Ubuntu Unity: the great divider

Barry Collins
3 May 2011

As you will have noticed if you've read our review of Ubuntu 11.04, the Linux distro has a dramatic new look. And despite bearing the name "Unity", Ubuntu 11.04's default user interface appears to have divided Ubuntu fans.

Even some of the most die-hard Ubuntu advocates amongst the PC Pro readership have expressed their disgust at the interface, which was first introduced in the now defunct Netbook Edition last year.

So what's sparking the revolt?

The moving Launcher

Unity dumps the traditional taskbar at the foot of the screen for a new icon-based Launcher that's locked to the left-hand side of the screen by default.

As we state in our review:

"It’s a controversial change, but we reckon it’s an improvement. The Launcher at the side of the screen is far more inviting than Gnome’s niggly menus, and it makes better use of a widescreen display. The way the icons work – click to launch, right-click for options – will come naturally to anyone familiar with Windows 7 or OS X."

Not everyone agrees, however. When I canvassed views on why people disliked Unity on Twitter, the splendidly named @explodingwalrus said "Unity only really makes sense on tiny tablet or netbook screens, it just doesn't work on a large dual-head setup."

However, the chief complaint on the various Ubuntu forums appears to be the way the Launcher disappears, until you fling your cursor over to the left-hand side of the screen. That half-second or so that it takes for the Launcher to reappear can be a real frustration when you want to quickly shift between open applications. (Although, as with Windows, you can use the Alt + Tab keyboard shortcut to flick between apps).

There is a way to stop that launcher from moving, using the Compizconfig settings manager (thanks to @blaserUK for the tip-off). You can install this either by searching for the app in the Ubuntu One Software Centre (which failed to install for me) or by typing the following command into the terminal:

sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

Moving icons

A minor issue for people used to shuffling their taskbar icons into their preferred position in Windows 7 is the seeming inability to drag Launcher icons into a new position. If you click on the Home Folder at the top, for example, and attempt to drag down, the whole chain of icons move.

This is because the Unity Launcher behaves in a slightly different fashion to Windows 7. To move an icon to a new position in Unity, you have to drag the icon to the right and then slot it into your new preferred position.

Invisible scrollbars

The change generating the most anger is the new scrollbars. Instead of having a pervasive scrollbar on the right-hand edge of application windows, they now only appear when you move the cursor to the right-hand side - mirroring the default behaviour of the Launcher.

It's fair to say this hasn't met with universal approval.

"Moving from cautious optimism back to fear and loathing with the latest Ubuntu Unity. What the hell is up with the scrollbar?" tweeted the clearly irritable @squeekyhoho.

"Ubuntu is doing a great job throwing away years of UI experience. Unity is awful, and these new overlay scrollbars are impossible," agreed @outzider.

I too find the hiding scrollbars irritating, largely because it makes the more difficult to click on, needlessly wasting more of my time. It's also applied erratically - in some apps the scrollbar is hidden, in others it remains in place. Worse still, I can't find any option to make the scrollbars stay put - even Compizconfig doesn't seem to come to the rescue on this occasion. If you find a way, let me know on comments below.

Graphical glitches

The strictures of Ubuntu's six-month release schedule certainly appear to have harmed Ubuntu 11.04. When we met with Ubuntu shortly before the release date, the company's PR chief admitted that the developers were still firefighting bugs in Unity. Judging by the comments flying about on forums and Twitter, they didn't manage to quash them all.

Every time I resume a Ubuntu 11.04 from standby on my laptop, the launcher is replaced with a texture similar to the on-screen fuzz you used to get in the days when they switched the television off overnight. It disappears when I first mouse-over the launcher, but it's irritating.

There are more serious glitches:

"Graphics performance is shocking as well. Had to switch to Ubuntu Classic desktop without effects," wrote @larryni.

"Can't say I'm happy with #Ubuntu upgrade on my desktop. Reboot got stuck due to Unity graphics (fixed by turning it off), mic won't work..." added @reuvenim.

None of us in the office have noticed any graphical performance issues, per se, although the Nvidia drivers now refuse to remember my native resolution, and I'm having real difficulties getting my dual-screen set-up to run properly. Hopefully a graphics driver update is on its way.


Despite the issues I and others have witnessed, I'd stick by the verdict we arrived at in our original review. Unity is a big change - and that will always upset some members of a loyal userbase - but features such as the new-look Launcher, the instant search menu and the option to snap windows to the sides of the screen all make Ubuntu a much more usable operating system. And for all of the comments quoted above, there are as many - if not more - people expressing their delight at the new Ubuntu.

Let's just hope Ubuntu can fix the glitches, and isn't too stubborn to give users the option to tweak settings such as the sliding launcher and the invisible scrollbars in future releases.

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