In a very short while, I have had the opportunity to try three new desktops. KDE 4 (not new but completely unknown to me previously), Unity on Ubuntu Natty (not a new desktop, but a novel shell nevertheless), and GNOME 3. I shall describe my experiences in a big review of each, in three parts.

Part 1 concerned my experience as a KDE newbie and also provided some historical background on my desktop habits. This one is about Unity, Ubuntu’s new desktop shell.

I originally moved to Ubuntu because I have always been a GNOME lover. I was using Debian at the time. The current stable version of Debian was 3.0 (woody), and it was not a happy time, because woody was such a famously long-lived distribution that sported a version of GNOME that seemed frozen in amber, GNOME 1.4.

Now, 1.4 was a great GNOME, the culmination of years of development in the GNOME 1.x series. However, the world around Debian had moved on and GNOME 2.2 was already out, as well as vastly improved versions of most essential desktop applications.  So inevitably I ended up running a lot backports and the system did not resemble Debian Woody a lot.

I upgraded to unstable, like so many desktop users at the time did, and life was good. But even Sid could not keep up with the GNOME project’s new, agressive six-month release cycle very well. (As an aside, the situation in Debian is quite a lot different these days of course, with their two-year release cycle and the steady, minor upgrades between the mature GNOME 2.x versions after 2.14 or so.)

At this point, I heard rumors on GimpNET’s #gnome-hackers, about a new Debian based distribution that was going to follow GNOME’s six-month release cycle. I also learned that the new distribution was recruiting a number of prominent GNOME hackers to ensure a great GNOME experience for the users of the forthcoming system. The new distribution had no title yet, but at some point a pre-release became available from the servers on a clandestine domain. I downloaded, I installed, I had GNOME 2.8.  On the very same day it was released, fully working on a functional Debian Sid snapshot that was now christened as “Ubuntu”.

I never looked back. On Ubuntu, I always had the latest GNOME. The Beta of the next release was usually available on or near the GNOME release day, and even if I waited for the stable release, my new GNOME would still be very new. Ubuntu also threw in a bunch of extra goodies and integrated everything into a very solid system.

But the day had to come when this breaks down. We learned that the release of GNOME 3.0 is imminent, and the smooth ride of nice, incremental upgrades of GNOME 2.x that Ubuntu was always able to build on was coming to an end. The giant major-number upgrade was impossible to integrate into Natty Narwhal, the next Ubuntu release. For the first time, we would upgrade Ubuntu without getting the latest GNOME with it. It is easy to understand, but my disappointment was irrational and insurmountable. I would upgrade, only to get GNOME 2.32 again? I was going to cry.

The GNOME non-upgrade? Not quite!

But there was something else. I then heard that we would have an entirely new desktop shell, and it will be called Unity, and that it will be awesome. So maybe I can settle even if it’s built on such ancient GNOME technology that we’re already using. I was also intrigued by all the criticism and weeping and whining of users who were horrified by the screenshots that were flooding on the Web. Most of those users had, of course, never tried Unity, but they decided to hate it already. This was a good sign to me: obviously something interesting is happening when such emotion is raised.

So I went and replaced my nice Kubuntu installation with Ubuntu Natty, which was freshly out of beta. I had a new machine, so my home directory was clean of old configuration cruft, a clean slate for the first time in ages, ready to receive the embrace of a default Ubuntu experience for a change. I logged in, and gasped in awe.

Ubuntu Natty with Unity looks fantastic. The desktop elements make sense. For the most part, I can immediately find my way around, and clicking on various widgets is pure joy, as they feel immediately meaningful and functional. Nothing extra is present on the screen, just the controls you need for work. I can only describe the desktop as “intuitive”.

Unity desktop

Life in Unity. Java apps still live in another universe

For the first time in ages, maybe ever, I did not immediately begin removing cruft from the desktop, and adding functionality that I want. It’s already there! I always used to install gnome2-globalmenu but Unity has a global menu (which also works with Qt apps). I always removed the application menu from the top panel and replaced it with an intelligent popup launcher, but Unity has already replaced it with the Dash. I removed the bottom panel, but Unity has none to begin with. I replaced the window list with a drop-down window list, but the sidebar Launcher in Unity already acts as one. I removed the window decoration from maximised windows in Compiz, but Unity already does that (and retains the window control buttons by adding them to the top panel when needed, to boot).

Overall, the desktop is also very pleasing to the eye, but that’s not a big change from Maverick. The biggest theming change is the new “overlay” window scroll bars, which are very pretty but for me that’s a regression. Sure, it has some aesthetic value and it’s entertaining at first. It also saves valuable pixels, removing window chrome in favor of content, but it is difficult to use with the mouse. I kept missing the target when trying to guess where the scroll bar would appear.

Eventually, I grew tired of the combined Launcher/Dock on the left hand side. It is not needed often enough to warrant using that many pixels on my screen. Besides, I never cared for docks anyway, I find them useless eye candy. I soon switched it to autohide instead of intellihide, just to keep it out of my peripheral view. It still pops up when you click the top left corner, or push the keyboard shortcut, so I didn’t feel like any functionality was lost by my decision. It also kept getting into my way when not needed. The ‘back’ button in a maximised Firefox window is dangerously close to the left edge, and the Launcher often popped up, intercepting my action. The Dock part of the functionality is also strange. I expected an active window to minimize when I clicked on its icon in the Dock, but this just did not happen.

