Monday, September 10, 2012
Software Review: Ubuntu Desktop Environments Part 2: Ubuntu Unity
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Open Source world or operating systems other than Windows or Mac, there lies a magical world of free (as in freedom) software. Many of you are already accustomed to free (as in beer) software, or freeware. But what makes Open Source Free software so unique is that when it is licensed under something like the GNU General Public License anybody has the freedom to change, modify, and redistribute that software either for money or for free (as in beer). That means that you could have thousands of individuals working on a piece of software all around the world, creating localized language packs, improving performance, squashing bugs, and fixing security holes.
Sounds pretty sweet, right? And I'm about to blow your mind, because not only is there software like LibreOffice or GIMP that's Open Source, but there's a whole slew of Operating Systems. Versions of Unix, reincarnations of BeOS, and the very popular Unix-like GNU/Linux (often shortened to just Linux). I'm going to be specifically looking at GNU/Linux for this multi-part post, and even more specifically I'm going to be comparing the Desktop Environments that are built on the GNU/Linux Distribution Ubuntu. These posts will be spaced far enough apart to allow me to use the systems for a good week or two. After I have tested the different "major" Desktop Environments I'll have a final post with my conclusion and opinion. All of these OS's are run on my work computer, which is an HP ProBook 6460b with an Intel Core i5 2520m, 8GB of RAM, and 500GB 7200RPM drive with a custom partition setup. This should be more than adequate to run all of these Desktop Environments.
For Part 1 of this series we explored the KDE Desktop Environment (DE) on Ubuntu, but for Part 2 we're going to take a look at Ubuntu Unity, the custom made Gnome-based DE built by Canonical (the folks behind Ubuntu). But first, a little back story. Traditionally, the Ubuntu Desktop had Gnome 2.x as it's default DE. The first sighting of Unity was in the Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition. Unity was designed to maximize the screen real estate of the small netbooks using a vertical launcher, larger Icons for easier navigation, and a HUD (Heads Up Display) that had universal search. Apparently the Gnome development team and the Ubuntu development team had different design philosophies, and that's why as of Ubuntu 11.04 Ubuntu Unity is the official DE of Ubuntu instead of Gnome Shell. There are also 2 versions of Unity. Unity 3D (the default Unity) and Unity 2D (meant for lower-end hardware).
Many in the Linux community describe Unity as an abomination. I also sorely missed my KDE desktop the first day that I had switched over to Unity. However, after nearly 2 months using Unity my opinion has been changed. Many of the changes reflected in Unity really do make the desktop more intuitive, more feature filled, and really shows that Canonical is focusing on the newer Linux users.
In Part 1 I briefly touched on the installation process. The process remains the same, and I used an even easier method as outlined by the website psychocats.net. So, once my machine had rebooted, I was greeted by a muted orange, red, brown, and purple background, very reminiscent of Ubuntu's past desktops. There are no icons on the desktop, which is a very welcome site when coming from windows. To my Left was the Launcher with its large Ubuntu button, Firefox, LibreOffice apps, settings, Ubuntu's Software Center, and the Desktop Switcher. The top has a slim bar with "Ubuntu Desktop" listed at the top left and indicator applets, such as the battery applet, bluetooth, network, and volume applets, the system time, the currently logged in user, and the power button on the right side.
Right clicking on an icon in the Launcher allows you to unlock it from the launcher, or likewise lock it to the launcher. Locking a program launcher means it stays there, much like "pinning" an application in Windows 7. And very similarly to Windows 7, right clicking on some applications brings up further options. For instance, right clicking on the "Folder" on the launcher brings up a context menu for places you can go such as the Documents, Music, Pictures, and Home Folders. When you open a new application, it puts itself on the launcher, but it is not locked to the launcher. That means that once you close the app, it disappears from the launcher. That's okay, though, because launching apps from Ubuntu Unity is a snap.
At the top of the Launcher is the Ubuntu button. Clicking this brings up the HUD. Here you can type for a file name, or an app name. If you type "firefox", it will bring up Firefox, and if you hit enter, it will select the first app on the left and open it. Same thing happens with a folder or a file. However, if you want to select the app using the mouse in the HUD instead of typing it in, or if you can't remember the exact name, you can select the small icon that looks like a ruler, pencil, and pen and that will take you to the app HUD. Here you have the Most Recently Used, All Installed, and some Apps Available for Install. Clicking on the All Installed will reveal the full collection of apps. Next to it is the Documents HUD with a Recent view, the Downloads Folder, and Folders, generally the folders found in your Home. Next to that is Music with Songs and Albums. Ubuntu has deep integration with Rhythmbox, and whatever Rhythmbox sees as your library, Ubuntu will see as your library. Next to that is the Movies HUD. Since I don't have any movies on my local machine, it only has the Online Movies option. If you click on one of these, it takes you directly to the Amazon Instant Video Website.
Clicking on the Applets in the far right corner usually brings up a little drop down menu of options. Clicking on the Messages applet (the little envelope) brings up instant messaging options, as well as Broadcast options such as posting to Twitter or Facebook. Clicking the Battery brings up the battery status, such as charge, and power settings. Clicking the network symbol brings up all available connections. The sound applet had a surprise for me. Not only does it have the slider for volume, but it has the back, play, and forward buttons for Rhythmbox. That makes it much easier to listen to music in the background and control it without having to readjust focus from my current app. When you click on your name in the right corner, it brings up a menu to change user accounts, and user settings. And finally, the power button gives you your Logout, Shutdown, and Restart Options.
Unity, like KDE, has the option to use a Windows "Snap"-like feature when resizing windows. You can snag a window at it's top, and drag it to the right side, and *bloop* it resizes to fill only the right half of the screen. Drag it left and see the same result. And if you drag it to the top bar it will maximize. Alt+Tab brings up a simple window switcher. The Windows Key, or Super-L in Linux, brings up the HUD, but if you press Super-L+1-9 you activate the apps on your launcher, with 1 being the first icon under the Ubuntu Button. Holding the Super-L also brings up the "cheat sheet" with all of the quick commands.
There are still problems with Unity. There are times that the animations are jumpy, and don't seem fluid. Moving the menu bar to the top bar can be irksome, and for those who are used to Windows the Close/Minimize button placement is also odd and could potentially turn many users off of Unity. The Launcher works well, and I like the extra context menus when right clicking on the Launcher Icons. Ubuntu also has more apps and at times better integration with apps because it's written using GTK+ and Gnome. Dropbox is a great example of better integration with a Nautilus/Gnome environment. Dropbox has certain features that are ONLY supported in Nautilus/Gnome.
With that being said, I'm still very impressed with Unity. It is very usable for both beginners and experts. The Launcher is familiar enough for Windows users, as are the applets, that most users could jump ship and pick up Ubuntu and start using it with little fuss. In our age of "google-ing" and searching the internet, the HUD is almost second nature to most, just type in what you want and see what results pop up. The Social integration in the Messages applet, and the fact that you can control Rhythmbox from the Sound applet, show a great attention to detail and how users actually use their systems. No other Interface offers that right now. All Unity needs is a little more polish, and maybe a little cleaner and less cartoon-y UI and I think it could be perhaps one of the best DE's out there.