So that's Unity...

250px-ubuntu_11.04_beta_desktop.pngFinally we will be able to test ourselves in a reasonably stable version what's behind those new interface concepts that split the opinions the Ubuntu community all the way to the Natty release. While the press and (micro-)blogosphere tends to prefer Gnome 3 over Unity (which is quite ridiculous as there also was a plenty amount of Gnome 3 bashing before Unity came around) I myself am able to keep my good impression of it with the release. I think it is a good start for a really better default user experience.

Yet we should not judge Unity by its suitability for power users, as it is clearly not yet designed to be a full-fledged alternative for them. That's why my "workhorse" notebook still runs the classic Gnome interface. But the family home PC, a frequently used but not critically important machine,  is the perfect place to get used to Ubuntus new user interface.

(Wan't to know what Unity is all about? The people of dedicated news site OMG Ubuntu have created a sleek yet concise video introduction for it).

What I like so far:

  • The launcher actually. I think it behaves mostly reasonable and - maybe more important - as expected by someone who just sees a row of icons and has no experience with a dock. Most behaviours are quite "haptic", meaning that you can expect what happens just by imagining it being actual objects that are dragged around. Also none of the functionality invoked on the launcher will quickly mess it's configuration (That's most certainly why you cannot remove icons by dragging them out). I also like the abilities for tight integration with the started app, like progress bars, context actions etc. The lenses concept also looks promising. My only complain would be that it takes its time to reappear, which may be irritating if you just want to quickly switch apps.

  • The controls and icons of the single panel do not only behave better, they also are finally quite stable. In Lucid and Maverick there was a 30% chance that the contained panel applets would be rendered broken. That seems gone now

  • The fact that there is little more than the panel and the launcher. You only have those two main controls, the rest is screen. Very clean. Apps running in Unity in maximized mode are really that: Maximized, taking and using any available pixel.

  • The "collapsed" scrollbars. They free even more desktop space while keeping the app layout cleaner. The tight scroll position markers are small, yet visible enough for the user to move the mouse to them in the intention to scroll them. Using the appearing scroll handles then are a no-brainer.

But let's talk about the room for improvement, which certainly is there.

The global menu is still not available for some apps (Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Java Apps). And the fact that it is hidden until the mouse hovers over it may let people think that it does not exist. I think there is need for a visual hint before that.

However, I did some "reality check" about the Unity concepts and their suitability for casual users, simply by letting my wife - who knows Windows and Gnome, but not MacOS - find out about the interface's features all by herself. Already after some seconds - maybe just by random - she would move the mouse to the top and see the menu. At the same speed she instantly found out how to let the hidden launcher reappear ("because you clearly see where it goes when it hides"). how to rearrange icons on the launcher and how to add other running applications to it.

What she didn't find out - and which is a point of critique frequently heard - is how to start applications that are not yet in the launcher. She also missed a clear way to navigate existing applications by their type, which in my opinion would still be a good concept and should not be dumped with the applications menu that is now gone. Up until now I frequently find myself browsing this app menu just to get an overview of what is really installed for some purpose, or to find an application whose name I forgot (where a search box would clearly not help me).

Also, the system settings and management apps clearly have not yet found a good home. The ubuntu software center is preinstalled to the launcher, mostly because people would not find it at any other place. The system and user preferences are collected in some kind of "control center" (good) reachable by a new menu item on the system menu (semi-bad, mostly because it is now the last item there which used to be "Shutdown" before, and you can at least question if this is an obvious place for it). I think the problem of those clearly necessary system tools together with those quite unelegant "unremovable system lenses" on the launcher need a special, maybe a common solution.

I think most of this could be solved by better concepts on the dash. This by now tries to be some "gnome-do" successor, where the best way to find apps/docs/whatever is typing in letters that appear in their title. While I think it is clearly a good concept to have such a functionality integrated to the interface (although the dash does not go all the way to this: There is no way to plug in extra search functionality, f.e. for internet bookmarks, chat buddies etc.) we also still need categorized views of what functionality is available on the system. A hook to configure system preferences and an app store would fit nicely into a "control center" style overview, just like we now have for the preferences themselves.

And last not least: I miss the large focus on the "Zeitgeist" feature of the platform, one of the reasons why Canonical parted ways with mainstream Gnome in the first place. A really usable activity-based file browser could be a game-changer, but this concept needs to be explored in practice to really judge. Well, is it there or is it just well hidden?

However, as I regard all non-long-term releases of Ubuntu to be "intermedia steps" I think this approach is very promising and should see drastic improvements until the "Oneric Ocelot" (what a name...) comes around. No, it is not yet really ready for primetime, but the experience we will gather with this Natty version will sharpen the view for what is really needed.

Update: After two weeks experience I also switched the interface of my work notebook to use Unity, as I really begin to like it, especially the way how the screen space for applications is maximized and how the global menu concept works with multiple screens (unlike on MacOS you have panels on each screen with a separate menu on it). I still use gnome-do and also cairo dock (when working with multiple screens, so I also have a launcher on the right one which is my main working place) on top of it. However, I really think that Unity is on a good way which in the end might be able to serve all user types just what they need. It may need time to get used to it but in the end I think most people will see the sleekness of its concepts.

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Last comments

  • Oliver:
    Als Antwort auf "Anonym" vom 27. Dezember 2015 (..
  • anonym:
    Habbo als abzocke zu deklarieren finde ich schon..
  • anonym:
    Wenn du es dir leisten kannst und es dich glückl..
  • Jebote:
    ja sicher kommen alle auf diesen 5 jahre alten a..
  • Micha:
    @Ingo, na klar. Alles legitim und voll ok ;-) Mu..

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