In a rather long blog post I wrote several months ago, I compared my first looks at the Fedora 15 Alpha and Ubuntu 11.04 beta. I also promised that once each one of these distributions was released I was going to do a more in depth review of each one. Ubuntu 11.04 has been out now for quite some time, due to the fact the Fedora 15 is not yet in its final stage I’m going to hold off for reviewing that.
This review is going to be focused primarily on the unity interface, my first use of the unity interface was a little skewed back in the alpha. This could have been due partly to the fact that I was running Ubuntu inside of a virtual machine, which is known not to work with the next generation desktop special effects such as unity in Ubuntu and Gnome shell and Gnome 3. To circumvent any problems that may arise with having Ubuntu in a virtual machine, I set up a small partition on a second hard drive and installed it natively having a dual-boot between Windows 7 and Ubuntu 11.04.
First impressions of unity were not very good. There were a lot of artifacts on the screen, as well as several black spots blocking text, I found out later that these were due to the fact that the open-source driver for my video card was not up to par for handling the 3-D effects, installing the proprietary drivers using the hardware management tool and Ubuntu fixed this problem.
While I generally enjoyed the overall look of unity, it seemed to be way to stripped and too simplistic for somebody with my level of knowledge (though my level of knowledge is nowhere near as much as other users who use Ubuntu). There were a few things I liked about it, such as the remapping of the Windows key on my keyboard to pull up a search dialogue to be able to search for programs, if you ask me this was a brilliant remapping, the fact is a lot of Windows users switching to Ubuntu use the Windows key fairly often to pull up the start menu in Windows. While was entirely possible to remap the Windows key Using older versions of Ubuntu or clearly any other distribution, the fact that it was remapped by default. To me just seems like a good idea. Now before installing the initial updates that came with Ubuntu.
After installing it, I found unity to be a much more pleasing experience with the exception of one or two features that to me just drove me bonkers, a prime example: pre-update Firefox still had its menu contained within the Firefox window, post update the menus were then moved out of the Firefox window and opened the black taskbar across the top of the screen. Now to most people this might seem like a good change, however somebody who spends the majority of their time in Windows for whatever reason might find this extremely annoying, I know I did. I haven’t yet looked for a solution to convert this back to the way it was, although I’m sure one exists or will shortly. I was trying to keep Ubuntu as close to the default installation is possible so that this review would apply to as many people as possible, if I had gone and customized a bunch of the features my experience might be different than somebody who just installed Ubuntu.
There were some intuitive things that thing could have been worked into unity they would have made it a little more user-friendly, some of these include frequently used programs showing up in the launch bar by default. As it stands under a currently default install of Ubuntu, if you wanted to make a specific program launcher permanently show up in the launcher bar, You would have to right-click it, While the program is open and click pin to launcher or something to that effect. I know it seems like I am just nitpicking but this is something that could drive a new user to Linux, especially one that’s never even touched it before nuts.
Ubuntu claims to be an operating system that’s extremely friendly and even somebody who’s never used Linux before, even specifically targeting somebody switching from Windows to Linux, as using Ubuntu is a good starting point. My beef with this claim is that if they take such simple, intuitive features and make them five or six more steps than they need to be you will only confuse new users. I mean yes of course most of the hardware 95% of time is going to work out-of-the-box, this is something that Ubuntu is extremely popular for.
Unity to me seems like it was geared towards people who wanted a simple experience, and one that was formatted specifically for touch devices such as a tablet PC. This is great for Tablet PCs, this however in my opinion sucks for desktop use, I don’t consider myself to be an advanced Linux user but, I do know enough about settings that I’d like a little more control, and while unity does not constrict any of the functionality of Ubuntu, it makes it feel like you’re restricted to me anyway. Yes, there is a way to disable unity and run in what they call classic mode, however you have to figure how to do this yourself because no documentation I have been able to find comes with Ubuntu explaining how to do it. Yes I could figure it out when it comes time for me to do that.
Now I know a lot of you who are pro-Ubuntu are probably go to say I’m being biased because I’m a Fedora person, I’ll be fair and say that what little bit I’ve seen of gnome shell doesn’t impress me either. I’m not a fan of over simplifying the user experience, simplifying is okay in my opinion but over simplifying just makes me feel stupid. It’s almost as if these distributions are trying to say the average Linux user now has no common sense, So let’s make things as easy as possible, in reality, they often end up making things so much more complicated for somebody who is used to using it the old way.
So I know this post is supposed to be a review about unity and I haven’t talked about many of the features, this is mainly due to the fact that there really aren’t any features that you can’t see when you look at screenshots of unity. I will touch on a few below, just for the sake of a decent review, myself, as well as some of the other people I’ve talked to however seem to think they unity is going to be dragging Ubuntu in the wrong direction. I am not against Ubuntu making a spin specifically geared towards the tablet PC, for such a spin unity would be perfect. When I use a desktop computer, I want to use a desktop computer not a super powerful tablet experience, this is why IOS is not made into a desktop platform, it would make any sense. Just like why was somebody install Android as their primary operating system on their PC.
One thing it did particularly like about unity was the fact that by default it seems to try to organize open windows in a fashion where there no overlapping, however you can still overlap windows if you want, they just don’t open that way. Also, thank God, If you try to maximize a window, it makes that bar that unity bar on the left go away, this is extremely useful, particularly for people with smaller computer monitors. I myself have a 27 inch monitors so screen real estate is almost at an abundance, but somebody with a 15 inch screen or smaller would not have the same amount of screen real estate. Therefore, if that bar didn’t hide when some was full-screen practically all of their screen would be filled with that bar.
Some of the key combinations that people are used to in Windows work with unity as well, such as Alt + Tab which can be used to cycle through open programs. As simplistic as unity is, some shortcuts that advanced users grieving users that have grown accustomed to keyboard shortcuts, might miss is Alt +F2 this key combination. It used open dialogue we could enter a command in the GUI, this would allow for quick launching programs without having to open a terminal window. As far as I can tell there’s no way to enable this in Ubuntu 11.04, I’m sure you could make a custom keyboard shortcut that would do the same thing, but that’s a little out of the scope of being easy to use out-of-the-box. I mean seriously, how much memory could that little feature of possibly taken up that they needed to strip it out of the distribution in a default ship?
Bottom line here if you’re looking with going with Ubuntu as your Linux distribution of choice, and you want a experience is very close To the Way, Windows was set up, then you’re probably either going to want to run 11.04 in classic mode, or run the latest long-term service release. Canonical has made a great product with Ubuntu. Building on free and open source software, so don’t get me wrong by the negativity in this blog post. I’m not being negative about Ubuntu itself.
Ubuntu is a great operating system and know tons of people who use it every day as their primary operating system, unity, however, is an entirely different matter. I was one of those people who was outraged when it was announced that 11.04 was going to have unity and by default, but what really did it in for me was when I found out unity cannot be removed, it just simply cannot be removed. It’s like cancer. Thinking back I know one other piece of software in a popular operating system that cannot be removed and starts with the letter I and ends with the letter R, and uses the abbreviation IE.
If you want to include unity fine, at least give people the chance to remove unity if they don’t like it, and install something else in its place. My honest advic, If you’re going to go with Ubuntu 11.04, think about Kubuntu 11.04 KDE seems to be a lot closer to the kind of experience that I would come to have expected from a desktop operating system.
as always, please feel welcome to leave comments below, I don’t expect to make a lot of friends with some of the statements of listed above but I’m not about to lie about what I feel. Canonical if you’re reading this which I seriously doubt, great job on Ubuntu 11.04 just ditch unity already in your operating system will be gold in my opinion.