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 nonameyet.com 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”.
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.
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. In the coming few days, I shall describe my experiences in a big review of each, in three parts.
I have always been a GNOME user. By “always”, I don’t mean I never used anything else. There always wasn’t a GNOME to use. I mean as long as GNOME has been around, I have used GNOME. Red Hat 6.0 was the first distribution to ship a full GNOME release, the much-rushed, buggy, and quite ill-received GNOME 1.0. Yes it was buggy, but I used it. It was still more to my liking than the AfterStep that Red Hat 5.2 sported, even if AfterStep worked better. In retrospect, I suppose I just fell in love with GNOME and wanted it to work. I wanted it to be awesome, and by god, if it works at all I’ll use it come hell or high water.
For context, this is what GNOME 1.0 looked like on Red Hat 6.0:
Yes, it was a mixture of Windows 95, fvwm, and indeed, KDE designs. But it was GNU, it was Free, and it was consistent. And it had Enlightenment as the default window manager. I had never met E before, and it blew me away. Fortunately, GNOME stabilized quite quickly, with support from Red Hat and others, and GNOME 1.4 was already a wonderful desktop to use. So much so that start-ups like Eazel and Helix (later Ximian) were building businesses around it, and Sun was testing it as a potential replacement for their aging CDE desktop on Solaris.
Why such a lengthy digression into history? I want to make clear that I have always appreciated improvements and innovation in the desktop space, even if it is the applications that I have to actually work with. I believe that your environment has a great effect on the quality of your work and well-being, and when working on a computer, the desktop environment matters just as much as the smell in your office.
So now that I have tried three entirely new desktop concepts, I thought someone might be interested what I think. If not, stop reading here. This is going to be a long post, and this is only going to be Part One. :)
How I used to work on GNOME 2.x
Like many (most?) old computer users, I’ve developed a rather idiosyncratic desktop setup over the years. On GNOME 2.x, I removed the bottom panel with its taskbars, workspace indicators, and whatever used to be there, I forget. I also tend to remove pretty much everything else. I have a top panel with a drop-down window list on the left, and the clock and the notification area on the right (and the indicator applets on the latest iterations of Ubuntu). For a couple of years, a global menu applet has been available, so I’ve been using that too. Here’s what my set up has settled into, more or less:
Browsing my old posts, I seem to have had most of what I then called ‘the Non-Interface‘ in place in late 2006. I was ranting about our application-based mindset in 2008 and advocating more focus on tasks and the actual objects of our work.
How this review came to be
I’ve been working primarily on an EeePC 701 ever since it came out. Really. It’s been quite enough for me, and it does what I need. Sure, I use a big external monitor and keyboard, but I threw away my desktop machine for the Eee and never regretted. However, I do suppose it looks sort of pathetic for a real work machine. So when Jussi, my favorite Kubuntu Personality and Co-Conspirator in Community Bureaucracy, realized he had no use for his nice LG X110, he offered it to me as “a loaner for unspecified time”. I gratefully accepted the offer. After all, it has a very nice keyboard, and the screen is an upgrade to a whopping 1024×600 (from the Eee’s 800×480).
But there was a catch, as there always is. “You must install Kubuntu, and give it 30 days. You may then do what you wish,” he said. So nice is the keyboard, that I still accepted the offer, even in this modified, more evil form. So now that I by chance got thrown away from my familiar environment, I thought I’d document some of my feelings. Without further ado (because that was enough, wasn’t it), let’s dive into the first part of my Grand Review.
Finally! The actual KDE Review
I know KDE 4 isn’t exactly new, but for me it is uncharted territory. Therefore I was rather excited to install Kubuntu Natty Beta, as it was at the time. Is it prettier than in the screenshots? Will I learn to use it? I had somehow built an idea of KDE being very complex, full of buttons and sliders, and every application a GNU Emacs with tons and tons of features I’m not interested in, even if the application were just an image or PDF viewer. The idea had no basis in actual experience or other study, but that’s the idea I had developed in my GNOME-induced mind.
Short version of the review: Kubuntu with KDE 4.6 is amazing.
The Plasma Desktop simply looks so good it almost made me cry. After poking about the desktop and familiarizing myself with some of the key concepts in the excellent documentation provided, i realized that the basic architecture behind it is also brilliant. Just like everything is a file in Unix, in the Plasma desktop everything is a plasmoid. Everything. This makes the desktop pretty much infinitely configurable, and I realized there is no way I can not fall in love with it. Whatever you don’t like, you can change.
And no, I did not like the defaults although I tried to use them for the first week or so. Eventually I realized that my Plasma desktop looks, and indeed, also works pretty much just like my desktop always did.
The desktop itself did not make me miss GNOME at all, it was all there. For a while I felt conservative and switched the desktop into “Folder view”, in order to get an old-school “real” desktop back, but I eventually realized the default Folder view as a plasmoid is enough, and allows me to add other widgets on the desktop as well.
KDE 4.x also introduced Activities. For example, I can work on my thesis and have all the usual windows and apps open on the desktop. When I get bored, I’ll leave all that stuff open and save it as an Activity called “Thesis”. I can then switch to the default “Desktop” activity and play moon-buggy, chat on IRC and look at lolcats for the rest of the night. When I feel like working again, I can switch back to the “Thesis” activity and everything will be there as if I never left. Brilliant.
