Is Unity a better alternative to the GNOME Shell?

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.

The negative:

  • 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.

5 thoughts on “Is Unity a better alternative to the GNOME Shell?

  1. I don’t think that gnome 3 can be compared with kde 4 fiasco. Compared with that, gnome 3 has a fallback mode to gnome-panel.

  2. Oh, that negative list for unity was a tad long, I concur very much with it. There is the classic gnome default which I preferred to both 2d and 3d. I want to remove their dock and add my own which does not seem possible. I also do not like how in either Gnome 3 or Unity you can not add or remove on panel. I hate the me menu and don’t want it forced upon me.

    However, I felt more positive about Gnome 3.

  3. My favorite thing in the world is when bloggers discover that experimental and alpha-level software has flaws.

    If you want stable software, use Ubuntu 10.04; that is what it is there for. If you want bleeding edge software that introduces new features that may have bugs and be unstable, use the six month releases. But don’t criticize Canonical that an alpha release aimed toward Ubuntu developers who identify and fix bugs is buggy; that is exactly what it is there for.

    1. This is Free & Open Soruce software and this alpha version was released to the public. The first goal of an alpha release is to collect feedback from the community. That is exactly what I have done here. If this feedback is not wanted, then it should not have been released in the first place. Yes, feedback should ideally be given on the bug tracker, but I do not think this was really useful here: the instability and incompleteness is so obvious that they are definitely well aware of it themselves already.

      With these two articles I wanted to give a preview of GNOME Shell and Unity, which both are still in development but will be released to the public as stable software in 2 to 3 months. With only such a short time left, the conclusion is clear to me: Unity will definitely not be a GNOME Shell killer in 3 months, even if all the crashes and obvious bugs are fixed. But even GNOME Shell will likely not be polished enough to give it to your grandma instead of the trusty old GNOME panel. And for that reason I think that it is sad that Canonical decided to go its own way instead of joining forces with GNOME to create a single, innovating and polished desktop shell.

  4. I’m a bit worried about the global menu. I use “Active window follows the mouse”, I think it’s more efficient. The problem is that if I want to click something in the global menu and drag the mouse over another window, I’ll get the menu for that window and not the one I want. Personally, I don’t see the point of global menus, if it’s to save vertical space, a better idea is to merge it into that big handle for moving windows (title bar).

    I also have my dock panel at the top, near my menus, not at the bottom. Again more efficient.

    But these are my preferences and I don’t expect others to use them. I don’t understand why Ubuntu makes major changes (e.g., OSX style window buttons and global menus) to the desktop that can be classed as personal preferences. Some people say you can disable it, likewise, they can enable it. If Ubuntu makes a change like this, why don’t they keep the defaults and add options during the install process to enable new changes, especially those classed as personal preferences.

    My little rant with some cents.

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