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Ubuntu/Unity - Take 2

I just got my new laptop in earlier this week, and as I have never been a fan of Windows 8, one of the first things I did was dual boot it with Ubuntu. That's not to say that I find Windows 8 unusable, but at this point, I figure it's never a bad thing to try out what else is available, and in this case, it's been worthwhile.

I've pretty much been an on and off Ubuntu user since 6.06 was released, so that's a pretty solid eight years of use so far. I can't say that I've necessarily been ecstatic about all of the changes and decisions that the team has made over the years (particularly those from 10.04 onward), but in the end, with the release of 14.04 LTS, I've found myself once again a proud Ubuntu user.

My initial goal as a returning Ubuntu user was, as before, to find a decent replacement for the Unity interface that Ubuntu ships with by default. I tried xfce, which wasn't bad, and of course Cinnamon from Linux Mint remains a beautiful interface, but ultimately, I found myself using the default Unity interface once more. To be honest, I don't think I've ever found Unity this usable from previous versions of Ubuntu, with 12.04 being the last major version that I used consistently. They have only really changed minor things since 12.04, but they've made it a little easier to customize your experience, which, at least for me, has made a huge difference. And some of those minor details that have been changed have really gone a long way to improving the overall interface as well.

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I removed a lot of clutter from the launcher and added a few desktop icons to make the overall desktop feel a little less cluttered. The latest version of Unity so happens to have an annoying bug which makes it more difficult to add desktop icons, but it is still easy to create them by copy/pasting from the usr/share/applications folder to the desktop folder.

Of course, I also disabled the online searching feature and enabled the show desktop icon and workspaces, which made the experience feel a little more efficient and usable. The workspaces aren't implemented especially well since clutter on the launcher from other workspaces shows in all workspaces, but the show desktop icon is very useful as a way to minimize any clutter that has been opened. I know that I personally like to keep way too much open at a time, so that helps a lot.

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Unity also places menus, minimize/maximize controls, etc... straight in the toolbar found at the very top of the screen. Some may find that a bit annoying, but I personally find it brilliant once you tweak the behavior settings a bit under the appearance settings (Set the menus to display in the window's title bar instead of the global menu bar). The rather odd design decision actually makes better use of the screen space for maximized windows, and most applications integrate pretty well. And although there is an option to autohide the launcher, I'm actually pretty glad it doesn't autohide by default because it makes it very easy to switch between windows without using keyboard shortcuts.

Perhaps the biggest design flaw I've come across in Unity so far is related to workspaces. Workspaces, in the past, were a design feature implemented to make it very easy to organize a large number of open windows so that workflow was still as efficient and clean as possible. Unfortunately, while open windows can easily be organize, the clutter on the launcher does not get organized so easily from one workspace to the next, which is a bit of a disappointment considering how much clutter can easily build up on the launcher once you have more than a few applications open at once. I haven't found it too limiting yet, but I can't say it's on the list of my favorites as far as Canonical's design decisions related to Unity have been.

On the flip side, it is very nice for organizing maximized applications, and it's easy to switch between workspaces by application with the design decisions that they've made. I'm not entirely sure it's a tradeoff that's worth it for me, but at the very least, it encourages me not to keep too much open at once, and I absolutely love the great use of screen space in maximized windows. Tongue

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Ultimately, my fears are in what's to come in Unity 8. Of course, with 14.04 being scheduled as an LTS release, the Ubuntu team hasn't been particularly extravagant in their list of additions and radical changes. LTS releases in general tend to be more focused on stability than on groundbreaking additions, largely due to the five year support cycle for LTS releases. Ubuntu has, however, been working actively on their next version of Unity, which pursues the goal of "convergence" where every platform uses the same interface and operating system. It doesn't look like the full Unity8 package will be included in 14.10 quite yet, as the desktop version of Unity 8 leaves a lot to be desired, but it's not unlikely that 15.04 will see the beginnings of Ubuntu's convergence model taking place. It looks like Ubuntu is now actively pursuing the same goals that Microsoft has been pursuing over the past few years with their unified Windows 8 interface.

My fear is that in releasing an effective platform for mobile users, that the desktop platforms will fall out of the loop. Right now, the desktop interface included with Unity 7 is pretty robust. It certainly has room for improvement, but overall, it's a very efficient system that I have few complaints over. It will, with no doubt, be interesting what Ubuntu will do next with Unity 8 and their desktop systems, which is something I will be watching carefully.

Ultimately, if Ubuntu pulls off "Convergence" properly, while keeping an effective and consistent interface for desktop users, it could be the most interesting innovation that the company pulls off in a while. If they go the path that Windows 8 has gone and the final product isn't fully refined, it will leave many longtime users, including myself, highly disappointed. At the very least, however, Ubuntu has released another very nice 14.04 LTS release, and I've found it to be significantly easier to use than Windows 8's interface so far.

What are your overall thoughts on the Unity interface where it is now?

Very lengthy post, I must say Smile

But Ubuntu and Unity both sound very nice. I'm going to stick with Windows 8.1, however. It suits my necessities and although it may be inconsistent and unreliable at times, it gets the job done.
Yeah, I still use Windows 8 when needed. The Unity interface is something I'm really starting to get used to though. I feel much more productive booted up in Ubuntu over Windows 8, but then again, I suppose I'm not exactly adjusted to Windows 8 yet.

This is my latest desktop screenshot Big Grin
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The dash isn't particularly amazing in Unity, but once online search results are removed, it gets the job done. My biggest pet peeve remains the poor implementation of workspaces. Considering how easy it is for applications to get cluttered on the launcher, workspaces should be an easy way to get around that issue. However, applications from all workspaces show on the launcher, regardless of the active workspace. (It is easy to tell which applications are open in the currently active workspace because Unity shows an open triangle instead of a closed triangle next to applications that are open in another workspace, but it still doesn't solve the clutter issue. )

Overall, after another week of use, I remain pretty pleased with it overall. It's not perfect, but the alternative interface is pretty refreshing overall, especially with the excellent screen space use for maximized applications. (For a maximized application, the panel/toolbar doubles as the application's titlebar/menubar as well, so one single top panel contains all of the system controls to the right, and window related controls to the left. I think it's brilliant, personally. )


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