Unity is not Great

About two weeks ago my work laptop died. The motherboard just bricked itself to pieces and there was no rescuing it. As my old machine was old and decrepit, and I was going to be replacing it with something with an entirely different hard drive profile I opted to do a clean install of Ubuntu 12.4. Previously I’ve been running Kubuntu 10.4 and it’s been high time to move on.

Why not 13.4 you ask? Well, I’m in my 30′s now which means I’m living on an accelerated time-space curve now. Time simply flows faster than it did when I was in my teens or twenties. For example, I recently refereed to an event that happened back in 2010 as “the other day” because that’s honestly how it felt to me. From that you can probably extrapolate that I am not a huge fan of upgrading my OS every other day (which is roughly how 6 months seems to me). I can hardly give half of a fuck what quirky adjective-animal combination is the most up-to-date one. I just want something semi-stable that is regularly patched, and that has a decent sized package library. I’ve ran non-LTS versions of the OS before, and I was always unpleasantly surprised when Canonical end-of-lifed them and “vanished” the repositories leaving me stranded every 6 months or so. To put it plainly, anything that is not an LTS is not worth my time.

12.4 ships with Unity – Cannonical’s new window manager and desktop environment. There has been a lot of discussion about it when it was first released, and it seems that Ubuntu community has been torn apart between those who like it and those who hate it. Previously I didn’t really have an opinion in the discussion, because I haven’t really used it for anything substantial. I of course checked it out back when it was new, and it looked kinda sleek and a tad bit showy for my tastes but I didn’t outright hate it.

With my switch to 12.4 I decided to give it a fair shake and see how it performs in regular day-to-day usage. Unfortunately, it turns out that all the haters were right: Unity is not that great. It is style over substance. It seems to try so hard to be OSX like that it makes things that used to be simple needlessly difficult.

Here are my biggest complaints about Unity in order of severity:

  1. Poor performance
  2. No functional pager
  3. Terrible application awareness

Let me tackle each of these in turn.

Performance

The machine I replaced my old laptop with wasn’t top of the line. It was one of the rank and file laptops we had in stock, and I might be able to swap it to a beefier dev machine at some point soon. Still, the hardware was nothing to scoff at – a respectable Intel i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM. Nothing to write home about, but we usually run Win 7 with full-blown Areo effects on this hardware, and it handles it without breaking a sweat. Unity was making it work for its money: the fan was whining full speed most of the time, and launching applications would actually freeze up the desktop for a few seconds. Switching desktops was literally painful.

You could argue that it’s not Unity but Ubuntu itself being an unoptimized resource hog. I was concerned by this too, but then I decided to do an experiment and ran the following command:

sudo aptitude install gnome-panel

I then logged out, logged back in and all my performance issues went away. Applications were now launching normally, and switching desktops wen from 1 second lag, followed by jerky animation to an instantaneous flick.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that after trying Gnome Panel, I went back and booted up in the Unity 2D mode to see how it stacks up. It was a big improvement on the default setup and the machine was actually usable. So if you do want to give Unity a whirl, I highly recommend using the 2D mode unless you have a top of the line rig. Of course half of Unity’s charm is how pretty it looks so you will be getting a diluted experience. Along with my other issues, I decided it just wasn’t worth it.

Lack of Pager

Both KDE and Gnome has always had excellent pagers. You know – those little widgets that sit in your task bar and let you switch between your virtual desktops. I always loved the fact that I could just glance onto said pager in the corner of my screen and see the rough layout of my windows on each desktop. Not only that, but I could just click on any arbitrary desktop to switch to it, or grab any of said windows and drag it to a different desktop letting me organize my shit without any hassle. In Unity that functionality is replaced with OSX inspired “workspace switcher” which does the pan-and-zoom-out kind of animation every time you activate it. It’s icon in the dock is static and doesn’t give you that at-a-glance preview which seems like a downgrade.

Gnome Panel

Note the pager in bottom right which shows you what windows are open on which desktop/display and allows you to drag and drop them.

I liked seeing window outlines in my KDE/Gnome pager. I liked being able to drag windows between desktops without actually switching to those desktops via the pager. The pager was always one of the best features of a Linux desktop. I always miss it whenever I’m working on Windows of OSX. In the past I have tried third party solutions that would add virtual desktops to Windows and pager like functionality of OSX but none of these have ever worked as well as the native KDE/Gnome task-bar widgets.

One could argue that removing the pager in not unorthodox because it mimics OSX behavior that users might be more familiar with. The fact that it was aped from Apple however doesn’t make it good. Personally I am not a huge fan of OSX spaces. I’m glad the functionality exists, but I often find myself wishing it worked more like traditional Gnome/KDE style virtual desktops. It is admirable that Cannonical is trying to learn from the best, but I think in this case they got it wrong. They took something that was working well, and replaced it with something similar but less functional.

