Friday, November 5, 2010

Huge Ubuntu Changes to Come (Unity review)

The last Ubuntu news have made quite some noise lately. Rightly so, for the Canonical supported distro is about to make some very aggressive (and potentially risky) changes.

In case you didn't know, they have decided that Ubuntu 11.04 will use Unity as the default GUI, thus leaving long time favorite GNOME behind. Anybody using Ubuntu for some time was aware that the switch to GNOME shell was going to be anything but smooth. It came to a point where it was somewhat clear that Ubuntu could end up looking for an alternative, specially in the light of all the criticism behind GNOME3 pre-releases. I have to admit, though, that it has been a surprise to find that Ubuntu would switch to Unity as soon as 11.04, less than 6 months from now.


Given that Unity is available for download in Maverick Meerkat, I couldn't resist and went on and tested it. Before I go into my review, I have to say that I am aware (and Ubuntu developers admit the same) that Unity is not 100% solid yet.

Downloading and installing Unity in Ubuntu 10.10 is quite simple. Once installed, Unity becomes the default session manager, but it is possible to go back to GNOME anytime. Therefore, if you want to see what's coming, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Open a virtual terminal
  2. Install Ubuntu netbook
  3. sudo apt-get install ubuntu-netbook
  4. Install Unity
  5. sudo apt-get install unity
  6. In order to test Unity, simply logout and log back in

Those who have not seen Unity (or GNOME shell) before will probably choke a bit when using Unity for the first time. The look and feel is not a drastic departure from GNOME's, but the way things work is.

Click on Image to enlarge

Having said so, the interface is very intuitive and it is very simple to get a hold of it in just a few minutes. Working on several workspaces is possible, but the effect is similar to Compiz's Expo, no sign of any 3D effects here. Word from developers is that they will make it to the final release, though.

Click on Image to enlarge

I have the feeling that installing Unity on top of Ubuntu 10.10 producess a "hybrid" setup that falls somewhat in between both, because the former is "boss". After all, the way places are organised, default applications and administration sections all follow the GNOME approach. In fact, it looks like Nautilus will still be there for Ubuntu 11.04, even if the plan is to no longer use it after then. In any case, I am not sure that testing Unity this way really conveys an accurate portrait of how it will eventually look like when it is released for good.

Click on Image to enlarge

Even if the GNOME influence is undeniable, it is still easy to see different concepts in Unity. For example, the main workspace view doesn't use old categories anymore, but splits areas into tasks. It's not so much about splitting applications into categories, but about presenting the user functionality areas and ask What do you want to do?.

Click on Image to enlarge

As I mentioned before, there is an overall vibe to Unity that conveys this is not a final product, which is to be expected at this stage. It feels more like an early prototype with many areas and concepts still lacking maturity. I won't go into detail, but I found performance far from current standards and a significant lack of flexibility over the current GNOME Ubuntu desktop.


Based on my testing, I am not sure moving to Unity at this stage is such a good idea. I believe it is far from being mature enough to take over from GNOME, too far to close the gap in six months. I understand, though, that sometimes the best way to mature a piece of technology is to jump straight into using it, even if that involves certain risks and lack of overall stability and functionality at first. In fact, this is particularly the case in open source projects, which usually lack proper Alpha and Beta testing.

Aside from issues that are common in any kind of early development, I have found that Unity is not even close to GNOME in terms of flexibility. Its interface is bounded by too many limitations, most of which probably make sense if the target device was a tablet (is Mark Shuttleworth trying to position Ubuntu as a potential iOS competitor?), but not so much in a standard PC. I think that lack of options could prove a decision maker for many in the Linux community, so I hope Ubuntu developers work hard to improve it.

Taking everything into account, my opinion is that it is too early to set Unity as the default Ubuntu desktop manager. I obviously have huge respect for Ubuntu developers and am more than ready to be surprised, but I truly think they have raised the bar way too high this time.

If you try Unity, or after reading this brief review, I am sure lots of questions will come to mind. Here's a (particularly) brief FAQ attempt, which does provide some very relevant answers.


If changing the default desktop manager was not enough, Ubuntu 11.04 is set to undergo some other major changes, the departure from X to embrace the Wayland display server being the most notorious. It seems Ubuntu developers feel the current video server technology is too old and cumbersome (probably about right), so they decided to switch to Wayland, a very young project apparently full of potential.

