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Mobile is all the buzz in the world of technology. Microsoft brought their phone interface to Windows 8 while Apple continues to borrow ideas from iOS for the Mac desktop. Not to be outdone, Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, forked the Gnome Shell to bring mobile UI elements to the desktop. This interface, known as Unity, has received much bashing from the Linux faithful. Previously I had very minimal experience with Unity. I installed it, looked at it, and replaced it with Gnome Shell and then went back to KDE.
I’ve been a KDE fan for years. I loved KDE 3 and it was my favorite UI for years. When KDE 4 was released too early and incomplete I switched to Gnome and even Windows for a while. Eventually, with KDE 4.4, I went back to it and it regained its place at the top of my list. I would tell anyone who cared to listen that KDE was my favorite and it was followed by Windows. But I like to give others a chance.
When Windows 8 RC was released I used it for 3 months to see if it was as bad as everyone said (it wasn’t). However, I happily scurried back to KDE when my experiment was concluded.
I keep a spare computer under my desk to install new stuff on and to do stuff too dangerous to do on my regular desktop. The other day I was re-installing Windows on it and I decided to throw Ubuntu Quantal on there as well to see how it was progressing.
Unity breaks many desktop paradigms. Previously I had installed it but not for long enough to get used to it and to see if it was superior to other desktops or just different. So I made the decision to put it on my main desktop. My goal was a six week test, to attempt to use it without serious modifications for an extended period. In this way I thought I could get used to it, experience the Ubuntu way without my previous expectations having a major impact. My 6 week adventure had to be brought to an early termination after 3 days. I don’t think my problem was that it was just different, I think it is more that Unity is not yet ready for primetime.
This is not to say that Unity is not perfect for some users, it is only for my personal use that it is inadequate. On a netbook or a computer with low resolution it may be much more usable than it is on my desktop. Here I’ll only briefly touch on the deficiencies that I found while attempting to not trash the concepts involved.
My setup involves dual monitors of differing resolutions a 22 inch (1680×1050) and a 20 inch (1440×900) with the larger one being primary. With this much real estate the integrated menu bar makes no sense. When I am working in a small file explorer window in the bottom right of the monitor I do not want to move 2 feet diagonally across the monitor to change a setting. Add to that the fact that the menu bar is hidden until you get close to it with the pointer and you have serious usability problems. Gimp has lots of stuff in the menu, I would go up and to the left until the menu bar appeared and then have to go back right to find the correct dropdown to choose a command. A second here, a second there, and pretty soon we are talking about real time wastage. While it is nice that Ubuntu attempts to get the UI out of your way, I think this is too extreme.
Moving the close maximize buttons to the left seems arbitrary and capricious. Over 90% of computer users are used to them being to the right. If Shuttleworth thinks he can win Mac converts with this move, good luck, and I hope he is happy with the targeted 7%. This is a small thing and comes down to preference more than anything else.
On my setup I turned off the dock on my secondary monitor. Still system tray and menu bar stays on both of them. I like the concept except the status messages would appear on the right side of the right monitor while I was working on the left monitor–this is over 3 feet away from where I am focused. One might as well project them onto the moon for all the good that they do. When I hover my mouse over the volume icon and scroll to change the volume, the visual would pop up on the secondary monitor so I would be forced to look one place while working in another some distance away.
I could find no way to force video and music players to open on the secondary monitor. Well, I actually found a way but it was byzantine and involved typing commands into terminal and then copying the output into Compiz and was generally a PITA.
Unity provides no method to browse applications by category. You can browse them all, but there is no means of filtering by use. This is another design problem seemingly adopted from OS X. There is a very good reason that despite its mind share, OS X has never achieved much market share: It looks good in a demo, but in real world environments it sucks to use.
Since there are no categories to browse, search is the preferred method to find and launch applications. But when you do this, you get Amazon ads for Windows software. I don’t really know what to say about this…WTF?
Ubuntu uses an older version of Nautilus with fewer features. Other Gnome software is also deprecated. Not sure what the point of this is.
Buttons don’t act like buttons. Generally when you click on a button it gives the impression of depressing to give you feedback, but not the Unity dock. Click and a second later it will glow and a short while later the application will open. This is probably no slower than any other desktop, but the mixed feedback makes it seem longer. Once again, poor design concepts.
For all of these reasons, I ended my experiment much earlier than expected. I installed Gnome Shell and deleted all traces of Unity. I’ve decided to use Gnome for the 6 week experiment. Will it stick? Will I scurry back to KDE when the experiment is over or will I come to love Gnome the way I do KDE? Time will tell, stay posted as the experiment ends in mid-March. One thing I can say already, with the advent of Gnome 3.6 and Windows 8, Gnome has moved up to be my second favorite desktop environment. Leaving Unity and OS X to fight over last place.

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