Ubuntu’s Unity – guilty as charged.

While pouring over news on the Ubuntu releases this past weekend I was surprised to see some negative reaction to the new Unity environment for netbooks — notably from Netbooknews.com and surprisingly from Linux-only computer vendor System 76.

Of course I had to investigate; here are some quick and dirty first impressions…

Unity Workspaces

For me the big step forward in this latest netbook spin is multiple desktops. Two would be enough for yours truly, but Unity doubles that. Navigating between them is as easy as using the arrow keys on your keyboard while holding down “Control” & “Alt” with your other hand.

Unity Firefox

Things started to go sour for me when I launched Firefox. Because of the standard launcher that runs down the left side of the screen many web pages won’t be visible in their full horizontal width. Pressing F11 will put Firefox (or any window) into full-screen mode, but there should also be a way to auto-hide the launcher. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be.

I’ll go a step further and give my opinion that the launcher itself feels like a work in progress. The default apps have colour-coded launcher icons, but the colour assignments seem entirely arbitrary. Icons fold up accordion-style at the top and bottom of your screen — great for eye-candy but kind of against the whole ethos of a low-powered laptop OS.

Unity Files & Folders II

And then there’s this. Clicking on the “Files & Folders” launcher icon won’t open Nautilus, the proper file manager; instead you’ll get this — Mutter, I think it’s called? It looks nice enough, and in the default view you get to see the last few things you’ve worked on.

Mutter is also used to display a master list of your installed apps.It’s fine for that (though it runs slow as hell and seems to crash a lot), but as an interface for your files it makes absolutely no sense to me, because:

  1. New users will quite understandably be led to believe that Mutter is their file browser;
  2. Users seeking Nautilus have no obvious way to get there. I finally figured out that you have to click on the white folder seen at the top-right corner of the screen grab above — not exactly a stellar example of usability.

Oh, and speaking of usability the universally-recognized Linux key combo of Alt+F2 for launching apps is nowhere to be found. I know.

So count me among those who won’t be recommending Unity for netbook users. The multiple desktops are nice, but everything else makes for a case of style over substance.

Fortunately with Linux there’s never a shortage of choice. Here are some other netbook-friendly distros you might be interested in:



  1. Wait, Alt+F2 doesn’t work? Even though it has worked in every other Ubuntu Netbook Remix and regular Ubuntu distros? Very odd. But, then again, I always use the regular desktop version on all netbooks.

  2. Mutter is GNOME 3’s window manager (it’s basically the development of Metacity for GNOME 3). It’s not a file manager. I don’t know what that thing you’re looking at for file management is (Nautilus Elementary, maybe?) but it’s not Mutter.

    1. I think I’m clear on Mutter now, thanks. And the specific point I was trying to make is that the “Files & Folders” launcher should launch the actual file manager (Nautilus) instead of a Mutter window showing files and folders…

  3. This is only the tip of the tip of the ice berg. The old UNR Interface was bad but Unity is unusable. What a horrible experience…

  4. I must agree with you Mutter is really the worst thing of this netbook edition (I had even problems in taking scresn-shots because even the print screen key seems not to work) I really liked the old interface and I don’t understand why they changed.

  5. Is there something wrong with my version of Unity? The new clock/calendar function looks way different than in the screen-shots and I don’t even have an icon in the top right where I can open Nautilus. It seems far too slow to be useful on my not too powerful, though not too slow either netbook.

  6. I’m not too keen on Unity either. To be fair, I installed it and then lent out the laptop to a friend, so I haven’t worked on it much.

    The way the folders now work and the inability to hide the dock would be my two major gripes.

    I don’t get why netbook Linux apps don’t work in full screen more from the start, with a pop down menu bar. I think Meego has or had this and apps like FocusWriter do the same. I used to solve this to hit F11 quite frequently and use Alt-tab instead.

    But the install was smooth, it seems fast enough, and I’m not one to bitch so we’ll see.

  7. I was initially concerned about horizontal space as well. I set my Fire Fox vertical scroll to hide and barely peeks out. After much testing on a 1024×600 (16:9) netbook I found that the 1/4″ to the right was almost always blank margins or unnecessary content. I rarely if ever need to scroll to the right. This UI is also just as fast on this Samsung N210 than any other Ubuntu Gnome set up. It has grown on me, I actually like it. Nautilus is very easy to place in the dock, just search for it from the apps or call it up in terminal >> right click the new file manager icon and choose keep on dock. Use it instead of the default folders view, no problem.

  8. ubuntu 10.10 is unusable, stay away…

    mutter wastes screen space, cpu cycles, and has me randomly closing windows…

    If it is defective by design in such a way that causes damage to my data, makes it so I can’t simply go to /media or any other folder… (I have to search for it..!??? even if I know exactly where it is!!!)

    anyway, this needs a mid cycle fix to the way it was, and then we can improve that.

    Sorry, just so tired of updating my main computer to UNE 10.10 and being $KDGHGD@@ in the T@TK@ by it. I need to revert but no time… seriously not going to be ubuntu as the next install… (unless fixed soon)

  9. Hey Andrew, thank you for your review.

    I recently upgraded my netbook to 10.10 to give Unity a proper testing and I agree with you. (thanks also for giving me a name: Mutter — I had no idea what that was called).

    I am really hoping Ubuntu listens to the community and really refines Unity so it can become something great.

  10. Thanks. I like most of it but hate the Mutter “Files and Folders” garbage. Thanks for the tip, CHANDLERW, on adding Nautilus to the dock. Now I just need to figure out a way to remove “Files and Folders.”

  11. Work in progress? It does not qualify for “alpha” as far as design goes. I do not even have a way to start natiluss…as my “files&folders” do not fit in the screen. There is only a list of categories from “All files” to… “Others” (which does not fit in the frame anyway, sic!). And unpleasant sluggishness!

    And no way to configure anything either on top bar or luncher (yes I can add stuff but that’s it). I think it’s a step back from previous release. Kubuntu/plasma is better IMHO.

  12. This netbook version is inferior to the previous releases.

    A much better solution for netbook use is to use the regular desktop version with a Docky dock on the bottom for programs and one on the left hand side for folders. have both autohide, autohide the taskbar and you have full screen until you need something. It ran extremely fast on my netbook (until a corrupt drive led me to install this Unity mess) and even held more icons ready for use than the current netbook edition.

  13. I’ve tried to use Unity twice now after using Ubuntu desktop for years. It has great potential but has many shortcomings. The lack of an obvious link to Nautilus is a good example. I have tried to view photos in the standard file browser and it truncates the folder allowing me to view only a small number of photos (I’ve resorted to inserting a USB stick which launches Nautilus, then navigate to the hard drive folder).
    More serious is the complete lack of help. There is no rescue ring on the task bar, no left margin help link, nothing after clicking the ubuntu button. Even the Ubunutu web site is so cluttered now with various releases (and no obvious way to find out which release the Unity desktop falls under – ie. no “about Ubuntu” menu item), it is clearly a work in process.
    Recent news is that Ubuntu is moving everything to Unity. Let’s hope they work out the bugs first – and continue to provide a low power version for netbooks.

  14. The UNE distro is not intuitive – navigating was horrible.
    Fortunately after install you can select the standard ubuntu experience on the login page and never see UNE again.

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