Home > Ubuntu > Unity in Natty: is it for me?

Unity in Natty: is it for me?

Unity 3.6.0 recently landed in Natty, bringing a lot of long expected goodnesses, along with some unexpected weirdnesses and regressions.

I thought sharing my experience at this point in time could be useful to some.. If you are looking for an “everything is just perfect” post, you should probably stop reading.

Before I start, here is some context. I’ve been using Unix and Linux for a long time now, at first as side OSes, then exclusively for more than 17 years now, I’ve seen the desktop evolve tremendously, from X11 based window managers (like twm), to XViews (like OpenWindows) and Motif (like CDE), fvwm (1 then 2), WindowMaker (with GNOME 1), Metacity (with GNOME 2) and now Compiz with Unity. Note that I’m voluntarily mixing toolkit names, window managers and desktop environments. Each had its pros and cons, but globally, the evolution has been straight, with very few new paradigms: switchable desktops aka workspaces (they all had it except twm), panels, docks and now dashes and global menus. Some may add 3D and windows effects to this list, I don’t, they bring nothing to improve the productivity or the usability, on the contrary. Over the years, I acquired some habits, such as window locations in workspaces, shortcut keys, and preferred apps. Some of those habits are changeable if something better appears, some are way harder to change, and often require me to customize my environment wherever I go. With Unity now quite usable, it’s one of those times when I’m ready to reconsider some of my choices.

So before switching my two main desktops to Unity a few weeks ago, I was using the Classic mode, with Metacity, which I really liked. I never switched to Compiz (no benefits for my use case) and I would still be using Metacity if Unity was usable with it. As Unity is a now a compiz plugin, it will obviously never happen, so I switched, first occasionally (until the crashes made me rollback to Metacity), then permanently now that the biggest crashers have been fixed. I should insist on the fact that I’m mostly a Desktop user, with large screens, mouses and full size keyboards. I own a laptop and a netbook, but I barely use them, they represent less than 5% of the time I spend on computers, even less now that I also have an Android tablet, which I use everyday.

Going back to Unity.. my impressions just after the switch are quite mixed. Something between “Oh!”, “Ah!”, “Nice”, “Excellent, Good idea!” and “Where’s my stuff?”, “How do I do that now?”, “gasp, it crashed, all my work is gone”, “is that supposed to work that way?”, “hm, I prefer the old way of doing this or that”.

Here are some of those points, in no particular order:

