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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- The question mark icons in my panel are xterm and mplayer. 2nd class citizens? They both have a desktop file..
- 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.
- 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.
- Chromium Web apps still confuse the side panel. It’s getting better with 3.6 but it’s still not perfect.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- I miss some applets from my old gnome-panel, like netspeed, and the cpu/load perf .
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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.
- 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.