Application Awareness

Unity is also missing a task bar. I don’t know about you but I like task bars. I’m very fond of the traditional, one entry per window task management. One of the first things I do when I install Windows is to disable collapsing in the task bar. I like to be able to see how many windows I have open, and be able to switch between them easily with a mouse. Collapsing applications into a single icon on the task bar hides vital information that I need to work efficiently.

OSX doesn’t have a traditional task bar, but it provides some alternatives. When you minimize windows in OSX, you essentially iconify them into custom doc entries. So as long as you command-M your windows instead of letting them go out of focus, you have yourself a functional task bar with one entry per minimized window.

Unity implementation combines worst features from both worlds and ends up with Launcher which is barely workable. Instead of showing you what windows are open on current desktop, Unity adds dots to the left of the icons of apps. One dot per open window on the current desktop… But only up to three dots in total for some reason. Instead of collapsing minimized windows into their own entries it simply hides them. So the only way to find out you have minimized windows on current desktop is to count the dots, then count open windows and subtract.

Unity Desktop

Pop Quiz: How many instances of Terminal are running here? The answer is five.

You can of course trigger Apple-expose like windows splay by clicking on said dots, but that shows you a preview of all the windows, without differentiating which ones were open, which were in focus and which were minimized. It seems a very haphazard, unfocused take on window management. With a traditional task-bar I can glance on the bottom of my screen and I instantly know how many windowed applications I’m running and on which desktops I have open windows. With Unity I always felt like I was flying blind, never having full awareness of my work environment.

Conclusion

In my honest opinion, Unity is mostly broken by design. I don’t blame Cannonical for trying to design a desktop environment that is easy to use and intuitive. I don’t blame them for abstracting and hiding away a lot of configuration details in lieu of a streamlined and unified look and feel. I don’t mind that they came up with an opinionated desktop environment that makes bold design choices. This is actually a good thing. Linux desktop needs this sort of focus on usability and user friendly environments. I’m glad that Unity exists because it allows us to have discussions about usability and user centric design on Linux desktop – something that used to be an almost foreign concept few years ago.

That said, when you come up with an opinionated framework that makes bold decisions, you risk using established power users. I am unfortunately one of them. I’ve been an Ubuntu user for many years now, but Unity is just not for me. I like traditional task-bars and pagers and I want them to be part of my desktop experience. If I didn’t like them I would probably be using a tiled window manager like real men are supposed to (or so I’m told).

That said, I can see how Unity could provide better user experience for novice users who have not yet developed habits such as juggling many virtual desktops and displays. If you are the type of person who usually runs one or two applications at a time, Unity 2D might actually be a viable option. The large icons on the launcher and search based application finder make it very easy for a Linux novice to find a program they might need for a particular task.

It’s a pity that Unity offers next to nothing to us power users.

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16 Responses to Unity is not Great

  1. I feel your pain. I hated Unity when I first transitioned over to it when I loaded 12.04 LTS. Over time, I have found myself getting accustomed to it. Ubuntu Tweak was my life saver. It gave me the ability to do things to the dock to get me back to a configuration I could live with. My biggest issue is being able to right click an item in the dock and select different menu options. For instance, I have a terminal icon that allows me to connect to various systems simply by right clicking and selecting a system name in the context menu.

    Also, I “need” focus follow mouse. I typically have ten terminals open and only need to see the bottom two lines. I want to change the focus of the windows without having to bring it to the top to type commands. Simple, right?

    Unity has been evolving over the last few years. Things have been getting better. It will take some time before it is really refined. I am liking where it is going.

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  2. FX FRANCE Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I generally find it has a lot of fluffy and unnecessary things, and the useful settings are drowned in the shininess of it all.

    …and, let it be known, despite my love for Archlinux, I actually like the way you can three-finger-swipe left/right across desktops on OSX (or up/down to see the running applications). It’s one of the best implementations around, and Ubuntu is far from it.

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  3. Kevin Benko UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    I tend to avoid Ubuntu like the plague. I have downloaded and installed Ubuntu on three separate occasions, in 2005, in 2010, and in 2013. I tried to really like Ubuntu, but this disaster of Unity has turned me off. Each time, I had attempted to use it for a week, but only survived a day or two.

    I will stick with Debian, Mint, and Slackware.

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  4. I gave Unity a few weeks, but instead of getting used to it, it only made me realize how awful it is. Any time I was trying to be productive it would get in my away and annoy me. I’ve stopped recommending Ubuntu because of it. I also gave Gnome 3 a few weeks but had similar frustrating results (details). I believe these environments are just not capable of supporting people who want to be highly productive on their machines. They’re for very casual users.

