A Primer on Unity

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 28, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The first time that you log in to Natty Narwhal (Ubuntu 11.04), expect a surprise. In many cases, the familiar GNOME interface is gone, replaced by Unity, a new interface that evolved out of Ubuntu Netbook Edition. Unity is designed to be easy to use, but you should spend a few minutes exploring before you settle down to working in it.

As you familiarize yourself with Unity, its strangeness might seem less if you keep reminding yourself that Unity is a GNOME shell -- an interface that runs on top of GNOME. Although Unity is radically different from any version of GNOME that you have ever seen, most, if not all the usual GNOME applications are still available, as well as features unique to Ubuntu such as the panel app-indicators. When you are working within an application while running Unity, you will notice very few changes. It is mainly in getting to the applications that the differences attract attention.

Unity requires 3-D hardware acceleration, but, should a machine lack the necessary video drivers, GNOME 2.32 is provided as an alternative. Free software advocates may want to use GNOME 2.32 if their video card only has hardware acceleration with proprietary graphics drivers.

A Navigational Overview

Unity's desktop and panel are a mixture of the old and new. On the desktop, you can still right-click to add folders and icons, or to change the desktop wall paper. Windows still carry title bar icons, and can be resized by dragging on their edges. Scroll bars are also available, although they are minimal in Unity utilities.

Similarly, you can set a full range of keyboard shortcuts. Some of these are identical to those in previous releases of GNOME -- for example, Alt+F2 opens a command line, while Alt+Tab cycles through the windows open on the current desktop. When you are using virtual workspaces, pressing Ctrl+Alt+ Left Arrow or Right Arrow cycles through the workspaces.

The panel, too, has many familiar features, such as a clock and app-indicators for sound and chat. Notifications display, as in earlier GNOME releases, just below the right side of the panel. However, the panel has no task bar and no applets can be added to it. Nor can the panel be moved or configured in any way. Its only other purpose is to display the title of the active window.

As you look closer, other differences start to emerge. Open the shutdown menu on the far right of the panel, and you find a System Settings link that opens the Control Center. The Control Center is a new window, which replaces GNOME's former collection of configuration items with a single window similar to the one found in KDE and some proprietary operating systems. On the left of the Control Center is a navigation pane, in which you search for items, or click to see Groups of configuration settings, such as Internet and Network or Hardware. The Control Center has more or less the same range of choices, but is arranged so that you can find items more easily.

Probably the largest change is that Unity does not have a traditional main menu. Like much of the functionality that used to be found in the panel, the main menu is replaced by the launcher on the left of the desktop (see below).

Where the main menu would be on the left of the panel is a button that opens the dash. A descendant of the Favorites menu, the dash is a collection of eight icons for common tasks, such as Browse the Web and Listen to Email. One of the icons, More Apps, opens a window that replaces the Applications menu. If an item is not listed, you can use the search field to find it.

The dash is transparent, so that you can see what is open beneath it. For an unobstructed view, click the word Shortcuts in the upper left to hide the dash icons. The dash closes when you launch an application, or when you click on the launcher.

Introducing the Launcher

The three menus of earlier GNOME releases are replaced in Unity with the launcher, a collection of icons in on the left side of the screen/ Since the launcher takes up horizontal space rather than vertical space, it is more suitable than the classic menu for widescreen displays. The launcher displays only icons, but mouseover text is available if you pause the cursor over an icon.

The launcher is a combination of a favorites menu and a taskbar. All running applications have a small arrow to their left, while the currently active app has an arrow on the right. When you click the icon for a running application, it immediately moves to the top of the stack of windows open on the desktop.

As you open more applications, you will see that the icons on the bottom of the launcher partially collapse. Move the mouse to a collapsed icon, and it and all the collapsed icons above it expand to full-size so that you can select them -- a convenient alternative to a scrollbar that involves far less movement of the mouse. Some users might find working with the collapsed icons difficult, since they are only partly visible, but when you realize that you do not need to be completely accurate to display the one you want, they seem much easier to work with.

Much of the configurability that was in the panel of GNOME has now been transferred to the launcher. For instance, if you right-click on an open application, you can select Keep in Launcher to add it permanently, or unselect the same item to remove it. A few icons, such as Applications ( a duplication of the dash), Files and Folders, and Trash cannot be deleted, but have their own sets of commands in the context menu.

Beginning users may use the dash, but I suspect that most users are likely to prefer the launcher, if for no other reasons than the facts that it is always open, and that it includes the Home icon for file management, the Workspace Switcher, and other parts of basic desktop functionality.

So far, the greatest annoyance I have found is that the icon for an external device opens at the bottom of the launcher, where it is easy to overlook. Fortunately, the icon for an external device also appears on the desktop, just as in GNOME.

Unity and Its Alternatives

Unity bears more than a passing resemblance to mobile devices. This resemblance is not accidental -- it makes Unity suitable for anything from a workstation to a netbook. Should Ubuntu ever be used on a phone or embedded system, Unity should be just as useful in these new settings. In the near future, you may be able to switch hardware without ever switching out of the interface

But what happens if you decide that Unity is not for you? I suspect that some users will find the launcher too finicky, or the configuration options too limited.

In such cases, you only need to go as far as the Ubuntu Software Center to look for an alternative. There's no word yet whether GNOME 3 will be available for Ubuntu, but sooner or later it probably will be by popular demand. Meanwhile, you might look at KDE, LXDE, or any of the other alternatives in the Ubuntu repositories. Xfce might be an especially good choice if you want a desktop that resembles older versions of GNOME.

But don't be quick to reject Unity just because it is new. Try it for a few days, and you just might find that it has all the functionality that you need -- to say nothing of a refreshing simplicity.

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