Posted by: reformedmusings | May 7, 2011

Leaving Unity in Ubuntu 11.04 Natty for AWN

For those of you following my trepidations with Unity, this is pretty much the end of the road. I said that I would give it until the weekend before deciding whether to stick with Unity or not. The weekend has arrived.

I decided to dump Unity for the following reasons:

  1. Instability – Unity crashed with screen corruption in the panel areas, plus lost the few applets on the Unity panel, whenever changing Compiz settings. Larger scale crashes can leave large areas of the screen littered with window relics. This happens so often that some users have even defined keyboard shortcuts for logging out quickly.
  2.  Dash and Lenses – If I wanted to type all the time to use my computer, I’d go back to 4DOS. Seriously, the whole Unity lens concept flies in the face of what a GUI should be by definition. The Dash reminds me of DOS with pictures. What is Canonical thinking?
  3. Real Estate – The Unity panel takes up a large amount of real estate on the screen, even when shrinking the icons as small as they’ll go in its “experimental” settings. Why “experimental”? And even though the Unity panel can be set to dodge windows, the top panel cannot. For me, it’s just a lot of screen space wasted.
  4. Lack of Configurability – Right clicking on the Unity or top panel does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Gnome applets don’t work, so no hardware monitoring, etc. on the panels. I can’t even get rid of the stuff that I don’t use or want. I can do a lot through Compiz settings, but Canonical decided what you want Unity itself to be. The application icons on the launcher can be hacked to make them more useful, but who has the time and why should we have to do so? “Simple” means that what you see is all you’ll ever get.
  5. Poor Desktop Switching – The Unity panel desktop switcher is just Viewport Switcher from Compiz. Nothing wrong with Viewport Switcher, but the Unity icon doesn’t show which desktop you are on, nor does it give you a glimpse of what’s on the other desktops. Contrast that with applets like AWN’s Shiny Switcher. Even Gnome’s workspace switcher does better.
  6. Global Menus – Totally incompatible with Gnome’s extremely valuable ability to focus on the window over which the pointer sits. With multiple windows on the screen, I usually cross over other windows as I move the pointer to the top panel. The menu I then get is for the last window over which I passed. Stupid. Plus, I have to move the pointer all the way to the top of the screen, taking my focus away from my work. What’s the value added, anyway?
  7. Application Applet – Part 2 of the lens discussion. Unless my 6 most used apps happen to be on the top line, I either have to scroll through dozens of huge app icons or type in the search box. Plus, the lens takes up a huge part of the screen. Touch friendly? Who cares on a desktop? Makes no sense to me at all.
  8. Cube Aversion – By default, Unity uses the Compiz Desktop Wall. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it requires a lot of mouse movement or keyboard use to navigate across desktops. The Compiz Cube, OTOH, can change desktops with a few simple and small motions. Enabling the cube in Unity isn’t a pretty process. Why?
  9. Limited Indicators – Canonical decided to limit which apps can use the notification indicator area on the top panel. Apps like VLC and Shutter make great use of their notification icons. While this can be fixed by hacking the settings, why should I have to do so?
  10. Unintended Consequences – Sometimes I make a change to Compiz or (one of the few) Unity settings and something else in Unity stops working. Related to instability, but doesn’t cause crashes, only frustration.
  11. System Settings under Shutdown – This one really stunned me. Is this Canonical’s inside joke? Who would ever think of going to the shutdown menu to find System Settings? I didn’t. Don’t we laugh at Microsoft for teaching us to click Start to shutdown?

I guess that’s my top 10 with a free bonus. On the real estate issue, compare this:

Ubunty 11.04 Natty Unity with AWN assistance

with this:

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty "Classic" with AWN

Which looks cleaner, more professional, and provides more information at a glance?

BTW, the cube works great in “classic” as well:

I put a huge amount of time that I really didn’t have into working with Unity and hacking it to get it usable, even discovered and documented how to enable the Compiz Cube for it. No one can credibly say that I didn’t give it a fair shake. I don’t hate Unity. In fact, there are things that I like about it which I’ve posted about previously. But, Unity just isn’t ready for prime time on my system yet. I had to augment it with AWN just to get usable app menus and crash recovery capability.

I’ll close by acknowledging the hard work that Unity developers put into Natty. They’re taking a lot of grief in the forums, but they worked hard and will improve Unity over time. Only they know why they made the choices we see displayed today, but I seriously ask them to reconsider that a desktop with a large monitor and mouse/trackball isn’t efficiently or effectively served by a netbook or tablet interface. Just as a table isn’t a bigger cell phone and so requires a different interface, a desktop isn’t a bigger netbook or tablet. A desktop GUI should strive minimize pointer movement and keyboard inputs to increase productivity.

I’ll probably continue to occasionally play with Unity as it’s updated over time. For regular use, I’m back to Gnome with AWN. Goodbye Unity, and thanks for all the fish!



  1. Well said. I had the same issues. Since I had been using AWN already I was saved from much pain. I was longing for a simple panel like the one in unity but when I right clicked it I was disappointed.

  2. For what it’s worth, I’ve gotten Awn working the way I want it to work in 11.04. I’ve posted a roughly beta quality how-to here:

  3. […] The upgrade went very smoothly with only two glitches that I will discuss here. I eschewed the AWN setup to try Ubuntu’s updated Unity […]

  4. […] I’m not fond of Ubuntu’s Unity. The implementation in Oneiric sports improved stability, but it still takes longer to do anything with applications, plus requires either tons of mouse clicks or the keyboard. While Unity in Natty had an application launcher on the panel, there’s no such luck in Oneiric. Plus, Unity remains virtually unconfigurable, a totally anathema for Linux. […]

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