After my disappointment with the current GNOME 3.0 development version with GNOME Shell, I thought it would be interesting to compare it with Ubuntu’s Unity. Ubuntu has just published a new alpha version of what will become Ubuntu 11.04, so I used that for a quick test.
On the positive side:
- On the dock on the left side there is a button which opens the workspace switcher which gives a nice overview of your virtual desktops and their contents. The workspace switcher is easy to find and it looks awesome: this might be exactly what is needed to make more end users finally get to use virtual desktops.
- The list of Favourite folders is easily accessible by one of the buttons on the dock, as are all mounted volumes and the Thrash, unlike in GNOME Shell. Ubuntu’s desktop also supports desktop icons.
- Integration of Banshee in the volume mixer applet is nice: the pop-up in the volume mixer will show the playing song and has some buttons to control playback in Banshee. I do not know whether this integration also works for other audio players though.
- Unity uses uses a development version of Compiz which is very unstable. The first time I booted the Ubuntu live CD, Compiz crashed within one minute. In my next test sessions Compiz crashed again different times. Currently GNOME Shell and Mutter are definitely much more stable than Unity and Compiz.
- Just like GNOME Shell there is no way to show the date in panel, only the time is displayed.
- When clicking on the Ubuntu icon in the panel, some kind of empty window pops up. Maybe this ought to be the application launcher, but it is clearly not working.
- The application launcher can be opened from a button on the dock at the left side of the screen. However that button is rather near the bottom of the dock, above the mounted volumes icons. The Application button should be much more easy to find without having to scan all icons on the dock. Maybe this will get fixed when/if the Ubuntu icon launches the application browser.
- Applications are not organized in categories. Instead I got a huge table of all applications and preferences tools laid out horizontally and vertically. The Scrollbar in the application browser does not seem to be working so I could not access applications which were out of the view.
- In the application browser, there is something which looks like a text entry field which permits you to search for an application, but I could not type in it.
- After using the application browser for a few times, it just shows as an empty window, just like the Ubuntu icon. When this happens, you have no possibility to start applications anymore.
- When moving the mouse over an icon in the application launcher, a white border is drawn around the icon. The border is always a fixed size: if the application name is too long and wrapped over two lines, the border will cover part of the text.
- Just like in GNOME Shell, it looks like I cannot add custom applets and application launchers in the panel.
- The panel is used as a global menu bar for applications but not all applications support it: for example Firefox and LibreOffice do not use it. The menu is only shown when moving the mouse over the panel. If my mouse cursor is in an application itself, there is no trace of the menu, so people might be wondering where it is. I do not know whether this is by design or whether it is simply a bug. Personally I am also not convinced that a global menu is nice: when applications are not maximized, you need to move your mouse back and forward between the application window and the top of the screen, which is cumbersome.
- Mounted drives are shown in the dock and on the desktop. This looks a bit superfluous at first sight and especially when having lots of partitions on an external disk and lots of applications opened, the dock might become too small to show all icons.
- It is still GNOME 2.32. You do not have the nice windowless pop-up dialogs from GTK+3, nor the nice date and time applet from GNOME Shell or the chat integration in the notifications. Users will not benefit from the improvements included in GNOME 3 applications.
While GNOME Shell looked like an unpolished and cumbersome to use product, Unity feels like a completely broken proof of concept. In its current state it is even impossible to do anything useful with it because even launching applications is almost impossible.
It is also questionable how Unity will remain usable in the future after Ubuntu 11.04 Natty is out: will they port it to GTK+ 3? And what will they do about the desktop icons, a feature which is currently still provided by Nautilus 2.32, but not present anymore in 3.0?
Canonical has decided to choose Unity as default for its next Ubuntu version because they thought GNOME Shell was not going into the right direction. However, Unity is currently even a much bigger failure than GNOME Shell. I have the feeling that Canonical’s decision was bad for both GNOME and Ubuntu: now we have two different unfinished, unpolished and in the case of Unity even totally broken desktop shells. I am wondering what would be the current state of GNOME Shell if Canonical had decided to dedicate its resources to GNOME Shell instead of Unity… I am also wondering how users will react to a desktop with Unity by default. Will Ubuntu derivatives with a different default desktop, like Mint, take over Ubuntu as the most popular distribution for desktops? Or will GNOME get into a similar crisis like KDE when 4.0 was out and will many users start moving to other desktops, either temporarily or permanently? Or will they just continue using standard GNOME 2.x until the dust settles? I do not have any answer to these questions, but for sure we are arriving at an important crossroads in the history of GNOME.
For screenshots and more information about Ubuntu 11.04 Natty and Unity, I refer to this Tech Drive-in article.