Once again, this is a major departure from what has been core at Ubuntu, perhaps even more radical a change than a new desktop manager. On the one hand, I applaud the braveness behind all these decisions, specially considering they showcase the very top value at the heart of Linux: Freedom. On the other hand, I wonder it they are trying to take on too much too soon.

For more details, you can read Mark Shuttleworth's own blog ENTRY on the subject.


Yes, there is still room for more changes! Banshee has been designated the default Ubuntu Media Player and will be part of the LiveCD when 11.04 goes live. Banshee developers have embraced the opportunity and have already stated their interest in making an effort to provide the best integration possible, which incidentally will be part of the development of Banshee 2.0.


Ubuntu 11.04 is quickly positioning itself as the most ambitious release to date, incorporating changes that can very much redefine the way we understand the formerly brown Linux distro. I am sure it won't be an easy ride at first, but even if Natty Narwhal is not an example of reliability, it may be the first step towards an even brighter future.


  1. Hi, unity must have pretty good potential for ubuntu to be going to use the moment ubuntu is going from strength to strength.,and they would not risk alienating ubuntu users.I can only see a very bright future indeed for ubuntu.

  2. Does unity provide option to re-size icons on left taskbar as well as the main desktop/window?

  3. Hi, Irfan,

    I didn't find a way to do what you are asking during the brief testing I did. I am not saying it is 100% impossible, but certainly not intuitive nor straightforward.

    In any case, current GNOME icon themes are built for, well, GNOME (duh). I am curious to see how/if a pure Unity desktop can deal with them.

    Lots of open questions at this point!

  4. Thanks Chema,

    Would it be easily possible to install GNOME/Xfce etc. alongside Unity on Wayland based Ubuntu 11.04?


  5. I currently run Ubuntu 64x on my desktop at work and on my laptop. I have tried out Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.10 on my new 10" tablet pc (ASUS 101MT). I found the interface easy to use and well optimized for small touch screens. I did however run into problems with Unity running slow or glitchy when running on an Atom processor. This is very frustrating because the regular Ubuntu distribution runs very smooth. The second major issue I found was the near total lack of customizing the quick launch bar. In its current state, you can only drag shortcuts or remove them. You cannot customize size, color or even position on the screen.

    All that being said, even if all the bugs are worked out and improvements made, I am not likely to use it on my laptop (16” screen) or my desktop. I am extremely skeptical how the interface will be an improvement over gnome for daily desktop (and even larger laptop) use. Still, im excitedly awaiting future improvements and releases to try out on my tablet.

  6. @Irfan: Hard to tell, really. Shuttleworth did mention they want to open doors to GNOME and KDE, but I am sure that will take time. Xfce?... Probably even longer!

    The big question here is whether Ubuntu/Canonical can push the Linux community to embrace Wayland. If everyone does and all development efforts transition from X to Wayland, I think it should result in a smooth evolution.

  7. Why on earth would I want my desktop OS to look like it was endorsed by Steve Jobs?

  8. I have a solid Maverick in one partition, so I'm using another partition for a Natty/Unity. The top bar seems pretty much a waste of real estate. The icon bar is nice for your 15 most-used programs, but what about access to the others? I'm having to use File Manager /usr/share/applications to get to them. Since there's really no room for anything else, I think I'll add Cairo or Docky to the other side for some widgets and stuff.

  9. Hi Chema,
    Thanks for the article. Can I install this on Server 10.04, and if so, how may I ask?
    Thanks in advance for your help!


  10. Any change should confer an advantage or improvement. I tried the laptop/netbook version and found it cluttery and confusing. It doesnt seem to be faster, more efficient etc so why change?

    If unity? is just an overlay to the underlying os it probably doesnt matter as long as we can use our xfce/xubuntu/kde options?


  11. Hi chema,changes in ubuntu as you know i was having problems with the graphics which was not a linux decided to do a complete re-install of ubuntu 10.10 with all the proposed updates too. the graphics card was a sapphire radeon HD5670 card.with the complete ubuntu re-install every thing then clicked in to place the graphics is now sharp and video live stream now works nicely.just thought i would pass this on to you byee from pete.

  12. The Natty Alpha 3 just came out, and it's very different from Alpha 1. So to evaluate Unity really requires this latest alpha. I've only just installed it, so I don't know how to tweak everything yet. I know I need to get it to stop displaying icons for the zillion partitions on my two hard drives. :-)