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An Honest Review of the Unity Interface in Ubuntu 11.04

Unity from the Eyes of a Gnome-Shell User

I was playing with aptitude… trying to install… or upgrade? Or was I downgrading something? Does it even matter? So.. well, I messed up my libc6.. Yes, people.. I messed up the C library. It’s like the worst thing you can do to your OS. And I did it.

So what then? The only command that worked on my system was cd. (Not quite what I needed, eh?) I even had to shutdown my PC by turning off the power switch. Yea.. so there I was… messed up system, lots of time at hand. What did I do? I installed Ubuntu.


(By the way, the easier way would have been reinstalling libc6 from .tar.gz files. One is supposed to chroot to the damaged system and unpack the lib files into their correct folders. However, I wanted to try out Unity, so I didn’t bother trying it out.)

I had an old 9.10 Ubuntu Live CD (ahh.. the days) that I used to download Ubuntu 11.04. So, finally I was going to try using Unity. A few days back I had upgraded my Gnome 2.x desktop to Gnome-Shell and loved the new desktop. I discussed the transition in a post. But Gnome Panel and Gnome-Shell are completely different creatures. The former a toothless veteran of many years and the latter still a babbling baby (Gnome-Shell is still not even in the unstable repositories of Debian). Now I was going to get a fair comparison and something new to use. One of important reasons for me writing this review is that I didn’t find any review by a Gnome-Shell user trying out Unity. Most reviewers are Ubuntu users who experience Unity on their Ubuntu boxes then try installing Gnome-Shell from ppas.

Since I’ve already written on what my first impression of Gnome-Shell were, I won’t repeat them here. I’ll discuss only what I felt about Unity.

First Impressions

So.. I first installed the base system and then installed Unity on top of it. When I saw my desktop, the first thought that came to my mind was “Woah! She looks ugly!!”. But then I installed some themes and it looked better. However, having gotten used to Gnome-Shell, the UI still looked a little lack-lustre. The default theme is good, but the UI lacks consistency.

Launcher

The launcher that pops on the left is one key component of Unity. It is a lot like the Dash in Gnome-Shell and is a replacement for the traditional taskbar. However, it sticks out as different and disintegrated from the rest of the UI. The launcher is bright and colourful, while the rest of the UI is brown and dull.

By default the launcher is set to intellihide, which means it will pop up if you mouse over the area. Although this sounds like a good use of space, it gets frustrating pretty quickly. The launcher takes some time to show and when you are in a hurry, it counts. Finally I got too irritated and changed its behaviour from intellihide to always visible. I do not mind dedicating a few pixels to the left to launching and switching between windows.

However, unlike Gnome-Shell, the Unity launcher is independent of the Dash (Dash in Unity = Overview in Gnome-Shell) which is a good thing.

Dash

Another important constituent of the Unity experience is the dash. In a normal desktop, (screen larger than 14 inches) the dash occupies about 3/4th of the screen, which is annoying because it’s not small enough to see what’s behind, and it’s not big enough to be comfortable. What adds to the annoyance is that the icons are gargantuan. It feels like the Unity developers are insulting your monitor resolution.

I was disappointed to see that Dash does not manage workspaces and windows too like Overview.

I wanted the dash to occupy the top of the screen if possible, and maybe decrease the size of the icons. But it does not have those options. So I finally decided to enlarge it to cover the whole screen (so that at least choosing the applications became easier). The following command does that.

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity form-factor 'Netbook'

Now if you want to get back the 3/4th screen behaviour, run the following command

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity form-factor 'Desktop'

To revert back to whatever the original settings were for your system were, use the following

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity form-factor 'Automatic'

One more complaint I had was that the space on the dash was wasted not only by the gargantuan icons of installed applications as I already mentioned, but also suggestions for install. When you click on one of them, the clicked upon application gets downloaded and installed for you. This is an irritant since people rarely install software on a daily basis. And even so, choosing software from the software-center/aptitude is a lot straightforward than installing from dash.

Also, launching applications with the mouse is unnecessarily complicated. The Dash does not by default show all the applications installed.

The Overview in Gnome-Shell on the other hand is a lot simpler and easier to use, and also uses the whole screen intelligently. On an average it takes less mouse clicks to launch an application in gnome-shell.

Application Menu

A global menu (called the application menu here), although a very old concept for the computer world, is a novelty for Linux. I was the most excited about trying it out. One Menu to rule them all, One Menu to find them. The global menu makes sense. It gives more space to the application windows. Plus it is constant – on the top panel. I really enjoyed it for quite some time.

