Ubuntu 11.04 Unity Review

29 Apr

So Ubuntu 11.04 has finally been released and, for many people, the deciding factor will be Unity, the brand-new dock/launcher/panel combo that Canonical are pushing in favour of Gnome 3. So how does it feel? What quirks make it better or worse to use? Why am I asking you all this?

Just to make clear, I’m not going to go on about its stability. If you must know, it worked mostly fine for me on my AMD HD 5450 with proprietary drivers, albeit with an odd graphical hickup when opening menus. But anyway, I’m going to write this as if the code itself is perfect and unbreakable. It’ll give you an idea of whether you’d like it under ideal conditions, and possibly if you’d like to use it in the future when bugs are squashed and performance improved.

The Dock

So the dock on the left side of the screen has been subject to quite a bit of controversy, given that it was already present in Ubuntu 10.10 courtesy of the Netbook remix, and was a little clunky in the usability department. Good news, ladies and gentlemen: it autohides! Netbook users will be glad to hear that it doesn’t break web-page displaying with a horizontal scroll bar any more. It uses an intelligent auto-hide behaviour: when unobstructed, it displays in full; when a window is moved across it, it auto-hides and auto-shows depending on whether it’s obstructed; and it auto-hides completely when windows are maximised. It’s quite clever and won’t annoy many users on its own, given that its behaviour makes sense. When it is hidden, holding your pointer to the side for a second or so will show it, and moving your pointer to the top-left Ubuntu logo will show it instantly. This threw me off for a bit, since I’m used to panels that reveal immediately. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve chosen that behaviour, either: to accomodate accidental edge-hitting? Doesn’t seem that big a problem to me…

Another clever trick is the use of the Meta (Windows) key for instant-access shortcuts. You can quickly press Meta+1 for the first icon, Meta+2 for the next etc., or alternatively hold Meta to reveal all the shortcuts for the dock. Another neat Meta shortcut is Meta+W, which shows all non-minimised windows in a grid courtesy of Compiz.

Shortcut numbers. Neat.

Also interesting about the dock is the right-click menus – gone are most of the window-management-related options, like moving windows to a different workspace, and in comes some flash-bang and application integration.

Only Evolution features this so far, but it’s still promising

Window Management

Window management is quite altered from previous versions of Ubuntu: instead of using a bottom panel for all your window-management needs, it’s now integrated into the sidebar. Virtual Desktops now use a button instead of that buggy gnome-panel applet (buggy in combination with Compiz, that is), which simply scales down the desktops into a grid, which we’ve been doing with Compiz since forever. It’s nice to see proper integration, at least.

The desktop grid that’s been thrashed to death on Youtube

More interesting, perhaps, is the integration of window management with the top panel. First, that’s where the focussed window’s menu will appear after hovering your mouse over it – at first, I didn’t realise this and ended up looking for it for quite a while. Hey, Canonical, how’s about not hiding it? Like, ever? It can be quite confusing.

Moving on from that little knick, dragging the window’s titlebar to the top panel or clicking the traditional maximise button will maximise the window, putting the close/minimise/maximise buttons in the panel and hiding the titlebar completely. From there, dragging an empty area of the panel down or clicking the restore button turns it back into a window. Clever.

What seems less clever, though – and yes, I know this has been beaten to death on every blog everywhere ever – is putting the close button right next to the menu button. What can possibly go wrong?

Uh… yeah… how is this not a problem?

On the other hand, I suppose that there’s more chance of accidentally opening the menu than of accidentally closing your window, but still…

And, just like everyone else, Canonical is aping Microsoft’s latest gimmick: pseudo-window-tiling. Dragging a window to the side of the screen will make it fill that side of the screen, a practice which has always proven completely and utterly worthless in my everyday experience, especially given that we’ve got big screens and Always On Top right-click options. Hey, Canonical! I know what you can use the other side of the titlebar for now!

