles as title bar and dynamically changes with your mouse pointer.  You can already see it's all about maximizing screen real estate. The usual notifications are still on the right hand side of the panel, and it's slimmer than Gnome's top panel too. Windows got subtle drop-shadows.

The Ubuntu icon where the old Gnome menu used to be launches an overlay similar to Gnome 3 from where users can search for applications by section or freely from a search box, search for files or dig into pre-defined sections, with a couple of favorites like Shotwell being available right there. All this appears neatly layed out and of good size, with legible crisp fonts. I particularly like that each software section is then further divided into Most Frequently Used, Installed, and Apps Available for Download, which is trying to make suggestions and helped me discover quite a few applications I'd never heard of. There's also the Find Files section which lists recently used documents and the Favorite Folders in your home directory. All in all this is different from what I'm used to and more in the style of recent configuration panels in Gnome and KDE 4, but it feels fast and the smoky opaque black it employs looks good. Access to these is also available from the buttons in the lower left on the dock, just above the trash. Click the lense icon with the paper inside for files and folders, the one above with the plus inside for applications. Again, overall not bad, although I miss easy access to system settings, where ever these are now.

Which brings us to the, at least visually, most important feature, the dock. This basically is your quick launcher and task bar in one and is always visible, except when a window is maximized when it slides into hiding. If you hover over the left edge of the screen a semi-transparent dock comes popping back out, like the auto hiding we know from other panels. Towards the bottom is the pager/ workspace switcher. Unfortunately I haven't found a way yet to move the dock to the right. It may not be possible, given the seeming Ubuntu obsession with moving everything to the left, or it may be added with a future version.

Adding more app launchers to the dock is as easy as launching the program and clicking on Keep in Launcher in the resulting dialog. Uncheck to remove. This and the tiled nature of the dock reminds me of Window Maker, the light and rather fast window manager, so I had no trouble adjusting at all. You can re-order launchers with dragging them out onto the desktop. You'll see a white line in the dock moving about just as when re-ordering bookmarks in Firefox. Let go and the launcher has found a new place. Simple.  A white arrow to the left of the launcher indicates the application is open, clicking on it will bring it to the front. The currently active application has two white arrows, left and right.

Getting squeezed at the bottom

So, with the size of tiles, what to do when your dock is getting full? If you have more tiles than fit the screen it slides up and down. Normally your application launchers take precedence which sort of squeezes the Trash can applet and other tiles near the bottom, but they can be accessed again just by moving your cursor down.
Scrolling dock

Overall I find Unity very intuitive to use, it greatly reminds me of other, older environments and window managers like Xfce and Window Maker. It looks prettier, sleeker, more modern, at the same time it is lacking most of the configurability and functionality of all these. Nevertheless, it's a start, and not a bad one. It will be interesting to see Unity mature and more options added. I may even use it in a few releases if it hits the repositories of other distributions, unless Canonical suddenly turned around and dropped mono-libs in their default installation and their own proprietary tools like Ubuntu One and become more like a 'normal' linux distribution, in which case I would consider them again. Not likely, given that they have just replaced Rhythmbox with Banshee, a mono application, in the upcoming release.

I also against expectation found the color scheme in the upcoming 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' visually pleasing. It's giving a bright and dynamic impression with clean sharp looks, and with this new desktop it is definitely different. It seems however clear to me that this is more aimed at the portable market, aka netbooks and tablets, with smaller than "15 screens, and at a generation or a group of users who by and large do not have more than a handful of application windows open at the very most, who are light users and expect some snazzy looks - the migrating crowd of new users who usually only check their email, IM/chat, browse Ebay or facebook and perhaps download and peruse their multimedia files. I would not deploy Unity in its present form on a desktop I do anything heavier on, including gaming. There are better desktop managers for these jobs. However, Unity was stable and responded well, and that counts for something.

That's it, my first post re. Ubuntu. We're all-inclusive here.


  1. One huge problem with Unity that I found:

    On an Nvidia card, without the proprietary driver you can't use Unity 3d, and with the proprietary driver, Unity locks up on login.

