Posted by: reformedmusings | May 1, 2011

Living (barely) with Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal and Unity

I posted my impressions of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal beta 2 with Unity here, and it generally wasn’t pretty. From the comments and upon reading other reviews after I wrote mine, it looks like I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. In fact, Ubuntu conducted a usability test on Unity and the results confirmed and greatly expanded my findings. Worse, they conducted the usability test back in Nov 2010 – six months ago – and little has changed. That’s not good. Almost makes you wonder why Canonical bothered with the test if they weren’t going to fix the issues discovered.

But, I wanted the new 2.6.38.x kernel with significantly optimizations and increased speed. So, I decided to upgrade to Natty and use the classic Gnome 2 with AWN as I have been for some time. Not being a total idiot, I tried this out in my test setup and it worked fine.

I used the Update Manager to upgrade my system. The upgrade went very smoothly. I popped briefly into Unity to check things out. More on that later. Then I logged out and logged back in using “classic Ubuntu”. After several hours of effort, I could not duplicate the results of my previous test. I just couldn’t get AWN to work correctly with multiple desktop no matter how I configured Gnome or compiz. Rather than make a career out of the effort, I reverted to Unity against my initial goal.

The Good

Natty picked up all my application settings as well as most of my applicable desktop settings, including the live HD wallpaper. Everything worked as expected with no need to “fix” anything major. Before upgrading, Upgrade Manager warned that it would uninstall AWN, Xiphos, Ubuntu Tweak, and WebKit. After ensuring that the first three were available in the Natty repositories, I approved the removal.

Surprisingly, Unity picked up the applications on my AWN launcher setup and put them in Unity’s launcher. Well done on that.

I had to uninstall the data file for Xiphos Bible program before I could install the app after the upgrade. Once I did, it picked up my books and settings perfectly. Ubuntu Tweak posed no problem after I reenabled its repository. I also reenable a number of other PPAs, though I deleted those that I didn’t need like the ones for LibreOffice and Firefox 4 for Maverick. Overall, a very smooth upgrade as far as that went.

The Bad

Although I could reinstall AWN and most of it worked fine, the old weather map problem returned. Worse, I could not get rid of both Gnome panels. I deleted the bottom panel OK, but the top one would not go away like it did in my earlier setups. I created an empty panel at the bottom so that I could delete the top one, but that bottom panel never behaved the way I set it up.

Next I discovered that despite my best efforts, Gnome and AWN both behaved as if I only had one desktop. The compiz cube became a plane. I made a number of changes that seemed to bring back the correct configuration, but Gnome never used the other desktops. I did not encounter this issue in my test setup, and I’m still not sure what happened. My guess is that some Unity compiz or Gnome settings trumped my straight Gnome setup. Ouch.

I expected that classic Gnome and Unity would maintain separate settings, and they might in most cases, but clearly not in all. In any event, I had to retreat to Unity until I can figure out the AWN and compiz issues.

The Ugly

Unity crashes – a lot. A LOT. Virtually any change to its settings or other settings in compiz cause screen corruption/loss of the top panel and parts of the Unity launcher. The indicators on the top panel still function even though you cannot see them, so this seems to be purely video corruption. These can only be fixed by logging out and then back in. Even then, the settings made don’t always stick. I became very proficient at logging in and out.

Unity doesn’t support Gnome panel applets. I need to monitor my GPU and CPU core temperatures, which provide notice of crashed programs that take 100% of a CPU core indefinitely if not killed. It doesn’t happen often, but I have learned to monitor these temperatures. There’s no native way to do that in Unity.

In fact, Unity lacks many rudimentary customizations that we’ve enjoyed for years in Gnome. Combined with the frequent crashes, this indicates that Unity is far from ready for prime time. It reminds me of KDE 4.0, but KDE didn’t crash as often or as predictably. Releasing such immature software provides a strategy for failure. KDE lost a good number of users to Gnome as a result of the KDE 4.0 and 4.1 fiascoes, including me. Unity could do the same for Ubuntu, though Canonical has stated that their goal with Unity is to increase Ubuntu penetration of the Windows market. Only time will tell if Unity results in a significant migration away from Ubuntu and to other distributions. I personally don’t see how a casual Windows user could make heads or tails out of Unity.

One last issue, and it’s a good one. The Unity launcher Home applet doesn’t do anything in my installation. The quickest way to get to my home directory requires use of the top panel’s Places menu. I have no idea how to fix this.

Beyond the complaints

Although IMHO Unity represents a giant step backwards for Ubuntu and Canonical after excellent releases with 10.04 Lucid LTS and 10.10 Maverick, I decided to try to make it work.

First up I tried to find a replacement for my weather and system temperature applets. I had heard of screenlets but never investigated them before. Screenlets are small python-based scripts that perform a host of functions. I was impressed with the scope of those available, though quality varies quite a bit. I chose one called Sensors that accesses the lm-sensors data to display. Each individual sensor screenlet only displays one parameter, but you can add multiple sensor screenlets. I only added two, one each for the GPU and CPU core 3 (typically the warmest of the four) temperatures. Screenlets only appear on one desktop, so these don’t replace indicator applets, but they’ll do for now.

I found a weather indicator app in the respositories which I installed. It doesn’t provide a radar map or a lot of forecast detail, but it does display the current temperature and conditions. Hopefully it grows in capability with time.

Next I spent considerable time in Unity’s and Gnome’s setup screens trying to get some semblance of my usual productivity enhancements. Unity crashed whenever I changed its launcher panel’s transparency, changed compiz’ trail focus, window fade settings, etc. Each crash resulted in loss of the top panel and the Application and Files & Folders launcher applets, as well as some custom launchers I created. Logging out and then back in reset the panels, but often my custom launchers were lost.