    With Gnome 2 dead I made use of KDE for a few months. Finding that inadequate (but not awful), and prompted by one of your posts, I finally switched to the best desktop environment I’ve ever used: heavily customized, minimal Openbox. It’s been a year now and I don’t see any reason to ever switch to something else.

    From that you can probably extrapolate that I am not a huge fan of upgrading my OS every other day

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve become the same way. My five years out of college have gone by much faster than my four years in college. Major upgrades every six months feels like a tedious treadmill now. I’ve backed away from OpenBSD for the same reason. All my personal machines are running Debian again, so I feel like I’m Debian’s prodigal son.

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  5. Andrew Zimmerman UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS Terminalist says:

    I agree. Unity sucks,

    and it appears right now both Microsoft and Canonical are having to learn from their experiments with user interface.

    After we pass this Vista phase we’ll see what comes out next!

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  6. Keep in mind that there used to be a better netbook interface call UNR (Ubuntu Netbook Remix).
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Netbook-remix-home. png

    This was all built on Gnome 2 though. When Gnome 3 was released, they decided to build a one-size-fits-all solution. Unfortunately, Unity is resource intensive. I typically run XFCE on slower systems now.

    I heard all these remarks many years ago when Solaris dropped OpenLook for CDE and even during the the CDE to JDS transition. The problem seems to be our resistance to change. I forced myself to stick to Unity and find it quite usable now. I had to relearn a few things but overall, it works for me.

    My main driving factor is that I refuse to become one of those users that are unable to work on a UNIX system at all without their emacs or vi config files. Also, as a professional system administrator, it is good for me to learn multiple environments so I can better support them.

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  7. Rudemeister Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    The Linux kernel has gotten so good that it’s differences from distro to distro have become almost trivial and boring. My longest affair with a distro was Mandriva linux which nearly died a horrible and public death. It became the execution of the UI which was my biggest issue. OSX used to be so cool. Now it has become…..meh….boring. Gnome imploded with version 3. Gnome 2 was okay, but lacked the polish and fine finish of KDE. Yeah Mandriva was KDE too. So when Mandriva imploded I went distro hopping for a season. Mint with Cinnamon had possibilities, but Mint KDE was still prettier and easier to work with. But it always seemed like the red headed step child of the Mint guys. Kubuntu was okay, but…mmmm. quirkiness and an orphan also. Since this article is about Ubuntu and Unity though, let me just say the out of the box experience of Ubuntu Unity every time was as if my wife had just birthed an alien in my view. It nearly caused me to get a vasectomy. Oh gawd it was ugly. Yeah, it kinda worked okay, but that kid didn’t look like anything I would admit to as my spawn. I did not want to commit to a minor distro that would go extinct in a week or so. So I strived with Mint KDE for quite some time. I even tried OpenSuse, but it just didn’t work as good as the red headed step child, Mint KDE. Then they came out with OpenSuse 12.3. This has to be the most functional and pretty Linux distro ever. My love would soar above the clouds had the knucklehead devs made networking function by default like every other OS in the universe. So I gave Ubuntu 13.04 another try before my eyes started to bleed as I threw up. I guess I’ll endure the fine polish of OpenSuse 12.3 in spite of their no network default install faux pas. I appreciate the guts Canonical has, but I just can’t eat their dog food.

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  8. Alex ROMANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Agreed about Unity not having all the features I need. Because of that I tend to use Xubuntu whenever I need a Linux distro.

    As for the pager for Windows – I use Dexpot for virtual desktops and it has a nice little pager plugin that works very well. It can drag windows between desktops, minimize or maximize them via right-click and a couple of other useful functions. It will detect your monitor layout and display it accordingly (I use a two monitor setup, one in landscape mode and one rotated 90degrees and they appear correctly in the pager).
    Hope this helps.

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  9. Mitlik UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I love the comment about not wanting to upgrade every six months. This is exactly the reason I am drifting away from Gentoo. It seemed that just about every upgrade on world would stick me in kernel panic.

    I have never tried Unity, but I am not into eye candy. I was a fast responsive system. I thought KDE3 was a great DE and didn’t slow things down too much, but KDE4 was unbearable. I have since took a direction from Mr Wellons and looked at the *boxen WMs. Fluxbox at least is fast and responsive. Maybe you should give one a try (with bbpager of course).

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  10. Diego MEXICO Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    To avoid re-installation woes and Unity might I suggest trying out SolydXK – http://solydxk.com/ , it’s a new Debian based distro, desktop oriented, features a true rolling release, and offers Xfce and KDE support out of the box along with all the bells and whistles: codecs, propietary drivers, etc.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Craig A. Betts:

    Yes, the focus following mouse is great. I always try to scroll the background window when I’m on Windows and get annoyed when it doesn’t go. It drove me nuts in Unity as well, though I can see why they changed it seeing how average users tend to be spastic and uncoordinated with their mouse.

