The Good, the Bad and the Ugly About Unity

Posted by jun auza On 5/07/2011
A few days ago, Canonical released the latest version of the world's most popular distribution, Ubuntu. Aptly titled Natty Narwhal, Ubuntu 11.04 is the Linux community's bravest attempt at pushing the boundaries of the Linux desktop. Also, being a complete departure from the traditional desktop, Natty brings along changes that are good, sometimes bad, and even ugly at times. Here’s a look at these changes in a little more detail.



The Good:

We've talked about Natty and its features in our previous article (see: Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal': To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade?); however, we didn't touch upon Unity much. Unity, the brainchild of the Canonical team was an out-of-the-blue decision which surprised and even shocked many users and developers alike. The shocking part of it was the decision to part ways with the GNOME desktop, which had been part of Ubuntu for so many years. The move has left many GNOME loyalists changing clans. However, there are also many users who have welcomed the changes. One reason why Unity works is because it brings something completely fresh to the user as opposed to the traditional GNOME desktop, which was getting too old-school to compete with Windows, Mac and even KDE4. Unity also relies heavily on the trusted Compiz window decorator, thus making the switch relatively smoother as compared to the one with GNOME 3 and Mutter. Furthermore, the GNOME 2.x series was a desktop that had not gone any major visual changes for years, and thus it failed to keep up with many of the modern desktop usability standards. For example, GNOME 2.x included two panels, one at the bottom and one at the top which consumed a lot of space. Also, the menus were too outdated when likened to modern desktops like Windows 7 and KDE4. Furthermore, the tray, the menubar, and indicator applets made the panels look way too crowded and tacky.


Unity despite originally being a Netbook UI, addressed all these problems perfectly. It got rid of the bottom panel, placed an application launcher at the left and removed the tray to make the desktop look more streamlined and sleek. The global menu sits perfectly at the top giving more space for applications to take over. The launcher on the left dodges windows effectively making the desktop experience less distracting. Apart from the looks, Unity scores very high when it comes to usability. It incorporates shortcuts that are easy to learn and even easier to use. For example, using Super + # gives access to the applications that are pinned to the launcher. This makes using Unity hugely productive, especially to power users. Finally, Unity brings Files and Applications searching to Ubuntu; a feature conspicuously missing from the Linux desktop for so many years.


The Bad:

Now that we've talked about all the good features of Unity on Ubuntu, here's a look at everything that's bad.


It's bad manners not to introduce yourself first!

The first thing a new user will encounter after installing Ubuntu is the completely different UI. It's nothing like Windows, Mac OS or even GNOME 2.x. With such a complex UI, a welcome tour explaining different parts of the UI would have been a great feature. Maybe Canonical could've included a video that explained users different parts of the desktop. Even though the help files do explain the desktop perfectly, they are not that conspicuous as they should be. It is only when you hover over the top panel and click on 'help' that you get access to the help files. Why cant the help guide start by default for a new session?

Hey! How do I get started?

First things first, the Ubuntu logo on the top left is not that conspicuous. There are some users who will definitely miss the button as it is a monochrome icon and it blends in perfectly with the rest of the buttons on the panel. A good way to counter this problem is to make the Ubuntu logo glow for the first session so that users would know where to begin. Secondly, the menu is categorized in such a way that it becomes difficult for new users to find applications they need. For example, when a new user enters the 'More Apps' menu, he or she sees applications scattered without proper categorization. You may not even know what the application 'Libreoffice writer' does. Is it a CD-writing application? A text editor? There is no way of knowing unless you are a seasoned Linux user. If you are looking for something on the lines of Microsoft Word, you may search the term 'word' but to no avail.

