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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.

Firefox 4.0 Beta 1 Review (Kubuntu)

7 Jul

Hurray for reviewing more beta software! Today, it’s going to be the new Firefox browser that will eventually become the 4.0 release. I’m reviewing on the same Kubuntu-based netbook I reviewed KDE 4.5 Beta 2 on: a Dell Mini 10v. I haven’t installed it to /usr, but I’m running it from a local directory instead, using the version grabbed off the official download page. Today, I won’t be griping too much about bugs and instead focus on the things that jumped out most immediately to me. Before we start, though, I’m also going to warn you: there’s still no KDE integration here, despite previous mock-ups, but I’m not going to complain about that. Anyway, here we go!

First: SPEED!

Google Chrome users might want to give the good ol’e Firefox another look. I noticed massive, MASSIVE improvements in start-up and use speed over 3.6 – in fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it starts up about as quickly as Google Chrome on the same computer. I don’t know what they’ve done, or what was so severely broken in 3.6 to make it so much slower, but the speed improvements are a welcome addition.

Rendering pages was also much faster, as was switching, tearing out and replacing tabs. I went to the good ol’e Google Chrome Experiments room and for most of them, Firefox flew right through, despite my best attempts to cripple it. The only test that made it lag noticeably was the Darkroom test, a full-fledged image editor based on HTML5, though considering the complexity (and the speed of previous Firefox versions), overall Firefox 4.0 Beta 1 performs spectacularly. It’s certainly extremely fast during everyday use, and speed shouldn’t be an issue for many users any more.

Appearance Improvements

Speed isn’t the only nice addition to this Firefox beta. There are a few appearance improvements, though not as many nor as noticeable as the appearance improvements for new versions of Windows. Opening new tabs is done with a smooth animation, though unfortunately there’s no such animation when shifting tabs across the tab bar – you still get the faded dinky little preview box thing.

The Add-ons area has also been revamped. It’s like someone at Mozilla said, "Hey, add-ons and customizability are our main advantages, so lets give them more focus." So, when you click Tools –> Add-ons, it opens a new tab with the new add-ons dialogue.

Picture of the add-ons area
The new add-ons tab

Also available is the option to stick tabs over the address bar. This isn’t the default behaviour in Linux, for the sake of consistency with other applications, but it’s also a bit ugly without the option of hiding the menu bar. I’d actually like to be able to hide the menu bar and put tabs on top, since – with the status bar then removed – it could save yarns of space. Additionally, tabs now come with a loading wheel when a page is loading, making the status bar more redundant and giving me more reason to hide it. This also lets you see the progress of individual tabs, which is nifty.

Image of tabs on top
Tabs on top. Also notice the loading wheel.

I’m not sure I like it at the moment. It looks great on Windows, where they’ve removed the menu bar in favour of a button, but not so much here. Maybe this will change, and I certainly hope so.

Functional Improvements

There are also a few improvements to how you can actually use Firefox: the Awesome bar now comes with the ability to search through open tabs and windows, switching to them if you select and click the option.

Searching through tabs with the awesome bar
Searching through tabs

They’ve also introduced a Bookmarks button next to the search button – it lets you customize bookmarks (with the, "Organize bookmarks" option), open the bookmarks sidebar, switch to toolbar bookmarks, or open any of your bookmarks straight away (obviously). While we’re talking about bookmarks, let me whine a little about something: the (totally awesome) Awesome bar has a bookmark button to let you quickly bookmark the current page, but it still adds the bookmarks straight to the completely useless, "Unsorted Bookmarks" folder. Why can’t I choose which folder the bookmark goes in by default? Why can’t I just click the star and see the bookmark pop-up in the bookmarks toolbar automatically? It’s a small thing, but it’s always annoyed me a bit.

Anyway, you’ll probably have also noticed a, "Feedback" menu button in the top right – it’s a temporary add-on for beta versions of Firefox, with a simple, "I liked…" and, "I didn’t like…" kind of feedback option choice.

The Feedback buttonp
The feedback menu items

There’s also options for User Interface studies, though none were available when I was reviewing this. Bummer.

If I were one of the guys at Mozilla, I’d actually be tempted to keep the feedback button around after the final release, but to not include it in the default set-up, instead allowing users to add it through the toolbar configuration window.

Conclusion

Overall, this incomplete glimpse into the future of Firefox was a very positive experience. For me personally, a lack of KDE integration was a bit of a bummer, but nothing was genuinely worse than before. It felt generally stable and usable for everyday use, despite some evidence of incomplete feature additions. Previous gripes about speed and possibly space consumption should likely be revised, if not now then certainly with Firefox 4.0 final.

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As usual, typed up in the fantastic little Blogilo blogging client.

KDE 4.5 Beta 2 Review

13 Jun

This was the main reason that pushed me to finally make this blog: I’m using KDE SC 4.5 Beta 2 and other people want to know what it’s like. Right. Well, here goes.

First things first: I would NOT recommend anybody upgrade from a stable KDE SC release to this one. There are enough bugs here that, when I originally installed it, I decided to screw myself over and downgrade (anybody that’s got an Ubuntu system knows how difficult it is to downgrade a selection of software, especially something as large as KDE SC… Oh, I do miss you, Gentoo). But anyway, I’ve upgraded again and now I’m going to give a good run-down of the netbook version, which I’m running on Kubuntu 10.04 on a Dell Mini 10v that came with Ubuntu (try to give the hardware makers incentive to provide a Linux option, people. It’s the only way!).

I’ll split this review into two parts: the first will be about design choices and direction, the second will be about bugs. The reason I’m keeping these two separate and distinct is because bugs tend to get fixed and do not actually reflect the intention of the developer or the project, while design is decided by the project and its developers and reflects their intention and direction (and my English teacher told me never to use, "and" so much in one sentence and now I’m going to get in trouble). While bugs may stop a user using a piece of software, design may stop a user from liking a piece of software, which is a distinction I always, ALWAYS make.

Last note: I’ve never done this before, so I’m not sure how it will go. Well… OK… here I go.

Design Decisions

Plasma

For those that are uninitiated, Plasma is what powers the desktop and panels. You know, the background image on your computer, the main menu, the taskbars and all that fun stuff. It’s more than a picture with icons, though, because the KDE team decided we don’t log on to our computer just to look at icons. More information can be found here.

I might have said, "the first thing that strikes you is…", but that would have ended with, "It’s different", so that’s no good. This isn’t like the difference between 4.1 and 4.2: there isn’t any one thing that immediately stands out, but instead, several small changes. Some are to do with look, and some are to do with behaviour.

One of the more distinct changes is the system tray icons. The KDE team’s shift here isn’t so much in new icons alone, but in tray icons specified by plasma theme developers. Personally, I think they look fantastic. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the full-colour icons, but they felt foreign and out-of-place by comparison.

New, white system tray icons.
The New system tray icons with Plasma Air

I personally think that the changes KDE has brought to a very much broken system (the system tray, in case you hadn’t guessed) were long overdue – in any desktop environment on any operating system. I do also think this is another step in the right direction – especially if icons can be assigned via the application’s function somehow, such as a white envelope for E-mail clients and a speech bubble for instant messenger programs.

Something else that strikes me: the Search and Launch activity area looks chunkier. Icons are larger, and instead of having all icons disappear when a category is selected, the present icons swap for icons of the applications in that category and other application icons fly in from the bottom. I’m not sure I like this system: fade-out to fade-in could be much smoother and seems more appealing to me. Hmm…


The icons! They’re HUGE!

The reason for the icons being so large is quite understandable: they’re intended to be more finger-friendly. Still, you’d only probably fit 2 on an iPhone screen. More evidence of touch-inspired design: you can now click-and-drag icons about, put them on the top bar, re-arrange them, and pull them off again to remove them.

You may have noticed that some categories are missing, compared to the previous release. They haven’t been removed: what’s happened is the ability to hide or show categories has been implemented. It’s in, "Configure Search and Launch" in the toolbox.


Ooo, some menu configuration!

What the KDE team have started in 4.4, in terms of animated effects, they have continued in 4.5 – switching between plasma activities slides between them, kinetic scrolling is much more fluid and natural and more widgets let you click/drag the background to scroll. On the sliding between activities – I don’t think it’s very appealing, the reason being because there’s a thin, black line between activities, and if you add 4 and change from the second to the third then the animation doesn’t properly mimic your action (the Activities widget in the panel shows activities in a single line, while the sliding animation shows them in a 2-by-2 box). Again, I think a smooth fade-through animation would be more discrete here. In fact, if I were to implement a sliding transition, I would have only the widget layer slide while the background image stays still, but for that to work a single background image would have to be forced across all activities. Another part of my dislike for the sliding animation is that it’s slightly to slow and doesn’t feel natural: it remains a single speed all the way through the transition. I think it should be more natural and accelerate/decelerate, rather than staying a single speed. I might be picking at nits, but fine-grained details really do matter to users.

Something else that has changed for the better: configuring plasma widgets. Where before, you would receive a dialogue box, now we get a dark, translucent overlay:


The new configuration overlay. Pretty. 🙂

Well, you either like it or you don’t: personally, I’m quite fond, but only because of my dinky screen size.

Next up: application window appearance.

Application Appearance and Behaviour

Individual applications themselves haven’t changed a huge amount since KDE SC 4.4 (save the KDE PIM suite, but the betas of the new applications aren’t available on Kubuntu yet), but there are small differences in the general appearance and behaviour of application windows in the Oxygen widget theme. Menu highlights now slide quickly but smoothly as you move your mouse across different entries, and System Settings’ pretty tooltips have been expanded across the rest of the system.


New, pretty tooltips: now available in all of KDE SC

Another nice addition is that grabbing empty space in menubars, toolbars and status bars lets you move the window, which feels kinda natural, what with the distinction between the titlebar and window content being non-existent as far as the theme goes.

Speaking of which, another addition that almost slipped by unnoticed in this review was the re-write of the Window Decorator settings window. Now, the previews are immediately available and new window decorator themes can be downloaded from within the settings dialogue.


Revamped Window Decoration theme chooser

System Settings has also received something of a face-lift, with the Advanced tab removed and configuration items put where it makes sense for them to go. This also makes the search box more useful.


The new System Settings layout

Alas, but all good things must come to an end…

Here Come the Bugs

Betas are buggy and there are bugs. Good, I’m glad we’ve established that. Lets get to it then.

One thing that stood out to me the most: the plasma Air for Netbooks theme has undergone some slight alterations. One of these is that there is a LOT more translucency throughout the theme. Now, I expect this would look fantastic if the new blur effect worked… but it doesn’t. I tried to figure out why, changing the rendering settings in the Desktop Effects configuration module, but it was nothing doing. I expect this to be a combination of the blur effect’s design (what features it uses on the graphics card) and the sheer lack of a decent graphics card (hence, "netbook"). The result is that sometimes, notifications look more like graphical glitches than something that you’re supposed to read and some things clash horribly (receiving an instant message while browsing the web often resulted in the user’s name and the address bar clashing, leaving both unreadable).


Yeouch!

This is a huge user-facing issue and really, REALLY needs to be addressed. If the typical netbook graphics card can’t handle the Blur effect, then the netbook version of the Air theme needs to compensate by cranking up the background opacity. If the Blur effect is supposed to work with the typical netbook graphics card, but for some reason isn’t, then it needs to be fixed. The former sounds quicker and easier at this time, and the lack of flash-bang just doesn’t justify this kind of issue enough to put it off until the latter can be finished and tested.

It also became apparent to me that KDE developers don’t use vertical panels. Fortunately, some people do, and don’t insult the developers (As I have seen in the past: just don’t do it. It’s not nice) but report bugs that get fixed (thanks, Aaron! :). Unfortunately, there are still some peculiar bugs: first, the toolbox icon in the top-right doesn’t actually sit on the right screen edge, so you have to move the mouse one pixel to the left if you throw your cursor up there and click. Second, making the panel wider works normally until a certain width; then, it doesn’t resize any wider until you make it thinner in the same mouse-movement; then, when you do make it wider, even by 1 pixel, it expands to nearly 3/4 of the screen.


OK! I know what time it is now, thank you!

And finally, clicking on the toolbox icon in the top-right doesn’t bring up the menu properly until you’ve resized the panel – and because of the above bug, you have to make it thinner and make sure you don’t accidentally move the mouse the other way after (which is easy for me on my trackpad), ’cause then you’ll be resizing that panel all the way back down again.


OK… Now what?

Now, I’ve already talked about how fantastic the new system tray icons are – but some of them aren’t new. This bit is incomplete, and it only takes one icon to ruin the effect.


Oh noes! D:

These bugs combined are the ones I noticed the most and that impacted my experience using the 4.5 beta the most. No, I’ve not reported them all yet, and yes, I do plan to, and no, I didn’t want this to be a rant, and yes, I do realise it’s a beta release, but that’s why I find it important to point out these things – so that other users don’t have to, later, when the release is called, "finished" with 4.5.0.

But on a positive note, lets have a look at a before-and-after:


Before…


And after.

Remember, people: this kind of thing doesn’t come about from being rude or insulting under any condition. I consider KDE to be a community of mutual respect. The developers aren’t a single entity that has to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, and you can’t treat them like that: that’s not why they fix bugs and yelling at them doesn’t motivate them to. Developers fix bugs because they have a passion for the software they’re writing and want to share that passion with others. Punish them for that, and they might decide they don’t like writing software anymore. Then, I would be sad. So please, don’t make me sad. Say thanks to a developer or complement their work, just once. Not just a KDE developer, if that’s not what you’re using. In fact, just go to Help –> About… and send whoever you see a nice E-mail. You can do it right now, if you want. It wouldn’t take even a minute. 🙂

OK, happy slappy hippy moment over. All in all, the improvements are subtle but contribute towards a generally better feeling system. This is evidence that the KDE SC is approaching (or may have already approached) proper maturity, and may now begin aiming towards the same level of stability and performance as KDE 3.5.10 while providing much greater functionality for the user and much greater flexibility for the developer. Considering 10 years of work went into 3.5.10, and less than 4 has gone into 4.5, I think they’ve achieved something rather impressive. As to whether this release will be the one for you: most users will be content with 4.4.4 or 4.4.5 when it comes out. Those that complain about stability may not want to jump onto any x.y.0 releases and instead hold out for x.y.4 or x.y.5 releases, to see if they are stable enough while providing a host of features. If you find it’s not for you, move on. Personally, I think I’ll stick to the beta… and keep that panel at the top…

EDIT: I have now reported all the above issues in bugs.kde.org, see: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241664, https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241661 (Fixed!), https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241665 (Fixed!), https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241666 (Fixed!).