Unity

So, I’ve been using Unity since it’s official release in the last update. With this new release, I though it about time to talk about it.

Now, Unity gets a lot of mud thrown at it. The main complaints I’ve seen are it ‘dumbs down’ Linux. I don’t think this is true. However, it does lack some things, things that for me define the Linux experience, and that annoys me.

These things mainly are configurability. This isn’t to say that it isn’t configurable, but rather that a lot of this configuration is hidden behind arcane, invisible methods like the gconf system for example. Linux for me has always been about providing an environment where the user is in control, where everything can be configured and where the configuration of those programs is relatively standardised and easy to do (easy being a relative term here, I doubt anyone would argue that the sendmail config file is easy, as an example of the bad end of the scale). I found Unity to fail at providing this kind of environment. Sure it gets out of your way and lets you ‘just work’, but it does it by hiding a lot of things unnecessarily, rather than being an elegant solution.

Now that the main negative is out of the way, it’s time to move on to the positives.

Generally, I found the workflow in Unity not much different to my usual one. I was annoyed to find my Win key hijacked away from my usual Synapse/Gnome-Do program but I got used to it. The global menu I found fairly easy to get to grips with and it didn’t cause any problems. I quickly learnt to always look up for options. This might be due to having some experience with OSX though for a number of years, so for a new user or one experienced in non-global menu systems, it might be more disconcerting.

Apart from it just ‘getting out of the way’ I didn’t really find it did much for my workflow at all. Since I try to avoid using the mouse, I did basically what I did before – trigger the application search to run an app and use the keyboard to switch workspaces. I didn’t really use the icon bar as I could generally type the name of the app in the search before I could remember what the icons did or what Win+Num shortcut mapped to them.

The notification icons not showing was a massive problem as a lot of apps I used didn’t support the new system and so I had to hack around in the gconf settings, which I would have never discovered if not for others posting solutions. I found on my dual monitor system that the system tray icons would have issues – some would only work on the primary screen and not the other, the ones on the right never triggering or only flashing their menus intermittently only to whisk them away instantly.

I didn’t find it all bad though and I think for the mass market, the new user that only wants to use what’s provided through the ubuntu software centre and has one monitor, it does it’s job. However, I found it to be quite hostile towards customisation, something I’ve never associated with Linux before. It seems to me to be trying too hard to be OSX, providing a single end-to-end software eco-system and user experience. This isn’t a bad thing, after all, OSX is very popular for a reason and it does provide a very tight, well balanced system if you want to do things in the way it provides.

I think there is a place for Unity, but it’s not really for me. I’ve found Ubuntu have developed this OSX style philosophy further in 11.10 and I found myself not liking it at all. On my main desktop machine I’m now trying out GNOME Shell, in the hope that it provides a nice balance between what a Linux system means to me and a productive, uncluttered desktop that gets out of my way and just lets me work. After using it for a while, I’ll write up how I feel about it.