    Maybe I'm the only person this happened to, but if not, Unity is a no-go on Nvidia cards until this gets fixed.

    (And yes, I know enough about Nvidia to know that this may be Nvidia's fault as much or moreso than it is Unity's fault.)

  2. I'm not impressed with Unity. It's a shame because I think it's aesthetically pleasant and the application's menu could be good but it just takes extra button clicks to get programs loaded, additional mouse maneuvering to access individual window menus and it lacks configuration options for the menus and panel.

    I do like that the app. menu showcases installable software but I do wish it displayed all my installed programs under their respective headings without the need for another button click to force it to show anything beyond the most recently used software. The most recently used programs could still show at the top of the list.

    I also use ATI - Radeon HD 3650. The Unity shell loads perfectly with it. But, I installed Natty into a VirtualBox system and Unity gave up, as did GNOME3; both dropped to fallback mode (which is much better than Unity,lol).

    I am biased though, I prefer KDE4.

  3. The system configuration is at the right hand corner in the turn off computer menu, there it is "System configuration"

  4. I installed Unity on my Mint 10 machine and plan to give it a good workout over the next month or so. So far, there's a few things I quite like and nothing that I can't get used to.

    Best point: a nice, clean interface that's actually not that different in look to the Gnome 2 setup I've been using.
    Worst point: getting to less-used applications. It needs a way of organising second tier apps to make them easier to get to.

  5. Frankly, I like it. I'm a Windows 7 user who is experimenting with Linux. Been playing with every flavor over the sun for the past 2 months, and Unity seems to work just fine for me.

  6. I think that Unity is just a movil menu, with a mac dock bar at the left but still us d it.

  7. I thoroughly enjoy it and think it's high time for change. Diondeville you say it's take longer to launch apps? Super key and then F enter and firefox is open. thats if it's not on your launcher which is probably just a super and the 3 or something like that. I am learning to use the keyboard shortcuts more now. Saves time and my wrist from using the mouse.

  8. I find it particularly difficult to get any work done with the Unity interface. It's like it is really dumbed down, which might be okay for a tablet, netbook, phone, but not for a desktop.

  9. On my HP Compaq NX6110 laptop, I only get 3-5 minuttes before it freezes. The beta 2 its not stable for my hardware.

    The find function works well for experienced users, for newbies Unity is a no go.

    I will stay with 10.10

    P.S. Fedora 15 beta with Gnome 3 runs a lot more stable, but I also here prefer Ubuntu 10.10

  10. @Anonymous
    Thanks for the tip! Well hidden and not really intuitive (for me), but people argue about what is intuitive.

  11. Unity in 11.04 allows me to get work done. Looks good, easy, and stable. A winner!

  12. Been using Natty for 3 weeks. I like the search driven desktop (no more complex menus) and the keyboard shortcuts. There seems to be a lack of good indicators but I guess these will come. Overall I appreciate Ubuntu shaking things up and trying something different.

  13. Loving Unity's simplicity and cleanliness. A few kinks that will eventually be worked out over time, but otherwise a great step in the right direction.


  14. Although I kept my other users on 'Classic Desktop', I decided to see if I could get to use Unity after using Gnome since pre-Ubuntu days. It took a bit of grief at the start ... how to get to those programs I wanted, how to find the config and admin programs, etc. But, now I have the launcher configured with the programs I had in the old Gnome panel, and have customised a few launcher .desktop files to get to certain directories directly by right-clicking the launcher icon, it is much better, faster and neater than Gnome. I'm still not keen on the somewhat inconsistent way that the top menu appears and the inconsistent use of the new scrollbars (which I actually like), but I guess that this consistency will be rolled-out over time. The biggest confusion was why some apps start maximised (now realise that any app whose window was previously over 75% of the screen area opens maximised - sensible really), and how to minimise a maximised window that wasn't displaying it's window control icons properly in the menu bar (just left-click and hold in the menu bar and drag down ... similarly, to maximise, just left-click in the window title bar and drag to the top of the screen - both really useful). After two days, I'm really productive in Unity.



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