    @ FX:

    Yep, strangely enough that sort of thing kinda works in OSX. That said I generally use OSX on a 15″ laptop screen using the touch pad, whereas my experience with Ubuntu was using two 26″ displays, and a 5 button mouse. So it is quite a different environment, quite a different amount of screen relestate and etc..

    @ Kevin Benko:

    Funnily enough Ubuntu works fairly well on the server. I run Debian and Ubuntu on few headless machines and they behave rather similarly. That said, Ubuntu usually tends to be more bloated so for older machines I usually go with a bare bones Debian.

    @ Chris Wellons:

    I might need to mess around with Openbox one of these days. The whole “everything configured via portable text files” is definitely an enticing idea.

    @ Rudemeister:

    Heh, my first distro was also Mandiva… Only it went by a much cooler name back then: Mandrake. This actually seem to be a pattern – a lot of people who started messing around with Linux around the same time I did got their first steps on Mandrake. I guess it was the Ubuntu of it’s day. :P

    I tried SuSE for a few weeks many years ago – I think before it was swallowed by Novell. Back then though networking rarely worked out of the box to begin with so I didn’t notice any major issues. It was a different day.

    Speaking of which, didn’t Linus post a major rant about SuSE networking not so long ago? Something about his daughters not being able to connect to WiFi networks without root passwords or something?

    Craig A. Betts wrote:

    Also, as a professional system administrator, it is good for me to learn multiple environments so I can better support them.

    How often do you expect to support Ubuntu users though? I can totally get behind practicing raw unix skills in a CLI environment, because chances are I can find myself on a locked down server where I’m not allowed to install anything or import any config files. But I don’t really see many scenarios where I would have to support anyone running Ubuntu+Unity because most of my friends and relatives are either firmly stuck in Windows world or left Windows for OSX. The few people I know who do run Linux typically don’t need or ask for support. :P

    @ Alex:

    Looks nice. I might check it out, but most of virtual desktop software for windows had similar problems: they were kinda slow, buggy and would kinda stutter hiding things on the task bar. They always felt sluggish and none had a pager that would function the way the Gnome or KDE one does.

    @ Mitlik:

    Wow, Gentoo is on that fast upgrade train too? Seems kinda weird that a distro that insists on compiling every thing from source (which takes a really long time) would adopt such a scheme. :P

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  12. opensas ARGENTINA Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux says:

    Here you have a couple of tips to make your life with ubuntu easier, and to improve a little bit on the performance side
    http://opensas.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/taming-the-raring-ringtail/

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  13. Karthik AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    On reading your post, I briefly switched back to the classic Gnome 2 desktop with no Compiz. It was like moving from a glitzy hotel with unfinished rooms, poor room service and dodgy attendants to an old home with a well worn couch where everything is in arm’s reach. Over the past two years, I’d somehow come to accept Unity’s irritating desktop metaphors and glacial performance as the standard for Linux. In fact, Unity’s usability problems had also subtly driven me towards Windows for non-gaming activities.

    It’s weird. A couple of years ago I decided I’d had enough WM hopping for one lifetime (I’ve used everything from a no-X framebuffer/CLI setup to Openbox to Awesome to KDE) and settled on Unity because that’s what Ubuntu gave me with the least fuss. Going back to Gnome 2.x is liberating now.

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ opensas:

    Thank you sir, there are some good suggestions there. Bookmarked. :)

    @ Karthik:

    Yeah, as many people mentioned in this thread already both Gnome 3 and KDE 4 made some pretty radical design choices giving up performance and stability for glitz and glamour. Few years ago we had this big push in the Linux community to simplify, preatify and streamline… Which is good to a degree, but I think we might have went overboard with hit.

    I used to love KDE. Back in the day it was the shit. Konqueror was a shitty web browser but a great file manager and I never understood why they replaced it with Dolphin which wasn’t as mature and had a fraction of the functionality.

    Hell, Knoppix was a great utility distro back in the day but these days I find it barely usable because by default it loads with all the bullshit Compiz animations and transitions turned on. I used to use it all the time to recover files from dead machines, but it’s kinda annoying when you’re trying to rescue data from the windows partition and your file manager windows burst into flames and wobble as you move them around. :/

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  15. moragos ISRAEL Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    since you’ve mentioned you want a stable OS that doesn’t update every 6 months, why don’t you just use Debian?

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  16. Pingback: A list of things you may possibly need, but maybe not (2013 edition) | Terminally Incoherent UNITED STATES WordPress

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