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Unity and Me April 8, 2011

Posted by jdstrand in ubuntu, uncategorized.

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, and thought I might do it now before Ubuntu releases Natty. :)

I’ll admit when Mark announced that Unity would be the new desktop for Ubuntu, I was skeptical. I always liked the indicators work, but had used an otherwise pretty standard Gnome desktop for years, and liked it. I upgraded to Natty very early in the cycle and have been using Unity for months. Things were quite rocky at first, with instability issues and features either gone or partially implemented. Of course that is to be expected since massive amounts of development work was being done on it. Today, the features are there and Unity is quite stable for me. It is getting very close to release, but AIUI the Unity developers are working very hard to squish the remaining stability bugs. You can read more about the decision to stick with Unity, but that is not what I am writing about today. I’m writing about why as an Ubuntu user I like Unity. Keep in mind, I am not a Unity developer and have just picked things up along the way and this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of features or bugs. Just what I like and and dislike.

The Cool
I will certainly miss some great stuff in Unity here, but I’ll mention what I know about:

  • Unity gets out of my way. It reminds me of minimalist desktops from ages ago, but is modern and beautiful
  • It is keyboard friendly
  • The datetime indicator. Not only does it show me the calendar when I click on it, it shows me my appointments for today
  • The global menu. I was pretty sure I didn’t like this at first, but I am actually at a point now where I like it. You always know where to go and it cuts down on wasted space. On my 1440×900 resolution latop screen, this is appreciated (as is the lack of bottom panel)
  • AppIndicators are cool. I’ve always liked them and they are better than ever in Natty. NetworkManager, sound, power, Me, social: all functional, easy to navigate and out of the way.
  • Launcher quicklists. It is easy to add them and they provide cool extra functionality for applications. Right click on evolution or the Applications list to see what I mean.
  • Software search via Alt+F2 or the BFB (aka Big Friendly Button in the upper left– you know, the Ubuntu logo :). While the search results aren’t always perfect, they often are and this functionality is way cool. Eg, try typing in ‘network’ and see what pops up.
  • The applications menu is really neat. Right click on the Launcher icon to see the familiar Applications menu folder entries. Clicking any of them brings you to a place with most recently used applications, installed applications for the category you selected, or suggestions for download.
  • Files and Folders is similarly implemented, with familiar places/categories available via right click. Selecting a place shows you things of that type you’ve edited today, yesterday or within the last week or more.
  • The trash is conveniently located. It doesn’t waste space on the Desktop or clutter the panel and you can drag and drop things onto it.
  • Update (2011/04/15): Superkey shortcuts (just learned about them :). Eg:
    • hold the ‘Super’ (aka ‘meta’) key and the first 10 Launcher icons will show a number. You can then do ‘Super+#’ to launch or bring to focus that application. ‘Super+shift+#’ will launch a second instance of the application.
    • ‘Super+s’ will bring up your workspaces, just as if you click the workspaces launcher. You can then navigate via the arrow keys to choose the workspace to move to.
    • ‘Super+w’ will give you an exploded view of all of your open applications, and again you can use the arrow keys to select the window to bring to focus. It is sorta like Alt+Tab, but with all your open applications.

Tweaks and other things you should know
There are probably also a lot more of these than what I will list here, but I’m just a simple man with simple tastes. ;)