  1. on first run, Compiz/Unity imports the user preferences (or at least parts of them), so I was pleased to see my custom launchers imported on the Unity side panel. It got it mostly right. Each icon gets a background matching the dominant color of the icon. Individually, it looks really nice, but I find it way too colorful when you compare it to the classy yet austere monochrome indicators. Also, what used to be tiny launchers in my gnome panel is now huge squares in the unity side panel. It made my side panel so long and  looked so flashy and distracting that I dropped most of my customs launchers as a consequence. It now looks like the screenshot on the right.
  2. You can see that there are white ticks on the left of some icons, it means the corresponding applications are running and could be raised, or hidden if clicked. If the same application is started more than once, a second, then a third tick appears, but not more. To start another instance of an application from those launchers (instead of raising an existing one), you need to middle click it. It works fine.. if you stay on one workspace. Since the last update of Unity, when I need to raise an application, my workspaces seem to be randomly re-arranged or the windows moved and it makes me crazy as it disrupts my work. I have a lot of windows, so I changed the 2×2 workspace grid to my usual 6×1 line (and 7×1 on my other box) and I switch between them with remapped keys Crtl left/right, no shift, and raise/lower windows with Ctrl up/down, so along with the follow focus mode (see below), I can do almost everything without touching the mouse.
  3. About those launchers, they appear automatically when an application is launched and disappear when all the instances of that application are gone. It’s possible to turn them into permanent launchers by right clicking them and selecting “Keep in Launcher”. It’s also possible to re-order them in the panel, by long-clicking them, like on Android and iOS, except that it seems to work only once in a while. In 3.6, some launchers allow actions in their right click menu, like evolution or gwibber and also display a counter in the icon itself. Nice indeed! yet I would love to see the icon change color like the messaging indicator, and also display the details in the context menu. Speaking of changing color, they do when the corresponding app receives an urgent notification: the launcher wiggles and the white ticks turn blue. If the panel is hidden, it still happens in a quite fast animation which is unfortunately not clickable (would be nice to be redirected to the corresponding workspace with the app raised)
  4. The question mark icons in my panel are xterm and mplayer. 2nd class citizens? They both have a desktop file..
  5. Auto-hide of the panel (the default Dodge Windows mode): it’s getting better, but it sometimes gets in the way of apps close to the left edge of the screen (in my case, when i drag a mail in evolution to a folder). Also, sometimes, when I start a fresh session, that side panel flickers and can’t seem to decide to open or hide, moving both ways very fast. Some other times, it’s semi transparent and refuses action. In both cases, I have to restart the session and it stops.
  6. workspace switcher: I definitely hate it..
    • its icon doesn’t reflect the actual content of the workspaces
    • too many clicks are needed to switch between apps in different workspaces: 1 click to bring the mosaic and a double click on the selected app to raise it. The old workspace switcher was able to do that in just 1 click. The side panel is not a good substitute either if you have several instances of the same applications, it’s also too many clicks.
  7. Chromium Web apps still confuse the side panel. It’s getting better with 3.6 but it’s still not perfect.
  8. global menu: well, it’s definitely not for me. I understand how it could be helpful on small screen to gain space, by having less chrome, but who needs that on desktops with 23+” HD screens? Putting apps in full screen mode by default on a 1920×1024 display is just ridiculous, as is having to cross the entire screen to reach the deported menus. Also, to make the matter even worse, the concept just doesn’t work if like me you’re using Follow Focus mode (I use “click_to_focus = false; raise_on_click = false; autoraise = false” in compiz, like I did for over a decade with other wm). It seems it has been shortly discussed and quickly dismissed as Won’t Fix, or should I say Won’t-be-fixed-by-anyone-from-Canonical. Fortunately, it’s possible to disable that global menu, either by editing /etc/X11/Xsession.d/80appmenu or since recently just by uninstalling the appmenu-gtk package. There’s still the app name in the panel (and a weird File menu when hovered), and it leaves a long empty space between that app-name and the indicators on the right. What a waste, so much for less chrome.
  9. Nautilus is unusable for certain tasks as it doesn’t receive some of the inputs. For example, I can’t delete stuff on the desktop or in a folder with the keyboard. z-axis?
  10. mplayer also regressed in Unity 3.6, it no longer receives key inputs in fullscreen mode. It worked fine before that update, i guess it’s another of those z-axis issues. It seems to be a more general problem with 3.6 as almost everything regressed for me focus wise. Apps seem to receive the mouse focus, but no longer the keyboard focus. I need to move the cursor out of the window and when back in, it works as expected. Serious regression if you ask me.
  11. xterm: Oh my! I always have zillions of them, different tasks, different sizes, different workspaces. As much as I like tabbed browsers, I don’t like tabbed terminals. I asked before if xterms were now 2nd class citizens, I should have said 3rd class. It was already terrible with the 1 pixel decorations since Maverick, now it’s even worse, only the left part of the top border is usable to move the window. And if you’re lucky enough to grab the resize zone, it resizes the decorations, but not the terminal itself. Another serious regression.
  12. The indicators: mine look like this:I don’t use the network-manager (so its indicator is missing). I never use the Me indicator, so I should probably drop it too. The messaging indicator is very useful to me. I like it for Liferea and xchat. For evolution, it’s just wrong. It gives me only 1 counter per account, and the counter is almost always wrong. And I still don’t understand why we can’t have real notifications of who/what from evolution, like we have from gwibber and xchat. The weather indicator is new, still incomplete and somewhat buggy (like the missing icon), but I have hope. It’s not installed by default, you need to install it (indicator-weather in universe). The sound indicator didn’t change much, maybe some polish on the Play button. It haven’t seen any cover in the rhythmbox indicator for a while, while they are in the app. Regression?
  13. I miss some applets from my old gnome-panel, like netspeed, and the cpu/load perf .
  14. sometimes, there’s an invisible window blocking the top left of the screen. I’ve been told it’s difficult to reproduce and that the solution is to xkill it. Happened to me several times already, enough to be annoying but indeed, i don’t know how I did it.
  15. The “Applications” dash really looks nice now. I like the new drop down menu on the right of the search bar. I also like the “See more n results” preventing a too long list of tools. But there’s still room for improvement: it’s still too slow here (takes at least 3 seconds to appear when clicked on a high end computer). The drop down menu has refresh issues. The mousewheel is still not supported. It appears behind some windows (another z-axis issue?)
  16. The “Files & Folders” dash has the same improvements and bugs as above (and it’s even slower). I would still prefer to have the Favorite Folders listed first. I would also like to see the full filenames when hovered, and maybe the icon zoomed in too (esp. pdfs). In the drop down menu, I’d like to have Downloads listed.
  17. The main dash (under the ubuntu logo at the top left corner).. well, what should I say? it seems it’s not for me. I know where the apps are, so this is just another indirection. Maybe if I could customize it..

