Natty Unity UI

So, the Natty Narwhal 11.04 release of Ubuntu has finally arrived, entering the Linux stage with a fanfare. Many oohs and aahs were heard throughout the blogosphere during the past few months, and it seems that outcries alternated with songs of praise. Canonical's new user interface called Unity was described as a "dramatic new look", an "aggressive change", as "revolutionary", "a breath of fresh air", and "a blight on the Linux OS". – Frankly, I cannot understand what all the fuss is about. Yes, the desktop looks a bit different, but hardly different in a revolutionary way. There's a new strip of launcher icons on the left side of the desktop (called the dock), the bottom panel is missing, and the top panel isn't a conventional GNOME panel, but a menu bar. Not exactly what I would call cataclysmic changes in the world of computing.

With the latest Ubuntu version, the Linux desktop looks even more Mac-ish, if you ask me. I admit that it took me a few days to get used it, but I like most of the ideas that went into the Unity shell, so I've decided to keep it. Having the launcher on the left side frees up vertical space. This is a good idea, because most modern monitors are in 16:9 widescreen format. The launcher dock also doubles up as window switcher and indicator. Displaying the application menus in the top panel will probably meet with resistance from Windows, KDE, GNOME users, or at least break with tradition. It saves vertical space, however, at the expense of longer mouse trails from the application window.

Another Unity innovation is the "dash" (another D-word), a search window that lets you find applications or documents. It comes in the same bright-on-dark jewel case appearance as the other Unity components and it locates less frequently used programs or files by displaying incremental search results for the characters typed into the search field. I find this much easier and superior to opening nested menus to start applications. A nice improvement. The work space switcher and panel indicators are likewise felicitous adaptations of true and tested UI concepts.

Unity has still a few rough edges, though. The most obvious one would be the unspeakable clunkiness of the default 64px launcher icons which look inappropriate on any type of screen, unless your intend to operate a touchscreen with protective gloves on. Fortunately, the icon size can reduced to 32px using the Compiz Config Settings Manager. This lets you obviously display twice as many launcher icons in the strip, uhm, I mean dock. Furthermore, I am not sure if application menus really belong into the global top panel. Finally, it isn't yet possible to start multiple instances of applications from the dock, for example terminal windows or editors. A special operation such as Shift+Click on a program icon would be handly for this purpose.

I had also grown quite fond of the GNOME weather panel indicator, which is missing from the Unity panel. I found myself looking at the weather panel more often than at the thermometers in my house. This can be fixed as well by installing an additional program package called indicator-weather from a PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:weather-indicator-team/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install indicator-weather

In technical terms, Unity is far less "revolutionary" than most people think. Although it replaces the GNOME shell, it is still firmly embedded in the GNOME desktop environment and it is designed to be used with GTK+ desktop applications. Unity is implemented as plugin for Compiz, the same window manager that was already used by previous Ubuntu versions. Unity does not provide its own file manager, but uses the well-tried Nautilus program for file system presentation and file operations.

If as a Ubuntu user you don't like Unity, it is very easy to revert to the old GNOME 2.x shell. Just select the "Ubuntu Classic Desktop" from the drop-down box at the bottom of the login screen. The computer remembers the setting, so you have to change this option only once. It is even possible to use GNOME 3 with Natty Narwhal, although this requires installing additional software, because GNOME 3 is not included by default. If you want to try out or use GNOME 3, try these commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install gnome-shell