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23rd January 2013

Why I don’t hate Ubuntu’s Unity UI

Reviews | Thoughts By 4 years ago

I’d just like to make it clear before we get into this, that this post is from my personal usage of Unity, and is mostly subjective. Like all UIs, what is good for you and your workflow will differ from someone else so not everything I say will apply to everyone. With that said, let’s get into it.

1. Unity Launcher

The Unity Launcher has taken a reasonable amount of flak since Unity was launched in 2011, but I can’t help but feel this is entirely unjustified. With the Unity launcher I have (almost) all the power of something like Gnome-Do, Quicksilver or Launchy and none of the configuration or indexing. When using Gnome-Do prior to the release of Unity, after installing a new application I had to wait for Gnome-Do to re-index or force a re-index myself; with Unity the application is just already there. If you make a .desktop file for an application that wasn’t .deb packaged, and throw it in the right directory, it’s done.

The Unity launcher stays out of my way, as well. The vertical bar at the left side of my screen uses very minimal valuable screen-space. With wide-screen monitors, horizontal screen real-estate is plentiful and often wasted. A vast majority of websites won’t utilise it so goes to waste when you have a browser full-screened, when programming my line length is limited for neatness and with a 1920×1080 monitor I can still quite comfortably run two-columned mode in my text-editor. Vertical screen-space is, however, very valuable by comparison; a standard 16:9 monitor has almost twice as much horizontal space as vertical and the old Gnome Shell didn’t place much significance on this, using a horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen. I can’t help but see the side bar as an upgrade. It not only occupies less valuable space, but it also uses it more efficiently: as both a launcher and an open application indicator- it even shows if an open application is in your current workspace too.

I never really operated without Gnome-Do on my Ubuntu installation, and I can understand how someone used to using a mouse-based menu system would be adverse to the changes from Gnome’s menu system to Unity’s Launcher. To me, though, Gnome’s menu was always stupid by design. When I go to launch an application, I usually already know what it is I want to launch, and subsequently have no need to browse. In the case where I don’t quite remember what that application is called, I still remember a keyword, or at least a letter,¬†or the use for the application I want to launchand it still shows up in the Unity Launcher. I could understand that if I’d somehow forgotten what I wanted to do, having a list of my applications available to browse through would be very useful, but I rarely find this is the case.

2. Heads-Up Display

I’m a big fan of stability > *, but the HUD was a feature I couldn’t resist- so I did the update from 12.04 LTS to 12.10 and I’m glad I did. At first, remembering the names of menu items was a tad difficult, it’s a far finer grain than just the application name, obviously, and there are many different options arranged in usually application-specific ways. However, most applications use convention for the naming of tasks, which I often find does not extend to the positioning of the menu items which initiate said tasks eg. “Preferences”, File? Edit? Tools? This has no effect within the HUD, as it text-searches all menus unless you specify otherwise.

The best part about the HUD is it doesn’t replace any existing functionality that holds any real value. The HUD is brought up with <ALT>, replacing the command the brought keyboard-navigable focus to the menus, with the arrow keys. This was an exceptionally inefficient way to navigate these menus as they are mouse-optimized. By indexing them and allowing keyboard search I can still take command from my keyboard- but in a far more natural way.

3. Conclusion

Other than those two, no other really major changes strike me. Nautilus is more or less the same, the background application icon bar in the top right is a bit better too, but not significantly. The HUD and the Launcher are the two biggest points that sell Unity to me.

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