I stop here, I can probably double that list but the major show stoppers are here.

To conclude, I won’t say I hate Unity just yet. Before 3.6 landed, I complained mostly about missing features (the dashes) and about frequent crashers. Now, I’m complaining about focus regressions and regressions for my own use case, which both impact my productivity. I still have hopes but the sky is dimming pretty fast. Does this mean I will give up on Unity and go back to Classic? maybe, but not just yet. Give up on Ubuntu? less likely, but not impossible either. Like for Unity/Mutter in Maverick/UNE, I think it should have cooked for at least a cycle without being set by default, it’s just a too ambitious goal. But I sure would like to be proven wrong.

Tags: ,
  1. March 6, 2011 at 03:32

    A very nice and well-balanced review, complete with your expectations. I’ll be posting a similar one from the view of a 13-year Linux user on my blog.

    Unity still needs a _lot_ of stability work, but the features are good, especially for new users. Power users coming from Windows will be used to using the super key to pull up a menu, and Unity overlays the shortcuts on the icons. Once that feature was introduced, I was using the shortcuts immediately, despite not reading about them at all.

    Places is also a great feature that will use Zeitgeist and its power in the background. Super-a, Super-f, and super-p are sure to be followed by super-h for your browser history and super-s for web search. This is a good thing.

    Still, Unity on my AMD/Radeon laptop crashes once or twice a day, without respawning (unforgivable in my mind), requiring me to ctrl-alt-f1 and ‘DISPLAY=”:0″ unity’ to fix it.

    I don’t see how Unity will be completely ready for 11.04, but Ubuntu made the right long-term move by differentiating itself and building a good desktop for beginners.

    • fta
      March 6, 2011 at 14:22

      Indeed, the crashes without respawn are unforgivable. I have an xterm launcher on my destkop, if I’m lucky enough, it’s still visible when compiz crashes. Or one of my zillions xterms is at least partly visible so I can “Secure Keyboard” inputs (ctrl + left-click) and type in it without w-m.

      I have no problem with making the desktop good for beginners, but not if it’s sidetracking more advanced users in the process.

  2. Zoki
    March 6, 2011 at 07:13

    You should join the #ayatana IRC chanel on irc.freenode.net and discuss/suggest some changes.

    • fta
      March 6, 2011 at 14:13

      I trust that team is reading the bugs, right?
      and as I said, some are quick to dismiss valid use-case bugs as Won’t fix.

  3. March 6, 2011 at 09:27

    Hey, you don’t have to long click the icons to re-order. Just drag them towards right, and then you can re-order.

    • fta
      March 6, 2011 at 14:09

      nah, a short drag doesn’t move the launcher, it moves the whole bunch.

      • Mario
        March 6, 2011 at 14:51

        You need to drag to launcher “out” of the row (to the right), then up or down, then back into the row.

        • Mario
          March 6, 2011 at 14:59

          “drag *the launcher”, sorry for typo.

  4. Uhmmm
    March 6, 2011 at 11:00

    Its not possible to report bugs from IE8 in Windows. I will not install Firefox nor Natty Alpha just to report bugs or suggestions. Fix Launchpad first…

    • March 7, 2011 at 01:36

      C’mon, you don’t really mean that… Launchpad is from Canonical, a company I WANT to build web apps which do not care about any Microsoft product. Why would somebody report FLOSS bugs, using a proprietary browser?

  5. March 6, 2011 at 11:17

    I’m confused. I don’t understand how you’d have any bug reports for a product you don’t use.

    • nnonix
      March 6, 2011 at 21:44

      If he’s honestly using IE8 we should consider the fact that he can’t use Launchpad a feature, not a bug.

  6. March 6, 2011 at 11:30

    #6 I like Gnome 3’s solution here. The Overview. In the Overview mode I can drag and drop windows to and fro workspaces. Think Unity can adopt a good thing?

