Wolf Vollprecht
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All the things wrong with ubuntu's unity

Wolf Vollprecht // 14 October 2012

Ubuntu 12.10 comes with (more than) 2 freshly updated shells: Gnome Shell 3.6 and Unity 6.0. Both have a similar concepts and try to be touch friendly, but seem to go increasingly into different directions.

Apart from the heavily criticized Amazon Shopping Lens, I am going to write about what I like and what I dislike in Unity, and why Gnome Shell right now is my Shell of Choice^TM

The dash in Unity

I really like the dash: It is a nice concept and I like the idea of a global search. Also the HUD (another feature Mac OS X has had since a long time) is really good integrated and very usable – finding a menu item becomes a breeze. Something like the HUD would be very cool for the Gnome Shell as well.

Doing things different

It's really sad to see Unity and Gnome Shell doing things different. Just one example:

Ubuntu introduced unity with the (very good) global menu integrated into the top »frame«. That saves a lot of space onscreen, which is cool.

But Gnome seems to have it's own plans, and integrates a similar idea, called "application menu" into gnome shell 3.6, which does not gracefully degrade in unity.

So what you're left with in the latest version of empathy (I guess this is patched in the version from the ubuntu repositories, but I am using the gnome3-team ppa) is a strange menu on the top of the window, that does not at all integrate nice into the Ubuntu desktop/global menu.

Now I really do hope that this is not a trend on the rise that indicates a bigger drift apart.


Simply put, notifications in gnome shell are awesome, compared to the crippled version of notifications you get in unity.

Gnome Shell notifications are getting out of your way at the bottom of the screen. And they give you a set of actions to perform on them: Moving the mouse over a »musicplayer notification« shows play/pause and next song buttons with artwork. And if you click on the empty space of the notification it does what every notification in gnome shell does (and should do) -- take you to the application window that send the notification. I find this a real timesaver: If I get a new mail, I just need to click onto the notification and zack I am inside thunderbird.

Compare this to Ubuntu notifications, which by design »do« nothing beside notifiying you.

Desktop Workspaces

In Gnome Shell you have not a fixed number of workspaces, but unlimited workspaces. It adjusts as you go. Moving a window to another workspace creates a new one, if there is no other empty workspace left, and that's really useful.
In unity however you get a fixed number of workspaces (per default 4), so that's really a drawback.

The handling of workspaces is also quite different. Unity still uses compiz, one of the biggest pains and also one of the reasons I initially moved away from unity: Because it's sluggish and consumes always about 20% of my CPU, which makes my laptops fan spin like crazy.

So compiz really is »sh-t« compared to Mutter, the window manager that Gnome Shell uses (that is not only my opinion: For example, the elementary OS developers choose Mutter over Compiz as well...).

And there is one other very annoying thing with workspace management in unity:

It's more or less useless – why? Because windows do not spread out when hitting "Super S". And that is really stupid: If I want to get a window that is below another window, I first need to drag n' drop other windows out of the way, find the right one, drag it to another workspace ... etc.

Gnome Shell also has only one vertical modus of workspaces, so I never need to remember if I put that window down left into the workspace at the corner or wherever.

What is good in either of them

  • Window management and workspaces are definitely better in Gnome Shell
  • Search is better in Unity (for programs it's equally good, but files for example seem to be not indexed in Gnome Shell, and there are no different lenses like in unity)
  • HUD is great (would love to see something similar in Gnome Shell)
  • Global Menu is also very good in unity (and more usable e.g. for large programs than the one level app menu in Gnome Shell).
  • Notifications in Gnome Shell are way better than in unity.

What I would love to see in the future: More «Unity»

For now I prefer Gnome Shell over unity.

It would be incredibly awesome to see a joint effort again. Getting the good parts of both worlds together could result in the most superior window manager one can imagine. For example, porting some of the lenses to integrate into gnome shell would be very nice.