The search in the Dash is implemented via the Zeitgeist engine. It works impressively well. The Dash in general was well enough for me, and I didn’t feel the need to install a better pop-up launcher. In the past, I had been using the Deskbar applet, then Gnome-Do, and most recently Synapse, the last being implemented in Zeitgeist itself, so I was right at home.

Window management in Unity works well, and of course I would expect nothing less. After all, Unity simply uses Compiz, which is a nice, traditional window manager that behaves predictably. However, workspaces are a real mess. First of all, the workspace switcher is not discoverable. It’s hidden in the very bottom of the Launcher, and presents four workspaces in two rows, which must be an alien sight to users who are used to finding a row of desktops in the bottom panel. Also, while it looks like a pager, it actually isn’t. you can’t directly change desktops there. Instead, your entire world is changed into a huge exposé-like view of all your workspaces. Now I can click on one of them and be taken there? No. After some trial and error, I finally learned that I must double-click in order to switch. Bad. Also, why can I not have just two desktops? Who decided that I need four? And why must I have them in a grid instead of a row?

The only consolation is that most people never use workspaces anyway.

While the global menu works very well, its habit of showing up every time I hit the Alt key (in anticipation of a keyboard shortcut) soon became extremely annoying. I have no idea how this could be fixed other than by simply disabling the autohide feature (which I did not find any way to do), or by turning off window menu shortcuts altogether (which I do not want to do).

I still love Ubuntu’s Indicators in the top panel. These are not exactly new, but they keep getting better. I also like the new color codings, which are based on urgency. However, I’m not sure I always understood how urgently some action is needed from me, and I’m sure that cultural differences can confuse matters even more.

I was surprised to like the new, unified control center as much as I did. I was always a fan of having a separate menu entry for every purpose, but maybe unifying them wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Furthermore, for those users who actually rely on menus to discover things, the new application menu system in Unity would probably make it slower to find something like Printer configuration options unless a single Control Center was implemented.

The lenses in the Unity Launcher are an interesting concept, and I assume people are doing interesting things with them. I was eager to play with some exciting lenses, but when I started thinking about a good hack, I failed to find a use case. Eventually, I did download and install a Web search lens that someone had hacked together, assuming it must be useful for even myself. However, a few days later I realized I have yet to use it. Maybe I’m not in the target audience, maybe autohiding the Launcher caused me to simply never remember about the existence of my cool web search lens.


Reading through all the drivel above, I realize that I have surprisingly little to say about Unity, given that superficially it is such a big change for the Ubuntu desktop. I can only assume that this is because Unity is not, after all, such a revolution. Underneath, we have the reliable old friend that we all know and love, GNOME 2.32. The right side of the desktop has not changed at all since Maverick, and on the left, the changes made are such that I always made them myself anyway.

Unity is pre-built for topylies, mostly saving me the trouble of customization.

That said, I was still hungry to get a real GNOME upgrade, so I decided to leave Unity for now, and wait for a version based on GNOME 3, upcoming in November with Oneiric. In the meant time, I decided to get GNOME 3 one way or another. And I did, but that’s a matter for the next installation, where I review GNOME 3 on Debian.

Stay tuned!


5 Responses to “The Grand Review of three new desktops, pt. 2: the Unity experience”

  1. Jeremy Bicha on June 19th, 2011 18:45

    By the way, the “new” control center has actually been in Ubuntu releases for some time, just hidden by default. You can run gnome-control-center to see it.

    But Gnome 3′s System Settings is a very nice rewrite of gnome-control-center. Ubuntu 11.10 will get it, as well as the rest of Gnome 3.2.

  2. Uli on June 19th, 2011 19:34


    I really like the series so far, motivated me to test KDE too…

    Anyway, I just wanted to recommend Mendeley to you. I switched from Jabref to Mendeley about a year ago and never looked back. Check it out:

  3. topyli on June 19th, 2011 20:10

    Ah yes, I even knew about gnome-control-center, but Ubuntu had made me forget about it! :)

    @ Uli
    I am aware of Mendeley, but I can’t really consider it as a replacement:

    1. Jabref is a native BibTeX editor, and its BibTeX is 100% standard, which prevents gray hair. Mendeley’s BibTeX plugin is not famous for producing files compatible with anything but Mendeley
    2. Mendeley does not communicate with LaTeX editors (such as Kile or Emacs), or with LyX via lyxpipe. This is quite important for my workflow.

    Both these things can be fixed in Mendeley in the future though, I’m sure! :)

  4. Neil on June 20th, 2011 06:12

    Nice review.

    I have been patiently waiting since reading part 1 and can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Gnome 3 :)

  5. MK on June 28th, 2011 18:59

    Thank you for the enjoyable review. I hope you can see the pettiness of your questions regarding the desktop spaces. Thanks for not getting stuck on them.