The Linux desktop-a-week review: Ubuntu Unity

I set out to use Ubuntu Unity for one full week, even if it killed me.

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Ubuntu was my Linux distro of choice for a couple of years. I loved it. Sure, the old “everything is Orange and Brown” color scheme made my eyeballs want to go all hari-kari. But, other than that, life in Ubuntu was pretty good.

Then Unity happened.

When Canonical decided that Ubuntu would no longer sport the extremely comfortable GNOME 2 desktop and, instead, switch to the newly conceived Unity environment... I jumped ship faster than a screen door on battleship. (Okay, I know that doesn't really work there. But I just watched “Back to the Future 2” and can't seem to think of a single other metaphor. Heh. That Biff. He kills me.) Suffice to say that I jumped ship “really, really fast.”

I just didn't like it. No sir. Not one bit.

I didn't like how slow it was, nor was I a big fan of the visual design. I was fine with Unity using a dock – a well-designed dock can be pretty handy. But the dock in Unity made me want to start flipping tables. It was locked down to the point where you couldn't even move the damned thing, which wouldn't be a problem... except I hated where they put it. A dock on the left side of the screen? What sort of madness is that?

But, to be fair, I had similar feelings when GNOME 3 and GNOME Shell were first released. Hated it. I couldn't remove it from my system fast enough. Then, some time back, I gave it another try. And I loved it. Maybe there's a chance that my feelings on Unity, as a Desktop Environment, will have changed as well. So, about a week ago, I took the plunge. I installed Unity to live in it as my primary desktop for one full week. Even if it killed me.

My first impression was one of utter annoyance.

You see, I typically run openSUSE on my primary PC. And Unity is only really available for Ubuntu. (Unless you count an unofficial package for Arch that I couldn't get to work). Perhaps it's because Unity is hard to package up for other Linux distros (too many Ubuntu-specific dependencies?). Perhaps it's because nobody feels the need to spend the time packaging and testing it for any other distros. I've heard it both ways. Either way, it's a pain in the butt for me, because I needed to install latest Ubuntu (14.04) and leave my comfortable, familiar openSUSE behind. This made me grumpy.

But, after about a day of crankiness, I moved on and began to embrace the world of Unity. During this week I purposefully avoided doing anything to “hack and tweak” the Unity experience. I wanted to see what it was like to live in the Canonical-approved, vanilla Unity world.

Let's get the good part out of the way first: Unity is no longer slow as mud and as crash-y as Yogi Bear driving a Vespa after pillaging Dudley Moore's picnic basket. Is it fast? No. Not really. Enlightenment and MATE, for example, use far fewer system resources and seemed to be far more peppy. But, to be fair, I didn't usually feel like Unity slowed me down because of its speed. And it never once – not once – crashed on me. This is a good thing.

But Unity remains astoundingly un-customizable (at least not without additional tools, such as Unity Tweak). And for a long-time Linux user that loves to be able to tweak and customize my desktop, this is a big negative. I know Canonical is eager to control the user experience and branding of Ubuntu (and Unity), but this is just plain crummy.

The dock itself is... fine. It looks... fine. And it launches applications... fine. In short: It's fine. (With all of the completely acceptable mediocrity that implies. If you could see me right now, you'd see me shrugging my shoulders.)

When you click the big “Ubuntu” button at the top of the dock, the Unity Dash appears. From the Dash you get what is essentially a set of tabs to launch different things: apps, files, and the like. If you start typing within the Dash – which, in Ubuntu terminology, now spontaneously becomes known as the “HUD” – it begins to present live updated search results, which makes finding and launching apps pretty straightforward, assuming you know the name of a specific application you want to launch.

None of that is bad. It absolutely works and the learning curve is small. The performance is completely acceptable on newer hardware (though a bit pokey and sluggish on a two-year old netbook I also tested it out on). That, however, is where my compliments end.

Unity's dock simply doesn't look quite as polished as other docks out there. GNOME Shell, elementary OS and Docky all quickly come to mind as examples of Linux desktop docks that look a bit spiffier. Likewise, the Unity dock doesn't provide me with any special piece of functionality that I miss in other dock implementations.

Drilling further in, the “Dash” (and/or “HUD”) is similar, in many respects, to what you get in GNOME Shell when you click “Activities.” There are even some pretty distinct similarities in UI layout between the two. The big differentiating feature in Unity's Dash is the inclusion of “Lenses” (or “Scopes”). In a nutshell, these are plugins that provide custom views and functionality to the Dash. A good example of this is the controversial “Amazon Search” functionality, which, try as I might, I just couldn't find a use for. Unity Lenses just never provided me with any functionality that I needed. Or wanted. If I want to search Wikipedia, I'll just load up Wikipedia in my web browser – an action that takes roughly the same amount of time and the same number of clicks as performing that function in the Unity Dash. This feels to me like a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist.

Now, I've been ragging on Unity a fair bit. And, you know what? I expected to. No surprise there.

But, to be fair, I actually didn't find anything in Unity that would prevent me from enjoyably using my Linux-powered PC. It worked, and it has been quite reliable. In fact, if Unity were the only Desktop Environment available for Linux... I would use it quite happily.

Because, the thing is, it's not bad. Not at all. But it could be so much better. There are several Desktop Environments out there with less funding and fewer people working on it that simply are a bit more polished and a bit more... inspiring.

If I can sum up my feelings on it (which may not be possible) – Unity feels like a reliable Desktop developed by a hardworking, talented team... with the express goal of making sure Bryan wouldn't be terribly interested in using it.

So what Desktop Environment will I try out next week? Since I've already left the comfort of my openSUSE install, I'll try another Desktop Environment that is closely tied to a singular Linux distro. One that, fittingly, I've mentioned in this article.

Next week I'll be using elementary OS's Pantheon Desktop. All. Week. Long.


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