  7. Mario
    March 6, 2011 at 11:33

    Interesting read, thanks. But a few remarks:

    Default maximization:
    AFAICT this should not happen at your screen resolution. The announcements for “Unity to be default in the desktop version” explicitly said that maximization would runtime-depend on screen resolution, and this works for me on my paltry 1440×900 screen: Unity does not maximize applications on launch unless I ran them maximized before.

    Slow dashes, Nautilus deletion issues:
    Cannot reproduce.

    I trust that you will file bugs in Launchpad 🙂 (Note: add the Ayatana Design project if the reports describe design issues, according to https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Unity/FilingBugs)

    And a question: how did you increase the number of workspaces?

  8. FabriceV
    March 6, 2011 at 15:58

    – when I create a new folder inside my home folder, it does not appear immediately in Unity. Including the folder into the nautilus side shortcut panel does not let it appear into Unity as favorite. I need to click on “See more result” to access it (when it appears). What does it serve to have a large screen…
    – I have not discovered the tips to rename the applications, or modify the categories. It’s an absolute need. A designer want to separate photo from image applications and files. A scientific want to create a publication and analyses categories to separate professional applications and avoid longer list…
    – no direct and convenient access to the parameter of the desktop / system.
    => unfortunately, I have not discovered one action that I do better with Unity compare to a traditional menu with a dock, a search bar and so one…

  9. rad_sci_guy
    March 6, 2011 at 16:27

    I haven’t been able to install it successfully on 3 different computers. I either get an install that won’t run unity or it fails on the install itself. I’ve NEVER had this much trouble with any Ubuntu version ever. I don’t think Unity will be ready in one month’s time.

  10. March 6, 2011 at 18:07

    The xterm bug is a rather complicated reparenting issue to do with the way xterm operates with some older X11 protocols. I spent a great deal of time looking into it a few months ago, but I haven’t had time to look at it again, simple because it isn’t priority right now. One of these days it will be fixed though 🙂

    • fta
      March 7, 2011 at 17:39

      It’s the 1st time I see a w-m that cannot handle xterms properly. xterm has been around since.. forever; it even predates X. maybe that’s the problem 😉
      I hope this issue gets fixed soon.

  11. Larry McCauley
    March 6, 2011 at 21:08

    Where’s the manual?

    Will there be one on a default install?

    Or will there be a series of video tuts included in the release?

    Or will many mere mortals, myself included, have to trawl around the net and / or futz our way through unity in order to suss out up from down?

    I suspect the latter.

  12. March 7, 2011 at 11:10

    Great commentary, Fabien, thanks for the perspective. Please file bugs (though Sam says the xterm issue is known and many of the others are too) for anything you think is a novel issue. We’ll get much of it properly nailed by release.

    • fta
      March 7, 2011 at 17:32

      Thanks. I already filed a dozen bugs about unity, compiz and their friends. But I didn’t spend much time filing “Wish” bugs, which in my own experience are either ignored or quickly dismissed. Maybe I should file them anyway..

  13. mathw
    March 7, 2011 at 21:52

    I don’t get the one-pixel grab zones on the window borders thing. Drives me crackers in Maverick, which I run on my netbook which has a very poor trackpad, so it needs good grab zones for window arrangement. I couldn’t handle Unity, because it was slower and more clunky on that incredibly underpowered machine.

    I hope Natty’s Unity does better on low-end hardware…

    • March 7, 2011 at 23:24

      Yeah, Unity in natty does much better on low-end hardware at least as far as rendering is concerned because it builds on top of compiz. Compiz will run well on pretty much any device you can get a working 3D stack on. I’ve even had reports of it only being “a little laggy with advanced effects” on intel 845 hardware. 🙂

  14. Bazon Bloch
    March 11, 2011 at 18:40

    i have to agree about the workspace switcher and workspace management in general. i really don’t like the launcher showing symbols/indicators for ALL workspaces, i mean, what’s the point in having workspaces if everywhere the same things are shown?
    i use 3×2=6 workspaces, 2 private, 4 for work, and i really like not being distracted by anything going on on other workspaces… (see https://bugs.launchpad.net/ayatana-design/+bug/683170 and https://bugs.launchpad.net/ayatana-design/+bug/689733 )

  1. May 18, 2011 at 23:50

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