The only weakness it shows is when using normal windows (as opposed to maximized). Empathy (or any chatting application really) is a good example. People usually do not have it maximised. I usually have it in the top right of the screen near the notifications. So this means that to access its menu, I need to go to the far right and select empathy and then move to the far left to access its menu and then again perhaps go to the right to do anything else. Also, in case of multiple windows some time is wasted in making sure that the right application is in focus before accessing the menu since the menu is common. This seems unnecessary and easily avoidable by using the global menu only for maximized applications.

One more problem I have with the global menu is that the menu does not show until you are right on top of it. Linux applications are not a uniform bunch like Mac applications (and understandably so). Every application has its own menu system and way of arranging options. Banshee for example does not have a traditional File menu- a Media menu replaces it. So until you’re right on top of it, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The menu could have been made persistent, rather than appearing only when you move the mouse to the top.

Status Menus

Unity has decided to continue with their standard applets, which I think is a good move. The messaging menu and the me menu are unique and very usable. There is no equivalent (right now) in Gnome-Shell.

Workspaces

I’m mentioning the workspaces separately because I found it very weird that the number and positioning of workspaces cannot be changed. I clean installed Ubuntu 11.04 and got four workspaces arranged in two rows. I am used to having them in a single row. So I searched everywhere for the settings, but I couldn’t find it. Although it might seem trivial, the important thing to notice here is how even the most basic settings are difficult to apply. Also, the button for expo (on the launcher) is not very easy to access. Of course you can use the keyboard hotkey, but that means switching between the mouse and keyboard. There is also some inconsistency here. Sometimes when you view the workspaces expo, the application menu is still visible. It disappears when you click on any menu.

Tweaking & Theming

Unity gave an impression of being a big fragile hack. Compiz Configuration Manager is the preferred way for crashing customising Unity. There aren’t many customizations available though. However, I found many ways of crashing Unity. There are quite a few options that one is not supposed to change to keep Unity from crashing. However the user is not made aware of that. Also, I would have liked to see these options united under the Unity plugin so that the user knows that he’s going to affect Unity.

Gnome-Shell provides the easiest way to edit themes to date. Unity on the other hand is still highly uncustomisable.

In Conclusion

In general, Unity feels like something put together at the last moment without much thought. It feels half-baked. It is difficult to customize Unity. It is okay to use if you go in with the Windowstm mentality, which is to be happy and satisfied with whatever they give you.

However, after I used it for a few days, I didn’t hate it so much. It could definitely have been a lot better, but it still can be used. Just, stay away from the lure of trying to customize it and accept it as it is.

The application menu and the notification menus are good, but the Dash needs an overhaul. It would also be greatly in Canonical’s favour to make customising easier.

To be fair, both Gnome-Shell and Unity seem to be incomplete at the moment, but in completely contrasting ways. The Gnome community chose the traditional *nix way and produced a quality product with some functionality missing (which hopefully will be added in Gnome 3.2), while Canonical made a buggy product with most of the promised features available in time. In addition, Unity is available only for Ubuntu, which is a huge disadvantage since everyone will install Ubuntu just to use Unity while (theoretically) everyone can use Gnome-Shell. This will mean that Unity will find it more difficult to improve

This release of Unity feels broken in many ways. However Unity is very ambitious, and I believe that Canonical will sort these problems out before the stable release.

Post Unity

After using Unity for a few days, I decided to go back to Debian (and completely forgot to take screenshots for this post). I installed Gnome-Shell on it and checked gnome-system-monitor for RAM usage. My heart skipped a beat. It said 78.4 MB. I was in love again.

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5 thoughts on “An Honest Review of the Unity Interface in Ubuntu 11.04

  1. Pingback: We Need Focus! « End of Line Magazine

  2. My feelings too on Ubuntu 11.4 Its a bit half baked and does nothing to invite me to use it. I have always said that a OS have to behave similar to all others to make users feel comfortable using it.
    Apple has found this out with Lion as some really have expressed dislike for things like Launchpad and reverse scrolling which Apple calls “Natural” scrolling. Sometimes change is not good.

  3. I also wanted to change the number of workspaces and solved it by following this: https://help.ubuntu.com/11.04/ubuntu-help/shell-workspaces.html
    After using Unity or Ubuntu 11.04 in general for about 1 week, my impression also changed from bad to something between ok and good. I think it’s because I ran Ubuntu 10.xx for a very long time and didn’t notice how much I had customized it in the end. When I was presented with a very fresh OS, I saw the differences between default and my own settings.

  4. My feelings exactly. Now, with 11.10 there is no way around unity. So, for me its by bye Ubuntu, it was nice while it lasted.

    Why? Long listt, a few: apps open fullscreen, handy on a netbook, not so on my full-hd screen. How to switch to a desktop directly (yes I know super+s and super+w), but how do I switch directly? How do I program the most accessible of all keys and buttons, namely my mouse buttons?

  5. I think I will go back to Debian. Its much less hassle in the long run, and more stable.

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