Tuesday, May 03, 2011

My thoughts on Ubuntu Unity

Over the weekend, I made the painful mistake of upgrading to Natty Narwhal 11.04, the newest release of Ubuntu Linux.  I was previously running 10.04 and realized I was stuck with Qt 4.6 and I desperately needed a feature in 4.7.  After starting the upgrade process, I realized I actually had missed the last upgrade 10.10, which was required before upgrading to 11.04.  I installed that and realized it contained Qt 4.7.  I could have stopped there and be content, but I didn't.

I love Ubuntu for various reasons but mostly for its usability.  I can do okay on other distributions, but as my life gets busier and busier, I need my operating system to "just work".  Sometimes I'm tempted to upgrade my distribution instantly when a new one comes out, but I usually regret it getting bit by stupid bugs and such.  Jumping to Natty Narwhal 11.04 was no different.  I had read several negative reviews on Natty Narwhal and wanted desperately to believe they were wrong, but I sadly had to change back to the classic interface.  And it only took me a few days.

Here are a few of the hurdles I hit--all of which having to do with Ubuntu's new Unity system.
  1. Restarting my machine, I couldn't log into X.  I found that my nvidia driver module wasn't being built for the upgraded kernel.  Somehow installing a package and skipping a seemingly-required module is totally okay.  To me, though, it continually hung on the Ubunutu "five-dot" splash screen.  I had to actually go get the linux-headers package for my kernel and then reinstall the nvidia-current package, which rebuilt the module correctly.  Couldn't the former be a dependency of the latter?  
  2. Unity's "taskbar" is a little buggy.  I'm not sure the rules for it staying out or autohiding, but it certainly wasn't consistent
  3. I don't consider myself a power user, but I like to have widgets like workspace tracking and the CPU histogram
  4. I missed all my icons at the top of the screen.  I open multiple terminals all the time for programming.  With the Unity taskbar, when I click on the terminal icon, it will either create one terminal, or take me to the workspace where my terminal is already opened.  I just want a new terminal window
  5. It's hard seeing what's on the screen without the traditional taskbar.  Windows got buried under each other and I didn't know where they were (the taskbar in Unity doesn't help, while the more classic taskbar shows me exactly what's running on this workspace).  Also, how do I change the number of workspaces?  I had ten--and I used every one--and now I have four
  6. This is a minor complaint that I can get used to, but Unity uses the "Universal Menubar" style ala Mac OS X, where the focused application has it's menubar at the top of the screen.  This isn't necessarily bad, but it hides all the menus until you mouse over the bar.  Why?  
  7. I actually had some random bugs including loading windows that appeared with no border and certain programs not receiving mouse input after I returned from a different workspace

To me Unity was like Knight and Day with Tom Cruise.  I sat down to watch it and I really, really wanted to like it despite all the negative reviews.  But it just didn't work.  Like this mediocre movie, it wasn't a horrible premise (besides a cliche hacker and a mystical power source the size of a AA battery), but it just wasn't executed correctly.  I believe most of these issues are fixable, but I'm afraid this new desktop has left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths.