Ubuntu Unity not all that unifying

Ubuntu's new Natty release is out but does the new Unity interface live up to its billing?

May 3, 2011
Ubuntu Unity not all that unifying

Right now I am at a loss as what to think of Unity, Ubuntu’s new desktop interface.

Like many long-time Ubuntu fans I was eagerly awaiting Ubuntu Natty, the latest release of Ubuntu. Most of all I wanted to try out Unity, the new interface that Mark Shuttleworth has been promoting as the next big step forward for Ubuntu Linux. I’d tried various versions of Unity during its development but was mostly disappointed, a fact I put down to it being early testing software. When Natty was released Unity would so much better, I rationalised.

So when the big day came I was ready. I opted for an upgrade, something I nearly never do. Usually I take the slightly longer route of a clean install.

With perfect hindsight that was my first major mistake. It was time consuming, it broke all manner of things and it prompted me to “fiddle” with things to make it all better – and obviously the fiddling compounded the problems.

I now have everything fixed (or mostly) and I am running Unity on my desktop. So was it worth all the effort?

This is where I’m not really sure. I get the idea behind Unity, with its streamlined desktop, and there are certain features I appreciate – and yet, it still feels too buggy to make me really like it.

What I like about Unity

I (sort of) like the unified global menu which removes the menubar from individual applications and puts it in the desktop bar across the top of the screen, ala Apple. This was always one of the features I really liked about the Apple desktop OS.

I like the use of shortcut keys to show running applications and multiple desktops. There is much more reliance on shortcut keys in Unity than before and the ones for switching between windows and applications are pretty cool.

I really like the option to search for files, apps and folders in the “dash”. It works pretty well and makes it easier to find files.

What I don’t like about Unity

I don’t like the unified global menu system. I know I said I liked it above but the truth is that it is clunky in its current form. I can’t say exactly why, but it just feels clumsy. For example, you don’t know the menubar is there unless you hover over the title of the window you’re working on. Only then is it revealed. Also, when the window is maximised the menubar is under the window’s title. When the window is not maximised then the title moves with the window title bar but the menu stays in the top menubar. It’s ugly and inconsistent.

I don’t like the launcher. This runs by default down the left hand side of the screen and appears when you hit a specified key or hover around where it should be – then it pops out. I don’t like it because sometimes it appears almost instantaneously and other times it takes its time. I also don’t like that it behaves erratically. Sometimes, if you have multiple windows of one application open, clicking on the icon in the launcher ’tiles’ all the windows for that application on the screen for you to choose from. Other times, it simply switches to one of the open windows. I realise that this is context sensitive but I’d be much happier with a consistent approach.

I don’t like how many clicks it takes to open applications or files. If an application you want doesn’t have an icon in the launcher then you have to click on “applications” which brings up the dash; then you have to choose the type of application you want (games, internet, office etc); then click on the application you want. That’s three clicks to open one application.

Unity feels unfinished – it feels like an afterthought in this release and not very nicely integrated. Perhaps it would feel better if the various elements of the interface adopted the same colours as the rest of my desktop. For instance, the desktop bar (which runs across the top of the screen) can be changed to match the current theme you’re using. However, the dash and the launcher stubbornly remain the same dark colour no matter what colour the rest of your theme is. Again, it’s ugly.

I don’t like the scroll bars. The new style in Unity appears to do away with scrollbars entirely and replaces them with a slim colour bar down the side of the open window to indicate that windows can be scrolled down. Hover over this and a slider appears that can be dragged up or down. If the window is maximised the slider appears inside the window. If it is not maximised then the slider is outside the window. Again, consistency is missing. Also, only half of the applications on my desktop appear to use this new approach, so some windows have the new slider and others have the usual integrated scrollbars. It’s too messy for my liking.

I said at the outset that I wasn’t sure what to think of Unity but I suppose the truth is that I don’t really like it. I’m prepared to give it some time but I really do wish that it felt a bit more polished and consistent.

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