After making a good run with Unity, Mint 12, and generic GNOME 3, I have a few observations to make. The idea behind this exploration was to see if I needed to make a move. I thought that Unity would not fare well next to Mint 12, but I was wrong.
Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Unity
I have to eat some crow on this one, but Ubuntu made a smart move in significantly departing from GNOME 3. Unity is far from perfect, but it’s also far better than the generic GNOME 3 shell. I think that the global menus in Unity could be better implemented. Certainly the Unity panel needs some serious user customizability that it now lacks. I find the dock icons too large on a desktop computer even at their smallest setting.
On the other hand, Unity alone provides a dock. In fact, it’s sorta built around the dock. Unity’s top panel preserves the intent and function of indicators. While GNOME 2 indicators had to be adapted to a new API, at least they could be. Ubuntu may have moved the control buttons to the opposite side of the title bar, but at least they preserved all three.
In addition, Compiz-Fusion remains the premier compositing system in Linux. Any distribution that departs from Compiz has an uphill climb just to get to the base of the mountain. Compiz provides a variety of easy switching mechanisms to move between workspaces using either the pointing system or the keyboard. I sorely missed this ability when testing the other shells. It also provides some excellent and useful effects.
Third-party developers have stepped up to the plate to provide the customizability that Unity sorely lacks. I have found a number of them important to my daily productivity. Most GNOME shell extensions don’t work with Unity, but Unity really doesn’t need them as long as it continues to support panel indicators.
Unity still has a ways to go, but I’m amazed at how far it’s come in just about a year. I gripe because I care, but now I appreciate Unity far more than I did just a week ago.
Generic GNOME 3
Generic GNOME 3 sits far at the other end of the usability spectrum. The stock desktop proved incredibly clean, but also incredibly devoid of useful information and function for the user. The entire GNOME 3 scheme seems to revolve around the dash, which the user must conjure up anytime they wish to do something useful. Although attractive and functional, the dash proved to be both powerful and frustrating.
GNOME 3 seems to have replaced the trustworthy and plentiful GNOME 2 indicators with shell extensions. Using these adds significant utility to the desktop:
GNOME 3 hides indicators until summoned from the lower right corner of the screen. That’s just as well, because most don’t display their designed information anyway. That’s a lot of lost functionality that GNOME 3 apparently makes no effort to either preserve or replace.
I have no idea where Generic GNOME 3 plans to go in the future, but I think that the development team needs to give serious consideration towards minimizing required pointer movements without resorting to keyboard shortcuts. The default workspace information should provide useful functions and situational awareness for the user (workspaces, loaded apps, etc.) beyond the time of day. My watch tells me that with a lot less overhead.
Mint 12 Lisa
Mint 12 falls in between Unity and GNOME 3. Although essentially GNOME 3, Mint brings a number of helpful extensions to the table right out of the box. These include a windows list on the top panel for the current workspace, an excellent menu system, and even a populated bottom panel which I didn’t use. At the same time, it preserves the powerful GNOME 3 dash. The Mint 12 developers did a nice job of leveraging the underlying shell while preserving some usability from GNOME 2.
Although the indicators I tested don’t work exactly right in Mint 12, they at least display on the top panel. Most GNOME shell extensions work in Mint 12, opening up even more user customization. Mint is designed with new users in mind, and the developers work hard to make Mint easy to use. I believe that they have succeeded.
In the end, I place the competing desktops in this order:
1. Ubuntu 11.10 Unity
2. Mint 12
3. KDE 4.x
4. Generic GNOME 3
If you’re surprised that I rated KDE 4.x above GNOME 3 for usability, so am I. I had Kubuntu 11.10 loaded on the spare drive before installing Mint 12 over it and had no regrets about writing over it. Although I’m not all that happy with KDE 4.x, it’s far more useful out of the box than generic GNOME 3.
I have to admit that I’ve been wrong about Unity in at least one respect. Ubuntu didn’t shoot themselves in the foot by going a different direction than GNOME 3, they probably saved their distribution from an impending train wreck. I wonder if anyone at the GNOME project is listening. As for Mint 12, the developers succeeded in limiting the damage of GNOME 3, but it has a long way to go to equal Unity’s functionality.
Looks like I’m casting in my lot with Ubuntu and Unity for the foreseeable future.