The Main Menu

Now, despite using them for roughly two decades, we still can’t seem to get our heads around menus. I’m likely not the first to say Microsoft’s Start menu is completely fundamentally broken, and I likely won’t be the last. I prefer Plasma’s menu, but others like Lancelot for Plasma, some prefer Gnome’s traditional menu and others still like the way Gnome 3 handles it, so it’s not an easy thing to approach.

First, I’ll discuss the Search function. It works. Great!

OK, OK, I’ll do it properly. Typing, “Firefox” shows Firefox, so the fundamentals work well. Typing, “Web Browser”, “Email”, “E-mail” and, “Chat” show appropriate programs well, but some search terms seem broken: “Instant Messenger” only shows Kopete; “Video” shows PiTiVi but not Totem; “Movie” shows Totem but not PiTiVi and it doesn’t deal well with incomplete words/spelling mistakes, such as, “We Browser” (which finds nothing, even though we clearly meant, “Web Browser”). Also slightly annoying is that there isn’t a shortcut for the search functionality: Retraction: actually, just hitting the Windows/Meta key will show it. D’oh! Alt+F1 highlights the dock and lets you navigate around it, and Alt+F2 opens a similar-looking-but-stripped-down Run Command dialogue, which doesn’t feature the search functionality but is purely for command-line-style syntax. Why separate them? Just make Alt+F2 open the default menu!


Although it’s quite nice that typing in an URL and hitting enter goes straight to the address

OK, so now I’m going to move onto the menu itself. Personally, I think Gnome’s/KDE 3′s traditional menus aren’t the best way to do things: they bombard you with noise and can be confusing to some users. However, one thing I do think they get absolutely spot-on is their catagorisation: E-mail clients, web browsers, IM clients and IRC clients in Internet, an office suite in Office, music/video players in Multimedia and photo album viewers/painting/drawing applications in Graphics. Oh, and games. Don’t forget the games. This structure reduces the amount of noise the user is exposed to at any one time and provides a nice, step-by-step method to finding and launching what you want. This is great for pure mouse navigation and spatial association between mouse movement and applications, two important features to consider when approaching Canonical’s target market.

So, how is mouse-only navigation? Awful.

To help demonstrate the issue, I’ll perform a simple test: lets take an application I don’t open often – Krita – and get to it using only mouse-clicks.


The first menu we see


After clicking, “More Apps”…


Clicking the tiny text to select the category, because no, I don’t want to scroll through every application everywhere


The Graphics menu. Still not there? Oh.


After clicking, “See 8 More Results”… Ah! There it is.

Um, ouch. That seems like a rather clunky introduction for new users, clicking in various menus in various different places to get to a mildly obscure application, and heaven forbid I want to view my game library!

Enhancing the issue is the fact that the extended, “Installed” section in the, “More Apps” menu displays every application on your system in alphabetical order. If that sounds familiar, it should: it’s exactly the same problem with Gnome-shell’s menu. Guys, our neatly catagorised application menus were already vastly superior to the Start menu to navigate, and here you are throwing it away, only to come up with something worse. For the love of God, fix it!

*Sigh*… moving on, it actually appears that the menu is extendible through plug-ins, though because of how early it is in development, there’s no way to currently install them easily. The plug-ins are installed as icons sitting at the bottom of the dock and are activated when clicked, opening a main-menu-like overlay that populates with content. This is quite exciting, since it could open the way for things like Bookmark, Facebook, E-mail and other kinds of integration straight into the menu/dock.

And finally…

To bring up some configuration options, hitting Alt+F2 and typing, “about:config” brings up the appropriate Compiz configuration module. At the moment, there’s not much there, but it’s worth a look all the same.

The Verdict

Unity, as it is right now, is quite solidly built and certainly useable, but whether it’s an improvement over Gnome 2 is a matter of preference. Off its own merit, I quite like it, but there is still evidence of growing pains and examples of concepts that aren’t quite fully fleshed-out yet. It’s an exciting time for Canonical, regardless.

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