Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ubuntu 12.04 and Unity

Ubuntu 12.04 – all in!

Well, I've decided to give Ubuntu's Unity GUI an honest look. I had already updated both my netbook and desktop machines to 12.04, but had installed MATE for use as my GUI.

My reasons for installing MATE, were my years of comfort with Gnome 2.x. I had a configuration I was happy with. Just the right little additions and behaviors to fit my way of working. MATE allowed me to hold on to those preferences. MATE is still a little buggy though, and has caused me a bit of grief on the netbook especially. Overall, it was close to what I was used to from gnome 2.3 up to Ubuntu 10.10.

I decided to spend a little time with the new Gnome 3. I had looked at it before, but I was not in the right frame of mind to give it a fair shake. This time, I cleared my mind of my old habits, and approached Gnome 3 as something new. No expectations of how things should work. I discovered that Gnome 3 was actually not terrible. In fact, it struck me as clean, if not a bit to simplified. I learned a bit about it, discovered the common shortcuts, and some inconsistencies.

The experience with Gnome was not bad, and I decided I could live with using it on my working machines. Well, what about Unity then? Ubuntu is built by default around their Unity GUI. I suppose that if I'm exploring these new desktops, I should give Unity a good look as well.

Years ago, heck, a decade ago!, I switched from Windows XP to an eMac running OSX 10.4. Coming from the Windows world into mac was like stepping into an alien environment. Everything was strange a different, yet it all fit together so well. The Apple GUI was clean and shiny. All the parts reflecting an attention to detail that was consistent throughout the interface.

Unity has that same feel. The impression it gives, is of a carefully designed product, throughout. Ubuntu does not feel like a hobby OS stitched together by a collaborative effort of pale computer nerds, not by a long shot! Ubuntu with Unity feels like an expensive commercial product.

I'm going to talk a little bit about a few of the features of Unity that I think I will quickly become dependent on and miss on other desktops. First up, the HUD.

The HUD, Heads Up Display, is a search tool for menus. We've all been here before, you're in an application, working away, and you need a certain function. You can't remember which menu that function is under, so you waste 20 seconds or more digging through menus looking for it. This is where HUD comes in. A single tap of the 'alt' key brings up a search field, where you can start typing the name of the menu item you're looking for. Below the search field, a list begins to populate as you type, with hits on that keyword, prepended with the path to that item.

As an example, in GIMP, if I start typing “crop” into the HUD, I get a list of items like so:
Tools > Transform Tools > Crop

Once I train myself to use HUD, I can see it becoming a time-saver in some larger applications like Libre Office Writer or Calc. I often find myself searching menus in those apps for a function.

Ubuntu One, Canonicals free cloud service, has grown up a bit in this release. The settings panel is cleaner and more comprehensive, and the speed of syncing files is much improved over the earlier versions.
I have two work computers, a large home desktop machine, and a eeepc netbook. Using Ubuntu One, I sync the contents of my documents and desktop folders. This just works wonderfully. As an example, this blog entry was something I worked on over a few days, sometimes at home, and sometimes on my lunch break at the day job. I'd open the file, work on it awhile and then close it. No matter if I was home on the desktop, or elsewhere on the netbook, I always had the current edit of the file.

Other times, I might run across some media or image that I want to use later. I would simply drop in on my desktop, and the next time I sat down at the other computer, the file was there. Very handy.

One design element of Unity that I have mixed feelings about, is the placement of menus in the bar at the top of the screen. Just as on the Mac's OS, all application menus will be place in the top of the screen. On my netbook, this is not so much of a problem since it saves on screen real estate. Application windows have more space for content. However, on my desktop with a big 24” hi-res monitor, this results in a LOT of mouse milage.

The app menu placement is implemented through three little programs, so simply removing them will cause the menus to again be place on application windows. The one line shell command to accomplish this is as follows.:

sudo apt-get autoremove appmenu-gtk appmenu-gtk3 appmenu-qt
Doing this on my desktop but not on my netbook allows me to get the best out of unity in both cases It's the one thing I enjoy most about a linux desktop, customizable, completely. At work I use a Mac as my primary workstation and I am responsible for nearly 400 Mac workstations. Apple makes the decisions about how their GUI looks and works, you have little choice. The Lion upgrade went a long way to slowing me down at my job. Lots of frustration and verbal grumbling over that.

There are only two 'bugs?' that I have yet to resolve with Unity. One being multiple desktops don't automatically switch when you switch focus to apps on other desktops. Example: I leave Gwibber on a second desktop.. If I go to the notification menu and notice a new message there, and click on it, nothing happens. In my mind it seems that the desktop should slide over to Gwibber.

The other is probably a configuration setting somewhere that I've yet to find. On my desktop, tapping the super key does not bring up the menu, nothing happens. This machine was upgraded from 10.10 to 11.04 to 11.10, finally to 12.04. I suspect there's some crumbs still hanging around that I have to clean up. Any suggestions?

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