I have never cared for Unity, the desktop environment designed for Ubuntu. After Mark Shuttleworth’s challenge to free software to match Apple’s interface, it has always been a disappointing result, full of arbitrary changes and limitations.
However, now, to my surprise, I find myself changing my mind. I still avoid Unity on laptops or workstations, but I realize now that my judgment was based on early versions, and not on the context for which Unity was intended: a touch screen tablet.
Ten days ago, my Aquaris M10, sometimes called the Ubuntu tablet, arrived in the mail. Since I have never seen an Ubuntu phone, it was my first experience of Unity on a mobile device, and I expected to have plenty to tolerate. Yet within twenty minutes of exploring, I became a confirmed Unity fan. In fact, I now consider Unity the best tablet interface available — a reversal that requires some explanation.
Scopes and Swipes
I was predisposed to favor an Ubuntu tablet before I even handled its box. As an early supporter of Vivaldi, Aaron Seigo’s gallant but doomed effort at producing a completely free tablet, I was glad to see a substitute. Yes, I would be happier to know that the Aquaris M10 used free-licensed firmware, but in this respect, it is no worse than the majority of computers that I used. At the very least, it is a place to start.
In addition, with the exception of KDE’s deceased Plasma Active, until now, I have never seen a phone or tablet interface I considered so much as tolerable. Without exception, manufacturers have responded to the limited screens on mobile devices with a decided lack of inspiration, condemning users to endless screen changes and a general lack of navigation. Too often, I have felt like a chimp in a lab, wildly pushing buttons in the frantic hope of avoiding an electric shock — or at least mild disorientation.
However, none of that applies to the Ubuntu tablet. Part of the reason is Unity’s scopes, or filtered lists of resources and links. In a desktop environment, scopes seem a minor convenience at best. To be honest, I could never see why Ubuntu was making a fuss about such a simple concept.
But the limited space of a ten inch screen changes my perspective. On the Ubuntu tablet, scopes save me from frantic searches for resources. They also minimize the clutter, making resources easier to find.
Even more importantly, while tablets and phones allow you to drag up or down the screen to scroll through the available icons, Unity, like Vivaldi before it, develops this form of navigation to what must be the ultimate extent. The term that Unity uses for the action is “swiping.”
Swipe with your finger from the left side of the screen, and the launcher with its collection of favorite apps comes into view. Swipe from the right, and the current apps appear for you to select or to close by dragging their windows to the bottom of the screen. Swipe from the top, and the screen refreshes, or, if you swipe from the indicators on the top right, configuration dialogues. Similarly, swipe from the bottom, and scopes or related features display.
Although a wizard that runs at first boot gives a quick lesson in swiping, this form of navigation takes time to learn. Users might want to download the manual for the tablet as a reference while they adjust.
Yet, once you adjust, navigation by swipes is far more efficient than tapping the screen to change the menu — although Unity has some extras for that motion as well, zooming by double-tapping, or by tapping with two fingers and then moving them closer together or further apart. Unlike the usual imitations of desktop environments on mobile devices, swiping makes full advantage of the touch screen. Once learned, it is fast and efficient.
In addition, swiping tends to feel more interactive. Instead of tapping and waiting for the tablet to do something, swiping creates a sense of agency, a feeling that you are part of the action, not just its originator.
In the same way, Unity departs from most mobile interfaces in that navigation is no longer as a sequence of screens, one screen following another with no innate connection between the previous screen or the next one. Instead, swipes create the impression that you are always on the home screen. New information slides into place, but the home screen, you sense, is directly beneath it. When users are finished, they know that a swipe to the right, or touch the Home icon on the launcher will restore the original screen.
With this arrangement, Unity rids the tablet of the standard mild disorientation that typical tablet interfaces produce — a disorientation that, personally, I never even realized existed until I suddenly realized after half an hour of using the Ubuntu tablet that it was gone.
Maybe this effect is an illusion, but, if so, it is a powerful one, and the main source of most of Unity’s appeal on a tablet.
The Aquaris M10 includes a desktop mode that can be turned on to run applications such as GEdit, GIMP, and LibreOffice. The desktop is exactly the place where I take exception to Unity, yet, on the tablet’s small screen, Unity’s awkwardness when more than one app is running mostly disappears. I don’t expect to have more than one window open at a time on a tablet’s screen, so what is a design flaw on a workstation with a twenty-four inch screen or dual monitors is no longer a nuisance.
Besides, the transition from tablet to desktop mode is minimized. The windows have different widgets, and behave slightly differently, but, mostly, Unity remains Unity. Just as with a swipe, there is little sense of change, and more continuity that I would have imagined.
I am still not about to run Unity as the main desktop environment on my workstation, not when KDE is available. However, seeing Unity run in the environment it was designed for does eliminate my distaste for it.
Thanks to Unity, the Aquaris M10 offers an experience that my Samsung Galaxy Tab2 cannot possibly compete with. I have already done productive work on it, and plan on taking it with me the next time I travel. Far from being just a piece of hardware to review, it has become my tablet of choice.