  • To use Unity at all you need a 3D capable card that it supports. Apparently Unity/Compiz uses all kinds of OpenGL and if Unity doesn’t detect that it will run well on your computer, you can use Ubuntu Classic instead. unity-2d might be interesting as an alternative as well for those needing a strictly 2D experience.
  • Middle-clicking on a Launcher will launch another instance of the application
  • Use the power indicator/System Settings to get to the the old ‘System’ menu and preferences in the classic desktop
  • The Files & Folders menu provides similar functionality to the Places menu in the classic desktop
  • If you launch an application via Alt+F2 or the Applications place, you can keep it in the panel for later use by right clicking on the the icon and selecting ‘Keep in Launcher’
  • There is an open bug where when launching an application it shows up under the Launcher, so the Launcher autohides. This can be worked around via CompizConfig Settings Manager (Power Button/System Settings/Personal/CompizConfig Settings Manager, or ‘ccsm’ from a terminal). In ccsm, select Desktop and click on Ubuntu Unity Plugin and select ‘Hide Launcher: Never’. I’m told this bug is being fixed soon, but it might be good to know you can adjust the Launcher behavior anyway. Update (2011/04/09): This is fixed as of today. I confirmed it by setting autohide back to ‘Dodge Windows’ and opening a gagillion terminals. Yes, that’s right, a gagillion. :)
  • You can also adjust the Launcher icon size in ccsm. In the Ubuntu Unity Plugin settings, select the Experimental tab and adjust ‘Launcher icon size’. On my laptop the standard size is good, but on a big monitor, they are too large (might be neat if Unity could detect that somehow….)
  • I sorely missed my weather applet. Well, people stepped up and wrote ‘indicator-weather’
  • ‘Ctrl+Alt+t’ opens a terminal. Apparently this was around for awhile in Gnome but I didn’t know about it. Very handy regardless.
  • Use Alt+F2 to search for and run applications
  • The window selector:
    • right click: zooms in
    • left single click: selects window
    • left double click: selects window and zooms
  • Can drag and drop onto the trash
  • The Files & Folders menu provides similar functionality to the Places menu in the classic desktop
  • Custom launchers can be used, but are not readily supported via a GUI afaict. I use profiles in firefox and wanted to middle click on the firefox Launcher and launch the profile manager. This is how I did that:
    1. Create a new desktop file with:$ mkdir ~/bin/unity
      $ cp /usr/share/applications/firefox.desktop ~/bin/unity
      $ chmod 755 ~/bin/unity/firefox.desktop
    2. Update the ‘Exec=…’ entry in ~/bin/unity/firefox.desktop to have:Exec=firefox -Profile-Manager -no-remote %u
    3. Finally, open the file manager (Nautilus) and drag and drop ~/bin/unity/firefox.desktop onto the Launcher
  • Update (2011/04/10): Custom launchers for terminal applications can also be used, which can be very useful for applications such as irssi and mutt. The thing to remember is that you’ll want to specify a different window manager class for the terminal, otherwise after you start your application via the Launcher, it will show up with all your other terminals and you can’t use a superkey keyboard shortcut with it. For example, to create a launcher to login to another server, you can use something like the following for a .desktop file (see above for how to get this into the Launcher):[Desktop Entry]
    Name=My Server
    Comment=Login to my server
    Exec=gnome-terminal --sm-client-disable --disable-factory --class=MyServer -x ssh -t myserver.example.com
  • Update (2015/04/27): gnome-terminal removed ‘–disable-factory’ (https://bugzilla.gnome.org/show_bug.cgi?id=707899) so if you were relying on it to separate different window manager classes, this will no longer work. ‘mate-terminal’ seems to be a suitable replacement
  • Update (2011/04/09): There are a bunch of other tweaks and questions and answers at askubuntu.com:

The Uncool
Alas, there are a few things I miss and/or people might need to know about:

  • hamster-applet (a time tracker) integration in the panel. Someone is actually working on this, so we may have an implementation soon. Otherwise, simply adding the Time Tracker to the Launcher works ok enough
  • The workspace switcher isn’t as functional as the old Gnome one. It is certainly pretty, but if you use workspaces extensively, you may need to adjust your workflow (eg, by using superkey shortcuts). I actually use workspaces in the way that they are implemented in Unity, so this wasn’t a big deal for me. Work is ongoing in this area, but improved functionality won’t be in Natty release.
  • Unless an application has indicator support, it won’t be integrated into the panel. Things I miss here are the system monitor and sensors-applet. Someone has started work in this area as well. One could go really old school in the meantime (like I did) and use gkrellm to monitor things. There is a certain old-World charm there for such a modern desktop, but it would be nice to have these indicators already available.
  • Stability issues are much improved these days (they better be, we are almost at release! ;) and I haven’t had to use these in several weeks, but am listing them here for completeness:
    1. ‘compiz’ will restart Compiz, the 3D window manager (in the past I would use ‘compiz –replace’, but I’m told that is no longer the correct way)
    2. ‘unity –reset’ will completely reset Unity to shipped defaults and restart it (Note: any ccsm changes will have to be reapplied after running this command)
  • Update (2011/04/09): Focus follows mouse, aka point to focus, aka sloppy focus is not currently supported and using it will likely lead to frustration. Personally, I’ve been click to focus for many years now, so this didn’t get in my way….

I like Unity and to me Unity is clean, easy to use, out of the way, functional and fits my workflows. I didn’t know how much I liked it until I had to stop using it for a week and a half. The release schedule for Unity was very aggressive, but I am happy to say that if the stability bugs are addressed in time, Unity should be a very nice desktop for Natty users. If when trying it out you find a bug, please file it with:$ ubuntu-bug unity no matter where it is in the stack (eg, unity, compiz, global menu, etc). The developers are very responsive and I bet they will be adding more and more bug fixes before release as well as queuing up others for SRU after.



1. Paradiesstaub - April 8, 2011

‘Ctrl+t’ opens a terminal…

Did you mean → CTRL+ALT+T ???

jdstrand - April 8, 2011

Oops! I of course did. Corrected.

2. Dave Morley - April 8, 2011

There is a ppa with a an indicator for sysmonitoring you might be interested in.


jdstrand - April 8, 2011

Yes, this was what I had read about, though I haven’t personally used it yet. Thanks!

3. Daeng Bo - April 9, 2011

Your post reads like a twin of mine, separated at birth. I, too, started using Unity full-time in late December and have watched it grow. It really works well once you get used to it. The polishing touches shouldn’t take more than another month or two. Additional functionality can be added slowly after that.

I’m concerned over all this talk from Phoronix that Classic may become the default desktop. I believe that Ubuntu should pull a Dapper Drake and slip the release date two months. Ubuntu has been too obsessed with timely releases in the last three years. If some bug is a blocker, take the time to fix it.

