7 Reasons to Like and Dislike Ubuntu Unity

In its latest release, Unity is neither as hopeless as its detractors insist nor as extraordinary as its supporters claim.


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The release of Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) hasn't exactly made critics warm to Ubuntu's Unity interface. However, Unity having gone through several versions, a definite tone of acceptance -- or maybe resignation -- colors discussion of the new release. Although Unity isn't a critical favorite, the pundits are at least resigned to the fact that it isn't going away.

Partly, this change is simply the result of the passage of time. Obsessive outrage is hard for most of us to maintain for more than a few months. A couple of years of testing and use is also enough for the shock of the new to be blunted and replaced by a closer approximation of objectivity.

But the main reason for the growing acceptance is probably Unity itself. In 12.04, Unity has reached the maturity it should have had when it first became Ubuntu's default interface a year ago. Had Unity reached its current level of development in 11.04, then much of the criticism of the last year would have been, if not silenced, then perhaps muted.

Even so, don't expect the criticism to vanish entirely. While the 12.04 incarnation of Unity is a major improvement over earlier ones, it still has as many features to dislike as to like.

Here are my own top dislikes and likes in Unity:

Seven Dislikes

Disliking Unity is almost too easy. Any attack on Unity is still guaranteed to receive supportive comments -- and, often, complaints that the writer hasn't gone far enough in their remarks.

That's not to say, though, that there isn't plenty to dislike about Unity. Between the designers' apparent wishes to achieve the impossible by developing an interface for any hardware platform and to innovate for the sake of branding rather than functionality, Unity offers plenty of targets for dislike. While it might deserve praise for being experimental, the fact remains that not all experiments are equally successful.

Or, to be more specific:

1) The Full Screen Window Default

When desktops with multiple windows became the norm in the early 1990s, they were hailed as innovations. Now, twenty years later, Unity offers the same full-screen, single window display as DOS used to do.

This design decision makes sense on mobile devices, or when you use your machine for no more than texting and Internet. But on a laptop or workstation, when you're doing serious work, it's a correctable but nagging inefficiency.

2) The Unmovable Launcher

By default, Unity provides no means of changing the positioning of the Launcher. Perhaps, given that modern screens are wider than they are tall, placing Unity's Launcher on the left side of the screen is sensible. However, many users still prefer to start applications from the top or bottom of the screen.

Admittedly, users can install Ubuntu Unity Plugin Rotated to move the Launcher. However, they shouldn't need to hunt down a non-standard tool for such a routine and minor piece of configuration.

3)  Buttons and Menus

Two years ago, when Unity was still in development, Ubuntu moved the buttons for controlling the window from the right side of the title bar to the left. Later, both the title bar buttons and the menus were moved to Unity's panel, and hidden until you click with a mouse.

Despite some suggestions that these changes might become useful later, the only reason I have seen for them is to reduce clutter. Personally, though, I will settle for a little clutter in the name of functionality. Those extra mouse-clicks can quickly add up, especially with the extra reach up to the panel, and I don't really care what other operating systems happen to do. The apparent arbitrariness of the change only makes it more annoying.

4) Limited Dash Results Display

The Dash, Unity's replacement for the main menu, has the nasty habit of displaying only some results. Enter "sy" in its search field and you'll get six results, plus a link for "6 more results." On other occasions, I've even seen a message for a single additional result.

This arrangement means less clutter, especially since the first results that are displayed appear to be the more commonly used ones (although I do wonder why, in my example, Printing and Log File Viewer also appear). But from the viewpoint of a searcher, I have to ask: Why not just display all the results, and save a pointless click?

5) The Discouragement of Application Icons

Like GNOME 3, Unity is designed with the assumption that users generally open applications from a menu. Users can right-click on the desktop to create a new folder from the context menu, but to add a new application Launcher, they have to hunt it down in the file manager and copy it to the Desktop folder. This roundabout method not only discourages desktop icons, but leads many -- including me, until recently -- to believe that the desktop doesn't support application Launchers.

On the panel, the situation is even worse. Quite simply, you can't add anything, a limitation that wipes out endless customization options.

Desktop Launchers aren't for every one. But one of the characteristics of a popular desktop is that it supports a variety of users' habits. In this respect, Unity fails to measure up.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Unity

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