However, I must admit I never really managed to get into the habit of actually using this feature. I found myself using the virtual desktops more, and inevitably losing my neat arrangement at each reboot. I blame myself for this more than the system though. Building, saving, and switching Activities is easy enough, and when your poor netbook starts to cough under the load of too many apps, you can “stop” a background Activity and free up the resources. I don’t know how many KDE users do use Activities, but I eventually gave up for some reason. I wonder if the KDE designers have done research on this, produced usage numbers, and maybe identified problems that trigger some psychological problem in an average topyli.
The Plasma desktop also has a pretty cool netbook mode, and you can even switch between the desktop and netbook modes on the fly. The “Search and View” Activity template used in the netbook mode isn’t very intuitive to configure, and I found it difficult to change desktop shortcuts for example. I also disliked the panel arrangement and never really managed to forge it to my liking. Then again, I did not use the netbook mode very extensively, as I’ve always preferred to run full desktops even on the tiny Eee screen.
As mentioned previously, I don’t use launcher menus, I find them rather cumbersome and slow to use. Fortunately, krunner is insanely, life-alteringly awesome. I have never tried a better launcher on any system. Launching apps, searching for files (kindly indexed for you by Strigi), searching the Web, anything I managed to think of is all right at my fingertips. It probably does much more than I’ll ever manage to discover. Krunner quickly took its rightful place at the center of my workflow.
Finding and adding currently installed plasmoids could be easier. The plasmoid picker that pops up when you ask for it is sort-of cool and futuristic, but also looks corny to me in some weird, unidentifiable manner. I was also annoyed by an obvious bug that the search field in this widget seems to be focused (as it should be), but actually isn’t. I couldn’t enter text before clicking on it. Finding and installing new plasmoids on the web is a joy however, with the tool provided handily at the same interface.
It’s in the applications that I started discovering phantoms of my old prejudice against KDE. Most apps seemed overwhelmingly complex, with far too many buttons and configuration options that were not useful to the average topyli in any obvious way. Oftentimes, I simply did not understand what a certain option or feature means. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. The developers drawn to the KDE ecosystem seem to be inclined to make powerful applications, and indeed that’s what they do. But I was now clearly out of my comfort zone. Being used to Eye of Gnome, which simply displays an image to me when I click on one in the file manager, I was overwhelmed by the richness of Gwenview, for example.
The above probably tells more about me as a user than about KDE apps as products. We don’t match. After a decade of GNOME, I’ve gotten used to the soothing simplicity of its design. I expect the basic functionality up front, with the more advanced functions hidden from eyesight and for me to find, either somewhere in gconf, in an extension somewhere, or another application altogether. KDE apps prefer to slam the whole smorgasbord in front of me, and it’s up to me what features I use and what I leave untouched. It’s a matter of style.
I did find a few wonderful apps however. The same Gwenview I just criticized turned out to be a rather wonderful application once I took the time to learn my way around. At first I had installed Digikam to handle my image collection, but in the end I realized that Gwenview is enough.
Kaffeine must offer the easiest TV setup I have ever encountered, be it a digital TV card in a computer or even a real TV. Simply the friendliest TV tuner ever. (As an aside, I have never, ever gotten gnome-dvb-daemon and Totem to work. At all. Easily or otherwise. I use dvb-tools to create a channels.conf and watch TV with VLC, when in GNOME.)
Jussi also half-forcibly introduced me to Quassel, which is an amazing IRC system. I use the core on his server and I’m always up to date. It’s like using irssi like I always do, with the added benefit of a friendly desktop client that properly integrates with the desktop notification system, monitors the availability of the network connection from network-manager, and looks good. There is also an Android client in (heavy) development that is quickly approaching usability. irssi might be history for me soon.
Akonadi sync to Google stuff is a pain. After a few attempts I was convinced I will never get the calendar to sync. I browsed the web, read bug reports and HOWTOs, and failed time and time again. At some point it suddenly worked, using the same steps I swear I had tried before. It is still a mystery to me. Imagine my disappointment when the newly synced calendar still did not show in the clock plasmoid’s calendar, like Evolution calendars do in GNOME. The calendar also seems able to show local holidays. Well, at least I’ll know when I will not have a meeting. I also found the KDE PIM apps to be quite confusing and unnecessarily complex in general, and soon gave up, moving to Google’s web apps.
Being used to GNOME’s instant apply introduced early in the 2.x era, I hated having to hit ‘apply’ all the time. Again, just a design decision that I’m too used to like the alternative. Related to this, the “Cancel” and “OK” buttons are in KDE apps and configuration dialogs are in the “wrong” order, making me make mistakes.
All in all, I really enjoyed life in KDE land. Despite the complexity of some of the configuration dialogs and the apps being too advanced for an average topyli, I was relatively happy and rejoiced the freedom, good looks, and great workflow afforded by the Plasma desktop itself.
However, after the month I had promised Jussi, I decided to return to my comfort zone and install a GNOME distribution. Naturally, that distribution was Ubuntu Natty, now fresh out of beta.
I shall describe my adventures with the Natty desktop, featuring Unity, in the next installation of this Grand Review. The third and final installation will describe my foray into vanilla GNOME 3 on Debian Sid.
Stay tuned! :)
 Note the super-witty reference to GNOME 3.0, five years ago. Yes, we were talking about ToPaZ already :)