In particular, Unity launcher seemed to reject attempts to permanently add Moneydance to the launcher. I finally had to create a moneydance.desktop profile by right clicking on the desktop and choosing Create Launcher…, then dragging the resulting desktop launcher to ~/.local/share/applications. Once there, I then dragged the file to the Unity launcher. That seemed to work, but we’ll see if it really sticks.

On the Gnome panel, the integration of Banshee into the volume indicator works very well. Clicking on the time not only brings up a basic monthly calendar but also sometimes lists the next five events in your Evolution/Google calendar (it did so inconsistently). I don’t use Evolution, but set up my Google calendar in it as an experiment for someone else. All the social networking stuff is useless to me and hence wasted space. As usual, there’s no native Thunderbird integration.


Lastly, a key to any successful change is training. Many thanks to marcio_mi for his comment that I found on the Ubuntu forum pointing to Jorge’s Power User’s Guide to Unity. It is well worth anyone’s time to read through many of the links, especially those under Getting Started. I learned a lot from those. The Super key (with the window on it) figures prominently in Unity’s design. To be sure, Unity was designed as keyboard-centric. DOS in a GUI anyone?

I won’t reiterate all the great info to which Jorge links, but I’ll provide one example. I wrote in my last post on Unity that the global menu system seemed incompatible with the Gnome ability to make the window under the mouse pointer active. The way around that is to hold down the Alt key while your desired app is in the foreground, then move the mouse to the top panel to get the menu. The Alt key activates the menu for the active window, and keeps it active while it’s depressed. That simplified my life a lot.

Unity has other useful features. It adds devices to its launcher when those devices are mounted, keeping the desktop clean. Right-clicking on *some* launcher applets brings up execution options. There are a number of useful ways to bring up some or all windows available from which you can choose. This aids in multi-tasking effectively. In some ways, Unity makes multi-tasking with multiple windows/documents easier than even AWN.

On the other hand, navigating between multiple desktops remains mostly a keyboard function in Unity. I tried to assign mouse clicks to this navigation, but they never stuck across restarts and I tired of logging out/in after all the Unity crashes in the process. I could rotate the cube to wherever I needed to go with the mouse in Gnome/compiz. Unity has a ways to go to reach Gnome’s functionality.

Bottom line

If I had my druthers, I’d be using Natty under classic Gnome with compiz and AWN. Unity may be an interesting experiment on netbooks, but it falls way short on a desktop where pointing devices reign over 1980-ish keyboard shortcuts. Though once a staple of my productive existence, I gave up WordStar a long time ago. That said, I have Unity operating at a functional level at the moment as long as I don’t change anything that causes perfectly predictable crashes. (Aren’t they the easy ones to fix?) Here’s my current setup:

My current Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Unity desktop setup

I’ll let you know how it goes over time. For now, I cannot recommend Unity to anyone not willing to invest a lot of keyboard time or who wishes a stable system that doesn’t crash whenever its settings are changed. If you’re on 10.10 Maverick or 10.04 Lucid LTS, I recommend that you stay there. My laptop still hums on Lucid LTS.



  1. Thank you for the excellent guide to how to handle Unity. I find that I can’t do with it many of the things I could do with Lucid or Maverick. Does Canonical really expect newbies to know the first 3 (at least) letters of every application they want to run (so they can use the Applications button)?

    • Apparently. 😦

      I figure that I’ll give it a week or so. If I don’t warm up to Unity by then, I’ll expend the energy necessary to recoup my AWN setup. I like the kernel as it seems faster, but Natty with Unity boots significantly slower than Maverick.

      Perhaps what Canonical lacks most is an R&D lab where they can at least ring out the basics so that the interface doesn’t crash when doing the simplest things. If they don’t do better quickly, Unity will end up with a KDE 4 reputation and folks will go elsewhere. Newbies won’t get past the opening screen.

  2. It’s not Unity that crashes a lot — it’s Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal that crashes a lot. I recentlly switched back to Ubuntu Classic and Natty still crashes a lot. You’d think this is the kind of problem that Canonical would’ve fixed in the Beta stage of Natty. And if GNOME 3 doesn’t work in Oneiric, I’ll just switch to another Linux distro.

    • Wow, that’s not good news. I was going to give Unity until this weekend before reverting. I haven’t had any crashes since I stopped trying to configure Unity and Compiz. It will be interesting to see what happens with Oneiric. I can always retreat to Maverick for a while if necessary.

  3. […] of Ubuntu’s new Unity interface, then on my trials trying to get it working for me on a production system here. Well, I’m still giving Unity a chance…with help. In the process of Googling around, […]

  4. […] posted on my not-so-great experience with Ubuntu 11.04 Natty and Unity here, here, and here. In the latter, I achieved a useful level of function when I augmented Unity with Avant […]

  5. Have not had any problems and am quite loving it. Im also probably not a power user like the rest you folks :). I have not had a single crash or glitch of any kind that i can speak of.
    After a year of testing and playing with Ubuntu i made the splash to dual boot a few months back and then promptly upgraded to natty on release day with great success.

    Anyhow, God bless……

    • Welcome! Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment.

      I’m glad that you are having a good experience with Natty. Most of the crashes seem to originate in settings changes. Indeed, power users are most likely to encounter issues.

      Hopefully you’ll take the final plunge and give up Windows altogether!

  6. […] wrote earlier about Unity in Ubuntu Natty 11.04 and its lack of ability to monitor system parameters such as CPU and GPU temperatures in a simple panel applet. I always display and monitor these two parameters in Avant Window […]

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