Unity is a new replacement for Gnome shell in Ubuntu. Canonical started working on it some time ago and Natty Narwhal, Ubuntu 11.04, will be the first to use it by default. I decided that Alpha 3 release after feature freeze is a good time to run things for the first time and give them a little bit of testing. Alpha 3 release is far from being stable environment and there will be feature freeze exceptions for Unity and few other applications and things will still change.
Let’s get something clear, from my point of view and my experience, if the product needs feature freeze exceptions, then most of the testing will be done after the final release. Which means that the product wasn’t really ready for a release. So, in my opinion, six months release cycle is not so bad, but Unity should be included as an option and not as a primary environment.
Installing Natty Narwhal is trivial, so I will not get into details about that. I was installing in a VirtualBox machine and I had to install VirtualBox add-ons to get 3D support. Make sure you have VirtualBox 4.0.4 which has support for Natty Alpha.
After reboot and login, desktop looked just fine and then after a few of seconds, Gnome/GTK theme settings were dropped and it looked like I traveled ten years back in time.
It appears that gnome-settings-daemon starts too early and is caught in a race condition. See launchpad bug #649809 and a temporary solution in the comments. After applying this, everything worked as it should and I was able to test all the new goodies.
Unity is much different than gnome-shell and you will need to get used to it. It will be annoying if not hard and painful. Sometimes things are much different and I was stuck with bugging developers and testers on irc.freenode.net #ayatana on how to do simple things. Adding shortcuts to Dash, for example.
Dash? Yes, like I said, new things. It took Canonical quite some time to figure out how they will call new elements on the desktop. Natty Narwhal will come with Panel which is similar to the old one. However, you will not be able to add program launchers to it and the panel itself is a place where global menus will show. On the right side is a space for indicator applets and old panel applets are gone. No more clutter in the ‘tray area’ with only essential indicators displayed there. Global menus deserve a post of their own, but let me mention them briefly. Application menu (File, Edit, View, etc, etc, …) moved from application window to the global menu. Good news for the queer Mac users, bad news for the rest of the world.
As if this wasn’t enough, the menu is not shown until you move your mouse over the panel, then the name of currently active application will partially fade away and menu items will cover the name. And you will have a Home Fo File – Edit – View in the panel.
I already mentioned Dash, which will open if you click the Ubuntu button in the upper left corner. Dash is a blend of favorite programs, people and places. Honestly, people are still missing, but we’re getting there slowly. Right now it is an annoying place where you search for applications, because there is no other way of running them. Applications menu is gone, there is an icon in the Launcher to open Dash with a short list of applications. Then you have to click on a text button to see 72 more results. Oh, did I mention that searching for programs will show programs that are installed and programs that are available for installing? Highly annoying, when you realize that you just double clicked an application that is not installed and it will be downloaded.
Last, but not least, Launcher. Launcher is used, to, uhm, launch programs. It will also display which programs are running, how many instances of one program are running (up to three arrows on the left side of the program icon) and which program, or should I say window, is currently active (arrow on the right side). Launcher has its own problems. It will auto hide if a window needs more space on desktop. It will show if you move your mouse on the edge of the screen, which doesn’t work if you’re running Natty in Virtual Box.
If you want to open multiple instances of Terminal, forget about Launcher. Use terminal hot keys or move your mouse over global menu area and use menu. Launching multiple instances is still unsupported and I am not sure who will have to deal with this, application developers or Unity developers. Launcher API is in the works and there are rumors of more notifications in Launcher itself. Not much of a unity, right? Some indicators on Panel and some in Launcher, users will be confused. If you like to have many applications open, your Launcher will get cluttered.
The rest of the hoopla
At first I noticed larger ‘resize handles’ on windows. Finally! No more pixel hunting of that single pixel when you want to resize your window. Windows also have a pretty, one pixel border around them. A feature that I find most useful, but it seems that it will go away in favor of 45 pixels wide shadow. No, I am not kidding, see below. I am no usability expert, so I would really like to know why is this better than one pixel border. When you have few terminal windows overlapping on desktop, it is hard do distinguish them if there is text scrolling inside. A common scenario when I am developing and debugging.
Did you like existing scrollbars? They will change, now we are getting ‘overlay scrollbars‘, but it is still unclear if they are coming in Natty. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to produce a working screen shot of this, I killed my Natty installation with all the experimental stuff I added and before that, gnome-settings-daemon started acting up again and previously mentioned fix wasn’t working anymore.
The very last thing that bothered me was window snapping. Windows didn’t snap to other windows and I tried to change that. The problem was that compiz settings manager was freezing the whole VirtualBox and I had to restart Natty over and over again. No snapping for me. Things got even more weird when I discovered that windows do snap on screen edges. They, however, don’t snap on the edge, but a few pixels away from it. See the picture below. Confusing? Yes, because it seems that they will snap to the edge of the screen if you force them. And if you move the window around the edge it will be snapping around the edge and around that mystical magnetic place, few pixels away from the edge. The whole experience looks pretty ugly.
And the conclusion?
Things are looking good. Somewhere in the future. My post touched few anomalies that I encountered, I didn’t even get much into the whole user experience and concepts of the modern desktop. I wasn’t using Natty and Unity long enough for that. A little more on this subject from Benjamin Humphrey over at OMG! Ubuntu! Good read.
Is Unity doomed to fail? No, not really, I still, strongly, believe that it can be an awesome desktop and a great environment to work in but not in this release cycle. Too many things are still missing or they are not implemented as they should be. Like I said, one cycle as a secondary desktop and it might have a better shot.
Remember Pulse Audio? It needed at least two cycles to get it under (almost) complete control. Same thing will most likely happen with Unity. I am not sure if I like the specific heading that Canonical has set for Unity, but I do like the general direction.