If Natty does end up shipping on April 28th, I hope that there will be a .1 release (normally reserved for LTS releases) where additional bug fixes are backported. Whatever you do, Ubuntu and Canonical, don’t release a buggy product! You won’t recover.

p.s. More differentiation WRT applications and integration into Unity will make Ubuntu stand out.

jdstrand - April 9, 2011

The Phoronix article was a little sensational, at least in its title. What happened is a community member had questions about regressions in functionality he observed in going from Ubuntu Classic (based on Gnome 2) to Unity, and asked the Technical Board if Ubuntu would consider going back to Classic, and this was discussed in the latest Technical Board meeting (interestingly, I’m told most of these functional regressions would be encountered in Gnome 3 as well, and since Gnome 2 development has stopped, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room going forward (beyond fixing the functional regressions)). I am not on the TB, but the takeaways as I understand them are:

  • There was always supposed to be an evaluation for keeping or pulling Unity as the default late in the cycle, but that this didn’t happen yet
  • The Ubuntu Desktop team is doing all the work, so they should have a (rather large) say in the decision. Rick Spencer (Engineering Director at Canonical) says that Unity is ready (excepting accessibility and ongoing stability bug work)
  • Ultimately it is the Ubuntu Release team’s decision
  • The TB could be asked to step in if people believe the release team makes the wrong decision

In other words, at this moment there is no cause for concern; the question brought to the TB was meant to be asked all along.

As for pushing back the date: I can’t speak authoritatively here because I am not on the release team, but slipping two months would be bad IMHO. People and businesses depend on the six month cadence and delaying the release would have an adverse effect on Oneiric (Ubuntu 11.10). That said, if the furious pace at which the Unity developers have been fixing bugs is any indication, I’m sure that many bug fixes will come into Natty as SRUs. There shouldn’t be a point release, but that doesn’t mean high priority bug fixes won’t come in after release.

4. Jason Smith - April 9, 2011

Thanks for the awesome comments dude. Really made me feel good.

5. Alberto Milone - April 9, 2011

Have you tried my appindicator for Hamster?


jdstrand - April 9, 2011

Not yet, but it is on my TODO. Thanks for working on it! :)

jdstrand - April 9, 2011

I just tried it by doing:
$ git clone https://github.com/tseliot/hamster-appindicator hamster-indicator.git
$ cd hamster-indicator.git
$ ./hamster-indicator

It works quite well (awesome). I had toyed with the idea of this too, and had the idea of changing the indicator icon depending on how long you were working on something. Eg (keep in mind this is super crude ;): http://people.canonical.com/~jamie/hamster_icon_mockup.png.

6. Erigami - April 9, 2011

The lack of (graphical) system monitor really bugs me. I’d love to see something like AWN’s applets, but I doubt that’ll happen any time soon. Maybe post 11.04?

7. itxaka - April 11, 2011

I love you. One of my biggest problem with unity was finding how to make it open another terminal as I normally work with 3 to 5 open terminal at the same time and I could find how to do it just clicking.

Middle-click I love you!

They should bundle a small reference guide for unity with the release, maybe a simple html page that opens the first time after installation that shows the shortcuts and different uses of unity because if not users are practically left alone with a new interface and no available documentation as they start using it.


jdstrand - April 11, 2011

AIUI, documentation is being written now. I’m not sure how it will be discoverable though.

8. Clive - May 4, 2011

Hi thanks for the thoughtful post – I’m trying to figure out whether unity is right for me. I admit it’s a little frustrating to use. The most recent problem i have was with the icons on my custom launchers. e.g. i created a launcher for emacs so i could pass it some command line settings. I set the icon to be the standard emacs icon which for me is at /usr/share/icons/hicolor/scalable/apps/emacs23.svg

If i drag the icon onto the left bar thingy however, the icon immediately becomes the generic spring-type launcher icon. This is a bit tricky since i have a bunch of applications i’d like to create custom launchers for and having them all have the same spring icon is puzzling.

jdstrand - May 4, 2011

Based on your comment it sounds like you need to create a desktop file and drag that (as opposed to the icon itself) to the Launcher. If that is not working for you, I suggest you file a bug.

9. AG - May 20, 2011

sshmenu like indicator applet for unity.. so you dont have to write ugly .desktop files.

10. Sap Security - October 18, 2011

Excellent stuff from you,I adore what you have got right here. You make it entertaining and you still manage to keep it smart. This is truly a great blog thanks for sharing…http://www.zaviyah.com/

jdstrand - October 21, 2011

Thanks for your kind words. Now, if I could only find time to add something new. :)

11. http://tinyurl.com/primbates32906 - January 9, 2013

I blog as well and I am creating something comparable to
this excellent blog, “Unity and Me Penguin Droppings”.
Do you mind in the event that I actuallyutilize a bit of
of your personal suggestions? Thanks for your time ,Blake

jdstrand - January 9, 2013

Sure, but note that it is quite out of date and quite a few things have changed with Unity since then.

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