The mysterious case of the missing app

Supposing a user is visiting his favorite tech web site. There, he sees a link to a shiny new app that will make his life so much easier. Thanks to 1-click install, he installs it to his computer and then moves on to other tasks. After a few hours, he comes back and starts looking for his newly installed app in the Unity menu. As he watches a lot of T.V, he has forgotten the name of the application and thus he has to rummage through the whole menu just to find an app he installed earlier. He thinks to himself, why can't they properly categorize the apps so that they're easier to find? The best thing Canonical can do to tackle this problem is to make sure that the applications are categorized properly. They can take cue from KDE4 or even Windows 7.

But, I'm a mousie!

Even though Unity incorporates many features that make it a great competitor to Windows and Macs, it still has a lot of shortcomings. One of those shortcomings will definitely affect people who rely heavily on their mice/touchpads. If you notice closely, Unity isn't that mouse-friendly. For example, if you start looking for a particular application, it will take more clicks to get there than it usually took with GNOME 2.x. Also, minimizing applications quickly is difficult as the only way to minimize a window is to click on the minus button on the top left. People who use Windows,KDE, or even GNOME 2.x will find it difficult to quickly minimize applications or even switch between them using only the mouse. Furthermore, another petty annoyance about Unity is that single-instance windows don't minimize if we click on their launcher icons. The question is why didn't Canonical include that feature?

I Can't Customize!

There are many users who aren't comfortable using Unity. Most of these users are usually long-time Linux users who were comfortable using GNOME and KDE by tweaking the UI according to their needs. In Unity however, this is not possible. Neither is it possible to rearrange the indicator applets. The same applies to the Dash too on which even a slightest of change is impossible. Besides that, the elusive launcher's behavior too can't be changed unless the new user knows what Compiz Config Settings Manager does and how to install it.

Poor integration

The global menu is a great addition to the Linux desktop. Not only does it save a lot of space, it also keeps Ubuntu's minimalist ideology intact. Having said that, the global menu is pretty much useless at this moment as it barely integrates with any major application. At times it is buggy and if an application loses focus, it results in the wrong window being closed. Even applications like Libre Office don't respect the global menu. The best thing Canonical could have done here is that they could've included Global menu in the next version of Ubuntu.


The Ugly:

One of the most appealing things about Ubuntu Natty is its sleek interface. However, the big fat launcher on the left sticks out like a sore thumb. Moreover, the launcher cannot be modified unless you are geeky enough to install Compiz Config Settings Manager (ccsm) and change the settings. The Dash too, looks quite tacky when contrasted with other menus like Kmenu, Gnomenu and more. Also, if you're using an old graphic card, Compiz will tend to slow down especially when many applications are open.


No way to erase the past!

Ubuntu Natty provides a smart way to search and access frequently used files by integrating with Zeitgeist framework. One annoying downside of this great feature is the inability to delete history. Furthermore, there is no application that makes up for this missing feature. The problem with that is some people need to erase history to protect their privacy especially on public and shared computers.

Too much for the fingers!

Unity is a power user's dream. It makes perfect use of the keyboard to provide a productive desktop experience. However, when a new user installs Ubuntu, he or she has no way of knowing what these keyboard shortcuts are. In fact there are a lot of users who don't know where the 'Super' key is. Ubuntu could've included a File listing all the Unity shortcuts.


Overall:

Unity is a decent attempt at bringing the average desktop user to Linux. However, its half-baked and sometimes buggy features make it quite unpalatable for the next-door neophyte. Moreover, there have been many negative comments about Unity and how it's forcing users switch back to GNOME2. Also, many people are waiting for the next version of Linux Mint to come out so that they could make a switch as soon as possible.

Having said all that, this is definitely NOT Ubuntu's Vista moment. To be honest, it 's Ubuntu's KDE4 moment as they have released a half-baked product to the general audience. Another thing, this article is not a rant on how bad Unity is, it is actually a list of all the negative things users have encountered while using it. If only Canonical listens to the feed back from the users and works on the UI it can surely get back in the desktop game. Who knows, in a few years Ubuntu might be giving Microsoft a hard time.

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